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HOW TO MEDITATE

A Few Thoughts On Meditation

By Jim Kershner

If people ask me how to meditate, I usually respond by saying, just do it. Stop. Sit down. Close your eyes. Relax. Smile. Follow your breath. Feel yourself breathing in; feel yourself breathing out.

You might want to start by trying to do that for one minute, then try again for five minutes, then 10 or 15 minutes. My favorite time period is 20 minutes, but it really doesn't matter. If you can't keep your mind on your breath by just feeling it, you might try counting it. Count 10 breaths without thinking of anything else, and you are meditating. It's easier than you think (which is the title of a good meditation book by Sylvia Bornstein.) Some books by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh have some good meditation advice, too. I recommend "Peace is Every Step" and "Being Peace."

I am certainly not a guru, lama or trained meditation teacher, but I have been meditating for about 10 years and I have attended five six-day retreats led by Thich Nhat Hanh. I try to pass along what I have learned, but I urge people to learn their own way. That's what the Buddha taught.

When people ask me for more details about how to meditate, I say there are three parts.

Part 1 is position. Get comfortable, upright and stable. I like to sit on a zafu (cushion) in the half lotus position. But Thich Nhat Hanh says we can use the lotus, the half-lotus or the chrysanthemum position. What is the chrysanthemum position? "It is any position in which you are comfortable," he answers with a smile. If sitting in a chair, I suggest sitting forward with a straight back, not slouching. The Buddha said you should think of your back as a stack of gold coins. Sit with pride. It is also important to relax your muscles. Sometimes I follow a progressive relaxation routine to relax all my muscle groups in turn.

Part 2 is concentration. One should concentrate on some object of meditation. Some people concentrate on a phrase or mantra. Some concentrate on a candle flame or a religious icon. Most Buddhists recommend starting by counting the breath. Later, you can skip counting and just follow your breath. "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I am breathing out." I do not expect to "move beyond" following my breath for many years, if ever. When I get distracted, I just return to my breath.

Part 3 is clearing the mind. If thoughts of the past come up (and they will), recognize them and let them go. If thoughts of the future come up (and they will), recognize them and let them go. Be gentle and kind to yourself. When your mind wanders, just smile and try to return to following your breath. If you sit for 20 minutes and realize you spent the whole time thinking about a song or an upcoming problem or an old regret or anything else, just relax and try again later. Excellent teachers have told me there is no wrong way to meditate. Whatever works for you is -- well -- is what works for you.

Occasionally, some people experience exciting phenomena when meditating. There can be things that feel like out-of-body experiences, and strange visual effects. I have sometimes felt as if I were floating. I have been warned to let these things come and go and not get hung-up on them. They are not the point; they are just side-effects along the way.

My practice is a mix of several traditions. I read a good book,"Meditation" by Eknath Easwaren, who is a Hindu who teaches Buddhist meditation using a Christian prayer. If I have a hard time calming my mind, and I am too agitated to stay with following my breath, sometimes I recite silently the Prayer of St. Francis. Once I was so upset and angry that even that could not calm me down, so I recited it out loud. That worked. I felt much better. I have memorized it so I can use it whenever I like:

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Oh divine master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying (to self) that we are born to eternal life.

The Cape Sangha Web site at www.capesangha.org includes short book reviews. Here are a few of my favorite books, in case you're looking for further reading:

Easwaran, Eknath, Meditation, (Nilgiri Press, Tomales, Calif., 1978, third printing 1993, $12.95) In the words of the prominent religious scholar Houston Smith, this book makes, "no extravagant claims, no pretentious jargon, just a clear, insightful exposition of meditation and an excellent guide to its practice." Easwaran taught meditation at the University California, Berkeley, and is founder of the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation in Berkeley. His writing is interesting and amusing, and he presents a simple eight-point porogram for translating spiritual ideas (from any religious tradition) into daily life. My favorite part is when I discovered I was reading a Hindu teacher who refers to Jewish mysticism, recommending a Buddhist practice that included reciting a Christian prayer.

Das, Lama Surya, Awakening the Buddha Within (Broadway Books, New York. published in hardcover 1997, paperback 1998, $15) This is a powerful, life-changing book. Its organization is a deceptively simple step-by-step description of the Noble Eightfold Path, but the way Surya Das relates the ancient principles to contemporary American culture give this book its power to make the ancient teachings fresh, practical and useful. Although trained as a lama in the Tibetan tradition, the author (born into a Jewish-American Long Island family during the "baby boom") transcends sectarian divisions and draws on a variety of wisdom traditions. On the very first page, Thich Nhat Hanh describes the book as "a beautiful flower blooming on a beautiful tree that is wholeheartedly committed to true inquiry and practice."

LeShan, Lawrence, How to Meditate (Bantam Books, New York, 1974) This classic little book has introduced millions of Westerners to meditation. A psychotherapist, LeShan discussed meditation from a psychological, medical, scientific, cultural and religious point of view. It includes simple directions to begin meditation, but lacks the spiritual aspects of the practice found in many other books on the subjects.

Nhat Hanh, Thich, Being Peace, (Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1987, $10) One of the best known of Thich Nhat Hanh's more than 30 books, "Being Peace," is a lovely collection of his talks, encompassing the essence of Buddhism, meditation and mindfulness. It also includes in its 118 pages a description of his Order of Interbeing and the text of his beautiful poem, "Please call Me By My True Names."

Nhat Hanh,Thich, Peace Is Every Step, (Bantam Books, New York, 1991, $11.95) This delightful little book captures of feeling of a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in its 135 pages. It is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of Thich Nhat Hanh. The chapters are short and easily accessible. As the author says himself, "This book is an invitation to come back to the present moment and find peace and joy." In the forward, His Holiness the Dalai Lama writes, "This is a very worthwhile book. It can change individual lives and the life of our society."

(revised 10/31/02)