Why should someone meditate?

If you really wanted to, it’s not too hard to get physically stronger. Practice push-ups, pull-ups, squats, deadlifts and sprints consistently, and you’ll find that you can do more, lift heavier, and run faster in time.

It’s harder to get stronger mentally and emotionally. You can’t sign up for a mind gym, and see the results in the mirror, or measure it on a weight. But you can develop inner strength and clarity, and meditation is one good way to do it.

Research has shown that meditation practice produces numerous benefits.

Meditation can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, improve mental performance, and even stimulate physical growth in areas of the brain linked to learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion and introspection.

Why I Meditate

Incense burning
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

I hesitated to write about how and why to meditate, because I’m still very much a beginner, and there are already several excellent guides online. But with the increasing amount of time I spend writing about Buddhism, it would be incongruous of me not to expand on it.

So why do I meditate? I’ve found meditation to be a great help in increasing my inner peace, clarity of mind, and everyday awareness. It has also helped me to reduce anxiety, stress and worry, and is a practical tool in helping me build inner strength and resiliency.

Meditation has also helped me to be more present, so I can listen to my loved ones when they need me, leave distractions more quickly, and fully taste the small joys of life.

However, like exercise, it’s a practice that demands consistent effort and hard work. There is no promise that the path will be easy, and the process takes time. But the rewards, I’ve found, are worth it.

How to Meditate

Smiling Buddha
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

‘Meditation’ is a big word, as there are actually several methods of meditation. The simplest method — focusing on the breath1 — is also one of the most useful. Don’t be fooled, while the method is simple, it is not easy, and you can practice this one technique for an entire lifetime.

How to Sit in Meditation

  1. Find a comfortable place to sit, where you won’t be disturbed
  2. You can sit cross-legged, in the Burmese style, or on a chair. Don’t force yourself into a posture, instead, find one that you can comfortably sit in
  3. Your hands can rest in the valley of your lap2. The right hand traditionally rests on top of the left hand, with the thumbs lightly touching
  4. Keep your back, neck and head straight, neither too far forward nor too far back
  5. Keep your posture upright and relaxed, without strain or tension
  6. It helps to imagine a string is attached to the top of your head, pulling your head, neck and spine upwards
  7. Another cue is to suck your stomach in slightly, pull your shoulders back, and project your chest upwards, while looking straight ahead
  8. Once you adopt this posture, keep it until the end of the session without stirring
  9. Close your eyes

Still not sure how you should sit? The Insight Meditation Center provides an illustrated introduction to the various meditation postures.

How to Focus on the Breath

  1. Pick an anchor spot where you’ll focus on the breath. Traditionally, the focus is held on the tip of the nostril, right where the air enters and exits the nose
  2. Do not try to control the breath, just let it be, and be aware of it. This trains your mindfulness
  3. Do not try to follow the breath into the body and out, just keep it focused on one spot. This trains your concentration
  4. If you find yourself distracted by thoughts, feelings, sounds, or body sensations, simply come back to the breath
  5. Do your best to keep your focus on the breath for as long as possible
  6. When the time is up, open your eyes

And this is how you practice mindfulness meditation on the breath.

Tips for Starting Meditation

Use a timer

It’s useful to set a timer for each meditation session. Using one helps you to avoid aborting your meditation session prematurely, as well as to chart your progress. There’ll be challenging sessions where you just want to stop meditating, but resolving to stay until the timer rings will build your fortitude.

Start with your eyes closed

Some teachers advise meditating with your eyes half-open. There are pros and cons to meditating with either your eyes open or closed, but meditating with your eyes closed is an easier way to start the practice.

Start short, but stay consistent

How long should you meditate for? When you’re just starting, five to ten minutes a day can already be quite helpful. The key is to make it consistent, even if it’s short.

When your daily sessions start to feel too short, that’s when you know you can increase the length of your meditation. Ideally, you’ll want to build up to at least 20 minutes per session, but it can take time. To build a habit, it’s better to take small, but regular, steps.

Logistics matter

If you want to create a regular meditation habit, it helps to have a space to practice, at the same time everyday.

Count to steady your mind

At the beginning, it can be hard to stabilize the mind. You can count the breath to help you calm your mind, quietly to yourself. On each exhalation, count once, all the way from one to ten breaths. When you reach ‘ten’, start counting from ‘one’ again.

If you realize you’ve counted beyond ten, start from one again. If you realize you were distracted and don’t know when you stopped counting, start from one again. Counting is a useful tool to help you come back and stay on the breath.

When you find that your mind has calmed down and it becomes easy to keep count, you can abandon counting and focus exclusively on the breath.

Pair Meditation with Loving Kindness

Flowers
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

You can practice meditation on the breath alone and reap its benefits, but I’ve found it useful to pair ‘loving kindness’3 practice with it. Loving kindness can be done as a short prayer (not to a deity, but as an intention), or practiced by itself as a form of meditation.

The practices of mindfulness and loving kindness build upon each other. The more you meditate, the more your awareness grows, and it reflects more clearly both the good and difficult parts of your life.

It can be tough seeing the difficult parts of our lives with more clarity. It may be a small thing; you might recall how you were unkind to somebody dear the earlier day, or it may be a bigger insight; you might realize how you’re playing a part in a toxic relationship.

Being kind to yourself can help you tide through these difficult moments with more ease.

Meditation also has the potential to help you let go of old wounds, but it will take time. Having compassion for yourself and others will help to ease the process. Past anger, for example, cannot cease by adding more anger, but it can be soothed by kindness, if not for others, at least for yourself.

Practicing loving kindness meditation is beyond the scope of this post. If you’d like to try it, you can read Access to Insight’s post on ‘Meditation on Metta.’

A Loving Kindness Prayer

What I’d like to share is a short loving kindness prayer, which I like to recite at the end of every meditation session4. It comes from Bhante Gunaratana’s book, Mindfulness in Plain English:

1. May I be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to me. May no difficulties come to me. May no problems come to me. May I always meet with success.

May I also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

2. May my parents be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

3. May my teachers be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

4. May my relatives be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

5. May my friends be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

6. May all indifferent persons be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

7. May my enemies be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

8. May all living beings be well, happy and peaceful. May no harm come to them. May no difficulties come to them. May no problems come to them. May they always meet with success.

May they also have patience, courage, understanding, and determination to meet and overcome inevitable difficulties, problems, and failures in life.

Do You Need to Be a Buddhist to Meditate?

Meditating monk
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

No. People all over the world, through the ages, have practiced meditation and enjoyed its benefits, without being Buddhists.

I am a Buddhist, and I’ve found added benefits to practicing meditation as a Buddhist. The Buddha was a master explorer of the mind, and Buddhism lays out a detailed road map for meditation practice, which I find very useful.

American monk, Bhikkhu Bodhi, writes about the two paths of meditation practice, secular and Buddhist, and how they differ, on Access to Insight.

Are There Any Drawbacks to Meditation?

Hidden trees
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

While there’s lots of research showing the positive benefits of meditation, some people do have adverse reactions to the practice, and this shouldn’t be ignored. Both The Atlantic and The Independent have good reports on how meditation practice can go awry.

The Dark Night of the Soul

Sooner or later, meditation will bring you face to face with yourself, even the parts of you that you don’t like. This can be difficult, but it’s part of the process of becoming more aware. This is when the practice of loving kindness helps.

Some people go deeper into that ‘dark night of the soul’ than others, and meeting the shadow shouldn’t be ignored. It’s unlikely that a short practice, grown naturally, will unearth such a process, but it is possible, and this is when a competent meditation guide can help you.

When to See a Doctor

Meditation has been compared to a “gym for the mind.” Like a gym, using it will bring numerous benefits for most people. Also like a gym, it should be used under proper supervision, or you should at least be shown the ropes by someone experienced.

People with previous injuries need to know which exercises are good for them, and which they should avoid. Not all workouts will be appropriate for all people, and no exercise program is a cure-all for everything.

Just as you should consult your doctor before embarking on an exercise regimen, you should consult a doctor if you have any psychiatric problems or previous trauma, before starting a meditation practice.

Test It Out for Yourself

I still believe that meditation can offer many benefits, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention people’s negative experiences with it as well.

The only way you’ll know how meditation will or won’t enrich your life is for you to test it out for yourself. I encourage you to give it a go, with small, but consistent steps, for a time, and see if actually improves your life. All the better if you can find a good coach to guide you along the way.

Learn More About Meditation

Mindfulness in Plain English

For a more detailed online guide to meditation, I recommend Tara Brach’s ‘How to Meditate,’ which is also available as a free PDF download.

For an excellent beginner’s guide to meditation, I recommend Chade-Meng Tan’s Joy on Demand. To go even deeper, read Bhante Gunaratana’s classic book, Mindfulness in Plain English.

To learn more about mindfulness and Buddhism, I recommend the free Audio Dharma podcast.

Lessons I’ve Learned Along the Way

An open grass field
Photo by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

It’s not about having no thoughts

The only people with no thoughts are in the graveyard. Your mind will always be thinking, as you’ll quickly discover when you start meditating. But the more you strengthen your mindfulness, the faster you’ll be able to notice when you’ve been distracted, and bring your concentration back to the breath. This ability is precious in everyday life.

There will be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sessions

There will be meditation sessions that are completely tranquil, when the session glides by. There will also be sessions when the mind is running a thousand thoughts a minute, and you can’t wait to break the session.

Wanting only ‘good’ sessions and not ‘bad’ sessions is not what meditation is all about. It’s all meditation. Being able to accept, and sit with both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ is meditation.

Whatever happens in your mind, resolve to sit through the entire session. Train your mind to simply focus on the breath, and be with whatever goes through the mind, without having to react to it.

Meditation can be practiced anywhere

Formal meditation practice is the best way to start, where you sit in a quiet place, for a determined amount of time, to practice.

However, after you become familiar with the technique, you can practice moments of meditation anywhere in your life; when you’re walking to work, when you’re waiting in line, or when you’re brushing your teeth.

Just set an internal timer for yourself, like, “I’ll focus on my breath from here until the end of the corridor,” or, “I’ll focus on my breath for the next ten counts.” I’ve found that short moments of practice like this increases my ability to remain mindful in daily life.

As Tibetan Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says, “We don’t sit in meditation to become good meditators. We sit in meditation so that we’ll be more awake in our lives.”

Image Credit

Featured image by David Gabriel Fischer. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Footnotes

  1. Also known as ‘anapanasati’ in Pali
  2. Some people like to rest their hands on the top of their knees. I find that this makes my upper back ache more easily than resting them in my lap
  3. Also known as ‘mettā’ in Pali
  4. It’s actually recommended that you recite this at the start of a meditation session, but I’ve grown used to my habit of doing it at the end

6 replies on “How and Why to Meditate”

  1. Another great article Alvin! There are so many introductions to meditation out there but this is one of the best I’ve read. I think being a beginner has actually been an advantage in this case, it’s very well written for a beginner audience 🙂

  2. Lovely piece Alvin! I especially like the section titled “The Dark Night of the Soul” there is a massive amount of growth possible in that place and the opportunity for creating life change and joyful living is incredible. Having been through various traumatic experiences before coming to meditation I had various murky areas to traverse, in doing so I came to a point where I felt beautifully free and able to experience true happiness.

    Having taken even more time flowing through those areas, with others as they have come up, altering my practice and developing it further in light of experiences teaching others how to meditate and developing meditative resources I can wholly encourage people to take a measure of courage and push through those darker elements in their souls, the opportunity is very much worth the energy.

    Peace to you!

Comments are closed.