By Tonya Madia
“Meditation means to be constantly extricating yourself from the clinging of mind.”.—Ram Dass
My students and clients frequently ask me for advice on creating a meditation practice, often complaining about their inability to quiet their minds, or to make the thoughts stop all together. Meditation is the process of allowing your thoughts to flow freely without attaching yourself to them, and in this seven-part series I will be exploring several types of meditation practices, beginning with the practice of breath meditation.
The physical benefits of meditation are many, and include lowered blood pressure, decreased tension-related pain, increased serotonin production, and a boost to the immune system. The mental and emotional benefits of meditation include increased mental focus and clarity, decreased anxiety, and increased creativity, to name a few.
With so many observable benefits, it’s easy to see why you might want to start a meditation practice, but perhaps not as easy is deciding how to begin your practice. I have found the most success with my meditation practice when I begin in the morning before I get out of bed.
After waking, I take a few moments to position myself in a comfortable seated position and bring my awareness to my breath, allowing the breath to move in and out through the nose. On the inhale, I allow my lungs to fill fully by relaxing my abdomen, making room for my lungs and ribs to fully expand; as I exhale, I allow the air to move freely from lungs without effort.
Breath meditation is the practice of quieting the mind by bringing awareness to the breath. Breath is the bridge between the body and the mind and it is said that the mind is the king of the body, but the breath is the king of the mind. If you have ever taken a moment to take a deep breath and count to ten, you have experienced the power of the breath to calm the mind. One reason for this is the affect that deep breathing has on the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest of the cranial nerves and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls your relaxation response. By taking a deep breath and expanding your diaphragm, the vagus nerve is stimulated, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Beginning a breath meditation practice can be as simple as finding a few quiet moments throughout your day in which you put everything else aside and bring your awareness to your breath. This practice can be initiated at any time and place, although I recommend setting aside a specific time and place each day, as beginning any new habit takes time and effort and by allocating a scheduled time and place you provide yourself with the best possible chance for success.
By spending a few minutes every morning cultivating this practice you can bring calmness and increased metal clarity to your day. If you are new to meditation, I suggest starting with two to three minutes each day, and adding a minute a day each day.
As you sit quietly with your awareness on your breath you will probably notice that thoughts begin to arise; this is to be expected—thoughts are the natural condition of the mind. Thinking is what the mind does, and meditation is not the process of stopping the thoughts but, rather, allowing the thoughts to flow without becoming attached to them. A wonderful visualization for this is to imagine your thoughts as leaves floating down a river; as the thoughts float by you simply acknowledge their presence and watch them as they pass by.
Another helpful tool is the practice of non-judgment. Judging is the trap that tangles us in our thoughts. It is common for judging thoughts to arise during meditation, thoughts about how our practice is going in relation to ideas we may have about how it should be going, etc. Once the judgments arise, the mind follows them like a lost dog, so when you notice thoughts of judgment or criticism arising, simply notice them, and then let them go.
The process of meditation is not about controlling our thoughts, but instead becoming the master of them so that when the lost dog begins to wander off we simply call it back to the present moment with our breath. To be fully present in each moment is the goal of meditation, and in my next article on meditation, we will explore the practice of Mindfulness.
Meditation, like any disciplined endeavor, takes time to cultivate, which is exactly why we call it a practice; when applied daily the process becomes less challenging and before long we can become the master our thoughts and not allow them to master us.