Basics from the
by Stephan Bodian
As a teacher of meditation for more than 25 years, I hear many of the same
questions asked again and again. In fact, it was precisely to clear up some of
the misconceptions about meditation and to present the fundamental practice in a
fun and accessible form that I wrote the user-friendly guidebook Meditation For
Dummies. Here are brief responses to a dozen or so of the most popular queries,
followed by some basic meditation instructions. For more in-depth answers and
guidance, check out my book, available from Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com.
There seem to be dozens of
different kinds of meditation available these days. Is
there a single common thread that unites them all?
Though the content may differ,
most forms of meditation involve turning your attention
inward, away from your usual preoccupations and
activities, and focusing on a particular object, such as
the breath, a mantra, a visualization, or a sound. In
the process, you make the simple but significant shift
from thinking and doing to just being. With repeated
practice, your mind begins to settle down, your
breathing slows, and you settle into a relaxed,
peaceful, harmonious state. The thread thatís common
to all forms of meditation is the cultivation of
How can I tell the difference
between one form of meditation and another? And how can
I know which one would work best for me?
Again, the primary difference
lies in the content. If you have a particular spiritual
or religious orientation, you may want to choose a
method that accords with your values and beliefs.
Otherwise, feel free to experiment with different
approaches, practicing each for at least a few weeks to
get the feel and the flavor before trying another. Trust
your intuition or gut knowing on this one.
Some forms of meditation are
designed to induce a particular state of mind or body.
For example, healing meditations may help detoxify the
body and stimulate the immune system, whereas
meditations for opening the heart may guide you in
extendding love and compassion to others. Before you
sign on for a course or a workshop or begin practicing a
meditation, be sure you understand its intent. Itís
best to develop a regular foundation practice like
following the breath, repeating a mantra, or focusing on
a sound or other sensory object, to which you can add
specialized meditations as you feel inclined.
I understand that meditation
builds concentration and might help me increase my focus
at work. Can you explain how it might do that?
When you meditate, you train
your mind to stay focused on a particular object--and
when it wanders off, you gently bring it back. With
repeated practice, your mind develops the power or
capacity to stay focused for extended periods of time.
Just as when you lift weights regularly, your muscles
get stronger and stronger, so when you meditate
regularly, your mental muscles get stronger, too.
Iím drawn to meditation
because I just canít get a grip on my agitated mind. Iím
either agonizing over what happened yesterday or
worrying about what might happen tomorrow. How can
meditation help me work with my mind?
Here again, the practice of
bringing your mind back again and again--to your breath,
to your body, to a mantra or sound--can have a powerful
impact on the rest of your life. Develop this mental
muscle, and when your mind starts worrying or obsessing,
you can gently lead it away from its painful or
frightening preoccupations and back to the present
moment. As a result, instead of spinning out of balance
when difficulties arise, you stay centered, grounded,
Is meditation just something
you do on a cushion or chair every now and then, or can
you extend your meditation into other areas of your
life, like driving or working or taking care of the
Well, the cushion or chair part
is extremely important, and youíre better off doing it
daily, rather than every now and then. Pretty soon youíll
start noticing that youíre more relaxed, centered, and
peaceful at other times of the day as well.
But you can also consciously
extend your meditation to other activities by being
mindful of what youíre doing, rather than spacing out
or daydreaming. You can drive your car or talk on the
phone or work at your computer with the same careful
attention you bring to your meditation. Youíll find
that you enjoy your life so much more when you actually
show up and pay attention!
Iím afraid that meditation
will turn me into a zombie or a space cadet. I need to
feel a certain level of anxiety or tension in order to
function. How can I be sure that I wonít lose my drive
or my libido?
Instead of turning you into a
zombie or space cadet, meditation will do just the
opposite--it will bring you down out of the clouds and
into the present moment, where your life is actually
taking place. (Remember the John Lennon line, ďLife is
whatís happening while youíre busy making other
plansĒ?) Though your level of anxiety and tension may
drop (hallelujah!), you wonít sacrifice your drive or
libido. Quite the contrary: People who meditate
regularly report that they get their work done more
effectively and enjoy their sex life far more.
Iím a real body-oriented
person, and meditation seems too cerebral for me. Can
you meditate with your body as well as your mind?
Though youíre using the
mental muscle known as attention, youíre actually
bringing the body, breath, and mind into harmony when
you meditate. Yes, certain meditations are more
body-oriented--for example, counting or following your
breath, tracking your sensations, or focusing on a
particular part of the body. For body-oriented
meditations you can do, check out Meditation For
What about meditation and sex?
Iíve heard that certain meditation techniques can
actually make sex more pleasurable and satisfying.
Ah yes, sex. Well, the best way
to improve your sex life is to be present for whatís
happening as much as you can, and meditation teaches you
how. When you drift off or fantasize while making love,
you actually limit your enjoyment because youíre not
allowing yourself to experience every little sensation
and nuance. You can also use meditative techniques to
open the flow of love between you and your partner or
even to transform sex into a spiritual experience. Men
who meditate report that they can last longer, and women
report that they orgasm more frequently. Need I say
These days everyone seems to be
rushing from one appointment or activity to the next.
How can I find the time in my busy life to sit quietly
for ten or fifteen minutes?
How can you afford not to?
Although external circumstances may make constant
demands on your time and attention, stress is actually
an internal experience caused by how you interpret
events. Through regular meditation, you can learn to
slow your mind down and create an inner spaciousness so
you donít feel so pressured in your mind and heart,
where it really counts.
As for finding the time, most
people can carve out a brief oasis in the morning or
evening; Meditation For Dummies explains how.
Once you begin enjoying your meditation, youíll feel
motivated to do it regularly and perhaps even extend the
length of time from ten or fifteen minutes to twenty or
I couldnít possibly cross my
legs and sit comfortably on the floor. Does that mean I
Definitely not. You can
meditate while kneeling or sitting in a chair or even
lying down or walking. But be sure to keep your back
relatively straight (also known as extended), rather
then slouched. Check out my book for extensive tips on
finding the best meditation posture for you.
Iíve tried to meditate, but I
just end up falling asleep or spacing out. I must be
doing something wrong. What can I do to remedy the
Itís actually quite common to
fall asleep or space out. If youíre physically tired,
perhaps you need to get more sleep or take a nap.
Otherwise, you can make an effort to increase your
mental focus, open your eyes rather than close them, or
even get up and walk around or splash some cold water on
your face before resuming your meditation. For more
tips, check out Meditation For Dummies.
What can I do about the
restlessness or discomfort I feel when I meditate?
Another common ďobstacleĒ
in meditation, restlessness can take many forms. If your
mind is extremely agitated, you might want to increase
your focus, as I mentioned earlier. Or do some deep body
relaxation before your meditate (or in place of your
meditation) to help calm you down. If youíre
physically uncomfortable, try shifting your position,
though itís best to stay as still as you can while you
meditate. When your concentration gets stronger, you can
just observe your restlessness without allowing it to
disturb your meditation.
How can I tell if Iím
meditating the right way? How do I know if my meditation
The great thing about
meditation is that it doesnít ďwork.Ē Instead, it
provides an unprecedented opportunity to set aside the
attitude of work and just be, without any expectations
or agendas. Wheww, what a relief! If you find yourself
wondering whether youíre doing it right, just notice
those thoughts and gently return to the object of your
meditation, such as your breath or a mantra. The
operative word here is ďgently.Ē Of course, you may
want to make sure youíve got your technique straight
before you begin, and Meditation For Dummies is a
great resource to consult for a variety of different
I generally associate
meditation with Buddhists or Hindus in their loin cloths
or robes. What about those of us who consider ourselves
Christian or Jewish or Muslim? Do we have to give up our
religion in order to meditate?
Absoultely not. In fact, you
can use meditation to deepen your understanding and
experience of any religious tradition. If the great
religions are rivers, then meditation is a current that
runs through them all. In particular, Christianity and
Judaism have recently rediscovered their own meditative
practices in response to the influx of Eastern teachers
and teachings, and they have also incorporated
techniques drawn from Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and
yoga. For more info, check out Meditation For Dummies.
Here are some basic
meditation instructions to get you started. If you
follow them carefully and practice them regularly, you
may start noticing some subtle (or not-so-subtle!)
positive changes in your life:
1. Begin by sitting
comfortably, with your back relatively straight but also
relaxed. If possible, avoid leaning against anything,
including the back of a chair. (For meditation,
straight-backed chairs are generally better than cushy
armchairs.) If you can't sit up straight, you can lie
down or walk instead.
2. Take a few deep breaths,
relaxing a little on each exhalation. Notice how your
body feels as you sit (or lie or walk).
3. Now turn your awareness to
the coming and going of your breath. Notice the rise and
fall of your belly or chest as you breathe, or the
sensation of the air entering and leaving your nostrils.
Let your attention focus softly but steadily on your
breathing. When your mind wanders off (which it will do
again and again), gently bring it back to the breath.
4. Continue to enjoy your
breathing for five or ten minutes or longer. When you're
done, stretch a little, then get up and go about your
day. Like any art, meditation has great subtlety and
depth, and you can spend a lifetime cultivating and
exploring the practice. But you can also gain enormous
benefit from simply following this simple meditation for
five or ten or fifteen minutes, day after day.
© Copyright Stephan
Bodian. All Rights Reserved.
Stephan Bodian was
editor-in-chief of the award-winning magazine Yoga
Journal for 10 years. A former Zen Buddhist monk
and a meditation teacher for more than 25 years, he
currently practices as a psychotherapist and writing
consultant in San Francisco and Marin County,
California (and by phone and internet throughout the
country). His areas of specialization include creative
expression, psychological and spiritual integration,
and the healing of childhood trauma. He is the author
of Meditation For Dummies, (IDG Books), Timeless
Visions, Healing Voices and Living Yoga
(with Georg Feuerstein). Stephan offers workshops
throughout North American on meditation for beginners
and on the integration of meditation in everyday life.
For more information on psychotherapy, writing
consulting, or workshops, check out his website at www.meditationsource.com,
or call 415-451-7133.