Monday, 30 May 2011


As you may remember, last week I went to my first silent meditation retreat.  I had an excellent time and really made a lot of progress with my meditation.  I've been meditating passively for years, but have always had a hard time with it and have never had much success on my own.  I am happy to say that I think that may have changed now.  I still enjoy group meditation because it causes you to be more structured, but I feel more capable of sitting down to meditate on my own now that I've received some instruction.  I would like to share a few things that I have learned about meditation that work for me, but I remind you: everyone is so different, try as many things as you can and I can guarantee you will find something that works well for you.

First of all, meditation is the ultimate eco-nomical activity, as it is both environmentally friendly and wallet-friendly.  Technically, if you are interested in pursuing a meditation practice, the only things you need are to be alive, to have a space to sit, and a pillow, block, or even a book to sit on in the event that you cannot sit comfortably without a bit of added support (more on this below).  There are infinite resources on the internet telling about various methods of meditation, including webpages, free podcasts, even some online books that are free.  There are free meditation classes available through many Buddhist groups, and they are very accepting and welcoming, even if you don't identify as Buddhist.  If you're willing to spend a little extra money, you can buy even more resources brand new, or try searching Craigslist for things you might be interested in that are second-hand.  In particular, meditation pillows or blocks to sit on or meditation benches are easily available.

Second, it is very hard to meditate if your body is uncomfortable.  Therefore it is important to take the time at the outset to get your body into the proper position.  This was something that I only discovered I was not doing correctly when I went to the meditation retreat last week. I used to just sit cross-legged on the floor and try to calm my mind, but I would always find myself slouching over.  It turns out that my "lumbar curve" (I would explain this as the curve that you have naturally in your lower back when you are standing) was pretty much collapsing and becoming concave when I would sit.  I disovered meditation benches at the retreat.  I've inserted one that you can buy to the left of this text, but honestly, you can probably see how simple they would be to make.  If you know someone that has any skills in the woodworking arena and would be willing to help you make one, it would be pretty straightforward.  Just make sure that it sits at a slight angle, i.e. the seat angles towards the floor at about 20-30 degrees.  This really helps because in addition to sitting cross-legged on a supporting pillow, now I can kneel comfortably on the bench.  There is a certain amount of shifting that you will do if you start to extend the length of your meditation sessions, and it helps to know a couple different positions that work for you.

Third, I have discovered that lying down meditation does not work at all for me, as I fall asleep within about five minutes every time I try it.  I'm happy for the people that can do it without having that problem, as it adds another position that you can shift to if you are uncomfortable during longer meditation sessions, but I've heard a lot of people start snoring when they make that shift, so don't "cheat" yourself and lie down if you know this is an issue for you.

Finally, on the last day of the retreat I had a tremendous breakthrough with my meditation which I will try to explain.  If you've ever meditated before, you may know how hard it is to "get out of your head" and stop thinking about things (what you are making for dinner, something someone said to you earlier that day, something to do with work or school, etc.).  I have noticed a particular difficulty with that myself, so the point where I was never not thinking, even when temporarily I thought I was, I would realize a few seconds later that I was having an entire internal conversation.  I guess I never understood that the point of meditation is twofold: to still the mind, and to be present in the moment.  I was trying to retreat into my mind and in essence shut out reality.  This was very difficult.  I have started thinking of my mind as expanding rather than contracting.  As I said to another retreat participant after the fact: it's not like you become deaf just because you're meditating.  You still hear things, you just don't analyze them and think about them.  Meditation is a difficult skill to master, but absolutely worthwhile if you can do it.  Don't allow yourself to get discouraged, it's not a competition (even against yourself). 

Meditation is a skill just like any physical or mental skill, and it takes time to develop and nurture.  When in doubt, sign up for a meditation class and bring any questions you have forward to your instructor.  Meditation classes are easy to find and worth every penny.  Also, if you don't have the money to attend classes, go to a meditation time that is set up by one of your local Buddhist groups, and ask people there questions either before or after the session is completed.  You will be glad you went!

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