By Alex Chapunoff, LMHC
Meditation is a word that can mean different things because it encompasses various types and techniques, and also because it has several general definitions, ranging from “contemplation” to “concentration” to “yoga” to “mysticism.” The common ground in all this is the phenomenon of directed consciousness: you have decided to pay attention to something that you don’t typically attend to sufficiently. Through this act, you become better acquainted with it. For instance, if you really want to know about sunsets, you may decide to spend an hour every evening for one month silently watching the sun go down. When you do this, you’re bound to directly notice things about the sunset that prior escaped your attention. Some of these things may have previously been noted by scientists or painters or poets; but, regardless, you are now perceiving them yourself. Because you paid enough attention.
And so it is with your mind. How conscious are you of its workings? How much attention do you pay to it really? You’re very close to it and yet what you usually know is the surface: the conscious mind (i.e., the part of the mind you’re conscious of). It’s like being able to look at a watch and tell time but thinking that’s all there is to a watch—having no idea about the works and gears or the battery and electronics inside.
What does the mind normally do? And when or in what circumstances? How does it make thoughts? And which types, and how often? What patterns are discernible? How do these thoughts give rise to feelings? Or is it the other way around? What is the mind, anyway? Where does consciousness start? Where does it end?
These are questions that mankind has been asking for centuries, and the answers are found by listening to your mind. There is no substitute for direct perception and experience. Mind managing is most successful when you know your mind. You need to be aware of what you’re working with. This goes for everything, by the way. How can you manage your employees if you don’t know who they are, where they work, or what they’re supposed to do? How can you be a good auto mechanic if you don’t know car engines and the tools needed for the job?
Knowledge of mind can’t come solely from books or speeches because then you would just be taking an expert’s word for it. What if he’s wrong? Or lying? You need to know directly, for yourself. Then you don’t need the experts.
There are two advantages to paying close attention to your mind: first, you become less of a stranger to yourself, getting better acquainted with the inner rhythms, workings, and movements of your mind-body; second, you begin to note that you and your mind aren’t synonymous. It may dawn on you: “Wait a minute, if I’m paying attention to my mind then in some way I must be apart from my mind.” Anything you can perceive with your senses or think about isn’t you. It may be of you, but is not you yourself.
When you’re ready to meditate, sit in a firm comfortable chair with your back straight. It’s better for your back not to lean against the backrest. Your back should be straight during the entire exercise, not leaning or resting on anything. Place your hands, palm down, on your lap. Your knees should be bent at an angle of 90 degrees, with your feet flat on the ground, a few inches apart, pointing straight forward. Your head should also be held straight, with your eyes looking straight ahead. Hold the position perfectly still for 15 minutes; stay frozen like a statue. The only movements should be those of the chest and diaphragm due to breathing, and blinking of the eyes (the exercise can also be done with the eyes closed).
During the exercise, you will most likely feel an unbearable temptation to move in any number of ways: twitch, stretch, shift in your seat, sniff, clear your throat, scratch, nod, lick your lips, tap your fingers, and many more. Stay still. Let’s say you develop an incredible desire to nod your head. Stay still. Let’s suppose a mosquito lands on your cheek and you are dying to shoo it away. Stay still.
If you do move, just let it go and immediately resume your stillness. But the more you resist such temptations, the more you’ll strengthen and discipline your energy and build up your control of the body.
By holding this position, you are straightening yourself out, rectifying body and mind, opening up and clarifying the flow of your energy. In yoga, the position is sometimes called “the king” or “the pharaoh”; there are numerous pictures of pharaohs sitting in this position in ancient Egyptian murals. Basically, this is the position your body really wants to sit in once it’s fit enough; it creates the least amount of strain because it observes the body’s lines and symmetry. If you’re used to having bad posture, or walking crooked, or looking down a lot, this position will initially be especially uncomfortable. You will now be using muscles that are weak and easily fatigued because they’ve hardly ever been used. Look at this exercise as a workout in stillness. If you can, have a friend watch you so that every time you slip out of position he or she can give you feedback and gently help reposition you as necessary.
If you’re like most people, at first you’ll find the exercise unbearably uncomfortable, exhausting, and tedious. Uninformed observers often look at some expert doing this meditation and say, “That’s it? My God, that’s nothing. It looks so easy.” All they see is someone sitting in a chair doing nothing. Until they try it. Then they have a newfound respect for it. The 15 minutes may appear like they’ll never end. Each minute seems like five. You may perspire a lot. You may get pains in your muscles and bones (if they’re not used to being straight). You may get very nervous and anxious. Note that these are all signs you’re doing the exercise right. If you embark on this exercise and from the first session it feels easy, chances are you’re doing it wrong: you are likely getting out of position in subtle degrees and unconsciously catching little rest breaks. While this definitely provides relief, it lessens the effectiveness of the practice. That’s why it helps to have someone watch over you, giving you feedback and correcting the slip-ups in your position, until with enough practice you’ve trained your body to recognize the right posture and have sufficient stamina to stay in it for the needed time. (If you can’t find someone to watch you, do it facing a fullview mirror.)
While you hold the position, breathe in and out through your nose, mouth closed. At the same time, pay attention to the ideas, notions, images, sensations, memories, and chatter your mind produces. Do so as a neutral witness. Instead of forming judgments about your mindstuff, do something even simpler: not form judgments. If you have a repulsive taboo thought, don’t think, “How horrible!” If you have a brilliant idea, don’t think, “Awesome!” In fact, don’t think, period. Or, at most, form a fact: “That was a thought.”
You are listening in on your own head. Self-eavesdropping. Let your mind run free and wild; or not. Whatever your mind does is appropriate since that is what your mind is doing. If you feel any pressure or discomfort or fatigue, it’s likely your emotional energy is being unblocked and released. (That’s a positive development, even if it doesn’t feel good while it’s happening; later, you’ll be much more refreshed.) In general, listen to your mind as you would to a river flowing by. Don’t worry about, or get excited by, the meanings it makes: just listen to what it produces as pure sound.
Once you can do the exercise easily for 15 minutes, increase to 30. Once that’s easy, do 45. Progress will be more steady if you do it twice a day, ideally before breakfast and before dinner. It can also be done before bedtime, if at least two hours have elapsed since dinner.
Benefits: Stabilizes, strengthens, and refreshes the mind-body; increases direct knowledge of same. Aligns and harmonizes your energy.
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