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Meditation Basics from the Author
of "
Meditation For Dummies"
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 awareness.

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, and balanced.

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 kids?

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 Dummies.

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 more?

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 thirty.

I couldnít possibly cross my legs and sit comfortably on the floor. Does that mean I canít meditate?

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 situation?

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 is working?

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 techniques.

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.


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