How to Meditate

Attitude is everything. While there are many meditative strategies,
what makes the difference in terms of spiritual awakening is your quality
of earnestness or sincerity. Rather than adding another “should” to
your list, choose to practice because you care about connecting with
your innate capacity for love, clarity and inner peace. Let this sincerity
be the atmosphere that nurtures whatever form your practice takes.
A primary aspect of attitude is unconditional friendliness toward the
whole meditative process. When we are friendly towards another person,
there is a quality of acceptance. Yet we often enter meditation with
some idea of the kind of inner experience we should be having and
judgment about not “doing it right.” Truly- there is no “right” meditation
and striving to get it right reinforces the sense of an imperfect, striving
self. Rather, give permission for the meditation experience to be whatever
it is. Trust that if you are sincere in your intention toward being
awake and openhearted, that in time your practice will carry you home
to a sense of wholeness and freedom.
Friendliness also includes an interest in what arises- be it pleasant
sensations or fear, peacefulness or confusion. And the heart expression
of friendliness is kindness — regarding the life within and around us
with care.

Creating a container for practice:
It helps to have a regular time and space for cultivating a meditation
Setting a time – Morning is often preferred because the mind may be
calmer than it is later in the day. However, the best time is the time that
you can realistically commit to on a regular basis. Some people choose
to do two or more short sits, perhaps one at the beginning and one at
the end of the day.
Deciding in advance the duration of your sit will help support your
practice. For many, the chosen time is between 15-45 minutes. If you sit
each day, you may experience noticeable benefits (e.g., less reactivity,
more calm) and be able to increase your sitting time.
Finding a space – If possible, dedicate a space exclusively to your
daily sitting. Choose a relatively protected and quiet space where you
can leave your cushion (or chair) so that it is always there to return to.
You may want to create an altar with a candle, inspiring photos, statues,
flowers, stones, shells and/or whatever arouses a sense of beauty, wonder
and the sacred. These are not necessary, but are beneficial if they
help create a mood and remind you of what you love.
Set your intention:
There is a Zen teaching that says “The most important thing is remembering
the most important thing.” It is helpful to recall at the start
of each sitting what matters to you, what draws you to meditate. Take a
few moments to connect in a sincere way with your heart’s aspiration.
You might sense this as a prayer that in some way dedicates your practice
to your own spiritual freedom, and that of all beings.
Set your pos ture:
Alertness is one of the two essential ingredients in every meditation.
Sit on a chair, cushion, or kneeling bench as upright, tall and balanced
as possible. A sense of openness and receptivity is the second essential
ingredient in every meditation, and it is supported by intentionally relaxing
obvious and habitual areas of tension. Around an erect posture,
let the rest of your skeleton and muscles hang freely. Let the hands rest
comfortably on your knees or lap. Let the eyes close, or if you prefer,
leave the eyes open, the gaze soft and receptive.
Please don’t skip the step of relaxing/letting go! You might take several
full deep breaths, and with each exhale, consciously let go, relaxing
the face, shoulders, hands, and stomach area. Or, you may want to
begin with a body scan: start at the scalp and move your attention
slowly downward, methodically relaxing and softening each part of the
body. Consciously releasing body tension will help you open to whatever
arises during your meditation.
The Basic Practice:
N a t u r a l P r e s e n c e
Presence has two interdependent qualities of recognizing, or noticing
what is happening, and allowing whatever is experienced without any
judgment, resistance or grasping. Presence is our deepest nature, and
the essence of meditation is to realize and inhabit this whole and lucid
We practice meditation by receiving all the domains of experience
with a mindful, open attention. These domains include breath and sensations;
feelings (pleasant, unpleasant and neutral); sense perceptions,
thoughts and emotions; and awareness itself.
In the essential practice of meditation there is no attempt to manipulate
or control experience. Natural Presence simply recognizes what is
arising (thoughts, feelings, sounds, emotions) and allows life to unfold,
just as it is. As long as there is a sense of a self making an effort and
doing a practice, there is identification with a separate and limited self.
The open receptivity of Natural Presence dissolves this sense of a self
“doing” the meditation.
Knowing the difference between Natural Presence
and “skillful means” or supports for practice:
Because our minds are often so busy and reactive, it is helpful to develop
skillful means that quiet the mind and allow us to come home to
the fullness of Natural Presence. Thes
fort that un-does our efforting!
You might consider yourself as a contemplative artist, with a palette
of colors (supportive strategies) with which to work in creating the inner
mood that is most conducive for the clarity and openness of presence.
These colors can be applied with a light touch. Experiment and see
what works best for you, and don’t confuse these methods (such as following
the breath) with the radical and liberating presence that frees
and awakens our spirit. Regardless of what skillful means you employ,
create some time during each sitting when you let go of all “doings” and
simply rest in Natural Presence. Discover what happens when there is no
controlling or efforting at all, when you simply let life be just as it is. Discover
who you are, when there is no managing of the meditation.
Ski llful Means : Our supports for practice
Presence is supported by a calm and collected mind, a mindful awareness
and an open heart. The following strategies cultivate these capacities:
• Establish an embodied presence—senses awake!
You might take a few minutes at the beginning of the sitting (or anytime
during the sitting or day) to intentionally awaken all the senses.
Scan through the body with your attention, softening and becoming
aware of sensations from the inside out. Listen to sounds and also include
the scent and the feel of the space around you in and outside of
the room. While the eyes may be closed, still include the experience of
light and dark, and imagine and sense the space around you. Explore
listening to and feeling the entire moment–to-moment experience, with
your senses totally open.
• Choose a home base—a primary anchor or subject
of meditation.
It is helpful to select a home base (or several anchors) that allow you
to quiet and collect the mind, and to deepen embodied presence. Useful
anchors are:
• The breath as it enters and leaves the nostrils.
• Other physical changes during breathing, e.g., the-rise and fall
of the chest.
• Other physical sensations as they arise, e.g. the sensations in
the hands, or through the whole body.
• Sounds as they are experienced within or around you.
• Listening to and feeling one’s entire experience, (i.e., receiving
sounds and sensations in awareness).
• Mindfulness — “coming back” and “being here”
Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention
on purpose and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of moment- to- moment
experience. We train in mindfulness by establishing an embodied
presence and learning to see clearly and feel fully the changing flow of
sensations, feelings (pleasantness and unpleasantness), emotions and
Imagine your awareness as a great wheel. At the hub of the wheel
is mindful presence, and from this hub, an infinite number of spokes extend
out to the rim. Your attention is conditioned to leave presence,
move out along the spokes and affix itself to one part of the rim after another.
Plans for dinner segue into a disturbing conversation, a self-judgment,
a song of the radio, a backache, the feeling of fear. Or your
attention gets lost in obsessive thinking circling endlessly around stories
and feelings about what is wrong. If you are not connected to the hub,
if your attention is trapped out on the rim, you are cut off from your
wholeness and living in trance.
Training in mindfulness allows us to return to the hub and live our
moments with full awareness. Through the practice of “coming back”
we notice when we have drifted and become lost in thought, and we recall
our attention back to a sensory based presence. This important capacity
is developed through the following steps:
• Set your intention to awaken from thoughts—mental commentary,
memories, plans, evaluations, stories—and rest in non-conceptual
• Gently bring attention to your primary anchor, letting it be in the
foreground while still including in the background the whole domain
of sensory experience. For instance you might be resting
in the inflow and outflow of the breath as your home base, and
also be mindful of the sounds in the room, a feeling of sleepiness,
an itch, heat.
• When you notice you have been lost in thought, pause and
gently re-arrive in your anchor, mindful of the changing moment-to-moment
experience of your senses.
It can be helpful to remember that getting distracted is totally naturaljust
as the body secretes enzymes, the mind generates thoughts! No
need to make thoughts the enemy; just realize that you have a capacity
to awaken from the trance of thinking. When you recognize that you
have been lost in thought, take your time as you open out of the thought
and relax back into the actual experience of being Here. You might listen
to sounds, re-relax your shoulder, hands and belly, relax your heart.
This will allow you to arrive again in mindful presence at the hub,
senses wide open, letting your home base be in the foreground. Notice
the difference between any thought and the vividness of this Here-ness!
As the mind settles, you will have more moments of “being here,”’ of
resting in the hub and simply recognizing and allowing the changing
flow of experience. Naturally the mind will still sometimes lose itself on
the rim, and at these times, when you notice, you again gently return to
the hub—“coming back,” and “being here” are fluid facets of practice.
The more you inhabit the alert stillness at the center of the wheel and
include in mindfulness whatever is happening, the more the hub of
presence becomes edgeless, warm and bright. In the moments when
there is no controlling of experience—when there is effortless mindfulness—you
enter the purity of presence. This is “Natural Presence.” The
hub, spokes and rim are all floating in your luminous open awareness.
• Practice metta to soften and open the heart.
Metta practice, also called lovingkindness meditation, cultivates both
a loving heart and a collected, settled mind. The practice uses specific
phrases to send loving and kind wishes to yourself, loved ones, neutral
persons, difficult people and to all beings everywhere, without exception.
You might choose three or four of the below, or create whatever
phrases resonate for you:
May I be filled with lovingkindness.
May I feel safe from harm.
May I accept myself just as I am.
May I be peaceful and at ease.
May I be happy.
Spend a few minutes or more offering the phrases to yourself, taking
the time to imagine and directly feel the experience the phrases invoke.
Then do the same as you offer it to the others mentioned above. You
can bring in the metta practice at the beginning, end or during any part
of the meditation. For some people, it can be beneficial to emphasize
metta as a primary practice—especially when there has been trauma
or great self-aversion. This skillful means is a beautiful way to awaken
the heart.
• Developing concentration
Bringing attention to a primary subject or anchor can lead to a concentrated
focus that naturally calms and collects the mind. This concentration
can be deepened by intentionally aiming and sustaining a
focused attention with your chosen anchor. When cultivating concentration,
the anchor should be one that has a pleasant or at least neutral
feeling tone.
Concentration supports mindfulness and requires a relaxed attention.
There is often a subtle (or overt) sense of making an effort to sustain
concentration, of striving to control the mind and make something happen.
It is important to not become caught in a striving effort. It is easy
to be seduced into trying to achieve something, such as staying with
the breath for much of the sitting, and then evaluating what is happening
as a “good’ or “not good” meditation. Mistaking a focus on the
breath for meditation is like fixating on the quality of your hiking boots,
and not really being awake of the natural world you are inhabiting!
Concentration helps quiet the mind and without some quieting,
mindfulness is difficult to sustain. It also can lead to states of rapture
and deep peace. Yet without a mindful presence, concentration bears
no fruit. The key to concentration is remembering your intention tor
wards presence, and then focusing on your chosen subject for meditation
with a soft, clear and relaxed attention.
• RAIN—healing emotional suffering
The mindful presence that helps release emotional suffering is summarized
by the acronym RAIN.
R Recognize – notice what is arising (fear, hurt, etc.)
A Allow – agree to “be with it,” to “let it be.”
I Investigate – in a non-analytic way, get to know how the body,
heart and mind experiences these energies. You might inquire
by asking yourself one or more of the following questions:
“What is happening?” “Where am I feeling this in my
body?” “What wants attention?” “What wants acceptance?”
The “I” is also Intimacy: experiencing difficult sensations and
emotions with a direct, gentle, kind attention; and offering
compassion to the place of vulnerability.
N Non-identification, or not having your sense of Being defined
by, possessed by or linked to any emotion. In other words,
not taking it personally! The “N” is also Natural Presence, a
homecoming to the loving awareness that is our essence.
• Practice Self-Inquiry
Inquiry (questions like “What is happening?”) can bring attention in a
direct way to the changing flow of experience and reveal the truth of impermanence
and the empty (self-less) nature of sights, sounds,
thoughts, emotions and feelings. Self- inquiry extends this process by
turning awareness back on itself. Classical questions include: “Who am
I?” “What am I?” “Who or what is aware?” “Who or what is listening to
sound” “Who or what is looking out through these eyes?”
Self-Inquiry is best done when the mind is relatively quiet and senses
awake. Ask a question and look back towards awareness, towards that
which is aware. After asking, relax with an embodied presence, open,
not in any way pursuing an answer with your intellect. By enrolling the
natural interest, energy and receptive attention of inquiry, the very nature
of awareness is revealed.
Par t I I
C o m m o n I s s u e s
f o r M e d i t a t o r s
Getting los t in thought
At first, you may be surprised at how active and uncontrolled your
mind is. Don’t worry – you are discovering the truth about the state of
most minds! Accept and patiently “sit with” whatever comes up. There
is no need to get rid of thoughts; this is not the purpose of meditation.
Rather, we are learning to recognize when thinking is happening so we
are not lost in a trance—believing thoughts to be reality, becoming identified
with thoughts.
Because we are so often in a thinking trance, it is helpful to quiet
down some. Just like a body of water stirred up by the winds, after
being physically still for a while, your mind will gradually calm down. To
support that quieting, at the beginning of a sitting it can be helpful to
relax and practice Remindfulness—gently bringing your attention back
again and again to your home base in the senses.
It takes practice to distinguish the trance of thinking – fantasy, planning,
commentary, dreamy states – from the presence that directly receives
the changing experience of this moment. Establishing an
embodied awareness and letting your anchor be in the foreground is a
good way to become familiar with the alive, vibrant mystery of Hereness,
of presence.
The Fi ve Clas s ic Chal lenges
(called “hindrances ” in Buddhis t tex ts ):
• Grasping: wanting more (or something different) from
what’s present right now.
• Aversion: fear, anger, any form of pushing away.
• Restlessness: jumpy energy, agitation.
• Sloth and torpor: sleepy, sinking states of mind and body.
• Doubt: a mind-trap that says, “it’s no use, this will never
work, maybe there’s an easier way”.
These are universal body-mind energies experienced by all humans.
It is important to recognize that they are not a “problem.” The energies
become “hindrances” because our conditioned habit is to ignore, resist,
judge or otherwise try to control them. And yet when met with mindfulness
and care, these same energies become a gateway to increased
aliveness and spiritual awakening.
During sitting practice, if you encounter one of these challenging energies,
it may be useful to name it silently to yourself, e.g., “grasping,
grasping” or “fear, fear.” If it is strong, rather than pulling away, let your
intention be to bring your full attention to what is arising. Feel what is
happening as sensations in your body, neither getting lost in the experience
nor pushing it away. As indicated through the RAIN acronym, investigate
what is arising and meet the experience with an intimate,
compassionate attention. When it dissipates, return to the primary anchor
of your meditation, or rest in Natural Presence.
Sometimes the energy is too strong, and it is not wise or compassionate
to try to stay present with it. This is particularly true if you have
been traumatized and are experiencing deep fear or anger. If it feels
like “too much,” shift the attention to something that brings a sense of
balance, safety and/or love. You might open your eyes, remind yourself
of where you are, listen to sounds, relax again through your body. You
might bring to mind someone who loves and understands you, and
sense their care surrounding you. You might reflect on the Buddha or
the bodhisattva of compassion, Jesus, Great Spirit, your grandmother,
your dog or a favorite tree. You might offer phrases of lovingkindness to
places of vulnerability. Meditate on any expression of loving presence
that helps you feel less separate or afraid.
If you encounter these kinds of difficult emotional energies regularly
you might ask a teacher or therapist familiar with meditation to accompany
you as you learn to navigate what feels most intense.
Physical pain
In addition to mental busyness and emotional challenges, it is inevitable
that we all experience a certain amount of unpleasant physical
sensations. If you are not used to the posture, there may be some discomfort
in simply sitting still. In addition, as your attention deepens, you
might become aware of tensions in the body that were ignored because
of being preoccupied by thought. Or, you might be injured or
sick, and become more directly aware of the natural unpleasant sensations
accompanying that condition.
Meditating with physical discomfort is the same as the process of
presence with emotional difficulty. Let your intention be to meet the unpleasantness
with a gentle attention, noticing how it is experienced in
the body and how it changes. Allow the unpleasantness to float in
awareness, to be surrounded by soft presence. To establish that openness
you might include in your attention sounds, and/or other parts of
the body that are free from pain. Breathe with the experience, offering a
spacious and kind attention. Be aware of not only the physical sensations,
but how you are relating to them. Is there resistance? Fear? If
so, let these energies be included with a forgiving and mindful attention.
If the physical unpleasantness is intense and wearing you out, direct
your attention for a while to something else. It is fine to mindfully shift
your posture, or to use a skillful means like phrases of lovingkindness or
listening to sounds as a way to discover some space and resilience.
You don’t need to “tough it out.” That is just another ego posture that
solidifies the sense of separate self. In a similar vein, you don’t have to
“give up.” Instead, discover what allows you to find a sense of balance
and spaciousness, and when you are able, again allow the immediate
sensations to be received with presence.
Par t I I I
Sustaining a Practice
Here are a few helpful hints for sustaining your sitting practice:
• Sit every day, even if it’s for a short period. Intentionally dedicate
this time of quieting—it is a gift to the soul!
• A few times during each
day, pause. Establish contact
with your body and
breath, feeling the aliveness
that is Here. Pause more
and more—the space of a
pause will allow you to
come home to your heart
and awareness.
• Reflect regularly on your aspiration
for spiritual awakening
and freedom—your
own and that of all beings.
• Remember that, like yourself,
everyone wants to be happy and nobody wants to suffer.
• Practice regularly with a group or a friend.
• Use inspiring resources such as books, CD’s or web-accessed
dharma talks.
• Study the Buddhist teachings (e.g., the 4 Noble Truths, the
Noble 8-Fold Path).
• Sign up for a retreat—one day, a weekend, or longer. The experience
will deepen your practice and nourish spiritual awakening.
• If you miss practice for a day, a week, or a month, simply begin again.
You are traveling a path
that has led to clarity,
peace and deep realization
for many people
over thousands of years.
May their awakening
support and inspire you.
And may the sincerity of
your practice heal and
free your spirit.
• If you need guidance, ask for help from an experienced meditator
or teacher.
• Don’t judge your practice — rather, accept what unfolds and
trust your capacity to awaken and be free!
• Live with a reverence for life—committed to non-harming, to
seeing, honoring and serving the sacred in all beings.