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Friday, April 15, 2011

Humanist Meditation 101 (part 2 of 3)

(cc) Mitchell Joyce (HckySo),
Last time I began description of meditation with its purpose and notes on physical position. Today I will continue with discussion of meditation aides, body scan, and focusing...

Meditation Aides

You will also need to think about how long you’re going to meditate. 15 minutes may be a good amount of time for beginners; for some 20 minutes may be ideal. You can eventually work up to 30 minutes. Some meditate longer, but if you want to establish a daily routine it is important to select something reasonable and sustainable within your schedule. You’ll need to establish a way to alert yourself when the time is up. This can be done simply with a stop watch, a kitchen timer, etc. If you are in a guided meditation the guide will alert you. There are also smartphone meditation applications that allow you to set a time and have nice relaxing chime sounds to choose from. There are also online videos available with guided meditations featuring voices, music, etc. However it is achieved, a simple chime after a designated time is probably best for beginners.

Some people light incense when meditating or performing other rituals. The olfactory sense (smell) is one of the most intimately connected senses with our memory centers. Therefore, having a special scent is a good way to shift our state of mind into one that is conducive to the focus of the ritual or practice. Various cushions and furniture may be desired by some depending on the setting and position you choose, but beware of being persuaded into spending a great deal of money on superfluous things. Some people may like to have small sculptures or pictures of people or subjects which inspire them or remind them of various values or principles, or simply create a pleasant environment, but these too are not strictly necessary for meditation. It's up to you!

With your surroundings established and your physical position selected, you are now ready to begin.

Body Scan

The first part of the process should be a mental review of your body to ensure you are actually relaxing it. Often we hold muscles tightly clenched without even realizing it. Therefore, you should take a deep long breath and let it out through your nose. Now imagine the top of your head being scanned. As the line around your head moves down over your face, your muscles in that area should relax: first the temples, forehead, brow; next your cheeks, jaw muscles, ears, neck, etc. Move the encircling line down over your neck, shoulders, down your arms to your fingers, down your back, stomach, legs, feet, and toes – relaxing each group as you go. Do not go too quickly so you may consider all areas. If you feel you need to, you can slowly return to the top of your head.

Now take one more deep breath and release your attention from your body. From here after, your breathing should not be controlled – just let yourself breath in and out automatically without trying to direct it, regardless of how fast, slow, deep, shallow, regular, or irregular that is.


Now, keeping your eyes closed, focus your attention on your breath. There will be a temptation to control your breath or try to make it regular or deeper, but you should avoid that temptation. Simply watch your breath without directing it. The portion you should zero in on is the air moving just past the edge of your nostrils, as it moves in and out. You will hear it and feel it moving past the nostrils like a tide coming in and out. Try to focus exclusively on that experience without thinking about it in ‘words’. Also ignore any visualizations, sensations from your body, or other thoughts.

At this point, you may find it helpful to count your breaths. If you do so, as you inhale do not think anything – just focus on the inhalation. Then, as you exhale, think, “one...” You can think this word as lasting as long as the exhale, still focusing attention on the air moving out of your nostrils. As you breathe in, try to think nothing in between other than simply observing the inward breath. Breathing out, think, “two…” Go up to five and then return to one. Remember, while you are watching your breaths and counting along, you are not controlling them in any way – simply letting them happen as your body naturally reflexes to breathe.

After you exhale and count a number, if you are rested, there will probably be a few seconds before your body naturally induces the next inhalation. Because you are focused on the inhalation during it’s time, and you are counting during the exhalations, this short period may be the most tempting for your attention to wander. As you complete a counting, such as, “twooooo…”, try to let your mind simply drift off of the end of the word and remain still, thinking of nothing at all until the next inhalation arises to focus upon.

By the way, returning to 1 in the counting in a cycle is important. If you do not return in this cycle from 5 back to 1 and instead continue on to higher numbers, it will be easy for the counting to end up on ‘autopilot’ as your mind wanders off to other things. The return is the indication that you really are paying close attention to the counting. Furthermore, if you fail to remain focused on your breath, you can attempt to simply get through one whole cycle 1-5, thus making the challenge one of bite-sized chunks. Then, you can attempt another cycle – always remaining in the present.

Wandering & Correction

As you attempt meditation, your mind will inevitably wander. Things will pop into your head such as the day’s to-do items, what others around you might be doing or thinking, what the random little sounds you’re hearing might be, physical discomfort, interesting or random memories, or perhaps more concerning ruminations about various life problems. As this happens, it is important to catch yourself and return your focus exclusively to your breath. If you did not, then meditation would not be unlike daydreaming or lucid dreaming. Perhaps a nice endeavor in its own ways, but not meditation. As these things arise in your mind, simply see them as objects and set them aside, moving your focus gently back to the breath.

Despite your best efforts, your mind will do this many times, and will need to be brought back to the breath many times. Just as important as catching and directing yourself back, it is also essential that you not let this frustrate you. Remember, thinking about the fact that you’re not thinking about your breath is also ‘thinking about something other than your breath’. Instead, simply bring your attention back to your breath as though it were a solitary task – without frustration because of past needs to do so, and without aggravation because of a fear of needing to do it again in the future. As you meditate there is only the present, and in that present only the breath. Do not think of this wandering as a ‘failure to meditate’ or as an exception to meditation. The wandering, and the following corrections in focus, are all part of meditation – all is just as it should be.

Next time I will conclude this series on meditation with discussion of going deeper, immediate after effects, and long-term effects.


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