Letter to a New Meditator
from Sally Kempton
Real meditation is an experiment. You perform it in the unique laboratory of your own mind and body, and the form it takes is ultimately your own. Of course, you follow the practices handed down from the great explorers of meditation. You take the best instruction you can find. But in the end, meditation practice is never one-size-fits-all.
It took me a long time to realize this, and the main reason I began teaching meditation was to spare other people from having to wait as long as I did to figure it out.
Of course, when you begin your meditation practice, and while you’re establishing the habit of sitting, you need the structure and direction of a particular protocol. Following basic instructions helps you learn inner focus, set up the discipline of sitting, find out how to get the body comfortable, and keep the mind from running rampant.
But as you go on, things shift. You learn the skills of focus and letting go, and you start to experience periods of quiet, even contentment. You discover that sitting for meditation can help you hold steady in times of emotional turmoil and that creative solutions to problems tend to present themselves naturally when you enter a certain state of quiet.
This is when the issues get much more subtle, and—as in any experiment—this is when it becomes important to give yourself permission to get creative. You might find yourself stopped by the same inner ‘walls’ and wonder how to get past them. You might notice that your practice has become routine and wonder how to take it deeper. You may feel that your heart is blocked, or that you simply want more excitement in your sitting. So you begin to play a bit with your practice. If you don’t, chances are your meditation practice will start to get stale. To dry up.
There is a basic paradox inherent in successful meditation practice. It’s all about balancing two poles: structure and freedom, working with the ‘rules’ of posture, concentration, breath awareness, self-inquiry, yet knowing when it’s time to let the rules go, and follow the signals that are coming from inside your consciousness.
Below, I offer you a few essential contemplations and principles for navigating this paradox. They are meant to help you find your own personal best meditation practice. Some of them are truly basic. Others are subtler and might be new to you. Understanding these principles helps you skillfully walk the edge between structure and freedom, between tradition and experimentation, so you can engage for yourself the essential mystery at the heart of meditation practice—how by doing ‘nothing’ with radical attentiveness, you can enter into the very heart of love and wisdom.
Principle 1: Do whatever you need to do to make yourself physically comfortable so that you can meditate for at least half an hour at a time.
In a meditation posture, the one absolute rule is that your spine be erect. As long as your spine is straight and your chest is open, comfort trumps form. This might sound radical if you’ve been trained in classical yoga or Zen, but trust me—at least in the beginning, it’s more important that you be able to forget about your body while you’re meditating than that you train yourself in postural perfection.
Use props to support your hips and knees, and, if you need to, your back. If you’re on the floor, make sure your hips are elevated at least 3 inches above your knees, so that your back doesn’t round. If sitting on the floor is too uncomfortable, sit on a chair, and if it’s hard to sit upright, sit against the wall and stuff pillows behind your lower back that will push you into an upright posture by supporting your spine. Your aim is not to create a perfect yogic meditation asana, but to support your body so it will let you turn inside.
Principle 2: Find a simple core practice and do it daily until it becomes a habit.
Your core technique is your base, your bottom line for turning the mind inward. Doing the same practice every day cuts a groove in your consciousness, and that becomes a pathway into your interior, into the deeper level of yourself. For a beginning meditator trying to create a practice, this is imperative. But even experienced meditators do better when they have a clear protocol for signaling the mind that it’s time to turn within. This is best done by following a known pathway. As you do, the mind gets used to following that path, and it becomes easy and even automatic to cultivate basic inner attention.
From there, you can play with other practices, always knowing that you can come back to home base.
How do you find your core practice? Traditional practice schools make it simple. The teacher gives you a technique, and you’re required to do it for a certain amount of time—months or even years—before you’re allowed to get into anything more elaborate. But most meditators don’t operate within that kind of traditional frame anymore. We live now in a spiritual smorgasbord—a world so rich with juicy, alluring, and available meditation practices that you could spend years trying them out. You go to a retreat and are taught, say, loving-kindness meditation. Or, you’re given a mantra or a practice of silent “Who am I?” self-inquiry. You engage the practice deeply while you’re in the retreat. You even practice with it for a while at home. But then the glow of the retreat wears off, and in yoga class, you are given another practice and you do that for a while. And so it goes, until you begin to feel that you ‘know’ ten or twenty techniques, that you’ve been there and done that with many of the classical practices of the great meditation traditions—but you aren’t really poised in your interior self. To use the traditional metaphor, you’re drilling so many wells that you don’t go deep enough to find water.
Which practice is right for you? If you don’t have a teacher whom you trust to guide you with this, then the best approach is to deliberately try out several classical practices. Take enough time with each one to feel your way into it. Then, notice the results.
There are three qualities to look for when choosing your core practice.
First, it should attract, even hook your mind. You should be able to attach your attention to the practice with enough pleasure so that you can follow it past your surface thinking into a deeper space. If a technique doesn’t feel pleasurable at least some of the time, it’s not the right technique for you, because if you don’t get some enjoyment out of it, you simply won’t do it. Of course, nobody’s meditation is always enjoyable. Meditation can be boring at times, even excruciatingly so, and there will be days when sitting for your allotted time feels like a struggle with resistance. But if your practice is consistently tedious for you, it’s a sign that you’re not connecting, and that is often a sign that you aren’t doing the right core practice.
Secondly, your core practice should feel natural. If you’re not a visual person, you probably wouldn’t want to adopt a visualization practice right away, because it would be too much of a struggle. If you experience a lot of tension in your breath, following your breath may not be right for you. (Though a pranayama class could be a helpful way of learning how to relax your breathing.)
Third, your core practice should effectively—given enough sitting time—begin to quiet your mind and turn it towards its source—towards the deeper awareness/spaciousness which is the field behind thoughts and emotions.
What is a Core Practice?
Most core practices fall into five basic categories: breath practices, mantra practices, inner body practices, visualizations, and self-inquiry or mindfulness practices. These are often combined—for instance, you might combine a mantra with the breath, while at the same time, focusing on one of the inner centers. In general, you need to work with one practice or combination of practices for at least a month, to get a clear sense of how well it ‘fits.’
Each type of practice will train your attention in a particular way, and each will have its own effect on your inner state. For instance, practicing with a mantra will give you a focal point for the mind—a meditative thought to substitute for your ordinary mentalogue. The right mantra will also carry with it a feeling of comfort and sweetness that lets you easily sink inside, and can even help heal emotional wounds. Mantra can also be a vibratory vehicle for initiation, and some mantras carry the energy of a spiritual lineage. Breath practice lets you turn the natural movement of prana into a centering strategy. When either of these is combined with a focus on one of the inner centers such as the heart or the third eye, it can have an even more powerful centering effect.
Basic Mantra Practice
The best way to experience a mantra is to receive it from a teacher who has practiced it herself because then the mantra will be imbued with the power of the teacher’s practice. However, certain traditional meditation mantras have an embedded power of their own. The most famous of these—and the one cited in the YogaSutra, is Om.
Sitting quietly, inhale slowly with the thought ‘OM’. Exhale slowly with the thought “Om.” Feel the energy or vibratory quality in the syllable as it impacts your inner body.
When thoughts arise, as soon as you notice you’re thinking, bring your attention back to the thought “Om.”
Let your focus on the mantra syllable be soft. Allow your mind to merge with the mantra, as if you were a boat merging with the current of a river.
Mindfulness of breath is the most basic and natural of all meditation techniques because when you follow the flow of the breath it will automatically cause your mind to turn inside. Like mantra practice, once you’ve done it for a little while, you can use it not only in meditation but at other times as well.
Basic Mindful Breathing: Here, you would simply observe the rise and fall of the breath, noting the coolness of the breath touching your nostrils on the inhalation, and its slight warmth as it touches the nostrils with the exhalation. As thoughts arise, when you notice yourself thinking, you note ‘Thinking’ and return to your focus on the breath.
Or, you might practice mindful breathing by observing the part of your body that moves with the breath. It might be your upper chest, your diaphragm, your belly. Rather than trying to ‘place’ the breath, simply observe the breath as it rises and falls.
Another classic way to bring the mind inward is to on one of the inner spiritual centers, usually the heart or the third eye. A practice like Centering Prayer, where your awareness towards the inner heart center and let your attention sink gradually inward, could be appropriate for you.
Sitting quietly, bring your attention into the center of the chest, behind the breastbone, deep inside the body. One way to find this spot is to begin by measuring five finger-widths below the U-shaped notch at the collar bone, then bringing your attention inward from this spot to the very center of the body. The inner heart center is not the physical heart, but slightly to the right of the physical heart.
Let the breath flow in and out as if it were flowing into and out from the center of the chest and touching this place in the inner heart. You might imagine if you like, that there is an opening in the chest wall, and that the breath is flowing in and out horizontally. Or you can simply feel that the inhalation ends at the heart center and that the exhalation rises from there.
As you gently center your attention in the heart, find a word or phrase that helps you turn inward. “Trust” is one such word. “Let go” is another. “Love’ is another. Choose a word that helps you relax, that conveys a feeling of safety, of connection to love, to the divine, or to inwardness itself. Think this word to yourself with every other exhalation, having the feeling that you are dropping it into the heart. The aim here is to let your mind gently release as it settles into the heart center.
Meditation on a Flame in the Third Eye
If you are a visual person, it’s energizing to have a visual element in your practice. I often recommend the classic visualization where you imagine a flame in the center of the head, in the third eye center. (The Third Eye, or Ajna Chakra, can be found by placing your finger on the forehead, between the eyebrows, then taking your attention from that point into the center of the head.)
If you like, you can imagine the breath flowing in and out through the forehead, touching the flame in the center, and making it glow.
These four types of practice can be combined, but in general, at least when you are first sitting to practice, it’s good to start with one.
Give yourself two weeks to a month to feel your way into each of these practices (or another practice that you have been given by a teacher). Be patient with yourself; at this point, you don’t need to move too fast. Then decide which one will be your core practice for now.
Principle 3: Have at least three strategies for working with thoughts.
One for basic focus, one to activate the mindful witness of thought and emotions, and one that lets you work creatively to let go of thoughts.
First, a basic focusing practice. Your focusing practice is simply the effort you make to stay with your basic practice. Over and over again, you’ll lose your concentration, get lost in thought or reverie, recollect what you’re supposed to be doing and come back. In other words, as soon as you notice that you are thinking or spacing out, you simply bring your attention back to the mantra, to the breath, to the heart, or to the visualization or other practice. As you do, you develop basic focus muscles—Buddhist teacher Alan Wallace maintains that meditation practice is the world’s best cure for our current epidemic of attention deficit disorder. It will certainly improve your ability to stay with a task—any task.
Second, a practice that lets you mindfully observe your thoughts, without attaching to them. Your mindfulness or witnessing practice is critical because it helps you break your identification with the thoughts and emotions that arise. The practice might be simply pointing out to yourself “Thought” when you notice yourself thinking. Or you might interrupt your mentalogue with a basic self-inquiry, asking yourself ‘What knows I’m thinking?” then tuning into the aware presence of your inner observer.
Self-Inquiry Witness Practice
Begin by focusing on the flow of breath, warm on the inhalation, and cool on the exhalation. Or you may use whatever concentrative core practice you happen to be working with.
As you notice the mind wandering, ask “What knows I’m thinking?” Then wait, and notice what arises in the wake of the question. Within a few minutes, you should become aware that there is indeed a ‘knowing’, an awareness that observes thoughts as they arise. Little by little, see if you can remain present to this knowingness, the witness of your mind.
Third, a practice that lets you work creatively to disperse thoughts. Here’s one:
Seeing Your Thoughts as Clouds in the Sky
As you sit, imagine that your mind is the sky. As thoughts arise, imagine them as clouds, and seethe drifting away, dispersing into the background of the mind. Alternatively, be the observer of thoughts, and ‘watch’ them drift in like clouds, and drift by.
Principle 4: When you’re beginning a meditation practice, start with ten minutes, and increase your meditation time one minute a day until you’ve reached one-half hour.
This will allow you to cut the basic groove of practice.
Principle 5: If you want to go deep in meditation, you usually need to sit for at least 45 minutes to one hour.
That’s what we might call the bad news—or shall we say the hard truth.
But, here’s the good news: a twenty-minute daily practice—especially if you do it twice a day—will keep you tuned to the meditative current, will center you, and will definitely have a positive effect on your moods and ability to focus and master your own mental and emotional states. The twenty-minutes-morning and evening routine has been shown to lower stress levels and blood pressure, stabilize emotions, give access to a deeper level of creativity, treat you to long glimpses of your peaceful source.
Principle 6: Once you become comfortable with the core practice, begin to practice it creatively.
Find ways to get inside the practice, to take it deeper, to work with different attitudes and ways of practicing that help you stay fresh with it. Even the most basic technique becomes profound when you know how to work with it energetically or to combine it with self-inquiry, or to let go into moments of stillness and openness as they arise.
One of the simplest and most powerful ways to shift the feeling-tone of your practice is to experiment with different spiritual attitudes. For instance, you could infuse your breath practice with the awareness “I am being breathed by the universe,” or breath in and out with the thought “Let go” or “I am loved.” You could practice mantra with the intention to feel the energy of the mantra in your body and notice how your experience deepens when you feel the mantra energetically, rather than just as a thought. Or you could focus on the ‘place’ where the mantra dissolves and notice wherein the mind it ‘arises’—a practice that lets you touch into the deeper levels of the mind. You might begin your practice with the thought, “All this is light” or “Divine energy has become all this,” and notice what effect it has on your experience.
As you get deeper into your core practice, you’ll start to notice that in each session there are certain energetic shifts. There might be a sense that your energy softens, or you might feel yourself sinking, or dropping, as if you were falling asleep or into a state deeper than sleep. You might feel sensations in your crown or the center of your head or tingles in your skin. There might be a feeling of expansion in the heart. Colors might appear, or visions of faces, or landscapes. Some of these experiences are enjoyable, even fascinating. Some will initially feel disconcerting. If you’re willing to be experimental in your practice, these shifts can be invitations to take your practice to a deeper level. In other words, you can ride the shifting energy into a deeper, more expanded inner state. This is when your meditation stops being routine, and begins to become creative, and challenging—a form of inner exploration.
A great breakthrough happened in my own practice when I recognized that as one of these shifts in energy happens, I could deliberately move into it, go with it. Of course, my mind would do its best to horn in and co-opt the experience, resisting a particular movement of energy, questioning it, getting excited, or trying to analyze its meaning. I learned eventually to use the shift as a directional signal revealing a pathway in my consciousness and to follow it. To let these shifts or movements take me further into the interior of my consciousness. Even if I was able to follow the energy only for a moment or two, this experimental approach to practice gave a new depth and subtlety to my meditation.
Principle 7: Once you’ve established your core practice, take time once or twice a week, to do something different from your usual technique—especially something that helps balance your regular practice, or open you to a part of yourself that isn’t getting addressed.
This could be the time to explore one of those juicy practices you learned at a retreat—to sample something from the spiritual smorgasbord table. But the deeper reason for bringing in a different practice is for balance, for helping you develop those parts of your being that remain unexplored or under-developed.
Here’s what I mean: Any core practice you do will tend to open and expand certain aspects of your energy and consciousness but may leave others totally unexplored. If you don’t work with these other parts of your inner being, they remain undeveloped, and eventually yo- pay the price. We know we need balance in our outer life—some sort of equilibrium between work and fun, or family time and alone time. We don’t always realize that we need balance in our inner life as well. If in your basic practice you’re strengthening your focus or opening the third eye center, yet leaving the heart feeling dry, you’ll want to find some time to experiment with a heart-based practice like mantra or loving kindness meditation. But suppose you’re doing a heart-based practice that unleashes emotions or that subtly invites you to associate successful practice with feeling good all the time? In that case, you’d benefit from spending some time each week with a detachment-inducing witness practice. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a teacher is supposed to recognize when a student needs to balance her practice with another type of meditative discipline and might even send the student to another teacher to learn it. We can do this for ourselves—not simply because we are curious about a practice, but because we sense that the practice would address something in us that is not being served.
Moreover, there are certain classical contemplative practices from the great traditions that every one of us should become familiar with, no matter what basic practice we normally do. The reason? Because each of these practices addresses one or another of our basic human imbalances. They each help to cure qualities of the false self like selfishness, emotional excess, cold-heartedness, fear, anger, or the inability to connect with our own bodies and the earth. One such classical practice would be loving kindness meditation, where you move through four steps of wishing that you, a loved one, a neutral person, an enemy,and the world have happiness, health and freedom. Another would be self-inquiry—asking rigorously, “Who am I?” or “What am I?” until you become aware that behind your normal sense of self lies a field of awareness that has no content, no beliefs, no identity in the normal sense—yet is utterly present to the mystery of your own depth as consciousness.
On the other hand, when your practice is normally focused on self-inquiry, you may be out of touch with the energy of love, and might want to spend some time in devotional contemplation, tuning into your heart, perhaps breathing in with the thought “I am loved,” or getting in touch with your sense of the presence of a personal deity. If your sense of self feels too narrowly focused on your own personal experience, consider spending some time connecting your heart to other hearts, or practicing the Tibetan compassion meditation of breathing in suffering, offering it to the spaciousness behind the heart, and breathing out joy.
There will be times when you want to practice liberating negative emotions by focusing on the felt sense of an emotion like anger or grief, then creating space around yourself and letting the dense energy of the emotional state dissolve into that spaciousness. And you will certainly want to give yourself the gift of a really juicy chakra meditation, where you bring the energy of the inner body up through the chakras and let it expand out the crown, or of deepening your connection to the ground by breathing into the lower belly until you feel your body energized fully by the breath.
Each of these practices ‘cures’ one or more of our imbalances, opens us to more expansive ways of being. Each of them is potentially transformative.
Just as you work with a core practice for a few weeks to see if it ‘fits’, practice with one of these depth contemplations for a week or two until it starts to open up for you. Unlike the core practice, you don’t need to do it daily. But you might find that once you’ve connected with loving kindness or self-inquiry or chakra practice, you will want to devote the last few minutes of your daily practice to it. Or, as I suggested earlier, you might want to give it a full session once or twice a week. In time, you’ll begin to recognize precisely which of these contemplative practices will shift you out of a stuck state, or open your heart, or help you connect with the wholeness.
This is when you become a skilled navigator of the inner world.
Principle 7: Be willing to sit through boredom and resistance and recognize that meditation is a journey which will take you through different emotional layers.
This means that from time to time you’ll experience periods of great depth and excitement, at other times feelings of dryness, and that there will be times when meditation seems to bring up emotions, agitation, anger and fear. This is part of the purifying effect of meditation—a process sometimes called ‘samskaric burnoff’ in which your buried tendencies come up to be released. Let it happen—it means that layers of ‘stuff’ are being removed from your system!
Principle 8: Approach your meditation practice as an experiment in self-awareness.
Then, no session is ever wasted, because each time you sit for meditation you are getting to know yourself at different levels.
The people who get the most from meditation are the ones who welcome it in all its seasons, realizing that meditation is above all an exploration. The field of a meditator’s exploration is her own inner being. Yet the great surprise that awaits you in that journey is the recognition that by knowing your unique inner self, you ultimately know the self of all that is. “Everyone knows that the drop is contained in the ocean,” wrote the poet Kabir. “Not everyone knows that the ocean is contained in the drop.” Keep meditating, and you will.
Beyond the Basics
Once you’ve developed your core practice, there are certain contemplative practice from the traditions that every meditator should know. Each addresses one or another of our basic human imbalances. Just as you work with a core practice for a few weeks or months to see if it fits, so you can practice with one of these classical contemplations several times a week for a month, until it starts to open up for you. As you get more skilled at navigating the inner landscape, you’ll intuitively know which of these contemplative practices would be helpful at a given moment— to shift you out of a stuck state, to open your heart, or to help you connect with a feeling of wholeness.
Here are a few of these practices:
Loving Kindness (Metta) Meditation
In loving kindness meditation, you move through five stages. First, you wish that you yourself be happy, safe, healthy and free. Then you wish the same thing to a friend, a person you are neutral towards, an ‘enemy,’ and all beings. The book Loving Kindness by Sharon Salzberg is a good resource for learning about this practice.
Taking and Sending (Tonglen) Meditation
In tonglen meditation, you breathe in with feeling that you are taking in a heavy emotion—grief, anger, fear. Then you breathe out joy, peace and healing. You focus on taking in suffering and sending back joy from yourself, a friend or relative, and to a group of suffering people somewhere in the world. Finally, you imagine taking and sending with all beings. One effect of this practice is to help you recognize that your emotions are not just personal. You’ll realize that any form of emotions or physical suffering that you feel is universal, and you’ll eventually experience a true sense of kindship, compassion, and even oneness with other beings. Pema Chodren’s book Start Where You Areoffers a good step by step process for this practice.
These can range from feeling your feet connecting to the earth as if they had suction cups attached, or imagining a thread of energy flowing from the base of your spine into the center of the earth.
A juicy chakra meditation can transform your inner body by connecting you to the subtle energy centers that run from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. Try imagining energy in the form of light running up through the center of the body, in front of the spine, connecting all seven chakras right up to the crown. When the energy reaches the crown, feel that a waterfall of light pours down through your head and bathes your body. Anodea Judith’s Wheels of Light has good material on the chakras.
2019-2021 © Sally Kempton