You may have heard during a yoga class that the practice of the postures - the Warriors and Eagles, Triangles and Cranes - is all to prepare the body to sit most comfortably. In the beginning, many yoga students don’t understand why they would go through such heat-producing, rigorous yoga classes only to sit still in meditation. However, as kinks get worked out of the body, the attention begins to even out as well, and reveal the Fourth State, the consciousness encompassing both objects and the experience of the objects, the monkey mind of worries and plans, and underlying and unifying all the divisions we create to understand and control our everyday world.
So, you sit down, maybe even in your perfected Lotus posture, join your thumb and forefinger in Chin mudra uniting mind and body, gently close your eyes in meditation. Now what? Does anything happen in meditation? What are you supposed to do when you meditate?
The doing of meditation becomes far more subtle as your breath and mind refine. Meditation is simply focusing the attention through setting an intention to concentrate the mind. A few definitions are in order: attention is the activity of consciousness; intention is directing attention in a particular way; focus is the ability to direct the attention to a chosen object; concentration is the ability of consciousness to maintain focus over time, either by not deviating at all or by intentionally returning each time it realizes that attention has wandered. During meditation this realization and return occur without judgement or recrimination, with the same factual noting that a scientist would use to note the location of a molecule or its composition. The simple act of noting changes what is observed.
The most common way to picture meditating may be seated meditation: a lean, shorn man seated in Lotus or Easy pose, eyes half closed and attention withdrawn from the world. While this is one option of meditation, it certainly is not exhaustive. Meditation may be undertaken in stillness like this, or meditation can be in motion - say while walking or doing yoga poses. Meditation may be practiced during special times set aside for the purpose of meditation, or meditation may be a state you cultivate in your everyday life. Meditation is simply the ability to observe the processes of your own mind with compassion, integrity, curiosity and openness. Through this very empirical, experimental mindset you create the ability to transform patterns using observation and intention (a.k.a awareness), rather than through effort or what is commonly thought of as “will power.”
Seated meditation is practice for maintaining a meditative frame of mind in the rest of your life and much like an experiment, sitting practice holds as many variables static as possible by keeping the body still without effort. Your seat should be “steady” and “sweet,” according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: “Yoga pose is steady and sweet. Yoga pose is mastered by relaxation of effort, lessening the tendency for restless breathing, and promoting an identification of oneself as living within the infinite breath of life.” Yoga Sutra 2.47 Steady and pleasant sitting is made easier by having flexible and strong muscles and a balanced posture, so the posture you choose to sit in should encourage your sitting bones to point to the ground in a neutral position so your spine can stack effortlessly and your head can balance without tension in the neck and shoulders. Sitting cross legged is one option, in Easy Seat or Lotus, and sitting on your feet, Japanese Style, is the other. Japanese style sitting is like Hero Pose, except that you do not separate your feet outside your hips. You may also sit in a chair, or on a particularly strenuous day you may even decide to a Corpse Pose for your meditation position.
Choose a point, or object, of focus. You might choose a physical object to rest your gaze upon, such as a statue, symbol or picture. You might, instead, choose an audible - or sound - focus, such as a tone, bell, gong or piece of music. Using a mantra is way of focusing your mind with self-generated sound, which can be a single syllable such as a vowel sound or “Om,” or a phrase that is meaning to you. You can use any sensation to focus your mind, but one of the easiest, most accessible and portable is your own breath. Your breath is like an old friend, always there waiting and potentially offering deep insight and wisdom about your life.
Try to start off with as little as five minutes and work up to half an hour of meditation. Remain still during your chosen time, as much as you can with kindness and awareness. More important than the length of any one meditation session is your regularity in practicing every single day, so schedule a little meditation time, find a place with a door, and... just be.