I recently picked up a book at our local library called ‘Waking Up – Searching for spirituality without religion’ by Sam Harris. What follows is a sharing of the author’s summary of meditation and some personal reflections. It is not a review of the book, which is a philosophical, scientific and atheist investigation into the cultivation of a spiritual life without religion.
The author, Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and philosopher who has published several bestselling books. He keeps a blog that shares irregular podcasts and has written articles for The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The New York Times and Newsweek.
I meditate to support my intention to live a mindful life. Practicing mindfulness in every aspect of life and truly being present with each moment is an undertaking not to be underestimated. That being truly present bit is the challenge: being attuned to what is arising on our consciousness. The greatest challenge we have to this intention is our thinking mind. Try a little test now. Close your eyes and try not to think of anything for 1 minute.
What happened? I would suggest that you started thinking (maybe about noticing your thinking!) almost immediately. If you focused on your breath and tried to follow it for a minute, did any thought arise? Did you notice?
As a regular meditator I am alert to the possibility of developing my practice. I believe that it is helpful to reflect upon how to meditate and I found the summary that Sam Harris shares on pages 39- 40 of Waking Up most useful.
How to Meditate
- Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting – feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most distinctly – either at your nostrils or in the rising and falling of your abdomen.
- Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (You don’t have to control the breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
- Every time your mind wanders in thought, gently return it to the breath.
- As you focus on the process of breathing, you will also perceive sounds, bodily sensations or emotions. Simply observe these phenomena as they appear in consciousness and then return to the breath.
- The moment you notice that you have been lost in thought, observe the present thought itself as an object of consciousness. Then return your attention to the breath – or to any sounds or sensations arising in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness – sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, even thoughts themselves – as they arise, change and pass away.
What I found particularly helpful was the last two points. I would suggest that points 1 – 6 form a solid foundation for a meditation practice. Point 7 then suggests that we start to view the thought itself as an object of consciousness, something that has just arisen in our awareness, much as any external object (sound, sight etc) might. This naturally leads then to the instruction (point 8) to witness all objects of consciousness as they arise, change and fall away.
It is perhaps in this instruction where the practice deep and ongoing practice lies. Where, as we practice, we cultivate a mind that is full of the present moment and aware of our thoughts, habits and behaviours. Here is the ground.
The most helpful aspect of my mediation I can share is that a regular routine is most supportive. It is my intention to meditate for 20 minutes every morning. When I am living a standard day this will usually be the very first thing that I do after waking up. Even where the day is more flexible I find that a morning routine is most supportive for the remainder of the day.
I am now four years into this daily practice, after a few years of being more sporadic, and I notice when I miss the odd day. It feels an essential element of my way of being and is particularly supportive times of great change. I roll out of bed, do 10 minutes of yoga (for my lower back) and then sit for 10 – 20 minutes.
I have noticed recently that this practice is starting to seep into my everyday life. As Jon Kabat Zinn suggests, ” Mindfulness applied to any activity turns it into a kind of meditation”. The more I meditate the more I become present with the one thing I am doing. It remains an ongoing practice, for I still loose my attention regularly and my mind goes wandering, but a daily meditation practice slowly accrues benefit.
5 Tips to develop a meditation habit
- Do it in the morning. No matter if you’re a morning person or not. Morning is when you have most control of your time. If you have a busy family then get up before them (just a little). If you struggle to get up put your place to meditate close to where you roll out of bed. Set your alarm and instead of snoozing roll out of bed and sit.
- Pick and amount of time you can commit to. Initially this can be 2 mins. Just get up and do it. Then, as it becomes a habit extend the time.
- Use an app to track your progress. Insight Timer and Headspace both support your practice and keep a record of your practice. This is great for motivation, especially if you like to receive badges/stars for achievement. Believe me it helps!
- Accept that you won’t get it right. There is no getting it right. You sit and you notice. This is the practice. If you notice that your mind is all over the place don’t berate yourself, congratulations are due! You noticed. Just sit, practice and notice.
- If you miss a morning session try doing it anywhere. At your desk. On the commute (as long as you’re not driving!). In a queue. Just close your eyes for a couple of minutes and breathe. Pay attention to your breath. Notice your feet on the floor and your rear on its seat. You are present.