By: Maya Gottfried
Having a regular meditation practice is widely believed to bring us more happiness and peace of mind. But how do we get started? Meditation can seem like a mystery that requires unraveling, but it’s really as simple as just focusing for as little as a couple minutes. That’s it. There are different techniques, though, and depending on your personality, you can pick the one that suits you best. You may want to start slowly, meditating for just a few minutes each time, and work up to a daily meditation of 15 minutes, or longer. Whatever length of time you are able to meditate—whether it’s three minutes or 30—it will support all other areas of your life.
Meditation on the breath
One of the most popular forms of meditation requires only that you breathe and focus. Simply “find your seat” by sitting cross-legged on a cushion (or in a chair with your feet touching the ground). Then set a timer, and focus on your breath as you inhale and exhale through your nose. Don’t try to change your breath; just breathe. Focus on where you feel the air entering and leaving your body. Is it at your nostrils? On the small patch of skin just below your nose? Pick one point and focus. As thoughts enter your mind (and they will), simply let them float away, like clouds. When we meditate, we don’t want to judge our thoughts. We just want to acknowledge them and let them go. Remember, many thoughts may enter our minds while we meditate. That’s totally fine. We haven’t failed. A successful meditation means simply that you sat down and tried to meditate.
If you are frustrated by a mind that just won’t sit still, a walking meditation may help you to focus. Walking meditation isn’t like a regular stroll (though a walk in the woods can also be very beneficial). For a walking meditation, you’ll want to be someplace where there aren’t many other people. Your backyard or a quiet place in a park are perfect spots. Place one foot slowly in front of the other, focusing on the heel touching down, then the rest of the foot as it meets the ground, and finally, the toes dropping. Focus on the other foot as it lifts, and repeat the process. If you are an active person, you may find this easier than focusing on your breath. There are no rules for how long a walking meditation should last, but fifteen minutes is a good length to begin with.
Loving-kindness meditation, also called “metta,” allows us to generate compassion for ourselves, and for others, by repeating expressions silently in our mind. Though there are suggested phrases we can use, we can pick our own. Sitting quietly, say these phrases in your mind: “May I be happy / May I be healthy / May I be safe / May I be peaceful and at ease.” Next, you can offer metta to someone for whom you care deeply. This can be a child, a spouse, or a beloved companion animal. Bring them to mind and say silently: “May you be happy / May you be healthy / May you be safe / May you be peaceful and at ease.” Connect with your feelings about the person you are sending metta to. Then think of someone you encounter in your daily life but do not know much about. Use the same phrases. Do the same for someone you have difficulty with. You can end your meditation by sending your good wishes to all living beings everywhere. Many like to add on their metta to another practice, perhaps following a meditation on the breath.
You have likely experienced the calming effect of gazing into the flame of a candle. Trataka meditation invites us to do just that. It is an ancient Ayurvedic practice that has us gaze at something—a point, a candle, or even the moon—and let go of our thoughts. There are different forms of Trataka meditation, but to start, try sitting cross-legged about two to four feet in front of a lit candle, in a room with low light. Gaze at the flame with soft eyes, keeping your body still. Try not to blink or move your eyes for as long as you can. When you do blink, keep your eyes closed, gazing at the afterimage of the candle’s flame in your mind. When the image fades, open your eyes and begin again. Practice for up to ten minutes at a time (taking a two-week break every couple of months). This is a good practice for those of us who struggle to let go of our thoughts.