You can’t go anywhere today online without hearing the benefits of meditation.
Like Yoga before it, meditation is starting to move into the mainstream in the West. Part of the reason is that the many benefits have now been validated in scientific studies, including feelings of calm, lower blood pressure, reducing stress (which seems to be more prevalent here in the West than in the now disappearing traditional East), dealing with anxiety, reducing violent tendencies, and on and on. One study recently even found that meditating can actually increase the gray matter in the brain!
So Where Do I Start?
“Great!” people always say to me when we talk about meditation. And for those who don’t meditate regularly the next question is: “So how do I start and what technique should I use?”
It’s not that there isn’t any information out there on how to meditate — for westerners it’s more that 1) there’s too much information, and 2) westerners get bored quickly and many find that simple breath meditation, the most common meditation method, doesn’t hold their attention long enough. Another complaint is that “nothing was happening,” or “I got distracted”, so “I stopped doing it.”
Whereas Yoga had to be stripped down to its “physical component” for westerners (in Yoga, asanas, or postures, are only one of the eight limbs of Yoga), Meditation will need to be adapted (and has been) for a western audience.
For one thing, meditation has been stripped of its spiritual significance — the purpose of meditation in traditional Buddhism, for example, is not so much about physical health as it is about learning to recognize the “true nature of reality”. For another, it’s often referred to as mindfulness training, which of course is related to, but not the same as sitting down to meditate.
Today there are apps and technology that can help you meditate, but I wanted to share some tips and techniques that I’ve learned over the years that make it easier to meditate and to stick with it.
The Main Problem with Most Meditation Teachers
The other thing to recognize is that there is no “one size” fits all for mediation — that’s why there are so many different techniques. You can find a meditation class in your local yoga center or spiritual book store (though these are fewer and fewer each year), adult education centers and even corporate HR departments are now offering classes.
That is of course, the best way to learn to meditate: to go to a class where someone can show you their technique. The problem is that almost every meditation class I’ve ever been to teaches only a single meditation technique! Each tradition assumes that their technique is the “one size fits all” that works.
I remember going to one Zen center that had us sit for 45 minutes in silence. No other instruction other than “watch your breath”. It was excruciating — and of course I didn’t become a part of that tradition, which considered this their “short version” of meditation (they frequently had retreats which lasted for days with hours alternating between meditating and walking). Nothing against them or their tradition, but it just won’t work for most westerners who aren’t super, super-committed to, well, their tradition.
Rather than just one technique, I found it’s good to try different techniques — maybe try one technique for a week, try another for a week, and then switch it around. Then you will find the one that is easiest for you to keep up with. You might also find it interesting, just as you might vary your exercise routine from time to time, to switch between different techniques. I’ve found that just as you might want to work out different muscles within the same workout, the monkey mind of westerners might work best to combine a few techniques that I’ll go over below.
Of course traditional teachers will be horrified that I’m saying this. When asked “what is the best meditation method?” pretty much every single tradition and meditation class has the same answer: our method is best! You can’t vary anything — you have to do it, and sit, exactly as we are saying, and not vary one bit!
Westerners and the Monkey Mind
It’s a known fact that the mind wanders in meditation — anyone who has tried to sit still for 3 minutes or tried to get a 5-year-old to sit still for 1 minute can tell you that. This is what traditionally is referred to as the monkey mind.
It’s OK for the mind to wander. The point in meditation, is to acknowledge the wandering and bring the mind back to the object of meditation. In doing this, you are building a mental muscle of concentration, but you have to be careful if you are doing it “forcefully” or “concentrating too hard”, then you are not achieving the “detachment” or “release”. The trick is to observe the wandering of the mind, and gently to bring the mind back to the breath of the focus of the meditation.
While Easterners may be able to just sit and watch the “monkey mind”, for westerners, I’ve found it’s better to give the monkey mind something to do, and it’s better to have something to bring the mind back to beyond just the breath. Perhaps our attention spans are just shorter and we are distracted more easily.
Some Meditation Hacks to Help with the Monkey Mind
Some simple techniques that I’ve learned over the years from different teachers and traditions can help westerners to deal with the Monkey Mind and make the practice of meditation much easier. Here are some of the best:
1. The “Oh Well” technique
2. Mantras (silent or out loud)
3. Meditating on Chakras
4. Meditating with Music
5. The Warm Up
Each of these provides a different mental “tool” or “hook” that you can use you help with the monkey as it jump around. When your mind wanders, you simply acknowledge the distraction, and bring it back to the “hook”.
The “Oh Well” Technique and the Relaxation Response
One of the first western doctors to research the benefits of meditation was Dr. Herbert Benson, who did a study of TM (transcendental meditation) practitioners over time in the 1970s. He was a pioneer in mind/body medicine with the publication of the Relaxation Response in 1975, when Yoga was just something that “navel goers” did and health clubs hadn’t yet broken out in the American landscape!
He found that those who meditated regularly had lower blood pressure, were calmer throughout he day, and that this practice could augment western medicine in many ways. He found that the body was activating the “Relaxation Response” which was the opposite of stree. Stress causes our blood pressure to go up, muscles to tighten and a host of physical effects. The Relaxation Response was shown to do the opposite — one of the first times this was validated by western scientists.
Benson said that you needed two things in order to activate the “relaxation response”:
1. Find a repetitive phrase. We’ll talk about this in the next section.
2. Take a passive state of mind, and when your mind wanders, simply say “oh well” and bring the mind back to the repetitive phrase
His research showed that both of these elements were necessary — the first being the “hook” for the monkey mind, and the second being essential. If you are trying too hard and freaking out every time your mind wanders, then you wont be activating your bodies releaxation response.
The phrase “oh well”, particularly when it’s visualized with Benson’s calming voice (you can see him walk you through it here: <<YOUTUBE>>), is a great way to not get “too freaked out” and to be sure your meditation actually activates the relaxation response. I found that the “oh well” technique to be easier to do than simply noticing you mind has wandered and bring it back -I the monkey mind gets “caught” in distractions, and saying “oh well” mentally is a great way to get it to “detach” from whatever has caught the monkey’s attention, and then bring it back.
The Mantra: Silent, Out Loud, etc.
Which brings us back to the “hook”. Benson says that any phrase will work. It could be Coca Cola, or “Green Trees”, but that a phrase which has some spiritual significance can work well — just to emphasize the point of being not tied to any spiritual tradition, he encourages Christians to use a phrase from Christianity, Jews to use a phrase like “shalom”, Muslims to use an Arabic phrase, Hindus or Buddhists to use phrases like “om”, etc.
His research showed that it doesn’t matter what the phrase is, but obviously it shouldn’t be. A phrase which has the opposite of the relaxation responise — i.e. creating stress.
Benson says that you should repeat the phrase silently on the out breath. This seems to be the most common way to have a mantra. But there are others. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Han has a technique where he uses a number of calming words — one on the in breath and one on the out breath, which are also supposed to trigger the relaxation response. For example, the list starts with “in-out” and then “deep-slow”, then “calm — release”, etc.
Mantras are effective because they give you something to do. Many traditions advocate saying the mantra out loud. Those who have seen the movie about Tina Turner, What’s Love Got to Do With It? starring Angela Basset, will recognize the mantra as a key part of her strength in leaving her abusive husband and having the strength to start out on her own. The mantra was “Nam myohoo renge kyo”, which she repeated out loud again and again. It is a phrase which is chanted from within many sects of Buddhism, including Nichiren and Tendai Buddhism, and has caught on with some groups in the west.
It is a phrase which is dedicated to the Lotus Sutra, which is a teaching attributed to the Buddha, and at the beginning of the movie, they say: “The Lotus flower is one that grows best in the mud. This is best expressed with the Buddhist mantra, Nam myoho renge kyo”.
Mantras are strong in the Hindu traditions as well, and anyone who has seen Hare Krishna will recognize their singing/chanting out loud to Krishna.
I recently became acquainted with the teachings of Eckankar, which was started in the West by Paul Twitchell and now has followers around the world. They chant the phrase “Hu” as the “sound of god” out loud, and it’s quite hypnotic and produces calming effects. They are ok with chanting it silently on each out breath, or in a group so that it resonates. An interesting thing about this sound is that if you chant it in a group, you don’t all have to be synchronized, the sound will still resonate and mix, even though different people are chanting it at different times.
While I haven’t seen any specific research about chanting out loud vs. chanting silently in your mind’s ear, there is no doubt that this is one of the best techniques for westerners to be able to get through and to keep meditating. The “hook” is the phrase and the monkey is given something to do while you meditate.
The Chakra Meditation
The first meditation technique I found that I could follow regularly was the chakra meditation when I was in my 20’s. The chakra technique is interesting because it gets you to focus in on certain areas of the body, which in the ancient Yogic traditions are said to be centers of energy, or “vortexes of prana” which exist in the subtle body.
There are seven chakras, but when I learned this technique, we focused on 3 centers in the body, the dan tien (which technically isn’t a chakra but is the mid point of the body’s weight in Chinese, Japanese and Koran martial arts traditions, called either the dan tien, the hara point, or the don john), which is located an inch or so below the navel.
The other two chakras we focused on was the heart chakra, roughly in the center of the chest and the third eye, which is on the forehead. The object was to keep your mind focused on the chakra.
Do you need to believe in chakras to use this technique? I wasn’t sure if I believed in them, but started to notice interesting things when I focused on different chakras, which convinced me that something is going on with these points in the body. I also noticed that, although i had learned the third chakra was an inch below the navel, the sensations were very different meditating on this point as opposed to the heart chakra or the third eye. Since this was before the Web was everywhere, I did research and that’s when I realized that in most traditions, that point is different — it’s the dan tien and not considered a chakra.
Many traditions, including the Self Realization Fellowship (the group started by Paramahansa Yogananda, the famous author of Autobiography of a Yogi) and Eckankar, recommend focusing in on the third eye during the meditation.
I found that as a computer scientist, I spend too much time in my head, and it was beneficial to focus on some of the lower chakras initially rather than spending the whole time on the third eye chakra. You’ll no doubt start to see visions and things if you focus on the third eye, and so you’ll need to remind yourself to bring your mind back to the chakra.
The idea is to focus on the chakra, and then when the mind wanders, bring it back to the chakra. You can of course notice your breath too in order to “take a break” from the chakra You don’t want to force the focus, which defeats the purpose of meditation.
Usually those who use the chakra technique focus on the front of the body at the point in question, but technically, according to many people who say they can see chakras as spinning vortexes, each chakra starts at the center of the body (in the spine) and goes out both forwards and backwards. Later, when I was studying with Barbara Brennan, who was a NASA engineer who became an energy healer and author of Hands of Light, I found that varying this to the front or back of the chakra has interesting effects! Try it and see for yourself!
The Music Technique
Another technique I learned when I first started meditating was to use certain kinds of music to help focus the mind in the present moment.
The reason that breath is used in most meditation traditions is that it’s always with you! You are always breathing so no matter what you end up thinking about, you can always tune back into your breathing.
The idea with music is similar, since music is a sequential thing, there is always a single note being played at one moment in time (OK I’m not a musician so I’m not sure if this is technically true or not, but you get the point). Since there is always a note, it’s much easier for the m ind, particularly the excited monkey mind of Westerners to focus in back on this note.
The music that you play, just like the mantra, does make some bit of difference. When I learned it, the music of the groups Tangerine Dream as well as the group Zazen were particularly effective, especially if combined with the chakra technique.
You Can Do Combinations, Too
As you meditate for longer periods of time, you might find yourself getting bored with a given technique. That’s when, as the 12 year old John Conner tells Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, “you can do combinations too!’.
Yes, to the horror of traditional meditation teachers everywhere, I would say that it’s ok to try different techniques and even combine some techniques. For example, you can focus on a chakra, then when your mind wander, bring it back to the chakra, or start a silent chant. Of course not all techniques are compatible with each other — chanting out loud vs. music are techniques that won’t work well together. But focusing in on the current musical note, then focusing on the breath, then a chakra, gives western monkey minds much more to do!
As another example, you can listen to a whole song while you focus on one chakra, then switch to the next chakra — this gives you an automatic 5 minutes per chakra.
As an active westerner with a lot of monkey mind energy, you’ll find that you’re more able to keep up with meditation and go for longer periods of time.
Another technique I found useful is the “warm up”. Usually, meditation teachers say to just sit down and start meditating.
This means shifting from an “active” mental state to a “passive” one, and it can take some time to get there. Just as I wouldn’t jump onto the basketball court without warming up, sometimes it’s useful to “warm up” before you start meditating.
This gives your mind & body some time to adjust. The best warm-ups are breathing exercises. There is a whole branch of Yoga, pranayama, dedicated to breathing techniques.
There are two basic techniques that I find are easy to remember and effective. If you are tired, I’d say go with #2 (as #1 can put you to sleep).
- Constant Breathing. Count your breath for 1–4 while you breath in, then 1–4 while you hold your breath in, then 1–4 when you breathe out. Gently increase from 4 to 8 over time. Lots of traditions encourage some variation of this. Some include holding out for a given count, but as the count gets longer, I find it easier to just breath in after a long breath out. This technique calms the body and has a calming effect on the mind.
- Alternate Nostril Breathing. This is a technique where you breathe in via one nostril (while covering the other nostril with either your thumb or index finger), then breathe out via the other nostril (covering the one that you just breathed in from). Then you breath in again from the nostril you just breathed out from, then switching your thumb/forefinger, breath out from the other nostril. Then repeat. You can find all kinds of youtube videos and descriptions of alternate nostril breathing online. This technique calms the mind by balancing the two sides of the brain, and theoretically, the two channels of prana in our “energetic body”.
Again, you don’t have to believe in prana or chi to try these, almost everyone acknowledges that changing our breathing has effects on the physic=al body, from lower blood pressure to reducing stress, etc.
I find that doing a “warm-up” breathing technique for 3–5 breaths is enough to get me into a different psycho-physical state, which makes the sitting meditation much easier (less of the monkey mind).
My first meditation teacher told me that it was much easier to meditate hundreds of years ago, when monks could go into the forest and the populations were much less on Earth. I find that the monkey mind is stronger than ever in the West, and increasingly, even if you live in the East, your society has become so westernized that you might as well be living in the West.
These are some of the “hacks” or “techniques” that I’ve come across in my over 20 years of exploring different meditation and spiritual traditions. The key is that I don’t believe “one size fits all” and if you’re interested in getting some of the benefits of traditional sitting meditation, these “hacks” can get you to meditate for longer, feel more refreshed after you meditation, and keep a meditation practice going for longer.
The Buddha told his followers not to take what he said at face value until they have tried it themselves and verified his teachings. That’s what I’d ask you to do with these medication “hacks”.
Good Luck and Happy Meditating!
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