This article originally published on Swami Select's website. All copyrights belong to Swami Select.
With everyone sheltering in place these days, a number of people have expressed that it is a time to get into meditation or back into meditation. Now, it can be a bit like one of those New Year's resolutions — I guess we can call them COVID-19 resolutions. To help those geting back into the practice, I thought it might be appropriate to offer some tips or some guidelines for those who might be newcomers or a little rusty.
For all the suggestions I will give, know that over the course of many years I have disregarded, ignored, or broken many of the traditional rules and principles of meditation. (For that matter, I’m not very good at following most rules.) The point is that if you follow the guidelines, you get better results, and your practice gets better, or goes deeper — or becomes filled with light. Considering that each of us is a unique individual, naturally you will also want to mold them to what works best for you. That’s why I call them tips, not rules.
Photo by Swami Chaitanya
Let’s start with the ideal time to meditate. In some ways, whenever you meditate is the best time, just because you did it. Nonetheless, the optimum time is early in the morning, about an hour before first light, so that you finish the meditation as the day is dawning.
How to Properly Schedule Meditation Sessions
There is a special name for this time in Sanskrit: Brahma muhurta, the time of the Creator. This is an auspicious time because all those people in your time zone who are serious meditators are meditating at that time, so you kind of join in on their wavelength. Most everyone else is still asleep, in dreamland, so the psychic portals to higher planes are open. At this early hour, your mind is free of the cares of the day, and you can sense a vitality in the air as everything around you gradually wakes up. If you have small children, getting up early might just give you some quiet time before they arise.
Now, where to meditate? Ideally, you will create your own meditation space, a tiny room or even a corner of a room, that you designate as your sacred seat. This will be your special spot and all you do there is meditate. Decorate it with images of God, gods, goddesses, saints, gurus, beautiful pictures, symbols, anything that raises your thoughts to the divine. Candles, incense, and fresh flowers add to the feeling of reverence.
Photo by Swami Chaitanya
Prior to the pandemic, I had been on the road a lot, so I would carry a little meditation rug with me and a woolen shawl to go under the little rug. It brings a bit of my meditation site with me when I travel. The wool isolates and insulates you from the ground, so that the energy you download during your sit doesn’t get dissipated out through the bottom, so to speak.
This special place becomes the setting for your inner work, and just being there helps you get in the mood, since all you do there is meditate. Of course, you can sit in your favorite spot out in nature or in your garden, if you have one. It is very beneficial to have a “special place” where you can go for solace and quietude. Considering your personal meditation seat, there is something empowering about always sitting in the same spot at the same time to do your inner work.
Over the years, it has become obvious what my guru once emphasized: That it really is best if you sit every day, at the same time, in the same place, using the same practice. And never miss a day, even if you only sit for five or ten minutes. Why? Meditation is actually a learning process based on self-observation. You’re probably not going to reach enlightenment on the first try. It’s possible, but not probable.
Repetition turns out to be extremely important. Essentially, the practice of meditation is the act or the process of creating new neural pathways in the brain so that one is not bound by the old ingrained socio-environmental thought patterns one grew up with. One is making new mental habits. To transcend the old ways of anxiety, fear, anger, etc., one needs to replace those thoughts and feelings with thoughts of beauty, bliss, and higher consciousness.
But just like learning to play the piano or becoming a gymnast, repetition of basic moves is the foundation of becoming proficient in the new skill. So, once you decide on a particular method or practice of meditation, stick with it. It is far better to focus for just 5 or 10 minutes a day, every day, than to sit for an hour once a week or once a month. It is superior to going to an annual yoga retreat, but never practicing the rest of the year. Every day! That’s how you learn a new skill.
How to Properly Sit During Meditation
Once you have your sacred space and the routine you will practice, how should you sit? Two things are important: keep your back straight and be comfortable. Yes, the Lotus position or Siddhasana are the best because your legs are folded in on yourself, causing the energy to flow in beneficial patterns. Nonetheless, a straight back chair will do, or a bench with a cushion on it works well, too, so long as your back is straight and your thighs make a 90 degree angle with your calves and your feet are flat on the floor, ideally with a rug under the feet. Do not cross the feet or legs, as this creates disadvantageous energy patterns.
Begin the meditation by uttering a protective invocation: “May this area be safe and pure for meditation and devotion.” This protects the meditator from negative and malevolent energies, and allows you to open your consciousness to the higher powers. If you have a mantra, you can chant it silently during the whole meditation.
If you have never meditated before, what do you actually do? One place to start is to watch your breath. Focus your mind on the tip of your nose. Feel and smell the air coming in right at the tip of the nose. Totally zero-in on the breath going in and going out. Hold your attention solely on the nose tip. Within a short time, you will realize that your thoughts have gone elsewhere, and you are not focused on your breath and nose but are instead thinking about breakfast, or the report that is due that afternoon, or about your living companion, anything but the nose and breath. Your mind is wandering, and when you realize that, you bring it back to focus on the breath. Again, it wanders. Again, you bring it back. Again, it wanders. Again, you bring it back.
As you get practice in this work, you will be able to hold your concentration on your focus point for longer and longer, but at first it can be quite frustrating realizing just how short your attention span is. Keep practicing. This is a process. And in this process, do not judge your efforts harshly, even if you seem very scattered. Don’t scold yourself if you can’t focus. It has been said: “The only ‘bad’ meditation is the one you don’t do.” Simply start over again.
But here’s a question: Who was it that noticed that your mind was wandering? How did you realize that you were not focused on the breath? Who is that who watches yourself meditating, who keeps track of your attention and intention? It is your higher self, your inner voice. This is something other than your thought stream, your mind, your emotions. It is the real you in your highest potential.
Photo by Swami Chaitanya
If centering on your nose doesn’t suit you, there are other things to focus on, too. Some people center on their third eye. Others stare at a picture of a god, a goddess, or a saint. Some focus on a candle flame or a flower — whatever it is that inspires you to think higher thoughts. Another technique is to recite a mantra while fingering a mala, or string of beads, in your right hand. I focus on visualizing the sacred Sri Yantra as a means of centering.
The purpose in using these “targets” to focus your mind is that it is easier to concentrate on just one thought or thing, using that as a measuring stick of your one-pointedness. The great teacher Patanjali, in the very first stanza of the Yoga Sutras, begins by stating that, “Yoga is the stilling of mental fluctuations,” to paraphrase. One doesn’t get to this state right away, needless to say. Yet, there is a “place” or “state” of empty fullness, where the constant stream of thoughts — both trivial and profound — no longer dominates one’s consciousness. There are many paths to arrive at this place within the mind. Some people imagine a beautiful lake with absolutely no ripples, but even that is a singular thought device. The idea is that you hold the place of no ideas as a fullness of light, infusing your being with spiritual energy.
One tip from an Austrian monk initiated into Tibetan Buddhism in the mid-20th Century, Lama Anagarika Govinda, keeps coming to mind: We Westerners are always striving, always achieving, always reaching for something. When you meditate, rather, “become like a vessel” to receive the download of spiritual energy. Not aiming to realize enlightenment by storm, but by letting the Divine Grace enter in. “Be Here Now,” as the late Ram Das said.
At the end of the meditation, I offer a blessing to others, a sharing of the energy and insights that have been downloaded. “May everyone be happy, may everybody have a realization, may all those in sickness and pain be free from their sufferings, may all those who hunger be fed, may all those who are homeless be sheltered, and may all those falsely imprisoned be freed. May peace, love, and prosperity come to each and every one.” Then touch the ground with your right hand to return to the earthly plane.
Whether you choose to imbibe in cannabis before or after a meditation is up to you. Again, no judgment. In fact, if you have a history of knowing what it is to be “high,” that in fact can be a gateway to higher consciousness. It’s almost as if you are developing an organic “free range” mind that will guide your everyday activities in so many positive ways. May Ganja Ma guide you to sweet meditations!