these are the first 2 Astanga series.
How to meditate
I will tell you in one short sentence, but first, a bit of philosophy. The philosophy is important because, as you will see, meditation is a strange thing. It does not work like others things in life. In fact, it can be pretty counter intuitive.
Most things we do, we want to get better at -- improve, develop and grow. We wake up in the morning, step into the driver's seat and hit the gas! Its the American way. Its the European way too. It may be the human way. In any case its what what most of us do, most of the time.
Meditation does not work like that. In a sense, it is not even something you do, but rather something that happens to you. While it does change a person more and more as time goes on, it is not really true that you get better at it with practice. In fact, Zen masters like to say, keep your beginner's mind. Having no expectations is the perfect way to practice.
OK. So here's what you do:
Sit with your back straight and don't move.
This is how it is taught in Soto Zen Temples. There are techniques, little... side things, and I will talk about some of them, but they are not really very important. None of them are the meditation itself. In fact, they can get in the way just as easily as help. So just sit still. To keep your eyes quiet look at a point on the floor.
I know you want to know what to think about, but this is the wrong question. Thoughts come and go. Like feelings. Like the wind. The difference in meditation is that we do not follow them. Let them fly on by. It is called non-attachment and it is the most fundemental principle of Zen. Normally we attach ourselves to things. We live in a kind of a subject/object dynamic: "I do this", or "I think this". In meditation, there no "this" to which we attach any importance.
Meditation can be hard, or very easy. It can feel restless, or restful, happy or sad, but these things are not important. Regardless of how it felt on a particular day, it affects us. On the whole it makes one calmer, clearer and in a better mood.
When I was a dancer I used to have upper back pain. Doctors gave me drugs and told me to rest -- as if I had that choice! After really many years of pain, I thought to join a fitness studio and did arm training 3-4 times a week. I forced myself to do a total of 300 repetitions on any machine I wanted. Not very scientific perhaps, but clear.
I did this for six weeks and did not seem to get better. I remember thinking, "what a waste of time!". And then, all of the sudden, the pain was gone. I had found the cure!
So my point is be patient. Practing something regularly can make a huge difference in your life even if the progress may not be visible to the naked eye.
A Time and a Place
Set a time. Say to yourself, "now i will sit for X minutes"
-- maybe 30, maybe 20, maybe 10. Maybe only 5! The point is not
how long, but that you do just what you said you will. Get it? Its
discipline. Don't look around the room. Don't fidget.
Do it twice a day.
They say it is helpful to always sit in the same place and at the same time. Personally, I do neither one. but I do sit.
Eyes open or closed
In Zen, one keeps the eyes open, looking diagonally downwards to a spot on the floor or wall.
Originally, I learned transcendental meditation. You do that with closed eyes. You repeat a meaningless sound they give you over and over silently in their mind. I read once where researches used the word "one" instead of the magic sound and it had the same effect. one... one... one...
But listen: the details are not only unimportant, they can get in the way! Did I say this before?
Chair or floor
Although I have a very flexible body, for some reason my knees can't handle the lotus position (the cross-legged position the monks use). So I sit low to the floor with a little stool i built.
Just find some way that works for you. A chair or bench is fine. It is important that your back is straight, and that you don't trash your knees.
Mandalas, Mantras and Mudras
Madalas are patterns, printed on paper or cloth, and you follow them with your eyes as a meditation. Mantras are kind of the aural equivalent -- a repeating sound. Mudras are the way you hold your hands. All very nice. Om... om....
So what will happen?
Maybe you will feel calmer afterwards. Maybe not. But how it feels, or what you think is happening is not important. People have been doing it in many cultures for thousands of years. Have some trust.
Perhaps one day you will have a big flash of white light and the sky will open. You think I'm joking!? It happens. Its what they call "satori" in Japanese. Something like that happened to me once. But again, this is not the reason we do it. It is better to think of it as a task without a goal.
This is the hard part. It is why monks join cloisters, wear robes and all the rest of it. Meditation is very hard to keep doing day after day.
Why is it so hard? I think the main reason is what I said at the beginning, because it is counter intuitive: how can doing nothing, accomplish anything?
Believe me, you are not alone with that feeling. Take one slow breath. Perfect. Now take another.
When I feel it is impossible (which is most of the time), I start by counting ten breaths -- a trick I learned from a Zen master. Sometimes I only get as far as "two" before my mind wanders off! Which is fine I just keep at it and finally a calmness comes.