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Meditation Primer

 September, 10 2010

I started working on meditation about three years ago. It was part of my ongoing quest for self improvement and enlightenment. If you begin this journey, meditation of some sort is where you will end up if you travel far enough. It is the ultimate self improvement.

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I find that when I meditate I return clear headed, refreshed, and filled with energy. I find it more refreshing and rejuvenating than a nap of equal length.

The briefest description I can come up with for meditation is; it is a relaxed yet highly aware trance. The word trance brings up all sorts of bad connotations, mostly gleaned from entertainment. Yes, Zombies searching for human flesh to eat and hypnotized people acting like chickens on stage are examples of trances, the first is fiction and the second is more showmanship than reality.

We are always in a trance, if you take the meaning of the word to be a mental state. Our trances vary as we do different tasks. Reading a novel or getting involved in a movie is a trance that is different from the everyday operational trance we call reality. Sleep is a trance. Being unable to fall asleep is really the inability to enter that particular trance at the moment. Meditation is just one of the mental states or trances we can attain.

Meditation is the cornerstone of Eastern religion and is gaining a foothold in the West. Its growing popularity is due to its unique ability to create speedy improvements in the quality of oneís life.

Many peopleís day to day life is a long hard slog. There really isnít any way out of it for them and there isnít much to look forward to. Yet, among their neighbors in the same boat there are always a few who manage to remain happy and positive. The reason for this is; those lucky ones live in a different trance than the unhappy. Most of them donít know why or how to teach others how to change the trance they are in or even that it is a trance at all.

The power of meditation is that it gives you the ability to control the trance you are in and to change back to a better one when you slip into a bad one. The fundamental nature of your individual situation may not improve, but if you do less suffering because you are in a better state of mind, life will be easier for you.

Life can be divided into three parts, the past, the future, and now. Meditation is about living in the now.

We all have a running conversation with ourselves in our heads. It seldom ceases. If you examine what you are talking about, you are either rehashing the past or projecting what you will do in the future. One of the first things meditation does is to help you escape this chatter and focus upon the present. First you achieve this focus on the now in meditation and later you learn to now-focus in everyday life.

The real benefits of meditation come when you begin to do it daily. It has a way of bringing balance back into your life and causing your bad habits fade. There is no dramatic switch, but you just seem to decide to quit using various addictive substances, while behaviors which are detrimental fade away. I believe this is because it brings your brain chemistry into balance and the negative behaviors you previously engaged in were either attempts to deal with the imbalance or manifestations of the imbalance. As you find balance, the negative behaviors fade.

Meditation is old. People associate it with the Eastern religions, but it is really part of every religion. Monks, Priests, and Holy-men of all beliefs have sat in silent contemplation for as long as anyone can remember. Meditation is the only thing common to all the major faiths.

I suspect it is older even than the oldest religions on Earth. The ability to alter your brain state is a powerful and strange one, one that most people have. Like every other feature we or any other creature has, it had to have a reason to evolve. It doesnít exist without a purpose; evolution doesnít create abilities unless they serve survival and reproduction in some way or another.

My theory is that humans are unique in having this powerful talking brain and the incessant internal chatter it creates is often a distraction from the task at hand. There was a time, not so long ago, when humans hunted with nothing more than pointed sticks and rocks, and needed to be 100% focused on that task to be successful. Failure meant starvation or being eaten by a large predator so the stakes were very high. Those who could focus better made better hunters and were more likely to pass on their genes.

Other predators, wolves, bears, the large cats, had no need to quiet their brains; they did not speak and are always in a 100% now focus state. Humans needed to cultivate this ability. Sitting still and focusing only on the exact moment of now is a great way to do this. Over time it does increase your ability to focus on the tasks you do in everyday life. If the ability to sit and do focus exercises increased your hunting skills, those who had more of this ability would out reproduce those who had less and the genes for it would spread throughout humanity.

I found that the hardest part of meditation was getting started. You need to make it to the point that is the equivalent of the first ride on a bicycle with no one holding it and no training wheels, where you first actually ride the bike yourself. Once you get there it becomes a lot easier to make further progress. What follows is a simple exercise to get you to that point, the point where you are actually meditating.

The first thing you need is a little bit of peace and quiet. You will not make progress if there is TV, radio, music, and other highly distractive sounds in the background. Having children and the dog running in circles around you as you meditate wonít work either. Maybe a Zen Master can meditate in such situations, but I canít and you wonít, so donít try.

You do not need to wear any special clothes or sit in any special posture. The classic crossed leg position looks cool and Eastern, but I can tell you it kills your knees, and the pain of sitting that way for more than a few minutes will prevent you from making rapid progress. Since I am not getting paid by the lesson, I want you to make as fast a progress as possible so you can get the benefits a soon as can be.

Just wear something comfortable and sit in your favorite chair while peace and quiet prevails. Turn the lights down if you can. Have a digital timer handy.

Note: If you want to sit cross legged, go ahead, but put a small pillow or cushion under your bottom, this reduces the pressure on your knees.

It helps if you start with deep breathing. This oxygenates the blood, removes toxins, and begins the processes of both relaxation and focusing upon your breath. Take in eight full breaths through the nose and exhale them through the mouth. Connect the actions so as soon as you get your lungs full, you reverse and begin exhaling with no pause. As soon as your lungs are fully empty, reverse and inhale. Do this quickly eight times.

The Hindus call this Pranayama. They have all sorts of fancy postures and hand positions as you do it for various effects. I have always believed that most of that is showmanship that requires extensive training, while the primary benefit remains the oxygen enrichment and cleansing of deep breathing.

After the deep breathing, set your digital timer for three minutes. Sit with your hands folded in your lap and try and pay attention only to your breathing, the actual physical feelings you get sitting there, and the sounds in the room for three minutes. Instead of thinking feel the pressure of the chair on your legs and bottom, feel your chest expand and contract, feel the heat where your hands are folded in your lap, listen to the sounds you can hear. The idea is to pay attention to them, to feel them, not to start a conversation with yourself about them or to start describing them to an imaginary listener.

If you realize that you are talking to yourself, just return your attention to the now; your breathing, the sounds in the room, and the physical sensations you are feeling right now. The talking is not a failure, everyone does it. You just have to learn to recognize it and return to meditating. Every time you drift into self talk, notice, and push your attention back, you will get a little better at meditating. It is part of the learning process. This is the skill you are trying to build and practicing is how you build it.

When the three minutes is up, take a break and try again in a few minutes. Don't try more than two or three times in each session. Fifteen minutes every day will gain you more progress than an hour once a week.

Do this every day. Get in the habit of setting aside fifteen minutes each day to do this. It is more important that you get in the habit of meditating every day than how well or how long you do at first.

When you get to where you can do three minutes, up it to four. Keep increasing it until you get to fifteen minutes of continuous meditating.

You may find that as you sit you begin to get an unusual feeling, a new sensation. That is you shifting into an altered state. That is the sensation of entering the meditative trance. It is hard to describe, but you will know it when you feel it. It is safe. You can leave at anytime. It is harder to enter than to leave, and you will find that the real problem is maintaining it, not leaving it. I find that if I move or begin to think about the past or future or get my attention drawn to something like the phone or doorbell or a dog barking outside, it vanishes in a moment.

Now you know enough to get started, so get started.

The way to fail is to give up.

The way to succeed is to keep at it.

Worry about more advanced stuff after you can do this exercise.


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