Getting Started with Meditation

The following is not intended to be all-inclusive of different methods of meditations, rather it is presenting information and a method to get the novice started. Remember, meditation is a skill, and as such, the cultivated mind will be proportional to the amount of effort one puts into the practice.

The Meditation Cushion Set

(Kapleau 2000, p. 356)

Fig. 1
(Kapleau 2000, p. 356)

Although the cushions available for meditation will vary widely, some variation of the cushion set that has been borrowed from Japan has become commonplace in the West. It commonly consists of a two-piece set, and occasionally a three-piece set (see figure 1). With the three piece set, there will be a third smaller and thinner pillow, often referred to as a support cushion/pillow, in addition to the zafu and zabuton.[1] This is used underneath a zafu filled with kapok to help provide more of a wedge to give the back support, since a kapok filled zafu does not form such a shape so easily. The support pillow can also be used on top of a zafu filled with buckwheat hulls, since this filling is conducive to forming a wedge and sitting for long periods of time on such a zafu can become uncomfortable.

Positioning on the Cushion Set

(Kapleau 2000, p. 348)

Fig. 2
(Kapleau 2000, p. 348)

Although meditation is what you do with the mind, a proper body position for formal sitting meditation practice is invaluable to providing a foundation for, and complimenting, your meditation. The meditation posture is important only in as far as it places the body in a stable position where the practitioner can forget about the body, not being distracted by aches and pains, for an extended period of time. Improper position can cause pain and discomfort as well as drowsiness. This will adversely affect your meditation through unnecessary distractions and not maintaining alertness.

When sitting on the zabuton with the zafu, set the tailbone on the forward one-third of the zafu (see figure 2). This will raise the tailbone up a few inches from the zabuton throwing the hips forward and allowing the lower buttocks to rest on the cushion. Such a position forms a wedge with the zafu and gives the lower back support and stability so the practitioner can relax the lower back and stomach muscles.

Utilizing a zafu for lower back support is important and necessary when sitting in any position other than the full lotus posture. This is because the full lotus has the effect of naturally supporting and keeping the lower back in an ideal position without straining to keep it there. However, when we alter the position, such as sitting in the Burmese position recommended here, we lose the lower back support inherent in the full lotus and therefore must replace it with something else. The Burmese position is still a comfortable and stable sitting position, but has the added benefit of being attainable by most modern people today who have grown up sitting in chairs.

When sitting in meditation, fold the legs into what is known as the Burmese position (see figure 3), as it was popularized by Burmese (Myanmar) Buddhism. This is done by placing the legs one in front of the other. This posture avoids having the ankles or other part of the feet or legs on top of one another, thereby reducing discomfort and the occurrence of the legs falling asleep.

(Kapleau 2000, p. 352)

Fig. 3
(Kapleau 2000, p. 352)

This position forms a solid foundation for the rest of the spine continuing up to the top of the head. Keep the spine erect but not stiff, following the natural curvature of the spine. Remain centered, not leaning one way or another, as if balancing a stick on a finger.

(Farrer-Halls 2000, p. 40)

Fig. 4
(Farrer-Halls 2000, p. 40)

The shoulders should also be relaxed and in line with the ears. The hands should be placed comfortably in the lap or resting on the thighs (see figure 4) in a way that will not pull the shoulders down or throw them forward, which would cause muscle strain in the upper back.

The Eyes

Some meditations are hindered when the eyes are open, therefore it is best not to become dependent upon having the eyes open during meditation. For this reason, it is suggested that the practitioner meditate with the eyes closed. However, beginners will often have trouble falling asleep easier with the eyes closed as well as drifting off into daydreaming. If this is problematic for the practitioner, then having he eyes open during meditation will often remedy such challenges. Periodically throughout the weeks and months, the practitioner can attempt meditating with the eyes closed to see if enough progressed has been made to be able to meditate in this way.

It must be mentioned that there are some meditative traditions, such as Zen, that teach meditating with the eyes open and this is fine. There is nothing wrong with either way. As mentioned previously, there are some meditations that are not conducive to having the eyes open, but all can be done with the eyes closed, therefore, it is best not to become dependent upon having the eyes open. However, if the practitioner intends to only practice one tradition’s meditation style, then certainly there is no downside to having the eyes oriented in the manner that specific tradition uses, since there is no intention on expanding beyond their meditative practices.

When meditating with the eyes open, drop the gaze to about three feet in front and do not focus on any single object or spot. This will have the effect of blurring the vision somewhat as well as expanding the peripheral vision. With the eyes situated in this way, the amount of blinking and visual distractions will be reduced. Not focusing on a single point is important because the eye muscles are not designed to keep the vision focused on a single point for an extended period of time. If the vision is blurred after meditation and takes a while to return to normal, this would be an indication that the eye muscles have become fatigued as a result of fixating on a single point during meditation.

The Mind

As previously state, meditation is what you do with the mind. The meditation practice that will be presented here as a good starting point will be mindfulness of breathing (ānāpānasati), more specifically the first tetrad of this meditation.[2] This meditation takes the breath as the object — what the mind will be focused upon. The bare outline and instructions will be presented here and instead the practitioner will be directed to following the audio of the guided breath meditation. This guided meditation will provide the student with the necessary guidance of what to do during the meditation and how to do it. Take up a comfortable posture as suggested above and follow along with the guided meditation. It may be helpful to use the guided meditation on a regular basis for a while until the method becomes familiar to avoid having thoughts of uncertainty arise as to what needs to be done during the meditation.

The following is an outline of the four steps of the first tetrad of the breath meditation, which the audio of the guided meditation will take you through:

  1. Long breath.
  2. Short breath.
  3. Experiencing the whole body.
  4. Calming the breath and body.

Each of the steps have a natural tendency to flow into the following step when the time is right. In the beginning (step 1), the breath will be more often characteristically long and rough. This long breath is identifiable in that it causes the belly to rise and fall, whereas a short breath (step 2) causes the chest to rise and fall. Place your attention upon the breath, watching it coming and going from beginning to end. Be aware when the breath is long and when it is short. This should only be an awareness, not a thought process. It is akin to seeing a red light when driving. You are aware it is a red light without conjuring up the thought, “There is a red light.” When the mind wanders off, and it will, simply drop whatever the mind has grabbed onto and return to the meditation.

Once the breath begins to be predominately short, the practitioner moves on to step 3, experiencing the whole breath-body. This is where the meditator experiences how the mind, body, or breath affect one another. How they are interrelated, condition, nourish, and support each other. Then in step 4, calming the breath and body, the practitioner begins to draw upon and use the knowledge and experience of how the breath, body, and mind are connected to systematically release any physical or mental tensions that remain bringing the mind, body, and breath to a serene and concentrated state. It is this state of being that is ideal for delving into the mind and doing the other tetrads of the meditation as well as other meditations the student may eventually delve into.

Now find a comfortable place and time that is free from distractions and begin to practice.

Endnotes

[1] Zafu (the round — usually — pillow) and zabuton (the larger square cushion that the zafu and the practitioner sit on) are words that have been borrowed from Japanese, but are the common terms used within the Western Buddhist community.

[2] Ānāpānasati is divided into four sections commonly referred to as tetrads. Each tetrad contains four steps.

References

FARRER-HALLS, G. (2000). The illustrated encyclopedia of Buddhist wisdom. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.

KAPLEAU, P. (2000). The three pillars of Zen: teaching, practice, and enlightenment. New York: Anchor Books.

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About Ven. Jo Jo

Ven. Jo Jo began training in Buddhist meditation in 1980 at the age of thirteen. After the passing of his master in 1992, he spent much of his time in the mountains continuing his pursuits of mental cultivation. Gradually he began leaning toward becoming a monk as the pursuits of everyday life began losing their appeal. After choosing to reacquaint himself with some of the local temples and train under their teachers, he had firmly made the decision to become a monk. By the spring of 2006, he received ordination.
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