5 Paths To Peace
Mounting medical evidence shows that meditation can boost the immune system, improve circulation, lower cholesterol, ease chronic pain, end insomnia, counter anxiety, relieve gastrointestinal distress, and actually extend your lifespan. Meditation is a wonderful way to reduce stress, says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine. Stress not only makes people miserable in their day-to-day lives, it also undermines their health.
The goal of most meditation practices is simple enough: Bring your attention to one thing in order to deepen your awareness of the present moment. For people accustomed to multitasking, paying attention to just one thing can be a challenge. The trick is to find a practice style thats right for you. If sitting and breathing is not your thing, perform a simple walking meditation. If you're not comfortable focusing on the noise inside your head, listen to the sounds outside it. If silence seems scary, repeat a mantra.
Here, we offer a guide to five beginner-friendly techniques, with advice from some of the worlds leading meditation instructors. Try each style on for size, and when you find one that fits, stick with it. Its like exercising a muscle, says teacher Richard Rosen; with each workout it gets stronger. Soon you'll carry the centered awareness gained from meditation into the rest of your daily activities, making everything more satisfying. As Rosen says, first it's a chore, eventually its a pleasure.
You can sit in the lotus position if you want to, but you can also be seated on a chair or sofa, lying on the floor, or even standing up and walking around. Don't get too hung up on form the best position is the one that helps you stay focused.
Basic Breathing Meditation
Instructor Richard Rosen is the author of The Yoga of Breath and Yoga for Fifty Plus, and a contributing editor for Yoga Journal. Trained at the BKS Iyengar Yoga Institute in San Francisco, he has been teaching yoga since 1987.
What is it? The cornerstone of all meditation techniques, this practice centers on something we always do but rarely notice: breathing. You do not have to do anything with your breath but observe it, says Rosen. Eventually, you can work on changing the breath, and sending it into new areas of your torso. But at first, just become aware of each inhalation and exhalation; let your mind track how the breath moves, mapping where it goes to develop an understanding of your own unique breathing identity.
What's it good for? Use this meditation to get centered anytime and anywhere. Breath is with us always, says Rosen. You can retreat into the breath whenever you're feeling dull or tired or stressed out.
How long does it take? Start with 10 minutes at first, then work your way up to 15 and finally 20 minutes. You can do this practice any time of day, but do it regularly, five to seven days a week.
How Do I Do It?
1. Sit in a comfortable position with your legs crossed. Or lie on your back with a firm pillow or rolled-up towel under the knees to provide comfort and support and to open the pelvis; place another pillow or towel under the neck and head to help release the throat. Your body should be more or less straight, and your arms should rest about 45 degrees from your torso.
2. Breathe in and out through your nose. Feel each breath as it moves through your body, and quietly observe it. Feel where the breath is moving and where it is not. Notice what it sounds like.
3. Begin to notice how the breath changes as you give it your awareness, and how your awareness changes in turn. (Rosen likens this process to a feedback loop between the breath and the witness, or self, observing it.)
4. When your mind drifts, gently bring it back to focusing on the breath.
5. After you've practiced for a week, begin to bring the breath into areas of the body that feel dull or un-breathed. Imagine your torso as a container, and try actively sending breath into the places its not reaching, such as the pelvis or the small of the back. Don't force the breath, just allow it to follow your consciousness as you breathe into those dull areas.
6. At the end of your session, wiggle your fingers and toes, then stretch your legs and arms. If you're lying down, roll over to one side and pause before pushing up to a seated position. Roll up slowly, leading with your torso and raising your head last.
Tip: Try wearing earplugs to amplify the internal sound of the breath (they help give the breath an ocean sound, according to Rosen) and to block out distracting noises.
Instructor Sharon Salzberg is co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (dharma.org) in Barre, Mass., and author of Faith, among other books.
What is it? Mindfulness meditation is about insight, explains Salzberg. Its not about achieving bliss or tranquility. Its aim is to see things more clearly.
Whats it good for? Insight meditation is a form of mind training, says Salzberg. Bringing direct awareness to drinking a cup of tea, for instance, means that you really feel the warmth of the cup in your hands, and really taste the sweetness or the bitterness in your mouth.
How long does it take? Start with five minutes daily. Gradually add a few minutes to your session each day until you can sit for 20 minutes.
How Do I Do It?
1. Sit in a comfortable position on a pillow, chair, couch, or floor.
2. Listen to the sounds around you while you relax. Practice letting the sounds come and go without chasing them, holding onto them, or pushing them away.
3. Now shift your awareness to your body, starting with your breath. As you inhale, think in; as you exhale, think out. Let this action be a kind of home base.
4. When your mind drifts, pay attention to where it goes. It might wander to a pain in the shoulder, for instance, or to a mental image of an argument from the night before. Acknowledge this thought or feeling, spend a moment with it, and then bring your awareness gently back to your home base. Rather than rushing past the new sensations you experience, bring your full awareness to them.
5. If you find yourself getting stuck in an emotion or sensation, it may help to put a mental label on it, to identify it as anger or pain. Then bring your awareness back to the breath.
6. The traditional way to end this meditation is to acknowledge the positive energy you've created and to dedicate it to others. Try saying: May the merit of this practice be dedicated to all beings everywhere. Stand, and continue to practice mindfulness all day.
Tip: Make sure your back is straight and supported as you settle into a comfortable seated position. This helps the breath flow in and out, and also keeps you awake!
Instructor Sally Kempton is a spiritual guide who teaches yoga and meditation at her Carmel, Calif.-based Awakened Heart Meditation (sallykempton.com). She authored The Heart of Meditation under her monastic name Swami Durgananda.
What is it? While many meditation techniques require solitude and silence, this one has you engage with the sounds all around you; it invites you to work with and use the noise instead of fighting it. Listening meditation also encourages you to harmonize with your surroundings, and, by extension, the universe. The intent is to experience sound as vibration, rather than information. The listening practice is a way of interacting with the environment that allows you to take in the whole energy of the present moment, says Kempton.
What's it good for? Especially adaptable and portable, listening meditation can be practiced in crowded, noisy situationson a bus, at the office that would be hard on other styles. (Kempton once led a listening meditation workshop in the middle of a busy Whole Foods store!) People with particularly chattering minds may need to couple this practice with a mantra or breathing meditation. However, many people welcome the chance to focus outward rather than inward and find that listening meditation is one of the easier techniques to undertake. You'll come away from it feeling refreshed, expanded, and at ease with your environment, declares Kempton.
How long does it take? Try for five minutes at first, then add a minute or two until you can do it for 15 or 20 minutes at a time.
How Do I Do It?
1. Sit in a comfortable position and close (or half close) your eyes.
2. To get centered and quiet the mind, first bring your awareness to your breath, noticing but not trying to change it.
3. Now open your ears and bring your awareness to the sounds around you. The goal is to listen to the whole range of sounds, without favoring one over another and without identifying them. Hear the quiet sounds and the silences as well as the dominant sounds.
4. When you find yourself identifying sounds (there's a fire engine; thats the cat scratching the rug), gently redirect your attention from listening to a specific noise back to hearing the whole spectrum of sounds.
5. To end, slowly open your eyes, stand, and carry this heightened awareness with you for as long as you can.
Tip: Do a one-minute mini-listening meditation while standing in line or sitting at your desk, or anytime you feel frazzled: Close your eyes, breathe, and listen to the sounds around you. Like the practice of counting to 10 when you're in the heat of an argument, this will help you pause, center, and regroup.
Instructor John LeMunyon, co-owner of Heartwood Yoga and Body-Centered Therapies (heartwoodyoga.com) in Birmingham, Ala., is a licensed massage therapist and registered yoga teacher whos been meditating for over 25 years.
What is it? This component of numerous meditation traditions slows the walking process with the intention of bringing into awareness its most basic partslifting the foot, swinging it, placing it downin order to bring a greater consciousness to daily life. When we break down the motion of walking, we realize how each action is actually a collection of sub-actions, and how the mind and body work together to create physical movement. This is not walking for transportation, its walking as a tool for developing mindfulness in the present moment, says LeMunyon.
You can practice walking meditation by itself, or combine it with one of the seated styles. Used as an interlude, the walking technique is a good way to embody the insights gained during seated practice and heighten their relevance to daily life.
Walking meditation shows clearly the Buddhist precept that all action is preceded by intention, says LeMunyon. Theres always an intention, and when we are present to the moment there is always a choice. Its at the level of intention that we make our choices of how skillfully we want to live our lives.
Whats it good for? When you find yourself restless or agitated, a physical practice like walking is a great way to quiet the mind and find grounding in the body. It can also help ease the transition from sitting meditation to the motion of real life, and vice versa.
How long does it take? To begin, try walking for about 15 steps in two directions, about five minutes. Beginners can try interspersing this with five minutes of sitting meditation.
How Do I Do It?
1. Find a private place indoors or out with level ground and at least 20 feet of space.
2. Stand in a relaxed position with your feet parallel, shoulders loose, arms draped at your sides or clasped lightly in front of or behind you. Focus your eyes softly on the ground about 6 to 8 feet ahead (looking right at your feet can be distracting).
3. Breathe in again as you lift the heel of your right foot. Pause and breathe out, leaving your toes resting on the ground.
4. Breathe in as you slowly swing your right foot forward. Place the heel of your right foot on the ground as you exhale and roll the rest of the foot down, transfering your weight so its balanced equally between both feet. Pause for a full breath.
5. Repeat with your left foot, matching each movement with an inhalation or exhalation, and continue for about 15 steps. The goal is to keep your mind fully focused on your bodily sensations; it may help to think or softly say, lift, pause, swing, place, transfer, pause as you perform these movements.
6. When youve completed your paces in one direction, come to a stop with your feet parallel, and pause for a few breaths. Then turn slowly, using the same movement pattern, and match each movement of your turn with an inhale or exhale. Pause again, facing the path you just walked. End by retracing your steps back to where you started.
Tip: You may feel self-conscious walking this way, so try it in your hall or backyard rather than a park where onlookers may distract you.
Instructor Krishna Kaur, certified by the Kundalini Yoga Research Institute, has been teaching yoga since 1970. She is president of the International Association of Black Yoga Teachers (blackyogateachers.com).
What is it? Mantra meditation utilizes the power of sound and vibration to create stillness and ultimately transform the mind. In this practice, you generate the sound from within by repeating specific words or phrases in a kind of rhythmic chant that both soothes and stimulates the nervous system. The words typically come from ancient spiritual languages like Sanskrit or Gurumukhi. The sacred meanings of the words enable you to establish a connection to profound truths that have been spoken for thousands of years, explains Kaur.
Whats it good for? Since each mantra differs in its meaning and in the vibrations it produces, you can select mantras to create specific effectslike increasing mental clarity, developing intuition, or reducing anger and stress. Kaur recommends starting with sat nam because its easy to say and remember, yet offers profound effects. Sat translates as truth, and nam as identity. This mantra helps you identify with a universal spiritual truth in which transient emotional states like fear, anger, and doubt fall away.
How long does it take? Start with three to five minutes, increasing by a minute until you can sit and chant for a full 11 minutes.
How Do I Do It?
1. Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your spine straight to help the sound and breath flow smoothly. Close your eyes and bring your attention to your breath for a moment to get centered.
2. Take a long, deep inhalation through your nose. As you exhale, utter an extended sat (pronounced sut) to almost the end of your breath, followed by a burst of nam (nom). Together, the mantra will sound like saaaaaaaaaaat nam.
3. Inhale slowly and evenly, and repeat the mantra. Continue for as long as desired.
4. At the end of your session, inhale and hold the breath for a few seconds, then exhale through your nose. Do this three times, then sit quietly for a moment and feel the energy flow through your body. Open your eyes, stand slowly, and carry your sense of calm and clarity with you.
Tip: Try doing mantra meditation with other people. Group energy is powerful and heightens the individual experience, says Kaur.