There are four simple steps that will help you learn to still the body, and each of these steps will require more energy and attention in the beginning. Then, through repetition, these actions will become automatic.
1. The first step is to sit on the floor with your legs crossed, if you can. If you can’t sit on the floor, sit in a chair, ideally one with a straight back, and put your feet firmly on the floor. If your feet don’t reach the floor, place a firm pillow under them. If you can’t sit in a chair, but can lie down on your back, this is also an acceptable position. Using a meditation bench is also fine.
If you are sitting on the floor, it is important to raise the pelvis, by sitting on a firm cushion or on folded blankets, as high as necessary for your back to be comfortably straight with your legs crossed. In addition, for most people, espe- cially those past the age of 45, some kind of padding to sup- port the lift of the knees is essential. I use a rolled up cotton blanket, twin-bed size, under each knee. Some people use rolled up or folded towels, or firm pillows. Sometimes when traveling, I use a stack of books with a towel over them. The knees should be resting firmly on the support object and not floating freely in any way. This connects the feeling of the knee to the floor and removes stress on the hip joints.
Take the time to find exactly what you need in order for your body to feel completely at ease. Once you know what you need, you will be able to have everything in one place, and this will simplify the process of setting yourself up each time. Although this may seem complicated, it will make a big difference for your ability to sit longer with greater comfort and stillness. I have students who may spend five minutes or more setting up for only five minutes of sitting in meditation. But the benefit from those five minutes is deep and palpable, whereas sitting for fifteen minutes in even the most minor discomfort will not be beneficial. The body needs to be as comfortable as possible in your chosen position.
Once you are seated, take a deep breath and lift the front of the chest. Then gently move the shoulder blades towards the spine. Align the head over the spine and slightly incline the chin toward the chest. Release all tension from the shoul- ders. If you have trouble relaxing the shoulders, it is some- times quite helpful to place a small rolled up hand towel in the armpit under each arm. This helps to keep the shoulder girdle in its proper alignment without any stress on the mus- cles. Lastly, find a comfortable and natural position for your hands. I rest my hands on my knees, palms down, or I place my hands on my thighs, palms up. Close the eyes gently.
It is also important to keep the jaw relaxed. After one month of practice in sitting, you can touch the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth just behind the teeth.
Now we have the body in a comfortable position.
2. The second step is to send a clear internal message to the body. The message is: “You will maintain stillness for the next period of time (however long you wish to be in meditation).” This may feel artificial or awkward at first, but if you try it, you’ll find that its usefulness lies in how it develops the power of the will. The nature of the body is such that as soon as we tell it to be still, it gives us hundreds of reasons why it should move. We must cough, scratch our noses, shift our ankles, lean a little back or forward, or rub our eyes. We have swallowing spasms and a variety of other immediate distractions. But we learn to consciously cultivate the power of the will over the body, and we do this by mentally sending a specific message to the body that lets it know it is no longer in charge.
Initially, you must will the daily practice of meditation into your life. Most people think they have no will power. But will power can be learned. The will develops when you set goals and accomplish them. It develops when you persevere in a cer- tain direction, even though the reasoning mind wishes to stop because of the pain or difficulty of persevering. The will is also developed and strengthened when you sacrifice the immediate pleasure or comfort for the long-term gain. And finally, the will develops by repetition. Actions that promote our well- being, if done repeatedly, always strengthen the will.
Training the body at this point is like training a child, and we must adopt the role of the benevolent parent. Gentle, re- peated instruction and encouragement over a period of time gradually changes the habits of the body, so that these habitual “requirements” to move will disappear. We must be simultane- ously firm and gentle. I remember silently speaking to my leg that had to stretch, and telling it, “If you just wait ten minutes, you can have the most delicious stretch, so please be a little patient, and I know you’ll enjoy the reward.”
It is important that the body knows how much time it is ex- pected to be still. Use a timer (a simple kitchen timer will do, or the timer on a watch or digital alarm clock), so the body can train itself to be still for a defined period of time. When you begin meditating, it’s better if the room is quiet, and if that’s not possible, earplugs sometimes help. In the beginning, it is also helpful to meditate in low light rather than bright light. In addition, the mind needs to know that it will have an unin- terrupted period of time devoted to awareness of itself, relax- ation, inner awareness, and inner quiet. So turn off phones, put a do-not-disturb sign on the door, and meditate during a period of time when you aren’t expecting guests. Lastly, I recommend choosing a particular place in your home and specific time of day for meditation each day, as the body and mind are positively influenced by establishing rhythm and regularity.
Now we have a comfortable body, and we have a still body.
3. The third step is awareness of the breath. Of all the instruc- tions given about meditation, the most important one is to remember the connection between one’s consciousness and the breath. Breath awareness can transform meditation from an experience of a quiet mind to a life-changing event.
Every time you sit in meditation, the beginning should be the breath awareness. Take a moment to watch your breath, feel- ing the breath as it comes into your lungs and as it goes out. This is the point at which the timer starts. Unless instructed otherwise by a specific meditation, the breath should be even and normal. The breath should not be deeper or shallower than your breath is when not in meditation (so it is helpful to notice how your breath is in the course of your daily activities).
Be the observer of the movement of your breath. Feel as if the breath is a pendulum that swings inward and outward. Make the breath smooth, without any pauses or hitches. Make the breath feel round, even at its outer edges, as it rises and falls naturally. Now we have a comfortable, still body with breath awareness.
4. The fourth step is for those of us who at this point have a sudden rush in our minds about all of the things we must do that need our attention. I suggest that you begin the medita- tion with a pen and paper next to you, and at this point, list all the needs or stresses, letting yourself know that these will be addressed after the meditation is complete. Here again, we are engaging the will by taking charge of how the next period of time will unfold.
Some people find this step unnecessary, and many do it only as they’re learning to meditate. However, I have a friend who is a rabbi in his eighties who experiences ecstatic meditation, and he still uses this technique.
The mind has rhythm, and the rhythm of the mind is slow to change. Many people expect that when they sit down for meditation, they will go immediately into an altered state. The actuality is usually quite different. You may remember the first time you tried to ride a bicycle, ski downhill, or drive a car. It seems as if it should be easy, and for some people, it really is. But for most of us, it’s a slow process of learning and practice.
Often when people are learning to meditate, their minds ac- tually speed up during meditation, creating a rhythm that is somewhat uncomfortable. This is just one of many reasons why people end up believing they can’t meditate or that it doesn’t work for them. It helps in the beginning phase if we understand why the mind does this.
There are two reasons that the mind initially increases its activity when we are learning to meditate. The first is that the mind is not accustomed to experiencing moments with- out external stimulation. The second reason is that when we meditate, we focus our attention on the mind, and the mind is used to being the instrument that is doing the focusing. In other words, the mind is not accustomed to being looked at; it’s used to being that which does the looking. In its discom- fort, it creates more mental energy—increases its rhythm— in the effort to use the act of thinking to resolve this new and unfamiliar condition.
Initially, it might seem difficult to expend the necessary ef- fort to train the body. However, all of the effort will be re- warding to both the body and mind when deeper and quieter states of awareness are experienced. The human body is the temple of the universe, but every temple, even the universal ones, must be built from a strong foundation.
How long should you meditate? Meditation of any length is better than no meditation. If you only have five minutes, it is better than none at all. Ideally, twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening is a minimum. But since we don’t live in an ideal world, if you can only make space for fifteen minutes in the morning and nothing in the evening, then do that. As you become more proficient in meditation, longer and longer periods of meditation will naturally occur.
Initially, the way to train the body to be still is to start with very short periods of time, three or four minutes. Each week, add a minute or two or more if you have no difficulty in keeping the body still. Build up to twenty minutes.
There is an old story that coffee was discovered by prac- titioners of meditation who would often fall asleep in the midst of their meditations. This shows us that the problem of sleeping through meditation has been around for a while. Many of the meditations in this book offer the mind enough stimulation to stay awake and enough evenness of mind to experience peace. If you find yourself frequently drifting into sleep during meditation, make sure you are getting enough rest in the night, and do your meditation in the morning, when it is easier to stay awake. Also it must be noted that meditation relaxes the mind of some people who cannot normally relax, so the few minutes of sleep experienced in meditation can be quite beneficial.
When you are sitting comfortably, remember these steps:
- Gently lift the chest
- Gently shift the shoulder blades toward the spine, and relax the shoulders
- Gently draw the chin slightly back, so that you feel the back of the neck lengthen
- Slightly incline the chin toward the chest