The Structure Of Meditation
Begin by finding a comfortable position in which to sit or lie down, preferably sitting as the purpose is not to go to sleep, but to maintain a state of focused alertness in which the body doesn't cause any distractions. Choose a quiet place, and practice for 5 - 30 minutes once or twice a day, starting with the lesser time. This is an exercise for the mind, just as jogging or weight lifting is exercise for the body. Both will do you a lot more good if done regularly for short periods than if you do them sporadically for long periods.
The Objects of Meditation
In concentrative meditation you chose an object and concentrate only on it. The four main forms on which to concentrate are your breath, a mental image, a physical object, and a word or phrase.
- Breath - In this meditation you simply follow your breath. Don't think about anything, just watch yourself breathe. There are many variations on this. In one, called the fourfold breath, you breathe in to a count of four, hold the breath for a count of four, breathe out for a count of four, hold the breath for a count a four. The length of each step can be gradually increased, but each needs to be the same, and you should never feel you are straining. I personally prefer to just watch the breath without trying to manipulate it.
- Mental Image - In this meditation you choose any mental image and focus only on it. You can have your eyes open or closed. In the beginning at least, it is easier with the eyes closed as the visual imagery of your external environment is automatically blocked out. As with the thoughts that will come when you are practicing emptiness meditation, acknowledge that the thought passed, then go back to your meditation. The image you choose can be anything from a beach scene to matchstick, but it will be a lot easier for you if you choose an image that has some spiritual significance to you. This can be a cross, the Sacred Heart, your image of Allah, Buddha, Shiva, a flame, or anything that has spiritual significance to you.
- Physical Object - This is similar to using a mental image, except you choose a physical object on which to concentrate. Again, you can choose anything you wish, but an object that has spiritual significance to you will usually be most effective.
- Word or Phrase - In this concentration you pick a word or phrase and repeat it over and over while concentrating on it's meaning. It is easiest if you use a word or phrase that embodies a spiritual significance or positive quality. For example, you may use 'I am that I am', the Hindu 'Om' or the Tibetan Om Mani Padme Hum, a phrase from your spiritual literature, or a phrase that embodies a quality that you are trying to build up within your own personality. You can start by repeating the word or phrase out loud, but over time you evolve to doing this meditation silently.
The Effects of Meditation
By it's nature, this form of meditation will improve your ability to focus and concentrate. As time goes on you will find your ability to pay attention to whatever you are doing improved. Distractions won't have near as strong a hold on you as they do now.
As with the emptiness meditation, the benefits of this meditation include an increased sense of serenity and relaxation, and decreased psychological and physical stress. As time goes on, you will find the serenity pervading your everyday psychological stance, so that you are less easily upset, less easily frustrated, and more able to face the events that occur in your daily life. Evelyn Underhill, an early twentieth century author on mysticism, used to talk about the efficiency of experienced mystics and meditators. As you progress in your meditation, a psychological change occurs in which your emotional tone reaches a higher level. Experiences of anger, depression, anger become less frequent while experiences of contentment, happiness, and even joy become more frequent.
Again, as with the emptiness meditation, in a small minority of people there are negative effects from concentrative meditation. You may become more tense, or suffer from increased depression. If this is the case, stop. You have other issues you need to deal with before you can safely meditate in this way. Work with your beliefs or see a sympathetic therapist to try to work through the problems.
This form of meditation is one of the most important tools you can use in your personal development efforts. It has general effects on your personality structure at an unconscious level that allow you to operate with a greater degree of consciousness and detachment. It can also be used in more specific ways to work with specific problems you may have. I'll discuss these in Concentrative Meditation (Part Two) later this week.