How to Meditate By Sam Harris, Neuroscientist
From the Huffington Post 5/12/11:
How to Meditate
There are many forms of introspection and mental
training that go by the name of "meditation,"
and I have studied several over the years. As I
occasionally speak about the benefits of these
practices, people often write to ask which I
recommend. Given my primary audience--students
of science, secularists, nonbelievers, etc.--these
queries usually come bundled with the worry that
most traditional teachings about meditation must
be intellectually suspect.
Indeed, it is true that many contemplative paths
ask one to entertain unfounded ideas about the
nature of reality--or, at the very least, to develop
a fondness for the iconography and cultural
artifacts of one or another religion. Even an
organization like Transcendental Meditation (TM),
which has spent decades self-consciously adapting
itself for use by non-Hindus, can't overcome the
fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit
mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient
incantations present an impediment to many a
discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays
several, odious signs of being a cult).
But not all contemplative paths kindle the same
doubts or present the same liabilities. There
are, in fact, many methods of meditation and
"spiritual" inquiry that can greatly enhance our
mental health while offering no affront to the intellect.
For beginners, I always recommend a technique
called vipassana (Pali, "insight"), which comes
from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, the Theravada.
The advantage of vipassana is that it can be taught
in an entirely secular way. Experts in this
practice generally acquire their training in
a Buddhist context, of course--and most retreat
centers in the U.S. and Europe still teach its
associated Buddhist philosophy. Nevertheless,
this method of introspection can be brought within
any secular or scientific context without embarrassment.
The same cannot be said for most other forms
of "spiritual" instruction.
The quality of mind cultivated in vipassana is
generally referred to as "mindfulness" (the Pali
word is sati), and there is a quickly growing
literature on its psychological benefits. Mindfulness
is simply a state of open, nonjudgmental, and
nondiscursive attention to the contents of
consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Cultivating this quality of mind has been shown
to modulate pain, mitigate anxiety and depression,
improve cognitive function, and even produce
changes in gray matter density in regions of the
brain related to learning and memory, emotional
regulation, and self awareness.
Programs in "mindfulness-based stress reduction"
(MBSR), pioneered by Jon Kabat-Zinn, have brought
this practice into hospitals and other clinical
settings. The Inner Kids Foundation (for which
my wife, Annaka, has volunteered) teaches mindfulness
in schools. Even the Department of Defense has
begun experimenting with meditation in this form.
The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily
simple to describe, but it is in no sense easy.
Here, as elsewhere in life, the "10,000 Hour Rule"
tends to apply. And true mastery probably requires
special talent and a lifetime of practice. Thus,
the simple instructions given below are analogous
to instructions on how to walk a tightrope:
1. Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight.
2. Stand on one end.
3. Step forward by placing one foot directly
in front of the other.
5. Don't fall.
Clearly, steps 3-5 entail a little practice.
Happily, the benefits of training in meditation
arrive long before mastery ever does. And falling,
from the point of view of vipassana, occurs
ceaselessly, every moment that one becomes lost
in thought. The problem is not thoughts per se
but the state of thinking without knowing that
one is thinking.
As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction
is the normal condition of our minds: Most of us
fall from the wire every second, toppling
headlong--whether gliding happily in reverie,
or plunging into fear, anger, self-hatred and
other negative states of mind. Meditation is a
technique for breaking this spell, if only for
a few moments. The goal is to awaken from our
trance of discursive thinking--and from the
habit of ceaselessly grasping at the pleasant and
recoiling from the unpleasant--so that we can enjoy
a mind that is undisturbed by worry, merely open
like the sky, and effortlessly aware of the flow
of experience in the present.
1.Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either
in chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
2.Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths,
and feel the points of contact between your
body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations
associated with sitting--feelings of pressure,
warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
3.Gradually become aware of the process of
breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel
the breath most clearly--either at the nostrils,
or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
4.Allow your attention to rest in the mere
sensation of breathing. (There is no need to
control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
5.Every time your mind wanders in thought,
gently return it to the sensation of breathing.
6.As you focus on the breath, you will notice
that other perceptions and sensations continue
to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions,
etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge
in the field of awareness, and then return to
the sensation of breathing.
7.The moment you observe that you have been
lost in thought, notice the present thought itself
as a object of consciousness. Then return your
attention to the breath--or to whatever sounds or
sensations arise in the next moment.
8.Continue in this way until you can merely
witness all objects of consciousness--sights,
sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts
themselves--as they arise and pass away.
Those who are new to the practice generally
find it useful to hear instructions of this
kind spoken aloud, in the form of a guided
meditation. UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research
Center has several that beginners should find helpful.
For many people, Mindfulness may not be the
best type of meditation and they may feel it
"didn't work". By checking out our web site,
you may find dozens of other techniques that
may be the ones that bring you greater peace,
health benefits, and whatever else you sought
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