As yet, we don’t give full formal meditation instruction but, hopefully, the following will give you enough to start.
Before the actual meditation, a few words about posture. Don’t feel you need to be supple enough to get into the lotus position on the floor in order to be able to meditate. Many Group members use a chair which is a good place for beginners to start. A chair is a perfectly acceptable meditation base provided you use it correctly. Most, however, sit on the floor, either cross-legged on a cushion, or astride it, or on a meditation stool where the meditator kneels.
If you sit on a chair, keep your back straight with the head centred over the spine. Don’t lean on the back of the chair. Both feet should be planted firmly on the ground, legs at 90 degrees or slightly more to your body. You should have three points of contact to keep you steady in meditation – your buttocks and your two feet. If you sit on the floor or kneel, you need to feel steady, with your buttocks on teh stool or cushion and your knees on the floor, or being supported. The importance of keeping the back straight is to allow the diaphragm to move freely. The breath is an important part of meditation, so it is important to be able to breathe freely and deeply. In general, as we get older, our breathing becomes restricted, and less and less complete. We tend to take shallow breaths in the upper part of the chest. Usually, we’ve got our belts on very tight or we wear tight clothing around the waist. As a result, deep, complete breathing rarely occurs. It is important to loosen up anything that is tight around the waist and to wear clothing that is non-binding. Don’t worry what you look like – you and everyone else will have their eyes closed! The chin is slightly tucked in. Although meditation looks very disciplined, the muscles should be soft. There should be no tension in the body. It doesn’t take strength to keep the body straight. Should you begin to feel uncomfortable, do not suffer! Mindfully and as silently as possible, adjust your position. Try and learn from your mistakes so as to find a meditation position that works for you.
The position of the hands is a personal choice. Traditionally in Zen traditions, the dominant hand is held palm up holding the other hand, also palm up, so that the knuckles of both hands overlap. If you’re right-handed, your right hand is holding the left hand; if you’re left-handed, your left hand is holding the right hand. The thumbs are lightly touching, thus the hands form an oval. If this isn’t comfortable, just rest your hands on your legs.
So, on to the actual meditation. There are many different forms of sitting meditation. In our practice, concentration on breathing forms the basis of sitting meditation.
Periods of guided meditation generally last for about twenty to thirty minutes. These usually commence with three sounds of the bell. If we are waiting for the session to begin, we can make sure our posture is comfortable and begin the process of focussing awareness on our breathing. At all stages we are aware of our body which should be relaxed and alert.
Our breathing during sitting meditation should be unhurried, light but at the same time deep. We do not aim to control our breathing but rather we allow it to deepen as we relax with the practice. As we concentrate on our breath it becomes possible to follow it with our awareness. We follow the passage of air in and out, aware of our diaphragm or our belly rising and falling. The breath provides a focus for our awareness which unites the body and mind.
When we are distracted with unrelated thoughts, feelings or sensations during sitting meditation – as we all tend to be at times – we try not to dwell on these but simply acknowledge their presence and return to our breathing. We let them go; we do not follow them. Such thoughts, feelings and sensations become like clouds which we allow to pass by without clinging to them. Eventually, if we practise well, the sky will begin to clear.
When we begin to learn sitting meditation it can be helpful to silently recite the word In as we breathe in and Out as we exhale. Alternatively we can count a cycle of inbreaths and outbreaths – say from 1 to 10 before starting again.