Is there a right way to meditate?

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A few days ago I posted a humorous picture to the Dharma Beginner page on Facebook that generated some surprising comments from the denizens of our virtual community.

The picture contrasted how the friends, parents, and coworkers of the person depicted envision him when he’s meditating—sitting serenely in lotus position, hands upturned and resting gently on his knees, back straight, eyes closed—with how he “really” is when meditating—checking his watch to see how much longer he has to meditate.

Man, I could relate. I commented that that’s the reason I don’t wear a watch while meditating, and why I put my meditation timer somewhere I can hear it, but not see it. Sometimes the temptation to check the time fills my brain and distracts me, disrupting the flow of my meditation. I need a timer because I usually have a finite amount of time to meditate on weekdays before getting ready for work or to go to bed. Setting a timer allows me to let go of any concern about how long my meditation is lasting, which in turn allows me to focus on the things that make my meditation practice work for me.

Quite a few people responded with surprise or soft chiding to the fact that I use a timer while meditating. They made quite a few interesting points about the inherent incompatibility of meditation and timekeeping, not to mention the concept of time itself. As always, I very much appreciated their insights and willingness to share their perspectives.

I did not, however, take their comments as criticism, because I firmly believe there is no “right” way to meditate. Certainly, there is a multitude of books, CDs, and DVDs, not to mention full-blown courses, which offer to teach you how to meditate. But if any of them is asserting that their way is the right way, then they’re full of baloney. I think that the most that any of them can assert is that they contain practices that have proven to be beneficial when meditating and which may or may not be practices that will work for you.

Meditation has been a part of my personal spiritual practice for 25 years, during which time I have read, watched, or listened to countless talks on meditation. Over those years I have developed my own style comprising a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. What ties those bits together into a beneficial meditation practice for me is not that they are the “right” meditation habits, but that they are the right habits for me.

My general advice to people interested in starting to meditate is that they just give it a try, but that they check their expectations about what will happen at the door. Just experience it, observe it, and let it happen. This meditation without expectation can be hard to do because we’ve been raised to believe that “real” meditation or “good” meditation is some kind of ecstatic experience. Sometimes it is, but often it is not. Thus, when we give meditation a try and fail to encounter ecstasy, we feel let down and think that we must be doing something wrong. I’d hazard a guess that the sense that we don’t know what we’re doing is probably responsible for more people giving up on meditation than any other cause.

There are three things that I think are most conducive to a beneficial meditation practice—or which have been helpful to my practice, at least, and may be useful for others to consider. First, it helps when meditation is a priority. If meditation is something you try to squeeze in on the fly, it is hard to make it a healthy habit. Pick a time of the day that is your “meditation time.” If you live with others, let them know that this is your meditation time so that they respect your need for quiet and don’t interrupt you. Try to pick a time when you are wide-awake and can focus on your meditation. My favorite time is after I wake up in the morning, but some people can’t function until that first cup of coffee. What is important is that the time you pick is a good time for you. Setting aside a time of your choosing hallows that moment for you, dedicates it to your meditation.

How long should you meditate for? As long as you want. I firmly believe that even just 5 minutes of meditation a day can make a world of difference for anyone. Maybe just 5 minutes is a good starting point; with time, you may lengthen your meditation period. Whatever works best for you.

Second, it helps to have a special meditation space. I find that I can meditate in many different places, with different levels of ambient noise. But my most satisfying meditation happens in my meditation space, in a small alcove in the loft above my bedroom. It’s kind of like a little shrine room, with a small table holding candles, an incense box, a statue of the Buddha, a picture of the Dalai Lama, and other things that help to make that space feel special to me. Dedicating and decorating a meditation space hallows it for you, just like giving meditation its own time. Sitting on my meditation cushions in that space feels like my home within my home.

Third, it helps to feel comfortable. And only you can decide what is comfortable for you. I have tried numerous meditation styles that come with detailed instructions about your posture, the position of your head, the placement of your hands, the way you cross your legs, and so on. But I sometimes found that I was concentrating more on whether I was in the “right” position, rather than on my breathing and the meditation. That is not meant as a slight to any of those meditation practices—if they work (and clearly they do for many, many people), then more power to them!

Find the position that works best for you through trial and error. Don’t worry about fidgeting (unless you’re meditating with others, in which case it could be disturbing)—feel free to keep shifting around until you find the position that allows you to relax and flow into your meditation. Sitting with legs crossed or hanging from a chair, kneeling, prostrating, standing—they’re all good, if they feel good to you. Same goes for your head and neck (straight up, slightly tilted, hanging down), mouth (open, open slightly, closed), eyes (open, closed), arms (at your sides, hands in your lap, hands resting gently on your knees), and so on. It even extends to what you’re wearing—I find loose-fitting clothes to be most comfortable, but to each his or her own.

That’s it; not exactly earth-shattering, is it? Hallowing a time and space for meditation and making sure you are comfortable when you practice hardly seem like rocket science. Because they’re not; they’re very simple things. Simple things are often quite powerful, though. It has taken me the better part of 25 years of practice to figure that out. Perhaps I’m not the faster learner. Or maybe I couldn’t imagine that meditation could, in fact, be easy. If it has been hard for me, it is because I made it hard. Because I thought that meditation was something mystical or superhuman, it became unattainable. It wasn’t until I learned that meditation is actually commonplace, and very human, that it started to be easy.

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