A famous meditation teacher was once asked by a disciple, “What is meditation?” His answer was, “When one thought has finished before the next thought has arisen there is a gap is there not? The process of expanding that gap is meditation.” In my view this answer really captures the essence of meditation. By expanding the gap in between thoughts we can silence the mind and become increasingly present.
There are many different techniques of meditation, in this article the focus will be on a practice called Anapana-Sati which roughly translates from Pali (the language of the Buddhist scriptures) to mean ‘awareness of breathing’. Anapana-Sati is a practice used by Buddhist monks and lay people alike. It is this practice that many circles believe the Buddha was using when he attained enlightenment.
Anapana-Sati, as with the majority of meditation practices, is most effectively done in a sitting posture. It can be practiced equally well either sitting on the floor with legs crossed or sitting in a chair. The back should be erect but not stiff and the head in line with the spine. The neck and shoulders should be relaxed, the hands placed in the lap, right over left, with palms facing upwards. The eyes can either be closed or if this is uncomfortable they can be open and gazing at the tip of the nose. If sitting on the floor I strongly recommend the use of a firm cushion to provide support and leverage, this leverage makes it much easier for the spine to remain straight and helps prevent slumping.
To begin observe the breath as it enters and exits your nostrils. Observe the breath as you breathe in, now observe the space when the in breath has finished before the out breath has begun. Observe the breath as you breathe out, now observe the space when the out breath has finished before the next in breath has begun. In this manner observe the breath. Do not try to alter or regulate the breath in any way. Just be aware of the natural breath. With practice the texture of the breath will change of its own accord.
At first it may be difficult to maintain awareness of the breath. The mind will wander and begin to think of all sorts of things. Be aware that the mind is wandering and then gently yet firmly return your awareness to the breath. Do not identify with the mind and the various thoughts that arise, rather maintain a state of equanimity towards them and return to the breath as swiftly and diligently as possible. Become a detached observer who is always aware and alert.
In the beginning it is best to practice for ten to twenty minutes at a time, once or twice a day. Find a quiet place where you can meditate and a time that you can commit to on a regular basis. The most important thing, and I cannot emphasize this enough, is to be consistent and regular with your practice. Do not become frustrated if you experience difficulties rather continue your practice with serenity and patience. Over time you will find that your ability to meditate will gradually improve, your mind will become calmer and quieter and you will begin to experience the essence of meditation. In the words of the Buddha, “Just as a pitcher is filled with water by a steady stream of drops; likewise the wise person improves and achieves well-being a little at a time.”