Learning how to meditate has its barriers. Meditation probably sounds deep and mysterious if you are just starting out. Pop culture is no help. Meditation tends to look otherworldly, and so do the people who practice it. It would be better if that reputation would go away, but it is hard to fight such a prevalent picture.
Despite the image of a robed man with a long beard sitting on top of a mountain, meditation isn’t that far from daily life. Meditation is really quite simple. That doesn’t mean it is easy, but learning how to meditate can be. The next handful of paragraphs are my best try at sketching out one method of meditation. It isn’t innovative. What you are going to read here is what I’ve learned from a variety of different teachers. I know some of these teachers personally. Others I know only through writing. Either way, I’m only passing this on to you.
The basics of how to meditate
Learning how to meditate should not be complicated. But still there is some ground to cover. In Christianity, it can be difficult to find some of the basics of meditation. In some ways, Christianity can be long on content, and short on method, when it comes to meditation. The motivation for this post is to provide at least some small contribution to the writing on meditation method.
We’ve talked about how long and how often to meditate elsewhere, so this post won’t go into that. Instead, this post will focus on posture, breath, and mental activity. This post isn’t meant to be exhaustive. A lot more has been said about this in other places and I will share those places with you as we go. So if you want to learn more, I hope to give you some places to start.
How to mediate with good posture
Posture is probably the first piece to cover. Posture is important in meditation. It isn’t the main thing, but is crucial nonetheless. Posture is good indicator of presence of mind. If you are meditating and your shoulders slump and you slouch, chances are you are off some place else in your head as well. Good posture requires physical awareness to maintain. So, oversimplifying a bit, if your posture is good, chances are you are mentally aware as well.
Here is the posture (approximately) you might want to aim for:
- Reach gently up with the crown of your head, as though an invisible balloon were pulling on your head directly over your spine.
- Keep your nose and navel aligned as though they connected by a straight line perpendicular with the floor.
- Drop your chin slightly toward your chest, so your gaze falls on the ground a few feet in front of you. Imagine your line of vision creating a 60 to 45 degree angle with the floor.
- Align your head straight over your neck and between your shoulders.
- Relax your shoulders and allow them to fall away from your ears.
- Keep your back comfortably straight, following its natural curve, unsupported by walls or furniture.
- Balance your spine over your hips.
That is the basic posture for meditation. I know I said this would be simple. This list is the most detailed part of the post. With a little time, though, sitting in this posture will come as second nature.
How to meditate sitting down
I recommend sitting down for meditation. You can also stand or walk. Sitting is my personal preference because my thoughts wander more frequently while standing, though if I meditate for a longer period I will usually walk in the middle. That said, what is a good way to sit.
Your spine should be all sorted out in the list on posture above. With that in order, there are a number of ways you can situate your legs. Three involve sitting on the floor, one uses a chair. Personally, I think it is worthwhile to get comfortable sitting on the floor (though it may not be very comfortable to begin with). That said, sitting in a chair or on a bench is great, too. It is most important that it works for you.
Before jumping into the seated positions, one note about sitting on the floor. You should feel stable when you sit on the floor, to feel this way it is important to have most of your legs resting on the ground. Make sure that your knees rest on the ground for whichever of these cross-legged position works best for you.
If you have ever heard someone say “twist your legs up like a pretzel,” they are talking about full lotus. This position involves sitting cross legged and resting the tops of your feet on the opposite thigh at about the mid-point. Honestly, even after limbering up with yoga for a while, I’ve never been able to sit like this.
The half lotus position is what it sounds like. Where full lotus involves resting the top of each foot on the opposite thigh, half lotus is half that, so the top of one foot should rest on the opposite thigh. I’ve used this position before, but I have tight hips, so usually sitting this way is too much for me.
I use this position almost all of the time. It is very similar to how you might normally think of sitting cross-legged. There is one major difference. Instead of crossing your legs so that one legs rests on top of the other, position your legs so that one leg is in front of the other on the floor.
In a chair
If sitting on the floor is too uncomfortable (or not physically possible), sitting in a chair is perfectly fine. There are a couple of things to keep in mind. If the chair you are using has a backrest, don’t use it, if you can. For posture reasons, it is best for your back to free standing.
The other thing to keep in mind is the alignment of your knees and hips. Align your knees and hips so that your thighs are parallel with the floor. This helps you keep your knees bent at 90 degrees. Plant your feet flat on the floor.
I know, fun! But if you haven’t exercised in a while, you may feel a bit of fatigue in your neck or back when you hold any of these postures for long periods. Don’t stress about this, hold the posture as long as you can. If it becomes too uncomfortable, call it a day, and come back the next day. Over time it will become easier.
This is also another excellent reason to take care of your body. You won’t need to take up an intense exercise program. Some simple healthy habits go a long way. Eat more nutritious foods. Move your body more. You will feel better in and out of devoted meditation periods.
What to sit on
We’ve gone through posture and how to sit, but not what to sit on. Believe it or not it makes a difference. A good chair can be really helpful. If you are going to sit on the floor, I wouldn’t recommend sitting directly on the floor, a cushion works best.
If you opt to meditate seated in chair, a good chair can make a big difference. As mentioned before, you want your legs parallel with the floor, knees bent at 90 degrees, and feet planted on the floor, which means the chair needs to be the right height. Backless is good, but not necessary, unless you struggle to keep from leaning back on it. A cellist’s chair works well because it is designed for this kind of posture.
If you are going to meditate seated on the floor, you will want a cushion to sit on. This really doesn’t need to be anything fancy. In fact, you can probably be comfortable using a couch cushion and some throw pillows if you need. That said, it is better if you have something a little more dedicated to the purpose.
You will want a cushion that elevates your backside a couple of inches off the floor. I find that cushions filled with buckwheat hulls work really well. The hulls are firm enough to be reliable to move enough that they won’t cause your legs to fall asleep.
A mat to place under your cushion is also pretty helpful. Especially if the floor of your meditation space is hard, your feet fall asleep without a little padding under your legs. You can find combination cushions and mats easily enough.
How to meditate with full breaths
Your breath is important. This is probably not news to you. Meditation is no different. Awareness of the breath is an important part of meditating. That said, it is important to breath naturally. Exaggerated unnatural breathing is both uncomfortable and distracting. Don’t worry, though, you’ll notice if you are breathing in an exaggerated way.
When you first sit down to meditate, take a few breaths that are deeper than normal. It is fine if these breaths are a little exaggerated. A few big breaths settle you into full, natural breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Once you have had a few deep breaths, continue breath with your full diaphragm at a slow, steady natural pace, breathing through your nose.
Once you have gotten comfortable sitting down, attended to your posture, and settled into your breathing, you will probably notice that your mind is pretty active in the quiet. The picture of meditation, along with the robes and mountaintops, is one of serene stillness. From the outside, no doubt, it looks that way, too. The inner experience of meditation is a different story.
There are a lot of images that encapsulate the busyness of the mind. It can be compared to a flowing river. Some have likened it to a noisy waiting room. For our purposes, let’s choose the metaphor of a road, or an interstate, either at rush hour or a more low traffic time, if we’re lucky.
If you imagine yourself at the side of that road, or perhaps under it beneath a bridge or overpass, the only thing to do is watch or listen to the cars go by. You aren’t trying to stop them. Certainly, it would be good to avoid trying to catch a ride. You can just watch them race by, going wherever it is they are trying to go.
How to meditate in the midst of distractions
Cars racing by are well and good. Some of the cars, though, just might stop and open their door. Their drivers might even wave their hands for you to join them for the ride. Sometimes you will. Everyone does. So what do you do when you hop in the car, when you get distracted by your thoughts?
A common practice is to use a prayer word. This prayer word should be chosen for the purpose of bringing your mind back to an awareness of the present after it has been swept up into thought. Choosing this word is important.
Personally, I chose a word that is pretty neutral. I don’t feel a warmness for it, nor a distaste. It isn’t a word with deep meaning to me either. It is almost meaningless to me in fact. I like it for that reason. I find that helps bring my attention back, rather than moving into a different kind of distraction.
Thomas Keating covers selecting a prayer word in his classic book on centering prayer, Open Mind, Open Heart. Likewise, Martin Laird writes quite helpfully about using a prayer word in his work, Into the Silent Land. The whole of Into the Silent Land is well worth reading, but sections on using a prayer word are good instruction.
Simple to practice, impossible to master
That feels like the basics to me. Certainly there are aspects that I haven’t covered here. Likewise, I haven’t plumbed the depths of what I do cover. However, that feels like it might be enough to get you started if you arrived at this page looking for a place to start. If you have questions, or see something you feel needs correcting, feel free to drop a comment my way.
Is meditation in the bible?
If you are a Christian starting a meditation practice, you might ask yourself this question about meditation in the bible. And there are a number of reasons you might ask. Finding meditation in the bible can be really helpful. As a christian, you probably take the bible to be normative for your faith and life in one way or another. So, you may even feel like you need to find meditation in the biblical text before you can really get into a meditation practice. Even if you don't feel the need to find meditation in scripture to be invested in a meditation practice, the way the bible portrays meditation is helpful.
Setting up a meditation room
At first, starting a meditation practice is uncomfortable. Like starting anything new, a lot of questions come up. You need to figure out a lot of things in the beginning. You'll need to learn how to meditate. You're going to have to find out when you can meditate and for how long. You'll also probably need to decide where you are going to meditate. Depending on your situation, this process of finding a good meditation room can be tricky.
How long should I meditate?
This is a popular question. Maybe more popular even than whether a person should meditate at all. However, I am not going to go into that here. That is covered elsewhere. Instead, talking about how long to meditate, I want to encourage you to meditate in a way that works for you. Meditation is surprisingly difficult to begin with, so being too strict about how long you spend meditating in any given period could be overwhelming. Better to err on the side ease and sustainability.
Is meditation a sin?
A lot of speculation exists about the sinfulness of meditation. Some say it is an invitation to evil spirits. Some say it is idolatry. So, is meditation a sin? This might be a question that someone asks only when they feel they already know the answer. If some of the most popular responses I’ve found to the question are any indication, most people ask if meditation is a sin so that they can at least imply that it is. I won’t hide my opinion. I don’t think meditation is a sin, nor do I think it is dangerous.