Guidelines for Developing Your Meditation Practice

Clean and Clear Space

Create a special place for yourself, either a room or a corner, and use it only for your meditation and heartfelt study or contemplation. Put in this space only those things that help your meditation. Find a comfortable seat for yourself. Arrange in a pleasing way the pictures and objects that energize the qualities of heart and mind you are trying to nurture. Keep the space clean and clear, as though you were always expecting a special guest. Enter it with respect, and be uplifted and refreshed by its peace, beauty, and healing qualities.

Minding the Body

In general, you will find it helpful to precede your quiet sitting meditation with at least a brief period of mindful stretching, tai chi, yoga, or gentle exercise. This will help you to build energy and focus your attention. At times you may find that your mind is simply too agitated to begin with quiet sitting meditation and you will gain much greater benefit from a session of walking or moving meditation such as Concentration While Walking, Doing What You Love to Do, or Mindful Walking.

For sitting meditation, whether you sit cross-legged, in a chair, or kneel with a meditation bench is largely a matter of style and preference. Experiment and see what works best for you. It is especially important to sit comfortably, with your spine straight and your body upright and relaxed. Sitting in this way, it will be much easier to remain alert. Sit naturally and at ease, and avoid forcing your body into uncomfortable postures.

Your eyes can either be gently closed or softly open -- though practicing with them softly open will reduce the tendency to doze off and can help you to carry a meditative presence over into other activities. With practice you will learn to bring a meditative mind to every activity, whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down.

Release Phenomena

In meditation, as you begin to relax, it is quite common to experience what are called "release phenomena." These may include jerking or quivering of the body as you are falling asleep, gurgling of the stomach, tingling feelings or numbness, memories, mental images, inner sounds, or other perceptual changes.

Release phenomena are common indicators that your practice of relaxation or meditation is becoming effective in dissolving deeply imbedded mental, emotional, and physical holding patterns. The best way to deal with these experiences is to simply allow them to arise, unfold, and dissolve without distracting your attention.

With practice, you will become aware of the subtle physical, emotional, and mental states that are the indicatorsof progressively deeper levels of relaxation and meditation. Eventually, your reservoirs of accumulated stress will be drained, allowing you to feel lighter, clearer, and better able to handle the challenges of daily life more effectively and with greater patience and understanding.

Relaxed Yet Alert

For most of us, our experience of deep relaxation lacks awareness and is at best dull and dreamlike. And at the very height of alertness we are the complete opposite of relaxed, experiencing physical tension and mental agitation. Both of these extremes are far from the relaxed yet alert, calm delight of meditative equipoise. A classical analogy talks of tuning a stringed musical instrument: If the strings are too tight or too loose the sound is not very pleasant.

Similarly, to find the sweet notes in meditation, it is necessary to find a dynamic balance between being overly alert and overly relaxed. The first extreme creates physical and mental tightness and eventually leads to distraction. The other end of the continuum creates dullness and heaviness that usually leads to sleep.

Especially in the beginning, much of your session might be spent finding this balance, bringing the mind back from dazed distraction or dullness to a state of relaxed alertness. Eventually, you will become familiar with this state of being. During your meditation sessions you will be able to be deeply relaxed as well as extremely lucid, and in daily life you will find that your view of the way things are will be less conditioned and obstructed. With this deepening understanding, you will be better able to optimize your response to the challenges and opportunities of each moment with more creative and compassionate attitudes, words, and actions.

Thoughts to Energize Your Meditation

Consider the precious opportunity that this human existence gives us. By practicing meditation we can realize and express our enormous potential. This is a great gift.Then consider impermanence. Whatever is born will die, whatever appears will disappear. Recognizing this, we understand that we really don't know how much time we have to realize our true nature and potential and to love and help those we care for.

Contemplating the laws of cause and effect, we understand that we have choice in our lives. What we experience today is largely the result of the choices we made previously, and what we choose to do, think, and say now will shape and determine our future.

Finally, consider why we should work with our minds. The long-term result, the experience of enlightenment, is more joyful, intense, and complete than anything we have yet known, and once found can never be lost. Secondly, there is so much suffering in the world, and our ability to benefit others is very limited if we ourselves are confused.So, for ourselves and others, we want to place our trust in those who can inspire and guide us in this inner work and in the traditions, teachings, and methods that help us to master our minds and to awaken genuine wisdom and com-passion in our lives.

Faith, Support, and Inspiration

For all these reasons, then, we seek a refuge from the chaos and confusion within and around us. Like a child taking refuge in its mother, or hikers seeking shelter from a storm, we seek an oasis of sanity in a chaotic world. Outwardly, we place our trust in the teachers who remind us through their example, their kindness, and their teachings that it is possible to become free from mental and emotional confusion and to become wise and kind as well.

We find strength and guidance in the teachings that show us how to master our minds and find freedom and understanding in our lives. Likewise, we find refuge in the community of friends and companions who share our study, practice, and investigation of how meditation can be practically applied to meet the challenges and opportunities of daily life.

Inwardly, the teacher reflects the seed of our own potential for deep understanding and genuine kindness. Oral and written teachings point our minds toward the ineffable wisdom that shines like the sun and moves within our hearts, the real mystery that precedes life and endures beyond death. Our companions along the way remind us of the community of people who, from the beginning of time, strove to find the same understanding and who preserved and passed on the teachings.

Meditation -- whether you are sitting alone in a cave, or in an office, or meditating in a group -- does not happen in a vacuum, devoid of relationship and sharing with others. Affirming, trusting, and drawing strength and inspiration from your relationships with others and your connectedness with the universe will offer you protection and peace of mind, and will inspire your meditation practice.

Proper Motivation

As you begin each session, remind yourself of why you are sitting down to meditate. Why are you giving yourself this gift of time for centering, harmonizing, and fine-tuning? To avoid pain? To be happy? To find peace? To rest or energize?

Remember, as you grow in clarity and peace of mind you directly contribute to bringing peace and understanding to others. And as you develop patience toward the people and situations that previously triggered frustration, you will be filling the universe with compassion instead of anger, understanding instead of confusion.Our intentions reflect back to us an echo of the same energy. How often have you seen actions motivated by fear emphasize the paranoia of a situation? And how often have your love and care touched and opened the heart of another?

Remember, it is not what you do but how and why you do it that really matters. You always have a choice, so use it wisely, compassionately, and creatively.

Monitor Your Meditation

Your meditation session is likely to go through several phases. Once you have settled down you should stabilize your attention by practicing a concentration technique for a few moments. Then you can apply your mind to whatever meditation -- mindfulness, reflective, creative, or heart¬centered -- you choose. Throughout the session, use your vigilance or introspective alertness to monitor the quality of the focus of your attention. In this way you can recognize when your attention has wandered off or faded away. If you find it difficult to stay with the meditation because of too much distraction or dullness, you will find it useful to balance your mind again with a few minutes of concentration meditation, especially by watching the breath. Then, once again, return to your main meditation.

Dedication and Sharing

Take a few moments at the end of each session to consciously extend and share the positive energies you have accumulated. From your heart radiate out into space warmth, light, and love, and imagine it touching others as a vibration that calms, energizes, heals, comforts, and nourishes.

Be creative! Imagine you are playing a mental video game. Beam all your positive feelings to your friends, family, people you feel neutral toward, even to your enemies. Realize that they all, just like you, want to be happy, want to escape suffering and pain, and desire to make the most of their lives. Imagine radiating all the positive energy you have generated through your meditation out to all beings, and that each receives from you whatever they most need at that moment to carry them from fragmentation toward wholeness. In this way, realize that this inner work on yourself is also an offering to the world. (See the Dedication Meditation beginning for a more detailed explanation.)

Carry-Over Practice

Through your practice of meditation, it is possible to develop many previously latent positive qualities. Having used the brief period of your quiet meditation to touch and de¬velop the peace, clarity, understanding, kindness, and vitality within, you now face the challenge of carrying these qualities into dynamic action as you move through the world. Throughout the day, consciously recall and reenergize these feelings. Particularly when you start to rush and tumble, internally pause, center, and move toward the sense of harmony you experienced earlier in meditation. Periods of quiet, undistracted meditation are precious opportunities to get in touch with qualities that will gradually grow and pervade even your busiest activities.

You will find that any activity can become an opportunity to train your mind, develop concentration, refine your awareness, deepen your insight, practice patience or loving-kindness. Live in a creative and meditative way, as though your life were a dream and you are busy waking up.

Remember the Inner Smile

Lest you get too serious, it's important to approach your meditations with a sense of curiosity and playful inquisitiveness. For many people, holding a gentle inner smile during meditation helps to prevent them from trying too hard, getting tense, or being too self-critical. Enjoy your practice! Smile! Be playful!

[Adapted from the book "Luminous Mind" by Joel & Michelle Levey]

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