Learning to Sit Still

Whether you’re at home or the office, whether you have five minutes or 20, you can meditate. Really. Here’s a beginner’s guide.

You may want to sit down while reading this.

Make yourself comfortable, sitting forward in your seat with your back straight. Before reading another paragraph, close your eyes and count 10 breaths, keeping each breath at the center of your attention. I’ll wait….

Welcome back. And welcome to the practice of mindful meditation.

Meditation is surrounded by myth. You might think you need a guru or a space completely separated from the rest of the world. But the truth is, the work of meditation can begin naturally wherever you are. Mindful meditation is nothing more or less than awareness. Though we might feel an increased sense of well-being or relaxation after we’ve meditated, this is simply an effect of the process of becoming present and focusing our attention.

Although the practice of meditation is thousands of years old and is most commonly associated with Buddhism, it is a nondenominational and completely natural method to mitigate tension and stress, enhance mental clarity and focus, and manage daily health through conscious awareness of your body and mind. In fact, there is such overwhelming evidence of the health benefits of “sitting still” that many major corporations have launched meditation programs. Even better? You can practice meditation anytime, anywhere — at the gym, at home or even at a traffic light.

Mindfulness Over Mindlessness

Perhaps you didn’t actually close your eyes and count 10 breaths earlier. Or you did, but you found your mind wandering. Either way, don’t stress about it.

“The moment we don’t feel present, we suffer,” says Zen teacher Cheri Huber, author of Making a Change for Good: A Guide to Compassionate Self-Discipline (Shambhala, 2007). In other words, the stress you may feel over what has already passed is keeping you from being present in this moment. “It’s this disconnect that links to suffering,” Huber says. “We are suffering over something that isn’t in the moment.”

Since the action of what Huber calls “the conditioned mind” is to frame our reality — analyzing the world and directing our responses — we are seldom attending to what is in the present, and in that sense, seldom mindful. Indeed, we too often experience our reality and ourselves mindlessly. To be mindless is to be turned outward, ever enmeshed in distractions from the present, such as worrying over your dinner plans, a problem at work or a past disappointment.

But as Jon Kabat-Zinn, founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, writes in his classic, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994), “Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. . . . The important question is, how are you going to handle it?”

Meditation Is the Way

If mindfulness is awareness of our present selves and world, then meditation is the way we can claim our present tense and declare our independence from the conditioned mind.

“Mindfulness is a natural faculty of our minds, like muscles in the body, and meditation is like a fitness program,” says Susan Gillis Chapman, director of the three-year meditation retreat at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Canada. “When you meditate, it’s like working out, strengthening those muscles.”

Begin at the Beginning

Melissa Blacker, director of professional training at Kabat-Zinn’s Center for Mindfulness, says we must start with the body. “We often start with an awareness of breathing,” Blacker says. “We ask you to sit still, upright and feel each breath. As you find something that pulls you from your breath, notice it without judgment and return to your breathing.”

Sometimes, focusing on an object, real or imagined, may help you become mindful of the present. “You can use any object as a focus to train your mind,” Chapman says. “The breath is one, but any object of the senses can also be used, such as gazing at a rock or listening to sound.”

Blacker concurs. To help those new to mindfulness meditation begin to practice, she uses what the teachers at the Center for Mindfulness call the raisin exercise.

“Take the raisin in your hand,” she says. “Look at it closely, all the wrinkles, describe it, know it.” This process, she says, encourages not only a mental awareness, but a sensual one as well.

Breathe Through It

For those beginning meditation, staying with the breath may prove very challenging. Whether we call it “monkey mind” or — as Chapman describes it — “a bucking bronco,” our attention can seem untamable. Huber compares our attention to a puppy and notes we must train it to stay with us. But it’s this challenge to rein in our wandering minds that reminds us that meditation is a practice.

Since pursuing mindful meditation, especially in the beginning, can be tricky, Huber says we need to continually and compassionately encourage ourselves, rather than punishing ourselves for failing. The reward of mindfulness — waking from the conditioned mind — is worth the effort.

Chapman suggests mindfulness practice tends to become easier as we become accustomed to it. It is important, she says, “to cultivate a daily habit that’s really positive.” Giving yourself a brief retreat every day, perhaps 20 minutes in the morning or evening, may go a long way to keeping attention mindful and present, as well as nourishing your relationship with yourself. What’s essential is to give yourself time and a space where you feel comfortable. Then, Chapman says, divide the time into three parts: hearing, contemplating and meditating.

Spend a third of the time reading or listening to something inspirational, which will allow you to open your mind. Then, contemplate what inspires you by journaling, taking a walk, or talking with a friend or partner. Finally, spend the last part of your retreat in sitting meditation, allowing yourself to become calm and focused.

Mindfulness offers us the chance to live each moment of life fully. It is, Kabat-Zinn writes, “the direct opposite of taking life for granted.”

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Patrick Downes is a Maine-based writer and editor.

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