Six Steps of Meditation
I have immersed myself in various styles of meditation over the years. While there are differences among them, I discovered that these six steps are present in any effective tradition. You can think of these like the bones of your practice. They create a simple structure that you may then add flesh and adornment to over time.
1. PREPARE PHYSICALLY: BODY
2. PREPARE ENERGETICALLY: BREATH
3. PREPARE EMOTIONALLY: INTENTION
4. PREPARE MENTALLY: ATTENTION
5. REST AS AWARENESS: BE
6. CLOSE THE PRACTICE: HONOR + REINTEGRATE
20 minutes > I guide you through the six steps of meditation, with an emphasis on step 3: connecting to your intention/bringing your heart into the game. Recorded June 6, 2017.
All of these steps can be followed literally as the steps to your seated meditation practice. (1) You must first sit your butt down and put the body in a comfortable position so that it doesn't keep trying to carry you off to the next task. (2) Then begin to notice the breath and the subtleties of your energetic body, aligning your inner environment. (3) If you want the practice to be powerful and lasting and provide real benefits, you must bring your care into it and connect it to your larger goals in life. (4) The mind will keep scattering your attention and dissipating your power until you are able to rest it in one place, so you must be develop an ability to concentrate. (5) If we're doing all of this preparation yet clinging too tightly to the techniques then we never actually make space for the meditative state to arise--the experience of harmony, peace and connection to all things. So we must also give ourselves a chance to stop doing the steps--to stop doing everything!--and simply BE. (6) Finally, you'll want to be clear and intentional as you make the transition from the sacred space of meditation practice back out into your world.
But, as you work with these steps you will find that you can use them more generally, as a checklist for how things are going not just in your seated practice, but in your life. When an obstacle arises, is there something physical, energetic, emotional or mental to attend to? Are you spending enough time in your week simply being? Are you being clear and intentional about your practices, putting boundaries around your time with them and then reintegrating their power into your world mindfully?
More about each step below.
1. PREPARE PHYSICALLY: BODY
Make space in your home
Find an area of your home where you would like to meditate every day. You can experiment at first, but ultimately you want to pick a place and stick with it. Ideally it will just serve that one function but, of course, most of us will have to compromise. See if you can put something nice there to mark it as your special place and to entice you to sit in it. Traditionally you would have an altar adorned with symbolism from your particular lineage, pictures of your teachers, etc. But the point is to make it feel nice and clean and inviting. Maybe you do that with photos of loved ones, a candle, fresh flowers or pretty fabric. This process might encourage some general spring cleaning, which is also helpful. Our inner world is reflected in the outer. And our outer actions effect our inner experience. So decluttering the physical space helps declutter the mind.
Make time in your day
You must make a commitment to sit every day for some period of time. 21 days is a great amount of time to start. No excuses. I started with 1 minute. That’s it! But I did it every single day. If there are days when you can sit longer DO, but don't miss your 1 minute appointment with your Self, come rain, shine, stress or hangover. When you feel ready to grow your meditations longer, do so, but don't be in such a rush. Go to 5 minutes, then 10, then 15 giving yourself about 7 days at each increment. Most studies show that 20 minutes of meditation is a sweet spot. You'll get the maximum benefit for the minimum time. If that length of time comes easy to you, GREAT. If not, make it a goal to reach by, say, the end of 13 months.
I recommend that everyone practice in the morning. Do the bare minimum of morning ritual to feel comfortable for your meditation. Basics like brushing your teeth and going to the bathroom are good, of course. If you're a caffeine person you might also need a few sips of coffee or tea before you sit, but eventually it would be great to actually do your meditation with an un-buzzed mind and an empty stomach. But DON’T do all that other stuff you might think you need to before meditating. Leave the email/news/social media, etc. for after you’ve fulfilled your commitment to silence. Try not to chat much with anyone who is in your house. Minimize the interactions with the outer world. Those just create more obstacles to sitting down and being fully engaged in the inner world.
Find a posture that is comfortable
You want to find a posture where you can rest comfortably for a chunk of time. There are lots of classical yoga poses as options: siddhasana,virasana, ardha padmasana, sukhasana. You want your hips higher than your knees, so find something to bolster your sitz bones up. There are alls sorts of custom cushions for this. But surely you have stuff around the house that you can use. (Stacked towels work great!) If being seated on the floor doesn’t work, you can absolutely meditate in a chair or even lying down. Lying on the back tends to dull the mind, but you can experiment with it. Ultimately sitting tall unassisted is ideal. (I don’t mean “straight” exactly, because the spine naturally has natural curves and to attempt flattening those will lead to issues.) Many of us have to build to core strength, space in the shoulders and flexibility in the hips before it is possible to hold this alignment with ease. Your asana practice (the one you do at the Yoga Studio) is your best bet for developing a healthy, comfortable posture. Being able to sustain your seated posture is actually the #1 reason that most ancient yogis did asanas. (I have a video up about the postures on this page. More coming.)
Love your body
Double down on your commitment to taking care of this precious body of yours while you’re not on the cushion. Consider exercise, sleep and diet. Observe how that’s all working for you, study up and amend your habits as necessary.
2. PREPARE ENERGETICALLY: BREATH
Once you’ve got the basics in order—you have created space and time for the practice, and found a posture where you feel comfortable—it’s time to dive inward. The best way to begin is to pay attention to the breath. Notice it moving in and out of the body.
Check out the energy in the body. Are you feeling tired or alert? Agitated or grounded? At first just notice, engaging in the activity with a similar ease and curiosity as you would look outside to check the weather.
To begin to make your inner environment conducive to the meditative state, begin to bring a bit more harmony to your energetic state. Establish a spacious, full, rhythmic breath pattern. If you feel like you need more sparkly and awake energy, make little adjustments to encourage an upward movement: engage the lower bandhas (pelvic floor lift, low belly drawing in and up) and feel/envision energy moving up from the earth to the sky, along the front of your spine. If you want a more stable and restful feeling, bring awareness to the sense of connectedness to the earth, soften your body, heart and mind (spend extra time in places which hold the most tension) and envision energy pouring down from the sky to the earth, through you.
3. PREPARE EMOTIONALLY: INTENTION
Reflect on why you want to meditate. The “right” answer is the one that is personal and sincere enough to motivate you sitting down every day and to bring up a sense of inspiration when you think about it. So don’t try to make this too lofty.
Once you’re in your meditation posture and you have connected to the energy body, state your intention in your own mind. This taps us into our sense of care and love—this is jet fuel for everything that we do in life, meditation included. Pause and let your intention fill you with a sense of dedication and purpose.
From time to time our intention wants an upgrade. Don’t bop around with a new intention every week—that will just make you feel scattered. But do check in on your intention every once in a while. I check-in with mine before making any big changes in my life, any time that I'm finding myself feeling really out of alignment or once per year. Whichever of those comes first.
4. PREPARE MENTALLY: ATTENTION
This is the meat of the practice, really. Once you get all the other steps down, you will likely end up spending 50% or more of your practice time on this step. Because our attention is the thing that is most easily ensnared in things that cause us suffering AND because our it is simultaneously the most powerful tool we have for getting out of suffering, we must spend some time training our attention. This step improves concentration, mental clarity and encourages an attitude of patience and ease. It is the part of the practice that many people are referring to when they refer to “meditation.”
Choose your object
Really any meditation "object" (sometimes called an "anchor") will work for honing your attention. But if it connects you back to your intention (Step 3) it will be more effective. Meditation objects tend to be one of 3 types: (1) physical sensations (2) sounds, words or phrases (3) images. It is worthwhile to investigate how you respond to each type before choosing. Do you have an easier time connection to sensations? Mantras/phrases? Visuals? Or do you like to combine all three?
Rest your attention on the object
Focus your attention on an object and rest it there for as long as you can.
Bring the attention back with kindness again and again
When your attention wanders off to something else, bring it back. Judging yourself for wandering just further distracts us from the meditation object so don’t fall into that trap. If this step is difficult on your own use a recording of a guided mediation.
5. REST AS AWARENESS: BEING
Now the preparation is over. It’s time to simply be what you are. Soften your grip on your meditation object and just rest in the environment that all this preparation has created. Thoughts and feelings and experiences will pass by and you are content to let them do so. Abide in expansiveness.
6. CLOSE THE CIRCLE: HONOR + REINTEGRATE
We want our practice space/time to be conducive to positive transformation. THEN we want to head out and pass that positive transformation along to our loved ones, our projects, our world. So how we end the practice is important.
For a practice to have a lot of power, it should have clear energetic boundaries. In all spiritual traditions I have encountered, there is some kind of ritual that opens and closes sacred the space/time.
I have adopted a Buddhist tradition of ringing 3 chimes in the beginning and end of the meditation practice. At the end I also add the universal gesture of gratitude, hands together in front of the heart, as well as the gesture of devotion, a gentle bow of the head. You can bring in your own closing ritual, of course.
You may find that step 6 is a nice time to reflect on any or all of the following as you close your practice:
- gratitude > what made this practice possible? thank it! what experiences arose? thank them!
- commitment > what can you do to make the world a better place? make a little plan for carrying the meditative state forward into the rest of your day
- dedication > in the Buddhist tradition you always dedicate the benefits of your practice forward to a goal or a to a living being or group of beings. imagine the energy you have cultivated in this time moving forward to something/someone worthwhile.
A FEW NOTES…
If committing to the new habit is hard, seek out an accountability buddy. It doesn’t have to be someone who wants to start meditating necessarily, just someone who is also looking to turn a new leaf. For instance, maybe a friend wants to quit smoking. You check in with him regularly and he has to tell you if he’s smoked, and you have to tell him if you missed a meditation. You can get together and talk about the process, the moments of triumph, the moments of weakness and give one another support.
Of course you can also work with me for this purpose!
It would be really great to start a daily journal to accompany this process. Just writing down the time you sat and the time you got up and a few words about your experience is great. Even if you can't write in it immediately after you meditate, sometime that day writing down what the meditation felt like, anything connections you made during it. If you prefer to “journal” in another medium than writing, that’s totally awesome. Meditation begins to reawaken the creative self so if you feel an urge to write a song, do some photo-journaling, paint or draw or choreograph your responses then by all means, GO FOR IT!
Broadening/deepening your study
As you go forward with this, you will likely be inspired to learn more. It's good to stick with one or two techniques and traditions to start, I think. Just so you can build up the practice. But if you start getting curious or restless, it might be time to go exploring what else is out there. There is so much to learn about meditation, so many great traditions and techniques that come from all over the world, so many wonderful teachers.
When you do find a teacher, a tradition or a technique that really resonates with you make a commitment to stick with that for a period of time. But never lose touch with that inner guide which called these resources forth! That's your real guru.