Meditation Exercises

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In this section, we will learn eight different meditation techniques, two each from four different categories of meditation. The categories used here will be breath counting, visualization, relaxation, and healing. Once again, realize that there are dozens of categories of meditation, and that this section is meant to be only a sampler of the available techniques. If you wish to explore these methods in more depth, New Page Books has many meditation titles available.

Breath Counting

Breath counting is simply a method of meditation in which you count the number of breaths you are taking. There are several variations that you can employ in this exercise:

^ Count the inhale and exhale as one breath.

^ Count separate inhales and exhales.

^ Count the breaths until you lose count.

^ Count up only to a small number, say three or four. (This is the method we will explore here.) The purpose of keeping the count low is to ensure that you don't begin to fixate on the count itself, but rather to keep your mind on the act of breathing. We don't want to make meditation a competitive sport, and this often happens with the counting-style meditations—"I got to 27 last time. Maybe I can get to 30 today!" That's not what meditation is all about; it's about relaxing and focusing.

To perform the breath-counting meditation, sit in a comfortable chair with your feet flat on the ground, your back fairly straight, and your head upright. Your hands can be placed in any of the previously mentioned positions: on your knees, in your lap, in your lap with palms up, or in your lap with palms nested together and the thumbs lightly touching.

Now, breathe. Breathe in through the nose. (We will use nose breathing throughout all of these meditation exercises. Unless you have a deviated septum, asthma, etc., this is the preferred method. If you need to, breathe through the mouth. It won't be the end of the world, and you will still gain the benefits of the meditation). Your eyes can remain open, you can close them completely or, as the Taoist monks often do, you can close them halfway. This eliminates the visual distractions around you, but ensures that you don't fall asleep. (This was a common difficulty, especially among the monks, whose day would often begin before sunrise and continue through until late evening. In fact, it is said that one monk would walk around the temple with a "Stick of Enlightenment": when he came upon another monk who had fallen asleep during meditation, he would soundly whack him with the stick. I don't recommend this practice to my students!)

Remember that if you are breathing diaphragmatically, your breaths will be deeper and more relaxed, and you will bring a fresh supply of oxygen to the very bottom of your lungs. Your concentration at this point is simply to breathe, slowly and evenly. Never hold your breath, at least not in these beginning exercises— breath-holding is an advanced technique, which can be troublesome for those with high blood pressure or heart problems.

It may take a few minutes, but gradually, you should find yourself relaxing somewhat more than usual. Your body will begin to feel heavy, and you will feel the day's tensions draining from your body. Let this feeling of peace wash over and through you like a cleansing spring rain, removing all of your troubles and concerns. Enjoy this feeling for as long as you like—we're not in any hurry!

Once you have enjoyed this newfound feeling of stress release, it's time to begin counting your breaths. This will do several things: It will increase your powers of concentration and focus; it will ensure that your mind doesn't wander; and it will provide a framework, or purpose, to the meditation. Often, when the word meditation is brought up in casual conversation, there is usually one person who says, "I could never meditate—I can't think of nothing!" In reality, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to "think of nothing." That is not the purpose of meditation, as you are beginning to find out.

Back to the breath counting. Start at the beginning of one of your inhales. Breathe in, exhale, and think to yourself (don't say it out loud) "One." Repeat the inhale/exhale cycle, and think "Two." Repeat, and think "Three." Start the next cycle, and begin again at "One." Continue this breathing and counting routine for as long as you like.

You are now meditating! Of course, even with this simple meditation, there are a few things to be on the lookout for. First and foremost, don't think about anything but your breathing as you do this exercise. That will destroy all of the benefits of the meditation. Just enjoy the counting process, and don't get "hung up" on the counting. Also, don't worry during the exercise if you are "doing it right." Believe me, if you are sitting, breathing, and counting, you're doing it properly. If you lose track of what number you are on, no problem—just start over at "One."

Over time, as you practice this meditation (hopefully on a daily basis), you will be able to start the exercise easier, without all of the fuss of preparation involved in these first attempts. You will be able to just sit down, breathe, and count. It's a wonderful, quick, and relaxing way of getting rid of the day's troubles, as well as a good way to start your day.

Another breath-counting meditation is similar to this one, but we will be counting backwards. This is somewhat akin to the methods used in hypnosis, where the client counts backwards from 100, and by the time he or she reaches the lower numbers, they are fully hypnotized. Now, don't worry, I'm not going to hypnotize you here!

Start the breathing method used in the first meditation, making sure you are physically comfortable in your chair. Enjoy once again the simple pleasure of breathing fully and slowly. Feel yourself relaxing throughout your entire body.

Now, on the next inhale, say to yourself, "Ten." Continue to breathe slowly..."Nine" on the next inhale...feel yourself almost sinking down to the ground..."Eight"...you are fully relaxed at this point.and so on, all the way back to "One." But what happens when you get to "One"? Do you use negative numbers? No, simply forget about the counting, and simply enjoy the process of breathing. At this point, you can actually move into the Breath-Watching meditation, which is the first visualization meditation we will try.

Visualization Meditations

Much has been written and claimed for visualizations. They are a way of directing our intent, or our will, in whichever direction we desire. It is said that to make something happen, you must see it happening in your mind. This is the main power of visualization. For our purposes, we might be more interested in the ability of visualization to hone our concentration and allow us to forget our troubles for a while.

In our first visualization meditation, Breath Watching, we will be doing just that: watching our breath. Sounds like watching paint dry, right? Trust me, it's a bit more beneficial to your health to watch your breath.

We begin by assuming the standard meditation position. By now, you should be getting a bit more comfortable in this position. If not, experiment—change the chair you use, change the position of your hands, close your eyes if they're open.

Now relax into your breathing. Breathe deeply and slowly, feeling the breath fill you up with lightness and health. Once you are settled in your breathing rhythm, you can start your visualization. What we will be doing at this point is imagining that we can see the air that we're breathing. Perhaps you can imagine that the air looks like a golden liquid, or a white vapor. My students have come up with all manner of ideas for what air "looks" like. The important thing here is that you are comfortable with the look.

As you continue your breathing, see the air around you in your chosen color and consistency. Now watch it as it enters your body through your nose as you inhale. It travels down to your lungs, and actually goes all the way down to your lower abdomen, to a point just below your navel. Now, of course, the air is not really going that far, unless you have leaky plumbing, but it's the visualization that is important here.

By the end of the inhale, you should have a full breath of air, and your attention is directed at your lower abdomen. Now for the exhale. As you begin to exhale, follow the breath as it leaves your abdomen, goes through your body to the base of your spine, follows the spine all the way up to your head, and then travels over the top of your head and back out your nose into the world. That was one cycle of breathing, a simple enough thing really, but your mind followed an imaginary pathway throughout your upper body. This ability to visualize is extremely important in meditation, as well as in energy healing, and even advanced T'ai Chi practice, where you are visualizing the flow of Qi throughout the body.

Continue the exercise, watching the next inhale travel down the front of your body, and then up your spine, over your head, and out your nose on the exhale.

Repeat as many times as possible, until you either get tired or bored. There's no use in forcing a meditation. Sometimes you just are not in the mood, and you can develop resentment for meditation if you attempt to do it during those times.

Our second visualization meditation will be called Vacation. The purpose will be to imagine yourself in your favorite vacation spot. It doesn't matter if you've never actually been there, as long as you can imagine it. What this meditation does first is to improve your thought and imagination processes, a benefit of special interest to us as we get older. We need to exercise the mind as well as the body to stay young. Secondly, this exercise is great for those times when you wish you could get away on a vacation, but for economic or practical reasons, cannot. It's like a miniature mind-vacation, and I guarantee that you'll return feeling refreshed.

By now, you know that you should relax into your starting position, releasing whatever physical tensions are present by first stretching or doing your T'ai Chi exercises. Once you are comfortably settled in, start concentrating on your breathing. Slow and easy does it. Spend a little while enjoying the breathing process and getting into that relaxed state.

At whichever point you wish, continuing the breathing uninterrupted, switch your attention to a little scene that you play in your mind. That scene is your favorite vacation spot, whether it is the beach, the mountains, the woods, or Las Vegas! See that place in as much detail as you can in your mind's eye. See the colors, smell the smells, hear the bustle of nature (or people) flowing around and through you. The idea here is to recreate that place as faithfully as possible.

Take as much time as you need in establishing the initial scene, and add as much detail as you are able. Once you've set the stage, explore it. Walk around, see things from different angles and heights, hear new sounds and smell new odors. Make it as real as if you were actually there. Enjoy your vacation!

Now, a word about returning to the "real" world. Often after a meditation, it can be difficult to return to the everyday world. You feel so good when you're meditating that you don't want to stop. But at some point, we do need to return. So, do it as gently as possible to minimize the shock. When you are ready to leave your vacation spot, visualize yourself returning to the place where you began the trip. The sounds are beginning to recede into the distance, you can't smell as many scents as you did before, and even the colors of the surrounding areas are beginning to fade. Slowly bring your concentration back to your breathing, perhaps watching the breath come down the front of the body and exit up the spine and out the nose. Take your time. Slowly open your eyes as you return fully to the here and now.

Refreshing, wasn't it?

Relaxation Meditations

Although all of the previously discussed meditations are relaxing, these next two are specifically designed to relax your body as well as your mind. The first one is the Heavy Meditation.

Start in your normal meditation position, and watch your breath for a few minutes. Gradually shift your attention away from your breath and into your body. Attempt to feel your body growing heavy in your chair. Feel your weight increasing as your shoulders drop downward and your feet are cemented in place on the floor. But don't let your head fall forward—keep it pulled upward by that invisible string.

As you inhale, you can feel yourself lighten a little bit and begin to feel as if you are floating upward. On the exhale, you once again feel the pull downward, as if you could not get out of your chair even if you tried. This is what true relaxation feels like—as if you are melting into the ground.

To come back from your meditation, switch your focus back to your breathing, watching it travel through your body. Slowly open your eyes and return to the here and now.

The second relaxation meditation is the Stomach Softening meditation. Assume your beginning position, and watch your breath for a few minutes. Then focus your attention on your stomach. Is there any tension there? Are you unconsciously holding it in? Let it go. Let it be loose.

Now place the palms of both hands gently over your stomach. As you inhale, the hands ride up with your stomach. As you exhale, they ride back down. This is a great way to practice diaphragmatic breathing, in addition to its use as a relaxation exercise. We often hold many of our tensions in our stomach; this meditation allows us to release those tensions and gain greater health in the process.

Unlike the previous meditation, this one does not require any visualization— just feel the hands rise and fall on the stomach. Finish up by bringing your attention back from the stomach to the breath, and from there back to your surroundings.

Healing Meditations

Pain—we've all experienced it. You can't get through life without it. But how we deal with pain is at least as important as searching for a way to get rid of it. These two final meditations are designed to recognize and deal with your pain, whether it is emotional, mental, or physical in nature. Be forewarned that these meditations can bring out some strong emotional reactions such as crying and sobbing. This is natural—it's the release of the pain that we're working toward. Just remember that this is a temporary pain—one that we invoke in order to eliminate the long-term pain.

The first exercise is called the Compassion Meditation. We will be taking a tour of our life through this meditation, starting at the earliest point of our youth that we can recall.

Assume your starting posture and watch your breath for a few minutes. Now remember back to the earliest point of your childhood that you can. See yourself, as you were, whether it was happy and carefree or sad and burdened. Give yourself a mental hug and send loving compassion to that little child.

Repeat this inspection and expression of compassion for yourself at the subsequent life stages of older child, puberty, young adult, all the way to your present self. At this last stage, give yourself an especially big hug (use your hands and arms if you like!), bathing yourself in love and compassion. For many of us, compassionate feelings for ourselves are secondary to our concern for others. But to heal ourselves, we need to love ourselves first.

The second healing meditation is called the Softening Meditation. Start in your usual position, observe your breath for a few minutes, and then pick out a minor pain that you have in your physical body. It can be a headache, some low-back pain, arthritis in the fingers—whatever you choose—but start with a minor one, not a major one.

Put your focus on the pain while you continue your deep, relaxed breathing. Try to envision what the pain looks like, not what it feels like. See it as perhaps a red area on your body, with little lightning bolts issuing from it. Just observe the pain; don't make judgments about it ("It's worse today than yesterday") or pity yourself. Use the pain as your meditational focus point. Imagine the pain beginning to soften as you watch it—the red color growing pale pink, the lightning bolts slowing and finally stopping. Incorporate some relaxation meditation techniques here—feel yourself growing heavy in your chair, switch back and forth from watching your breath to watching the pain.

This meditation will take some practice to use, but I think it's practice well worth the effort. If we can control or eliminate our pain by using our minds, the possibilities are endless.

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