Have you ever tried to meditate and found you just couldn’t do it? Maybe you like the idea of meditation, are well aware of its benefits, but you just can’t get your racing, over-thinking mind to calm down enough to engage in the practice. This may help.
About two years ago I wrote a Wake Up Call column titled “How to Meditate like a Monk in 10 Easy Steps.” It was based on a slim paperback book called Deep Meditation by Yogani that was (and still is) far and away the best book on meditation I’ve ever read. (For your convenience, the “10 easy steps” are listed below.)
One of the things I liked about the book was Yogani’s empathetic approach to meditation. He realized that we have a tendency to start thinking about other things when we meditate, self-sabotaging our meditation practice. So the author gently, and continuously, reminds the reader that when your mind starts to wander, no problem, just come back to the mantra.
For me, there was just one hiccup. Even after months of practice, I found myself falling off the mantra constantly and thinking about anything and everything else, from the work day ahead to the repairman I had to call to planning the upcoming weekend. My meditation sessions turned into very choppy affairs, my “monkey mind” continuously losing focus and interjecting random thoughts, as many as 20, 30, 50 times over a 20-minute meditation session.
Then, I discovered the problem. My mantra wasn’t working.
In the book, Yogani recommends focusing on the word “Ayam”, or “I am”, while meditating. Most Buddhists favor using “Aum” or “Om” which in your head winds up sounding like “Ommmmmmmmmm.” And that was my issue. The sound just wasn’t strong enough for this Western mind to keep random thoughts from flowing in. So I tried a new mantra, one that had personal meaning to me:
God is Love. Love is God.
I repeat this mantra over and over (sometimes replacing it with “Love is Good. Love is God.”) And there’s something about this longer, more verbal mantra that locks me in. As, I repeat the words they create a circular pattern. I sometimes see the words visually flowing as if in a figure eight. And it works. I am now able to go through 20-minute meditation sessions with nary a disruption, the new mantra acting like a shield that fends off random thoughts.
Now there’s no need to take my mantra as your mantra—unless these words also have special meaning for you. Your words may be “Jack and Jill went up a hill” repeated over and over. So find the phrase that works best for you, something that’s easy to repeat and could be as simple as “I love my family, my family loves me.”
WHY MEDITATE? I don’t know how or why, but it works like a reboot to the system. I compare it to restarting your smartphone or computer when you’re having technical issues, and somehow the issues then disappear. After meditation, it’s as if your mind is working from a clean slate. You’re suddenly in a better place to deal with whatever obstacles or opportunities life sends your way.
Below are the “10 easy steps” I developed after reading Deep Meditation. Yogani’s words are listed verbatim from the book; I’ve added a few additional comments in italics.
- For most people, twenty minutes is the best duration for a meditation session. But it’s okay to start with 5-10 minutes and work your way up from there.Try it twice a day, once before the morning meal and the day’s activity, and then again before the evening meal and the evening’s activity. I make sure, at minimum, to get a morning session in each day.
- A word on how to sit for meditation: The first priority is comfort. It is not desirable to sit in a way that distracts us from the easy procedure of meditation. Stay away from positions where you might fall asleep.
- For our practice of deep meditation, we will use the thought I AM. This will be our mantra. We can also spell it AYAM. See my take on mantras above.
- While sitting comfortable with eyes closed, we’ll just relax. We will notice thoughts, stream of thoughts. That is fine. We just let them go without minding them. After about a minute, we gently introduce the mantra.
- Whenever we realize we are not thinking the mantra inside any more, we come back to it easily.
- As soon as we realize we are off into a stream of thoughts, no matter how mundane or profound, we just easily go back to the mantra. Like that. We don’t make a struggle of it. The idea is not that we have to be on the mantra all the time.
- Thoughts are a normal part of the deep meditation process. We just ease back to the mantra again. We favor it. Deep meditation is going toward, not pushing away from.
- No struggle. No fuss. No iron willpower or mental heroics are necessary for this practice. All such efforts are away from the simplicity of deep meditation and will reduce its effectiveness.
- When we realize we have been off somewhere, we just ease back into the mantra again. We are reading it inward with our attention to progressively deeper levels of inner silence in the mind.
- This cycle of thinking the mantra, losing it, and coming out into a stream of thoughts is a process of purification. It is very powerful, and will ultimately yield a constant experience of inner silence in our meditation and, more importantly, in our daily activity.
This post previously appeared on Wake Up Call, my column at Patheos, February 29, 2016.