An Outline of a Course in the Art of Meditation: The Awareness of Thought

An Introduction

I once told myself how rediculous meditation must be. I thought that to be void of thought was perhaps the most terrible state in which to exist. To believe that enlightenment could be attained from mindlessness was, to me, worthy of audacity. My experience at that point was short of mediocre and I had little insight to back up such a claim.

As time went by and I practiced meditation I found it excrutiatingly difficult to reach a mindset of nothingness. As I sat “Indian” style, because I was not flexible enough to attain the Lotus position, I fought off every thought and alluring possibility that randomly came to mind. I was so disgusted with my lack of ability to refrain from thought and simply just exist, to just simply be still and unaffected by outside and internal forces that I nearly quit trying. But I had read so much that meditation was an essential part of living a healthy life that I wanted it to be a part of mine, so I kept on.

Little did I know that my battle for mindlessness was futile. The human mind has evolved for milennia to the aspect of high consciousness and here I was trying to eliminate what made me human. And so the thought came to me after reading “The Miracle of Mindfullness”, by Thich Nhat Hanh, that perhaps mindlessness was not the ultimate goal of meditation, but perhaps the very thing we should use meditation to overcome.

Meditation is not about losing oneself in a blank space of nothing, but rather a way to find oneself amidst a world that is eliminating what is the individual within the body. With practicing meditation we should be aware that mindfullness is the ultimate goal. To be aware of who we are, what we are doing and even why. Use meditation to comprehend what you are doing in life, whatever that may be.

These days during meditation my mind is far from vacant, but rather full of thoughts not in randomness but in structure. As we grow more familiar with meditation and its true meaning we will see that it enables us to put order to chaos in the human mind. We become clearer in thought and purpose. That is the art of meditation: to clear the mind of disorder and replace mindlessness with mindfullness. It is truly the awareness of thought.

The physical and psychological benefits of meditation have been realized by ancient civilizations for centuries and in more modern times, scientists, doctors and psychologists are realizing that meditation is a fundamental part of physical recovery and mental therapy along with modern treatments, medication and exercise. To doubt the positive impact of meditation in anyone’s life would be a great misfortune.

I cannot imagine my life without meditation. And for those who find themselves missing something in their lives, I highly recommend a look into meditation through whatever media channel you wish. There are numerous books, videos and cd’s about meditation and there is more than likely a wellness center that offers lessons where you live. Many health treatment centers and even hospitals now offer meditation to their patients and employees alike. There are also a wide variety of schools of meditation and each teaching their own perspective on methods, strategies and benefits, such as Transcendental Meditation, Insight Meditation, Transformation Meditation and many more.

My first meditation lessons were from a counselor and I went on to study it from books and online articles. As I continued to practice it at home I wanted a more enriching perspective so I took a teacher study course called Transformation Meditation and after completing the course I realized that I needed to help other people discover the benefits of meditation in everyday life. And that’s when I began working on a course that I could teach to interested clients as a spiritual adviser. Drawing from everything that I had learned over the years I came up with, “The Art of Meditation: The Awareness of Thought.” The following material is a basic outline of the content of my course, but it is not the actual course itself. I have found that the best way to learn meditation is to have someone sitting in front of you and actually teaching you how to do it.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is the practice of thought awareness. Many people believe that meditation is about eliminating the thought process all-together, but that’s not true. Meditation is about learning how to control the rapid thoughts in the mind by focusing one’s attention. For many practitioners this focus point is the breath. By counting each breath or keeping track of when you exhale and inhale, a person can take control of the roaming human mind. This time of clarity can have many health benefits both physically and psychologically. For someone who suffers from high blood pressure, this calming effect of meditation can help them control their blood pressure and when used in association with a patients diet, excerise and medication it can make their quality of life much better. Also someone with anxiety issues will find this state of relaxation incredibly comforting.

There are many approaches to achieving control of the mind during meditation, many methods to the goal of calm and eventually peace within oneself. For some people, sitting in one position for 15 minutes to an hour can be difficult. Meditation is not just about being still or motionless. There’s walking meditation for those who prefer active contemplation. Also, dance is a form of meditation because a performer focuses their attention on the routine and not about the million other things we often find ourselves thinking about throughout the day.

What do I need in order to meditate and where can I do it?

There are numerous aids that you can use when doing meditation. Personally, I like to listen to meditation cd’s also called new age music. These cd’s can be of slow paced orchestra performances or of natural sounds such as the ocean lapping against the shore. Many of the cd’s are of natural sounds musically enhanced with instruments like the flute, acoustic guitar, piano, harp and other peaceful instruments. I find these combination albums to be the most soothing and comforting and really help me reach a deeper state of relaxation, which will always make each meditation session worthwhile.

Another useful aid I use is scented candles. I have always been attracted to things that smell nice, they tend to make me more comfortable and calm. They also tend to remind me of different places and scenarios from throughout my life, each scent bringing back a different fond memory. For the most part, you want a scented candle that isn’t too overwhelming or powerful, but if you find one that you absolutely love and the scent has some type of sentimental meaning to you, like one that reminds you of your grandmother, then just place it a good distance from where you’ll being meditating. If you are not a fan of candles and want something a little more exotic or esoteric, then I suggest you explore incense. A brand that I use that is not too smokey is a Japanese style incense called Morning Star.

If you plan on doing sitting meditation or you have already tried it before and have trouble concentrating and your mind is fluttering from one thing to the next, try using an object of focus. Personally I have used candles, statues and flowers as a point of focus. Just place them in front of you and concentrate on their color, size, shape and any details they may have. Once you have given them a good review, close your eyes and try to remember what they looked like. Focus on the object and redraw it in your mind with your eyes closed so you don’t cheat. this practice will keep your mind from running all over the place and help you relax and calm down your mind.

For the most part I don’t do a lot of walking meditation, especially in the winter due to the weather. And sometimes the summer can become too hot for most people to do walking meditation outside. Any indoor facility is nice if it’s not too overcrowded. If your local activity center, YMCA or whatever is too crowded it will only hinder your walking session and add another distraction to an already distraction filled life. If the weather supports, most outdoor parks or community walking trails are your best bet for outdoor walking meditation. I am fortunate because I live out in the country on a farm, so privacy for me is not an issue and distractions are few and far between.

So my favorite meditation is sitting. I use a Zafu and a Zabuton. A Zafu is a round cushion, usually filled with buckwheat or other material, no larger than a foot or foot and a half in diameter that holds its shape when sat on and is placed either on a Zabuton or directly on the floor. A Zabuton is a large rectangular cushion, mine is about three feet by three feet, used in meditation along with a Zafu. Because the Zafu is only used to sit your backside on, your legs will hang over and rest on the floor. I’ve had the issue of the hard floor hurting my knees and ankles so I purchased the Zabuton and now I don’t have that problem anymore. So if you plan to meditate in a room with a hard floor, wood or very short rug fiber, I suggest that you also invest in a Zabuton and save your body the pain.

How do I actually do meditation?

I have broken down the different methods of meditation into the following categories:

Sitting Meditation: This type of meditation can be used in connection with the aid of sound such as meditation cd’s, a visual focal point like statues and burning candles. A person can also “watch” one’s breath, use prayer, chants or mantras and aromatic products like incense. There are many different sitting positions that can be used. Also a person may choose to sit in a chair, on a meditation cushion called a Zafu or may even wish to lay on the floor. Some well known positions are cross-legged (Indian style), the lotus position and the half-lotus position with legs resting one on top the other.

Walking Meditation: Meditation while walking can also be achieved by “watching” one’s breath, which simply means to be aware of exhaling and inhaling. Also keeping track of one’s steps, repeating a prayer or mantra or listening to an audio cd of nature sounds and orchestra music if the area in which you are walking is distracting. Preferably something not too distracting or that doesn’t encourage your emotions to fluctuate and doesn’t cause your thoughts to rapidly change.

Yoga or T’ai Chi: These two physical activities are also a type of meditation. I incorporate yoga into my weekly exercise regimen because the health benefits of proper stretching cannot be down played. I suggest investigating either of these two activities as they can be equally rewarding.

Sitting Meditation is probably the most common and a lot of people may have actually done meditation before and never even knew it. Some people have the idea that meditation is this magical dream state of semi-consciousness where you visit the spirit world, but really it’s nothing like that at all. If you have ever walked through a park and just took in the beauty of what’s around you, that’s a type of meditation. If you have ever driven in your car and visualized something specific outside of what you were doing or where you were headed, that’s another type of meditation.

Before beginning any sitting meditation session, make sure you are prepared and have everything in order. If you have chosen the perfect place in your home or wherever you plan to do this, make sure you will not be continuesly distracted. Give yourself atleast fifteen minutes of time per session. If this is your first time be prepared to be disappointed. Until one practices meditation for themselves it’s hard to know what to expect and usually our expectations are wrong, so my best advice for you would to be to have no expectations. Just let the experience happen, observe yourself and the experience. Some people find it useful to keep a journal of their meditation session. Think of it as a way to mark your progress and experiences along the way.

Meditation is often best utilized after a workout session or some other physical acitivity because beginners tend to be very fidgety and have trouble remaining still or focused enough to actually enter a state of meditation. If you find that it is impossible for you to remain still, then perhaps you should start with walking meditation.

Once you have a place, a time and any aids you wish to utilize then it is time to start your session. If you have purchased a cushion, find a sitting position you consider to be comfortable or one that you can hold for about fifteen minutes. Most people can sit indian style, but if you can attain the Lotus position then go with that.

Find a comfortable place to put your hands, whether that be in your lap, on your knees, wherever is most comfortable. Decide whether you want your hands facing up or down on your body. Try to keep your back straight. When I first started I didn’t think that it would matter whether my back was straight or bent over, but it really does make a difference. If you can’t keep your back straight on your own, use the side of your bed or some other object to support your spine. They do make meditation seats and chairs that help to support a straight back, perhaps give them a look. If you are doing this meditation session in a chair already, sit as far back into the chair as possible so that it will keep your spine straight, don’t slouch.

If sitting up straight is not an option for you then consider lying on the floor. Lay all the way down on the floor, with your head resting on a thin cushion if necessary, do not prop your head up as this will interupt the flow of energy in meditation. Keep your arms out from your body, but not way up by your head, just a comfortable distance from your sides. It’s your decision if you want your hands with palms up or down. Do not cross your legs or have your knees bent so that your feet are on the floor. Keep them outstretched so that your heels or the sides of your feet are touching the floor and that there is atleast a foot of distance between them.

When you are in the most comfortable of position, sitting or lying down, try just closing your eyes. Immediately you’ll have thoughts begin to race through your mind. That’s normal and it will happen no matter how hard you try to shut them out. Don’t get frustrated, just accept that it will happen and don’t get lost in them. When you find yourself paying attention to the thoughts and you are having trouble getting away from them, now would be time for you to utilize your aids. If you wanted to use a focus object, now is the time to concentrate on it.

If you don’t have an object and are having trouble with day-dreaming or rapid distracting thoughts, then use a visualization technique. A lot of people find it helpful to visualize a peaceful place where they would like to be alone. For some it is a peaceful garden, others it is an exotic island, some prefer an open field of wildflowers and others a mountain lake with a setting sun. Whatever offers you comfort or relaxes you, try to visualize it in your mind. Be careful not to allow this visualization to bring into your thoughts other things like where you may be going on vacation this summer and worries about the cost and airline concerns or a field trip the kid’s will be taking that you have to chaperon. Focus on the beautiful place you have invisioned, this is your place, your refuge from the havoc of life and daily troubles.

In this refuge there is no tight schedule, no work or hardship, only peace, calm and relaxation. Imagine the smell of the flowers in the field or the ocean mist as the waves lap against the shore. Imagine the tree frogs in the woods near the lake, the cool breeze as the sun begins to set on the horizen or how it shimmers on the clear waters gently lapping against the bank.

As you begin to feel relaxed from whatever aids you have used and in whatever position you feel most comfortable and as you have found a way to control the rapid thoughts, you have now opened the door to a great meditation session. Whatever follows, whatever your mind discovers, whatever you experience, just allow it to happen. Never force anything during meditation. If you do only have fifteen minutes to meditate, make sure you set a timer so that you don’t have to worry about what time it is. When the alarm sounds, open your eyes and just spend a couple minutes reflecting on what just happened. If you want to do the journal thing, now would be a great time to make an entry.

If you encountered the issue of being sleepy and felt yourself drifting off, consider using a different position or attempt your session at a different time of day. And if nothing happened at all and your session was uneventful, don’t worry about it. It happens to all beginners. Give yourself time and remember to be patient, this is a practice and it does require a little dedication and some determination. Once you get it right, it will be one of the most rewarding moments in your day.

Walking Meditation is fundamentally the same as sitting meditation, except for the obvious thing being the not sitting part! Like I have already mentioned, walking meditation is probably best done outside somewhere in a place you are less likely to be distracted. If you live in a city it will be more difficult to find a place of solitude. Your best bet would a park or walking trail. Once you can find a place to actually do this, the rest is pretty easy.

I think the hardest part to walking meditation is being able to clear your mind of countless and useless thoughts. I know that I often find myself thinking about what I need to do when I get back home and what work I have at the office to do. So for me it makes it easier if I just try to absorb the peace and serenity around me rather than try to manifest it in my head, after all you’re walking around and you don’t want to fall in a hole or walk into a pole. Your eyes are gonna be open anyways, why not focus on the pleasentness of the moment around you. It’s important to find a beautiful and peaceful place to do this. I think that is why it’s a far less common method than Sitting Meditation, it’s so hard for most people to not only find the place, but also the time to travel to this place and have a productive session.

If you can’t find a place of solitude for walking and you are bound and determined to try walking meditation anyway, then you will have to train your mind to shut out everything around you. Let’s say that you live in the city and your only option is to walk the streets. Obviously these streets are full of people talking, loud vehicles, the usual hussle and bussle of a city.

You can try using an MP3 player to listen to meditation tracks that you have synced to the device or you can just try to shut out the noise by concentrating really hard on visualizations. Honestly, it really is risky and not to mention dangerous to attempt to not pay attention to what’s going on around you. If you plan on crossing streets where there is traffic, you really need to consider what is or isn’t safe for you try. Other than sound you can also try counting your steps as you walk. Any aid that can get you to focus your thoughts or keep you from getting distracted would be key.

If you have the time and money, you may consider buying a treadmill. You’ll be able to walk and not worry about stumbling into poles or falling into holes. You will be able to listen to meditation cd’s or if you can find meditation videos/DVD’s you may be better off. The videos are usually of beautiful places like a beach or forest and if you have a larger size television they may help you visualize a place more peaceful while you are walking on the treadmill.

Yoga and T’ai Chi are another relatively common type of moving meditation. These don’t require you to travel anywhere and you can do them right in the privacy of your own home or if you prefer you can join a club or center that offers group classes. I don’t practice T’ai Chi myself, but from what I have seen it is not much different than dancing. Yoga on the other hand is something I do. At its core, it really isn’t anything more than glorified stretching with numerous positions, each having a name. So don’t let it’s exotic name turn you away. Like meditation, it only gets difficult as you advance through the different positions. Some are more difficult than others, but most people who are already in shape will not have any problems learning the beginning positions and progressing through to the more difficult ones.

As with any new physical activity you should consult your doctor before attempting it because you don’t want to get injured. And don’t rush yourself either, go at it at a controlled pace. Set up a workout regimen for each week. For instance, I do yoga on Mondays and Wednesdays and I strength train on Tuesdays and Thursdays. If you have a personal trainer and you want to start doing Yoga, ask them how it would best fit into your personalized training sessions.

Other strategies and resources:

Some people who respond better to vocalization may consider using chants to reach a state of meditation. This can be quite the experience when you are able to join a group of other practitioners. If you are a particularly religious person, another great aid is prayer, afterall prayer in itself is another type of meditation. For those more intune with the Eastern practice, using mantras is also very beneficial. Personally, I don’t use mantras often, but when I do I use, Om Mani Padme Hum, which means “Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus.” It is pronounced, Aum-Mawnee-Podmee-Hum and it is the mantra for compassion. A person can also use bells to begin or end a meditation session.

If you have a local wellness center where you live, you can join a meditation class, which can make your experience all the more fulfilling and not to mention the benefits of sharing your experiences with other people who are interested in meditation. Also, an experienced teacher can help guide you through the practice and offer you helpful advice when you get stuck. Most instructors offer different levels of study so that beginners aren’t thrown to the wolves in a more advanced class where the subject matter may be too complex for someone who has never experienced meditation before.

Usually these classes are once or twice a week and usually last no more than a month or two and for those students/clients who wish to continue the group sessions after they have completed the course can return every week for a group session usually no longer than an hour in length. I’ve heard many people say that they look forward to their one hour escape from daily life each week and enjoy the group setting and socialization. At it’s core, meditation really is a type of therapy. A type of therapy from the stresses of everyday life, from past tramuatic experiences, recent or sudden grief from a death in the family and many other issues we all face throughout life.

Meditation Supplies:

Learn different types of Meditation:

Useful books:

The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Creating Calm by Gill Farrer-Halls

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