This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
How to Meditate
Welcome back. Two questions I receive quite regularly are "Why do we meditate?" and "How do we meditate?" and I wanted to address them.
The reason we meditate is that our minds are engaged in an ongoing process of assigning meaning to events as they unfold. We create stories about ourselves and others. The guy who cuts us off in traffic. The strange look on the face of the clerk in the grocery store. The tone used by a co-worker, and so on. We're generally not even aware of this process and yet these stories that we create can end up being the greatest source of stress in our lives. Meditation has been practised for thousands of years as a tool to help us move beyond those stress-inducing thoughts and into a more peaceful state of awareness that's anchored in the present moment. When practised regularly, meditation has been proven to increase positive emotion, emotional intelligence and self control while at the same time decreasing depression, anxiety and stress.
So, the next question. How do we meditate? The secret is to develop a consistent practice. Meditating for five minutes every day is better than meditating for one hour every month and threefold mindfulness meditation is a technique that I've developed to make meditation easier to practice. It only takes fifteen minutes and it's broken down into three five-minute parts. Give it a try. I challenge you to try meditating for fifteen minutes a day. Try this for two weeks and you will notice a difference.
Part one of this technique is about calming the mind. The mind is a lot like a jar of murky water. Constant agitation and movement of the jar causes the water to remain murky, but when you keep the jar still for long enough the sediment will settle to the bottom and you'll have a jar of clear water. In order to be able to gain insight into the nature of your mind, you must learn to calm the mind before it becomes clear. So, the first five minutes of the meditation technique are dedicated to calming the mind by focusing on your breath.
There's a powerful breathing technique used by free divers to lower their heart rate and to reduce stress as they prepare to hold their breath to go underwater. Free diving is a form of underwater diving that relies on the diver's ability to hold their breath until resurfacing rather than use a breathing apparatus like scuba gear. I learned this technique while I was training for four days with the US free diving record holder, Ted Harty, and what he taught me is a technique that works like this: you inhale through your mouth for two seconds; then you pause and hold for two seconds; then you exhale over the course of ten seconds. At the end of the exhale you pause or hold for two more seconds. Then you repeat the whole process.
The secret is to try and exhale through your nose. If you do it through your mouth, you have to maybe tuck your tongue behind your teeth; almost like you're going to do an "s" or a "shhh" sound. That will restrict how much air comes out, because you need to restrict the air flow so that, in the first two seconds of exhaling, all your air is gone. You're not going to make ten seconds, so you have to exhale slowly. You don't necessarily have to make a sound, but it is easier if you do.
Then, as you practice it, you'll get more and more familiar with it and you won't have to make a sound as you exhale. You'll just know what the right pressure is to ensure you're going to last ten seconds. And, more often than not, the first time you do this you can't hit ten seconds. I can probably do six or seven. And then on the second round I can do seven or eight. Once you hit ten seconds, you can do ten seconds. And you are going to repeat this process over and over and over for the first five minutes.
The way it works is your focus is on your breath, because you're counting it. This is focusing your mind on an object. The object is your breath or staying on pattern. But what's happening physiologically is we are calming the mind by slowing down the heart rate. And we are focusing the mind on a single object, which is the breathing pattern that we're trying to stick with.
Now, what's interesting is, when you do this, after five minutes you will notice physically a sense of calm comes over you. This is a really cool technique that I like to use when I'm transitioning back from work to home. If I have a couple of minutes I'll sit down and just practice this breathing technique for a minute or two. And it makes a big difference. It really does calm the mind.
The next part is observing the mind. Meditation can help you to change the way you perceive and react to the moment-to-moment events as they unfold. So, this shift takes place when you go from thinking to observing. It's by observing that you learn to create a space or a gap between stimulus and response. So, imagine you're driving and suddenly you get cut off. That's the stimulus. How do you react? That's the response. So, habitual reactivity is when you react to an event without even having the time to decide how you want to react. This happens to us all the time.
There is no freedom in habitual reactivity. It's in the space or this gap between what happens to you and how you react to what happens to you that you have the freedom to choose. And this is the second part of meditation. So, the first part is learning to calm your mind. But the second part is learning to practice a technique that reduces our habitual reactivity. And this is the phase of the threefold mindfulness meditation technique that's designed to train your mind to practice observing your senses, thoughts and emotions.
The technique works likes this. You practice observing your physical senses first. So, you can scan your senses from top to bottom of your body. For example, starting with your head, try to observe and ask yourself: "What does my head feel like?"; "What do my ears hear?"; "What is my nose smelling?"; "What does my back feel like? Is it sore?" You're just observing. You're not answering these questions. You're trying to get in the mindset of observing. "What does it feel like to observe my body breathing?" You've just been doing five minutes of breathing where you're trying to stay on a pattern. There's a lot of observing that can be done there. "What do my legs feel like? Are they going numb from sitting here with my legs crossed?" "What do I feel in my feet?" And so on. Again, you're just observing things here.
Then you move on to your thoughts. You can imagine that you are sitting in a field and you are observing the clouds passing by in the sky. When you look at clouds, do you ever see a misshapen cloud? No. Because there are no misshapen clouds. When you're observing your thoughts, it's the same way. It's not about right or wrong thoughts. What you see is just what is. So, apply this to the meditative process of observing. Just observe your thoughts, but don't judge them. And don't think that there's something you're supposed to or not supposed to be thinking while you meditate. Because remember it's thinking mind that we're trying to get out of and observing mind that we're trying to get into.
So next, I want you to practice observing your emotions in the same way you would observe clouds. Notice how if you are feeling an emotion, like anger for example, you are not actually angry. You are experiencing anger. This is creating a little bit of separation between your emotions and you. So, two key findings should emerge when we're consistently observing our senses, thoughts and emotions.
One is that they are impermanent; meaning they are always changing. They arise. They linger. They go away, just as the clouds in the sky do. And number two is that they are interdependent; meaning they have causes and conditions. For example, if you sit long enough and your leg goes numb, the cause of the leg going numb is that you've been sitting. There's a cause to it. And the cause has its own cause. And that goes on and on. Every cause has its cause. So during this part of the meditation you'll notice how quickly your mind shifts from observing back into thinking; making meaning. And when it does just bring your attention back to the practice of observing. Remember, observing that you're no longer observing is still a form of observing, so don't be harsh on yourself.
The whole goal of this part of the meditation is to practice observing. That's what creates space between stimulus and response. It's our ability to remove ourselves from the thinking mind into the observing mind that will create the space between stimulus and response. You choose how you respond.
So, part one is calming the mind. Part two is learning to observe, and what we are observing specifically are senses, thoughts and emotions. Part three is about analysing the mind. After observing that the nature of our senses, thoughts and emotions is that they are impermanent and interdependent we now want to analyse the implications of these observations. So, if you are experiencing an emotion, such as anger, this is where you get to spend time analysing it. In the second part, if you're noticing or observing your emotion, you're not doing anything with it. You're just observing it. But, in this part, we are going to analyse it. So you could ask: "What are the causes and conditions of this emotion?" And, when you find the causes, "What are the causes of those causes?" What you should find, if you are analytical enough and you spend time with it, is that everything that has a cause has a cause and that that cause also has a cause. This goes on and on, and this process can go on forever because all things are interdependent; all things have causes.
So, if your senses, thoughts and emotions are not permanent, what about your sense of self? What is the "self"? The Dalai Lama practices this form of meditation, called analytical meditation; the one that I have incorporated into the threefold mindfulness meditation as the third part. In this phase of meditation, he asks himself: "Who am I?" And this is what you're going to do, too. If you can observe your thoughts, then you must not be your thoughts, so perhaps you're the observer of your thoughts. And if you can observe that you're observing your thoughts, then maybe you're not the observer. You're the observer of the observer. This gets crazy, because this can go on and on.
If you can observe your emotions, then you are not your emotions. Are you the observer of your thoughts and emotions? So, the ultimate aim of meditation is to arrive at an understanding of the nature of reality; the nature of the self. And that is that the sense of self we experience, like all other things, is impermanent and interdependent. It's constantly changing and it has causes and conditions. So, whatever it is you're experiencing, try observing it and then analysing it for its causes and conditions.
One of the secrets of meditation is that you don't will yourself to be calm or peaceful by meditating. It cannot be forced. And I think there's a misconception here, because people spend time meditating thinking: "What I'm doing is I'm sitting here and pretending to be peaceful or calm hoping that, if I fake it until I make it, eventually I will be." But that's not how it works. The key is that you learn to understand the nature of your anguish; the nature of your anger or your discomfort, or whatever emotion it is that you're experiencing.
Understanding the nature of yourself brings about peace naturally. It's not forced. When you understand your anger and its causes, then you become liberated from it. And it's not because you force it to go away, but because you allow it to be the impermanent emotion that it is. And, by the very nature of being impermanent, before you know it it's gone. And when it comes back, because it will, you can greet it like an old friend. But this time you won't be trapped by your reactivity to it anymore. Freedom from habitual reactivity is the essence of what it means to be mindful and what it means to be awakened or enlightened. And it's something that we can practice. We do this over and over, day after day, until we're free from our habitual reactivity. This is the goal of threefold mindfulness meditation. We learn to calm the mind. Then we observe the nature of the mind. Finally, we analyse it, so that we can gain insight about ourselves.
It's amazing how many of us experience emotions without ever really understanding why we're experiencing them. Are you really mad that somebody cut you off? Or is there a deeper discomfort that's causing you to react with anger to a stimulus such as being cut off? You can ask yourself, what if it was a duck with its ducklings that's walking in the road that forced you to slam on your brakes or forced you to swerve? Would you still feel the same amount of anger? Why or why not? Analyse that emotion.
I would challenge you to make a goal to practice this every day for at least fourteen days and see if you notice a difference in your habitual reactivity. And then, after that, keep going. Just make it a daily practice. Think about this for a second: what price would you be willing to pay to be free from your habitual reactivity? The investment is only fifteen minutes a day. I hope that you have greater peace and contentment in life and that this process will be helpful.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.