FAQ

Sit with an upright spine, uplift the chest, do not over-arch or slouch in the lower spine, relax the abdomen, relax the shoulders (do not allow the shoulders to roll forward). The chin should be slightly tilted down. Your hands should be folded in your lap or resting on your thighs. Make sure you have enough support under your seat so that your butt is higher than your knees (don’t worry if you have to sit on a larger cushion to do this- it is worth it!). This helps create the gentle arch in your low back that is essential for supporting the upper body without creating too much tension in your back. If you are sitting in a cross-legged position, you may want also want to put cushions under your knees to support them.

The aim of all these meditation practices is to help us be more present with our experiences in the body and the mind, with as little reactivity as possible. So to begin with, if you’re able to maintain your awareness of the experience of breathing for just one half-breath at a time, and to notice when you’ve gotten lost in thinking or reacting and simply begin again, then you’re doing it correctly.

Usually, the more time we can put into each meditation session the more we benefit, but for people brand new to meditation, even five minutes a day is a good place to start. For most people, twenty minutes a day twice a day is a realistic goal to fit into their lives, to get the “habit” started. Once a daily routine has been established though, you can try 25 minutes and then perhaps 30 minutes, gradually increasing to whatever is doable in your particular life circumstances.

There are said to be four traditional meditation “postures”:

    Sitting

    Standing

    Lying down

     Walking (not something we typically consider a posture, but for the sake of differentiation we do here).

We generally recommend sitting because it offers a nice balance of focus and relaxation. Feel free to lie down if you feel like you’re able to sustain your attention without falling asleep. Standing is a great posture to practice with as we spend a lot of our day in this posture, and meditating while standing (or walking) can help to develop mindfulness that will carry over into daily activities. The main idea is that when you do your formal meditation practice, you aren’t also doing something else.

Lying down is a traditional meditation posture, so yes you can. We generally recommend sitting because it offers a nice balance of focus and relaxation. Feel free to lie down if you feel like you’re able to sustain your attention without falling asleep. If it is comfortable for you, bend your knees so they point to the ceiling when you meditate lying down, it will help you be more alert. Additionally, you may bend an arm at the elbow so your fingers point to the ceiling. This also supports alertness. The benefit of this modification is that your hand on the floor is feedback that you fell asleep if it doesn’t succeed in waking you up.

It’s very common for even the most experienced meditators to feel sleepiness during meditation. Here’s a helpful article on how to work with it: https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/advice-dealing-sleepiness-meditation/

Often bringing mindfulness to the body will reveal that we’re making too much effort. When we’re forcing ourselves to be mindful, there’s likely to be some tension, contraction, tightness, or stiffening somewhere in the body. It can be helpful from time to time to check areas of the body where we commonly hold tension – for example the small muscles around the eyes might be scrunched up, or there could be a slight frown on the forehead, or the jaw might be clamped tightly shut, or there’s a feeling of tightness in the chest and slight holding of the breath.

If you notice tension in any of these areas, invite it to release, to relax, then gently return to the breath. If there’s some residue of tension that doesn’t relax, that’s ok. Don’t try to force it, as that would be counter-productive. Instead, try to just accept that it’s there in the background, and continue with your meditation.

A second way to recognize forced effort is to notice if there are any thoughts of judgment in the mind as you return your attention to the breath. If you’re able to simply notice that the mind has wandered and then come back to the breath, this usually doesn’t take much effort or feel particularly forced. But if there is any background sense of “Oh, no, wandering again. How many times has it been now? This is hopeless. Get back to the breath, dammit!” then that extra layer of judgement can create a sense of needing to force the process.

Walking meditation is very beneficial, so much so that on meditation retreats, the day is usually spent doing equal amounts of sitting and walking.

You can find additional walking meditation instructions by Gil Fronsdal here:

    Insight Meditation Society: Instructions for walking meditation

https://www.insightmeditationcenter.org/books-articles/instructions-for-walking-meditation/

Unless we are aware that thoughts are happening, then usually we’re just driven by them – the “little dictators” in the mind. As we start to pay more attention to mental phenomena though, we become familiar with our own mental habits; for example the tendency to get distracted, lost in fantasy or worry, or caught in recurrent emotions. 

With practice, it becomes easier to notice when we’re lost, and gently bring the awareness back to whatever it is we want to be paying attention to. This needs to be done with patient, kind persistence though, because attempting to force the mind to focus or be more disciplined is often counter-productive: a bit like trying to train a puppy to sit still by hitting it. Repeatedly and gently bringing the mind back to simply being present with experience, is what develops the kind of focus and discipline you’re aiming for.

There isn’t anything wrong with listening to music, but in this kind of meditation we’re trying to find ways to relax and stay present with whatever arises, without any external supports. Music can distract your attention away from that. Here’s a longer explanation if you’re interested in reading more: http://www.wildmind.org/background/can-anyone-meditate/music

It’s actually possible to use sound as an object of meditation (instead of seeing it as an obstacle to meditation). When you become aware of a noise, simply note “sound”, or “hearing, hearing.” You don’t need to identify what the sound is, try to follow it, or try to make it go away. Eventually you can also notice how you’re relating to the noises – irritation, frustration, or if they’re pleasant – happiness, etc. – and see if you can just be with the sounds without judging them as wrong or bad.

According to a Pew Research Report, 20 percent of Americans — one-fifth of the adult population — describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated. That’s up from 15 percent just five years ago, and the percentage goes higher the younger you are — up to 72 percent for Generation Y.

There are many different reasons why people become disenchanted with organized religion, but most continue to yearn for something more than a life of materialism, for something that gives deeper meaning and happiness, for something they describe as “spiritual.”

About a third of the religiously unaffiliated describe themselves as atheists. But the rest — some thirty million Americans — maintain some type of spiritual belief and practice, even though they no longer feel at home in a church, synagogue, or mosque. These are the famous “spiritual but not religious,” philosophically the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. Generally, they’re educated, liberal, and open-minded, with a deep sense of connection to the Earth and a belief that there’s more to life than what appears on the surface.

Perhaps this describes you. Perhaps you have seen that Buddhism has a lot to offer your life and spiritual practice, without some of the downsides of institutionalized religion.

Buddhism is the one world religion that has no God. It is the nontheistic religion.

And, as a matter of fact, the word “spiritual” doesn’t really apply to Buddhism, as there is no “spirit” to discover; in fact, Buddhism even challenges the notion of a continuous, solid personal self! (More on this later…)

That changes everything. Buddhism is down-to-earth and practical: it is about us, our minds, and our suffering. It’s about being fully and deeply human, and it has something to offer everyone: Buddhists of course; but also the spiritual but not religious, members of other religions, and even those who don’t think they’re spiritual at all.

Because can’t we all experience the value of being present and aware?

Also, much of what is said here about Buddhism also applies to the contemplative traditions of other religions. In fact, contemplatives of different faiths often have more in common with each other than they do with practitioners of their own religion.

This is not an attempt to convert anyone to Buddhism. There is no need for that. But those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious can find a lot in Buddhism to help them on their personal path, however they define it.

So having said that, maybe you can answer this question yourself; and if you are still unclear, just read on!

Please be patient with this answer! Meditation is the very essence of Buddhism. This is actually because of Buddhism’s fundamental non-theism and deconstruction of what we call the “I.”

Here are seven reasons why meditation is so central to Buddhism, and also why it may be attractive to folks who consider themselves  1) atheists, 2) “spiritual but not religious,”or 3) members of another religion who are open-minded contemplatives seeking to enrich their own spiritual practice.

1–The problem is suffering. The answer is waking up.

Buddhism exists to address one problem: suffering. The Buddha called the truth of suffering “noble,” because recognizing our suffering is the starting place and inspiration of the spiritual path.

His second noble truth was the cause of suffering. In the West, Buddhists call this “ego.” It’s a small word that encompasses pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world. Because according to the Buddha, all suffering, large and small, starts with our false belief in a solid, separate, and continuous “I,” whose survival we devote our lives to.

It feels like we’re hopelessly caught in this bad dream of “me and them” we’ve created, but we can wake up from it. This is the third noble truth, the cessation of suffering. We do this by recognizing our ignorance, the falseness of our belief in this “I.”

You don’t have to take the Buddha’s word for this, as modern neuroscience has determined humanity’s belief in a self-existing, autonomous “I” to be an illusion sustained by millions of years of evolutionary survival. One excellent summary of this research is Professor Bruce Hood’s very readable The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity.

Finally, the Buddha told us that there is a concrete way we can be liberated from all suffering,  which basically consists of discipline, effort, meditation, and wisdom. This is the fourth noble truth, the truth of the path.

2–The way to do that is by working with your mind.

So, according to the Buddha, the problem is suffering, the cause is ignorance, the remedy is waking up, and the path is living mindfully, meditating, and cultivating our wisdom. There’s really only one place all that happens: in our minds. The mind is the source of both our suffering and our joy. Meditation — taming the mind — is what gets us from one to the other. Meditation is Buddhism’s basic remedy for the human condition, and its special genius.

The Buddhist path of meditation begins with practices to calm our wild mind. Once the mind is focused enough to look undistractedly into reality, we develop insight into the nature of our experience, which is marked by impermanence, suffering, nonego, and emptiness. We naturally develop compassion for ourselves and all beings who suffer, and our insight allows us to help them skillfully.

3–No one can do it for you. But you can do it.

In Buddhism, there is no savior. There’s no one who’s going to do it for us, no place we can hide out for safety. We have to face reality squarely, and we have to do it alone. Even when Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha, what they’re really taking refuge in is the truth that there’s no refuge. Not seeking protection is the only real protection.

So that’s the bad news — we have to do it alone. The good news is, we can do it. As human beings, we have the resources we need: intelligence, strength, loving hearts, and proven, effective methods. Because of that, we can rouse our confidence and renounce our depression and resentment.

But while no one can do that for us, help and guidance is available. There are teachers — women and men who are further along the path — who offer us instruction and inspiration. They prove to us it can be done. Our fellow practitioners support our path, while never allowing us to use them as crutches. The Buddhist teachings offer us wisdom that goes back 2,600 years to the Buddha himself. We can go right to the source, because the lineage that started with Gautama Buddha is unbroken to this day.

4–But you don’t have to take anything on faith.

There is no received wisdom in Buddhism, nothing we must accept purely on the basis of somebody else’s spiritual authority. The Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism must give up any belief that modern science disproves. The Buddha himself famously said, “Be a lamp unto yourselves,” and told his students they must test everything he said against their own experience. But it is easy to misinterpret this advice. Our modern egos are keen to take advantage of it. While we shouldn’t accept what others say at face value, this doesn’t mean we should just accept what we tell ourselves. We have to test the teachings of Buddhism against our direct life experience, not against our opinions.

And while modern science can prove or disprove old beliefs about astronomy or human physiology, it cannot measure or test the nonmaterial. Buddhism values the rational mind and seeks not to contradict it in its own sphere. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Finally, it is the rare person who can navigate the spiritual path alone. While retaining our self-respect and judgment, we must be willing to accept the guidance, even leadership, of those who are further along the path. In a society that exalts the individual and questions the hierarchy of the teacher-student relationship, it is a challenge to find a middle way between too much self and not enough.

5–Buddhism offers lots of “skillful means” for different people’s needs.

Buddhism is not a one-path-fits-all religion. It’s highly pragmatic, because it’s about whatever helps reduce suffering.

Beings are infinite. So are their problems and states of mind. Buddhism offers a wealth of skillful means to meet their different needs. If people are not ready for the final truth, but a partial truth will help, that’s no problem — as long as it actually helps. The problem is that things that feel helpful — like going along with our usual tricks — can sometimes make things worse. So the Buddhist teachings are gentle, but they can also be tough. We need to face the ways we cause ourselves and others suffering.

Buddhist meditators have been studying the mind for thousand of years. In that time, they’ve tested and proven many techniques to tame the mind, lessen our suffering, and discover who we are and what is real (and not). There are meditations to calm and focus the mind, contemplations to open the heart, and ways to bring ease and grace to the body. It’s fair to say, as many people have, that Buddhism is the world’s most developed science of mind.

Today, people who want to explore Buddhism have many resources at their disposal. For the first time in history, all the schools and traditions of Buddhism are gathered in one place. There are fine books, excellent teachers (many of them now American), practice centers, communities, and indeed, magazines.

These are all available for you to explore according to your own needs and path. You can practice meditation at home or go to a local center and practice with others. You can read a book, attend classes, or hear a lecture by a Buddhist teacher. Whatever works for you — no pressure.

6–It’s open, progressive, and not institutional.

While Buddhism in its Asian homelands can be conservative, convert Buddhists in the West are generally liberal, both socially and politically. Whether this is an accident of history or a natural reflection of the Buddhist teachings, Buddhist communities embrace diversity and work against sexism and racism.

Identities of all sorts, including gender, nationality, ethnicity, and even religion, are not seen as fixed and ultimately true. Yet they are not denied; differences are acknowledged, celebrated, and enjoyed. Of course, Buddhists are still people and still part of a society, so it’s a work in progress. But they’re trying.

Many Americans have turned away from organized religion because it feels like just another bureaucracy, rigid and self-serving. Buddhism has been described as disorganized religion. There’s no Buddhist pope. (No, the Dalai Lama is not the head of world Buddhism. He’s not even the head of all Tibetan Buddhism, just of one sect.) There is no overarching church, just a loose collection of different schools and communities. As you’ll quickly discover if you go to your local Buddhist center, things may run smoothly (or not), but the atmosphere is likely to be open and relaxed. It probably won’t feel institutional.

And finally,

7–It works!

We can’t see or measure subjective experience, so we can’t judge directly the effect Buddhism is having on someone else’s mind and heart. But we can see how they act and treat other people. We can hear what they say about what they’re experiencing inside.

What we find is that Buddhism works. For millennia, Buddhism has been making people more aware, caring, and skillful. All you have to do is meet someone who’s been practicing meditation a lot to know that. In our own time, hundreds of thousands of Americans are reporting that even a modest Buddhist practice has made their life better — they’re calmer, happier, and not as carried away when strong emotions arise. They’re kinder to themselves and others.

But it’s really important not to burden ourselves with unrealistic expectations. Change comes very slowly. You’ll also see that when you meet a Buddhist meditator, even one who’s been at it for a long time. Don’t expect perfection. We’re working with patterns of ignorance, greed, and anger that have developed over a lifetime — if not much longer. Change comes slowly for most of us. But it does come. If you stick with it, that’s guaranteed. Buddhism works.

This is not an attempt to convert anyone to Buddhism. There is no need for that. But those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious can find a lot in Buddhism to help them on their personal path, however they define it.

When I first encountered Buddhism, what struck me was its absolute integrity. I saw that it was not trying to manipulate me by telling me what I wanted to hear. It always tells the truth. Sometimes that truth is gentle, softening our hearts and bringing tears to our eyes. Sometimes it is tough, forcing us to face our problems and cutting through our comfortable illusions. But always it is skillful. Always it offers us what we need. We are free to take what we wish.

 
 

I present meditation in an open, progressive Buddhist manner simply because doing so gives meditation a lot of depth and richness, and because it just works. And you don’t have to be a Buddhist to reap these benefits; but it may help you to appreciate these benefits more to understand the Buddhist context.

 

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