Friday, October 30, 2009

Finding the beauty of meditation

Even in the most chaotic and unappealing situations, you can attune yourself to a quality or dimension of beauty, if you try. Imagine that your mind is like a CD player, and you’re trying to tune in to a particular track. Or take one of those figure-ground puzzles. At first, you can’t even perceive the shape in the background. But as soon as you’ve seen it, you merely need to shift your awareness to see it again.
So, the next time you find yourself in an unpleasant place or circumstance — preferably not one with a strong emotional charge, because that might make this exercise too difficult — do the following:
  1. Take a moment to look for the beauty. You may notice a patch of green grass in the distance, or a bouquet of flowers on a table, or the laughter of a child, or an aesthetically pleasing piece of furniture. Or you may just notice a warm feeling in your belly or heart.
  2. Take a deep breath, set aside your stress and discomfort, and enjoy the beauty. Allow yourself to resonate with it for a few moments as you would with a favorite piece of music or a walk in the woods.
  3. Shift your focus back to the situation at hand and notice whether your attitude has changed in any way.
Know that you can shift your awareness in this way whenever you feel inclined.

How to set up an altar

For many people, the word altar is fraught with associations. Maybe you have memories of being an altar boy as a kid — or you recall altars you’ve seen on special occasions like weddings or funerals or memorial services. For the purposes of this book, I use altar to refer to a collection of objects with special meaning and resonance for you that you assemble in one place and use to inspire your meditations. If you’re a Christian, for example, your altar may include a crucifix or a picture of Jesus; if you’re a Jew, you may have a holy book or a Star of David; or, if you’re a Buddhist, you may choose to contemplate a statue of Buddha or a photo of your teacher. And if you have no particular religious inclinations, you may be quite content with a few stones, a candle, and a potted plant.
Although an altar is not essential to meditation, it can be a creative and constantly evolving expression of your inner life, a reflection of your deepest aspirations, values, and beliefs. Gazing at your altar before you sit can evoke your connection to a spiritual dimension of being — or it can merely remind you of why you’re here: to develop concentration, relax, open your heart, heal your body. Here are some of the main ingredients that appear on many altars; feel free to improvise and add or subtract as you see fit:

_ Bells
_ Candles
_ Flowers
_ Incense
_ Natural objects
_ Pictures (of nature or inspirational figures)
_ Sacred texts
_ Statues (of inspirational figures)

Some traditions recommend that altars appeal to all the senses — hence, the incense, bells, flowers, and candles, which are mainstays on many home altars. In particular, the fragrance of your favorite incense can quickly become hyperlinked in your brain with meditation, causing you to relax just a little whenever you smell it.
As with your meditation, it’s best to keep your altar simple at first. Use a small, low table or cabinet (if you meditate on the floor) covered with a special piece of cloth. If you want, you can enrich and expand it over time, or you may prefer to keep a stash of objects and rotate them as the spirit moves you. For example, you can adapt your altar to the seasons, with flowers in spring, seashells in summer, dried leaves in autumn, pine boughs in winter, and so on. One cautionary note about pictures: You may want to devote your altar to mentors, teachers, and other figures whose presence fills you with unadulterated inspiration — and consign to your desk or bureau those loved ones for whom your feelings may be more complex, like children, parents, spouses, and friends.

How to pick the right meditation spot?

If you share a small apartment with a partner or friend, or your family has usurped every square foot of usable space at your house, by all means choose the only vacant corner and make it your own. If you have more leeway, here are a few guidelines for picking your spot. And remember, even a modest patch of floor that meets these criteria is better than a sumptuous suite that doesn’t:
  • Off the beaten track: You know the heavily trafficked highways in your house, so be sure to avoid them. And if you don’t want someone inadvertently barging in on you just when you’re starting to settle, tell your housemates you’re going off to meditate — they’ll understand. And if they don’t . . . well, that’s another issue you may eventually have to face. _ Away from work: If you work at home or have a desk devoted to personal business, keep it out of sight — and mind — when you’re meditating. And if possible, remember to shut off your phone; there’s nothing quite as distracting to your mind as wondering who’s trying to reach you now!
  • Relatively quiet: Especially if you live in the city, you probably won’t be able to eliminate the usual background noises — the drone of traffic, the shouts and laughter of kids on the street, the hum of the refrigerator. But you should, if at all possible, avoid audible conversations, especially among people you know, and the sounds of TV, radio, popular music, and other familiar distractions. These are the kinds of recognizable noises that can pull your mind away from its appointed task, especially when you’re just starting out.
  • Not too dark or too light: Sitting in a bright, sunny spot may be too energizing and distracting, just as sitting in the dark can put you to sleep. Be sure to modulate the lighting with your attention level in mind: If you’re sleepy, open the blinds or turn on an extra light; if you’re wired, tone down the illumination accordingly.
  • Fresh air: Because we’re talking breath here, it’s great to have a supply of fresh air where you meditate. Avoid musty basements and windowless closets; besides being bad for your health, they tend to lower your energy (along with your O2 level) and lull you to sleep. Close to nature: If you don’t have a tree or a garden outside the window near where you meditate, you may want to have a plant or a vase full of flowers or a few stones nearby. Not that you’ll be gazing at them while you sit, but natural objects radiate a certain special energy of their own that lends support to your practice. Besides, you can pick up a few pointers by watching how rocks and trees meditate — they’ve been doing it a lot longer than we have.