By Thomas Amelio
1. Meditation is NOT about “stopping” your thoughts.
Every meditation teacher I know is very familiar with this misconception. When you try to control or stop thoughts, you will tend to create even more of them—out of resistance. In the beginning, we give the mind something to focus upon: perhaps on the inward and outward flow of the breath; an internal mantra or phrase; a symbol; etc. There are quite a number of techniques that will suit different temperaments. As you gently focus on your object of attention, other thoughts will inevitably arise. You actually do not “manufacture” these thoughts of your own will—they are more akin to a phenomenon of nature. Treat them as such: a gust of wind, rain falling, waves on the ocean, or clouds passing through the sky. Don’t try to “stop” the rain! Just allow this thought phenomena to rise and pass, and continue to come back to your point of focus. Eventually these extraneous thoughts will lessen in their power to bother you, and in fact fade away to a large extent.
The immediate benefit is two-fold: firstly, you get to better know your own mind and it’s sometimes crazy ways. Just knowing the mind’s ways can create an objectivity that weakens its effect on you. Secondly, your mind will become steadier over time, and, as concentration and awareness increase, you’ll be less pulled by its ebbs and flows. Thus, centering will occur more naturally.
2. Meditation and visualization are not the same thing.
I often have new students tell me that they love to listen to “led meditations” where the instructor in the recording asks them to visualize a restful place, usually in a soothing nature scene. In yoga, there is a real distinction between visualization (which is a form of concentration) and meditation. In the 8 limbs (“Ashtanga”) of Patanjali’s Yoga system, there are three limbs that relate most strongly to meditation practice:
Pratyhar: Turning the senses inward—away from their usual outward-going direction.
Each of these grow from the preceding step. As we sit and close our eyes to meditate, we are engaging “pratyahara” —turning the senses from outward objects and concerns, to our internal world of thought and sensation. Our distractions lessened, we now can engage Dharana or concentration; typically this is a focusing on the breath, an internal mantra, or a mental image. As mentioned above, we focus, thoughts arise, we become distracted, we gently let the thought go as a phenomenon of nature, and we re-focus. This is the concentration part of practice. Over time, this practice leads to the mind naturally tending to go into Dhyana—or meditation. This means the cycle of concentration-distraction-refocusing is lessened, and the mind goes more into a connected flowing state of concentration and absorption: this is meditation.
Visualization, which involves you constructing an image or scene in your head, or listening to someone else do it for you, is not properly meditation— but a form of concentration (Dharana.) If you concentrate on an internal scene of a gentle blue ocean, and swaying palm trees, you will probably feel more peaceful and calm. If you can “rehearse” playing basketball in your head, visualizing the ball successful going through the hoop again and again will likely help you to play a much better game. Many athletes use this technique, and science backs its effectiveness. Visualizing strengthens concentration, and the ability to focus is a key factor in success of any kind.
Meditation does start with concentration. You focus on something; you are also consciously aware of it. However, eventually, with practice, there will be moments when the object of focus—e.g. breath, sensation, mantra etc.—recedes and you are just resting in awareness itself. You become absorbed in just this awareness— without needing some “thing” to be aware of. This is true meditation, and you will only recognize this when it actually happens to you.
3. Keeping your spine as long as possible is the key factor in meditation posture, not sitting cross-legged on the floor.
From a yogic perspective, what is most important in meditation posture is that your spine is elongated while maintaining the three natural curves of the spine (a “straight” spine, is a figure of speech.) The base of the spine should be rooted towards the earth and the crown of head lifts toward the ceiling or sky above: this elongates the spine naturally. If you are sitting in a chair, do keep the feet grounded flat on the floor with knees parallel to each other—no crossed or splayed legs. For many, sitting in a chair allows them to sit with the spine long; there is little value in sitting on the floor hunched over (with knees aching!). While, ultimately, you can meditate in any position, lying down is not generally recommended, especially for beginners, since we want to remain awake and aware.
From the yogic point of view, this elongated posture better enables the prana, or life force, to flow in the spine. This will aid in entering deeper absorption. Note: practicing physical (“hatha”) yoga is one of the best ways to keep the spine healthy and flexible. This does not need to be a strenuous form of hatha yoga, but any practice that safely engages the six movement of the spine: spinal extension (arching); flexion (rounding,); lateral side bending left; lateral side bending right; twisting left; twisting right.
4. Rest will improve your meditation; meditation will improve your rest.
Many of us do not get enough rest, and when we try to meditate, the body says “now—a quiet enough moment to assert my need that you’ve been ignoring!” —and sleepiness occurs. Sleeping can also arise as a form of resistance to being present to whatever arises—which may include unpleasant feelings and memories we want to avoid. (In fact, a strong purpose of meditation is not to always “feel peaceful,” but rather to face and release these often-avoided thoughts and feelings, to become free of them. Meditation increases our capacity to do this, over time, thus creating for us a solid foundation for peace.)
When plagued with sleepiness, my students have also found it helpful to do a brief relaxation before meditation. This is a favorite: lie with the back flat on the floor, head resting on floor or folded blanket, with upper legs resting on the seat of a chair. (See illustration.) This helps creates relaxation but at the same time the elevated lower body brings a gentle, refreshing flow of blood to the brain (it also eases any back aches). Do this for 10-15 minutes and then sit to meditate: you will naturally feel more alert and absorbed in your practice.
A calmer mind in in a calmer body insures better, deeper sleep. Studies, such as one done at Harvard, affirm this.
5. Meditation first thing in the morning reaps special benefits.
When it the best time to meditate? Our schedules tend to be so packed already. If you are building a practice, it is helpful to do it daily, at the same time (and in the same place if possible.) This way, the weight of routine supports you. Doing this first thing in the morning is excellent as it sets the tone for your day and will help lessen the reactiveness that might have otherwise occurred. Before you read emails or start to think about your day’s agenda, sit in meditation first. You will then be readier and more empowered to take on your day with clarity, intuition—better aligned with your purpose. Adding another (perhaps shorter) session at another time of the day will help you refocus and re-purpose.
If you find yourself saying “you don’t have time” to do it, remember meditation makes time for itself. With a less reactive, more centered mind, you concentrate better, make more effective decisions and choices, and can better follow your intuition. Once you establish a practice you’ll wonder how you got through your day without it!
6. Meditation will enhance your love of Nature.
Walking or just spending time in nature can be wonderful for clearing the mind and connecting with something larger than ourselves. It can be both refreshing and renewing. But wherever we are, we take ourselves, our minds, with us. We can be surrounded by beauty and still be dwelling on worries, plans, hurts and so forth. A restless mind makes it difficult to be present to the nature around us. Meditation practice, over time, softens our habitual reactivity to the constant stimulation we experience. With less reactivity we tend to be more present—able to just experience all that is around us. (Tip—whenever you can, when you are out in nature, find a place to stop and practice meditation, and, when finished, you will be ready to enjoy even more the natural delights around you.)
7. Meditation will enhance your spiritual and religious experience.
Meditation, as a practice, does not depend on religious dogma or belief. It is an experiential means of clearing the mind and resting in awareness. If you are religious, you will find that a more centered mind is a precious aid in discovering the hidden gems in your chosen path. It allows for more insightful study of inspired writing, and deepens the experience of prayer.
I have found profound value in exploring the meditative and contemplative practices of other religions. For example, my familiarity with the Bhakti-yoga (devotional) principles of Indian philosophy have illuminated my understanding of the Islamic mystic poets—such as Rumi and Hafiz; the Catholic devotional rituals of my youth; Jewish contemplative wisdom; and Shamanic teachings which reverence the all-pervading divinity in nature.
Thomas Amelio intensely studied yogic disciplines and philosophy in India, where he edited Rajarshi Muni’s classic, Yoga–The Ultimate Spiritual Path. He is a founding member of, and has been a senior teacher at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health for over 40 years, and is President Emeritus of the NY Open Center in New York City. His latest CD is Mantra Darshan –Vedic and Tantric invocations for meditative absorption.
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