Meditation, an ancient practice sometimes called contemplative prayer, is common to most major faiths and wisdom traditions. A growing body of scientific research is also now documenting its benefits for both physical health and mental well-being. Cultivation of silent, attentive alertness is, therefore, a rare bridge, not only between historically distinct (and sometimes antagonistic) belief systems, but also between a religious and a secular approach to life.
Anyone can learn to meditate. Here’s how:
1. Find a quiet place
Choose a location where you can be reasonably assured that you will not be interrupted, and where intrusive sounds, images and movement are at a minimum. Soothing music, a lit candle, or a meaningful image may help transform an ordinary room into a sacred space for meditation. But remember: when you meditate, you are engaged in inner work, and all such external trappings must be mentally left behind as you enter the stillness and silence.
2. Sit straight and still
Your task during meditation is to still the body, quiet the mind, and maintain a state of relaxed alertness for a fixed time. So seat yourself comfortably in a chair or on the floor. (There is no one correct posture for meditation.) The pelvis should usually be slightly higher than the knees. Keep your spine erect. Breathe slowly and naturally. Drop your hands onto your thighs or into your lap. Close your eyes lightly. Relax!
3. Say your mantra
A mantra is a word or phrase you repeat, silently and faithfully, during the entire time of your meditation. The mantra itself is not magic; it is simply functional: so long as you focus on your word, your attention cannot wander. This sustained focus is what increases your capacity for attention. Choose your mantra carefully, and cherish it for life. A word without vivid associations, but with deep resonance in your faith tradition, is ideal.
4. Ignore all else
All thoughts, impressions, emotions, memories, and images – even good, holy, or edifying ones – are unhelpful distractions during the period of your meditation. When you become aware of intrusions into your consciousness of anything that is not the mantra, simply resume the calm recitation of your word. Meditation is an asymmetrical pulsation between awareness and focus, that is, between distractions to which you are indifferent and the mantra toward which your attention constantly returns.
5. Practice faithfully
As with any discipline, your capacity for calm attentiveness will grow – provided you show up for practice and persevere for a complete workout. Showing up for practice means meditating every morning and evening; perseverance means faithfully saying your mantra for the 20-to-30 minutes of each sitting. Gradually, a spirit of calm alertness will infuse your whole waking life. You will enjoy greater inner peace, patience, self-control, joy, and harmony between body, mind, and spirit.