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Meditation & Breathing

The question of how to start meditating and what to do can seem a little scary to those who have no experience with it. There are a million books out there on the subject, and many of them say contradictory things, which adds to the confusion. Since the question came up on a few of the groups I post on, I wanted to put something up to help those who are looking for a place to start. Keep in mind, I'm no Guru, but I can share what I've found works well for most of he people.

Every mystical or spiritual tradition I've studied have certain key aspects in common, but the most basic one seems to be controlled breathing. Even the most advanced meditation techniques usually start with some basic breath techniques. Here's a place to start:

Sit in a comfortable and relaxed position. Some people prefer to sit cross-legged or in the lotus position, but a comfortable chair with both feet planted on the floor works equally well for these exercises. If you're having trouble concentrating, feel free to close your eyes or sit in front of a blank space like a wall so there is nothing distracting you visually.

1) AWARENESS. Become aware of your breath. Notice if it is slow or rapid, shallow or deep. Don't try to alter or change it, just notice the body's natural rhythms. As you do so, you may become more aware of other things, such as the feel of the air on your skin, your pulse throughout your body, and so on. As you become more comfortable, allow your body to relax, bit by bit. Start at the soles of your feet and work your way up to the top of your head. Become aware of each part of your body, how it feels, what sorts of things it's doing as you relax. You might get a twitch here and there, or the occasional itch. Don't worry about it; scratch where it itches and maintain your state of relaxation. Keep your focus on your breathing throughout this exercise, noticing if it changes or stays the same.

This can be done at work, at home, in bed, or wherever the urge strikes you. This is particularly good to do if you feel stressed out, angry, scared or frustrated. Try it three times a day, seven days in a row. You might be surprised at the results of such a simple exercise.

2) CONTROL. Once you're comfortable with the above exercise and wish to move on to something a little more involved, start to focus on deepening and controlling the breath. A key point here is to focus on pulling your breath deep into your belly and diaphragm.

Start by making a slow, controlled inhale for eight seconds, hold for a second or two, then exhale for ten seconds, and hold for another second or two. Doesn't sound like much, but for those of us with asthma or a smoking habit even this can be a challenge. If you find this too easy, see how many seconds you can comfortably inhale and exhale for, and then work at extending the inhales and exhales by a second or so every couple of days.

You might find yourself getting a little dizzy or light-headed during this exercise due to a combination of hyperventilation and increased energy flow. This is fine, just return to the earlier technique of observing your body's natural breathing rhythm until you feel comfortable again.

3) FOCUS. In the above two exercises you might have noticed that your mind tended to run off in different directions at the slightest provocation. Worries about the day, mental to-do lists, thoughts about work or school, random memories of conversations, and more are constantly fighting for attention in the mind. Many of us are not even aware of how much internal dialogue is actually taking place on a constant basis. This technique will help you to focus and calm the mind.

As you're breathing deeply and comfortably, think of something that evokes a feeling of peace in you. It can be anything, as long as it's simple; the image of a clear lake or sky, the sound of a stream running over rocks, or even just slowly repeating a single word, such as "love" or "peace" itself. If you have a water fountain in the room, try to focus on the sound of the trickling water. If you have trouble maintaining a mental image, you can even start by looking at an actual photo of a peaceful scene. If nothing else seems to work, try mentally or verbally chanting a basic vowel sound, such as "Aaaahhhh" or "Ooooohhm".

At first it may be difficult to stay focused. Your mind will try to skip around from thought to thought. Don't worry about it and don't get upset with yourself; just notice the thought, let it go, and return to the object of your focus. If you start getting frustrated, go back to counting your breath for a while until you're ready to try again.

It helps to have an egg-timer or digital watch while doing this. Set the timer for three minutes the first time. Once you can maintain focus for three minutes, work your way up to five, then ten, then fifteen. Do this at least once a day, preferably twice; once as you're getting out of bed in the morning, and again just before you go to sleep at night.

If you can maintain your focus on one word or image or sound for fifteen minutes without distraction, and do so every day, Congratulations! Not only will you find your body is less tense and your mind more focused in your daily life, but you are also ready for pretty much any meditation technique or spiritual discipline available.

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