I?m sitting in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, trying to meditate. Remembering the monk?s words, I visualize a clear crystal ball in the center of my body, and try to hold on to that picture of clarity as I observe my breath moving in and out, in and out. The temple glitters with gilt and mirrors and a large gleaming Buddha at one end, and the walls are covered with a stunning mural of Buddhist imagery that rivals the Sistine Chapel in beauty. The air is filled with incense and the temple is lit softly with glowing yellow candles. But it?s also hot. And there?s a mosquito in here. And lots of people are coming and going. And I?m kind of hungry. The picture of the crystal ball is replaced by visions of barbecued meat on a stick, marinated in coconut milk. Oh dang. I?m doing it wrong.
But I don?t beat myself up about it. I just start over again. And again. And again. That?s essentially what the whole practice is: straying, realizing that you?ve strayed, and going back to the beginning.
Meditation is the practice of quieting the mind, which can enhance focus and a sense of calm, even under difficult circumstances. It can also open the door to a grand inner adventure: getting to know yourself, and learning what makes your mind tick. Sitting down for an hour with no other intention but to take a good look at your own thoughts can be an illuminating experience.
For example, I realized that one of my own particular obsessions was with thoughts about judging and being judged: What?s her deal? What do they think about me? What?s wrong with that guy? Am I acting cool, or acting like a dork? Once I became conscious of how much mental space I was devoting to these sorts of thoughts, I became better able to see how silly most of them were.
One of the benefits of training your brain with meditation is that it empowers you to make conscious choices about where to put your attention?and where not to. Meditation can help your mind mature from something like a jumpy preschooler to something more like a mature college student, silent, attentive, and ready to learn.
I went to Thailand to learn from the monks at Wat Phra Dhammakaya, but it isn?t necessary to go to an exotic locale to give meditation a try. Just start in a quiet location, in a comfortable seated position. Keep your back straight and upright, rather than leaning against a backrest. Then, observe your breath as it travels in and out of your body. Your breath is a good place to ?store? your attention, freeing the rest of your mind to seek stillness.
When thoughts inevitably come up, just observe them. Take a mental step back and say to yourself, There I am, thinking about (work, the past, my shoelace, etc.). Notice that you?ve had the thought, and then drop it and go back to your breath. Once you get better at noticing your thoughts, rather than getting caught up in the stories they tell, you can become better at noticing those times when you?ve swirled into a negative or self-defeating thought pattern, and dropping that too.
Another simple technique: try counting your breaths. When idle thoughts move in, start over again at one. At first, it may be challenging to count to five before your mind wanders into the past or the future, but, with practice, you?ll become more adept at noticing, appreciating, and enjoying the present moment.
Try a retreat. Especially helpful for beginning meditators, a day-long class with a knowledgeable teacher and time for Q & A is one of the least intimidating ways to get started.
Download a smartphone app to help. Search under ?meditation? and you?ll find a number of timer apps that will sound a bell to begin and end your session for a designated length of time, and even remind you to meditate daily.
Meditate on a regular basis, even if for a short period of time, like 15 minutes per day. It?s like working out?if you want to see results, you have to commit. The good news is: The more you do it, the easier it becomes to settle your mind.
Consider joining a meditation group for encouragement, advice, and support. Meetup.com is one place to start.
Approach meditation in whatever way you see fit. Although the practice is largely associated with Buddhism, there are practitioners of all faiths, as well as people who meditate simply to reduce stress or gain mental clarity.
Get frustrated with yourself. Author Jack Kornfield likens the process to training a puppy: Expect that the first time you say ?Sit!? the puppy is likely to wander off instead?just like your mind. Keep at it, kindly and patiently. Eventually, the puppy will start to get the idea.
Think that meditation is about mystical visions. It?s more about taking a step back from habitual patterns of thought so that you can recognize them and see what needs changing.