Achieving Stillness in Meditation
By Nabeel Redwood
There are many of us who want to meditate, but are intimidated by the prospect of sitting still. People insist they are too fidgety, too out of shape, too absent-minded to sit still for long periods of time.
The good news is that meditation is not about stillness. If you’re driving yourself crazy trying to be perfectly motionless, then you’re missing the relaxing benefits of meditation. Meditation is ultimately an attentional exercise, not an endurance challenge. So the first step in achieving stillness is to not worry about achieving stillness. If you make motionlessness a goal of your practice, you’re only setting yourself up for frustration.
First-time meditators shouldn’t worry about sitting still. The main goal of the meditation is to keep the attention locked on an object—usually the breath, or a mantra or an image of a deity or sacred symbol. Sitting still should be a natural by-product of your concentration, not a goal in and of itself.
While stillness may not be necessary to start, posture is very important right from the beginning. Most meditation books, classes and teachers will spend quite some time detailing the appropriate postures, or asanas, for meditation. Posture is important for several reasons. Correct posture will place all of your body’s weight on the skeleton, allowing the muscles to rest. Sitting up straight is the most comfortable position for your internal organs—allowing the heart, lungs, and digestive system to function normally and without stress during the meditation. Making sure your posture is correct when you begin will minimize bodily distractions and allow your mind to sink deeper into the meditative absorption.
There are many appropriate postures that are acceptable from the lotus position, to sitting on a chair. All meditation postures have one thing in common: the spine is perfectly aligned and upright. Whether you are sitting in a chair or in lotus position doesn’t matter; what matters is that your back is straight.
If you choose to use a chair for meditation, make sure your knees are aligned with your hips, and that your heels are planted on the floor directly under your knees, creating a perfect right angle in the legs. Then, make sure to sit on the front edge of a firm chair—avoid sitting on soft couches or sofas that you’ll sink into—and don’t lean against the back of the chair, a wall or anything. Avoid meditating while lying down, because you’ll get drowsy and fall asleep.
Whether you’re sitting cross-legged on a mat or upright in a chair, you can insure that your back is straight by leaning forward and sticking out your butt, creating a slight arch in the back as you settle into your seat. With the lower back slightly arched, let the upper torso rest on your core. With your body aligned, you should be able to relax. Let the shoulders droop away from the ears. The hands can rest either in the lap or on the knees, palm up. Make sure the elbows are tucked in tight against the ribs; if the elbows are bowed out too far, your neck and shoulders will get achey.
Once your body and arms are in alignment, imagine an invisible string pulling you up from the top of your skull. Let the imaginary string pull your spine straight up and erect. Tuck your chin slightly against your throat to achieve the maximum extension of the spine: you should feel a slight pull at the base of the skull in the occipital bones. With your head aligned, seal your lips and press your tongue forward against the top front teeth. Swallow to create a vacuum in your mouth and then relax your jaw. When the jaw is relaxed, you should be able to relax the rest of the face. Your eyes may flutter as the tiny muscles around the brow refuse to let go. That’s normal, just begin the meditation by focusing on your object and you’ll notice that the flutter in the eyes gradually fades away.
Now that you’re seated correctly, it’s time to start meditating. But what do you do when you get an itch on your nose? Or if your legs fall asleep? Or if your back starts to ache?
So at the early stages, it’s important to emphasize that meditation is an exercise of attention, not an endurance challenge. You should not be suffering just to sit still. At the same time, you should not unconsciously react to every stimulus, mindlessly scratching itches and constantly adjusting your position.
First, it helps to take three to five long, deep breaths at the beginning of the meditation, once your posture is set. These deep breaths help release tension in the muscles, allowing you to sink into the posture comfortably.
Then, while you’re meditating, you will inevitably be faced with physical distraction—an itchy nose, a sleepy foot, a restless body. There are a series of steps you’ll take to manage these physical distractions.
1) Observe the physical sensation.
The first step is simply observing the sensation as an object. So, for example, if you are meditating with the breath as your object, but then you have an itch on your leg, momentarily change the object of your meditation from the breath to the itch on your leg.
Now, observe the sensation carefully. Oftentimes, the simple act of observing the sensation will cause it to change or dissipate. If the sensation changes or dissipates enough to no longer distract you, then simply return your attention back to the breath and continue meditating.
The important thing to know is that changing the object of meditation from the breath to any physical sensation doesn’t mean that you’ve paused meditating. You are still meditating the whole time, as long as you are focused on an object. The object may change, but if your attention stays under your control and doesn’t wander, then you are still meditating. Observing an itch on the leg is no different from observing the breath in the nose.
2. Change the language.
If the physical distraction refuses to dissipate even after careful observation, then the next step is to change the language your mind is using to identify the sensation. If your leg or back is in pain, you need to change the word ‘pain’ to something else. Instead of using negatively charged words like pain or hurt, it’s better to choose neutral words to describe the sensation. So instead of pain, maybe think of the sensation as a pressure, a heat, a tingling, or any other word that is a neutral descriptor.
Oftentimes, by changing the language we use to identify with a sensation, we change the sensation too. You may soon notice that the sensation no longer distracts you or disappears altogether.
3. React in slow-motion.
Finally, if you have observed the sensation and changed the language around it, but the sensation still continues to distract you, then it’s time to make a move. You should only spend a few minutes on steps 1 and 2, and if they don’t work to resolve the distraction, then feel free to move in order to deal with the distraction. So if you have an itch on the leg and steps 1 and 2 did not lessen the itch, then go ahead and scratch.
But here’s the key: however you determine to move to address the physical distraction, make sure to move in slow motion. As you are moving in slow motion, use the motion itself as the object of your meditation. So that means that instead of observing the breath and instead of observing the physical sensation, observe the feeling of your hand moving to scratch that itch on your leg. And then observe the motion of your hand returning to its original position, and once you’ve resettled, then gently bring the attention back to the breath and continue meditating.
As long as you are moving in slow motion and mindfully observing every sensation of the movement, then you are still meditating and you have not broken your concentration. Remember that the object of meditation can change; as long as you keep your attention under control, you are still meditating no matter what you point your attention at.
It’s okay to move during meditation, but the key is to move mindfully with full attention. The method above provides a deliberate step-by-step process of reacting to physical sensation without breaking the meditation. When you first notice the distraction, you will observe it to see if it changes. If it doesn’t change, try changing how you’re thinking about it by using neutral language instead of negative phrasing. And if even that doesn’t help, then react to the distraction but do so in super slow motion while bringing all your attention to the movement itself. If you follow these steps, you can give yourself permission to move during meditation without stopping the meditation itself.
Finally, once you’ve finished your practice session, you want to make a mental note of how many times you had to move. For beginners, you’ll likely move a dozen or more times in a given session. That’s normal, so don’t beat yourself up if you have to move around.
If you moved about a dozen times during your last session, then try to move only ten times the next time you meditate, and maybe only eight times after that. In this manner, gradually reduce the number of movements per session. You don’t have to reduce movements every session either—maybe you’ll gradually decrease week by week or month by month; whatever’s comfortable for you.
Eventually, you’ll find that you’re only moving once or twice, and then not at all. By incrementally reducing the movements in your meditation session, you’ll eventually find that you’re sitting perfectly still for the entire meditation.
Upon achieving stillness, you’ll find a whole range of pleasurable sensations emerge in your bodily awareness. Only through stillness are the higher gates of meditation unlocked. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to be still, because that will frustrate you and push the goal ever farther away. Instead, apply this steady, incremental process of responding to physical distractions in a methodical way, and you’ll effortless reach stillness before you know it.