How I Teach Basic Meditation to Novices

05/22/2013 02:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 22, 2013
  • Ira Israel Licensed Professional Counselor

Like highly sophisticated spacecraft traveling at light speed through a very hectic universe, our minds operate on autopilot most of the time. Basic meditation is a tool that we can use to take ourselves off of auto-pilot, reboot our hard drives, clear out the caches, regain the most propitious long-term bearings, gain some insight into the bugs that cause our operating systems to crash, and make tweaks that bode well for our overall ease and happiness.

However, we cannot directly tell the mind to shut itself off or to transcend itself so we actually have to trick it into releasing the autopilot mechanism.

I use the familiar Rabbit/Duck image to describe how I teach this basic type of meditation. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." You may think that you can see the rabbit and duck at the same time but I believe that it is impossible. Maybe the rabbit and duck are flickering very fast in your mind's eye but they are not united as one.

Now please think of the duck (or rabbit) as your thinking apparatus and think of the rabbit (or duck) as your breath. Basic meditation works by tricking the mind into dis-identifying with the thinking apparatus. We accomplish this by focusing our attention on our breath and gently guiding our attention back to the inhalations and exhalations if we notice other thoughts rising to consciousness. This, to me, is the simplest type of meditation, focusing on our breaths in order to trick the mind into taking a break.

However, before one spends a few minutes concentrating his or her attention on the breath, we must create what I refer to as "the frame." In "Hamlet," Polonius reads a letter Hamlet wrote to Ophelia to the King and Queen as evidence of Hamlet's madness. Hamlet signs the letter, "Whilst this machine is to him..." I find this inversion very useful for preparing ourselves to meditate.

So please ask yourself: are you a pair of lungs breathing air into a mass of flesh and blood or... try to imagine the inverse, that the air is Spirit, Mystery, Oneness -- the ineffable divine lifeforce -- Brahman -- Love, Freedom, Beauty or whatever you believe in -- and it is being breathed THROUGH a physical manifestation which you know as your machine, your body.

If you watch Elizabeth Gilbert's gorgeous TED talk, she discusses how we anthropomorphized the concept of genius, which originally was similar to a muse or spirit that existed outside of us. Previously, we would contact our geniuses and work with them to allow music or art or poetry or literature to flow through us, the way Mozart received entire symphonies when he was 9 years old or Beethoven received symphonies when he was deaf.

Since the Enlightenment, our belief system -- our paradigm -- has shifted towards a more "scientific" viewpoint. Thus, intangibles such as soul and spirit and genius/muse -- things that cannot be measured by a ruler or a scale -- as well as many other ineffable concepts, no longer exist within our scientific paradigm (except within theoretical physics). Human beings are now little more than food for worms, not individual manifestations of a divine oneness that is inconceivable to the human mind. But for the purposes of learning basic meditation, just try to imagine the inverse, that whatever you believe is a Higher Self or Higher Power -- Love, Freedom, Mystery, Spirit, Oneness, Nothingness, Infinity -- whatever you personally believe -- is breathing THROUGH you, not just that you are a pair of lungs inhaling and exhaling air into a body. (For all born-again atheists I refer you to Mindfulness Meditation, which is ideal for those who believe that there is no greater power in the universe than their own minds -- people who have never seen the Grand Canyon or experienced something that they couldn't measure in coffee spoons.)

For the purpose of basic meditation, the frame is our machine, our body, the flesh and blood we borrow for 87 or so years while visiting planet earth. The first thing we do (unless we are practicing a walking meditation) is sit on the floor or on a cushion or in a chair with our hips a little higher than our knees, our shoulders directly over our hips, and our chins level so that the crowns of our heads are the highest point of our bodies. Our spines are as erect as possible and our bodies are paradoxically alert yet relaxed. We close our eyes and relax the muscles in our face allowing gravity to gently tug the flesh down from our cheekbones (since we spend much time either smiling or with furrowed brows in our culture) -- and then we gently start to elongate the inhalations and elongate the exhalations. If it will help consciously lengthen our breaths we can slowly count "Inhale, two, three, four; Exhale, two, three, four... repeat."

The main thing to do is to allow the prana -- the essential lifeforce of the universe -- air -- to move through your machine in a fluid, gentle, loving manner. We try to maintain our attention on our breathing but we don't judge ourselves if our minds wander -- as I said in my last Huffington Post article, our minds were built to think and don't really know how to do much else. So we just carve out a few minutes of our day to take long, deep, fluid inhalations and long, deep, fluid exhalations -- taking our bodies out of "fight or flight" mode - and if we notice thoughts arising to consciousness we simply guide our attention back to our breaths.

This is basic meditation.

And just know that maintaining concentration on anything -- particularly the breath -- is difficult and that it is OK to just create the frame -- the alert yet relaxed body around a straight spine -- and "fake it until you make it." If you are a Type-A personality like me, simply allot these few minutes to being an ardent under-achiever. What is important is that you show up. That's all. Although Americans are extremely goal-oriented and like immediate results, instead of aiming at a hifalutin target such as "enlightenment" and being disappointed when you sit and "nothing happens," just learn to release your immediate expectations and enjoy a few precious moments of stillness, of equanimity, of ease.

Yes, your mind is going to tell you that you are terrible at meditation, that everyone else can do it easily and that there must be something wrong with you for not being able to do something so simple as to maintain focus on your breath, that meditation is useless and you should be more productive than to just sit and do nothing, but just do your best to ignore these judgments -- because they are not really your voice anyways. Most likely this is the same voice that tells you that you're not good-enough at other activities also, the same voice that told you not to stick your tongue in electrical sockets or run out into the street when you were three years old.

In this type of basic meditation, we are going to the other side of our thinking minds, dis-identifying with our mental soundtracks, and giving the voices in our heads a much needed time-out.