There are many different ways to meditate. The method I’ll describe here could be called breath meditation or a variation of vipassana, or insight meditation. It could also be called zazen. It’s more or less how I practice most of the time, and it’s compatible with methods taught by people like Joseph Goldstein and Ajahn Amaro, two meditation teachers whose books and talks I highly recommend.
- Attending to the Breath
- Getting Lost
First, sit in a comfortable cross-legged posture. It's possible to meditate sitting, standing, walking, or even lying down, but for most people a cross-legged sitting posture is best because it's stable enough to allow one to become very still, while energizing enough to keep one from falling asleep. I usually sit in half lotus, occasionally in full lotus. Read the article for pointers on alignment. Basically, you want your chin and nose in line with your navel, your shoulders over your hips (leaning neither forward nor back), and your spine gently elongated so you feel some uplift at the crown of your head. Your back should be fairly straight, but preserving the natural curve of the spine, and the overall feeling should be one of both relaxation and alertness.
Once you're sitting down, the body and mind have to prepared. Meditation is an opportunity to reset, rather than just a continuation of whatever stress you were involved in before. So first take some time to let the body relax. Breathing in, feel around for tight spots. Breathing out, let go of muscle tension. You can start at the forehead, eyes and mouth. Then relax your shoulders, back, chest, belly, everything. Allow tension to drain out of your body. Feel waves of relaxation wash over your body like a warm shower.
Just for the duration of your sit, let go of all your thoughts, plans, and worries. The mind naturally scans and plans for threats and opportunities in the past, present, and future--but just for these few minutes, let it rest. There will be plenty of chances to think, analyze and worry when your meditation is over. We can't will ourselves to stop thinking, but we can allow ourselves to stop thinking. We don't throw thoughts out of our minds. Instead, we open the hand of thought, allowing them to come or go as they like.
III. Attending to the Breath
Now simply observe the breath without trying to control it. There are countless techniques for working with the breath, and you can choose a more specific one if you like. But the basic technique is to observe the breath coming in and going out. You can pay attention to the sensation at the nostrils ("guarding the breath"). Sometimes I follow the sensation of the breath as it enters the nostrils, passes through the chest, expands the belly, and then reverses its course ("following" or "chasing the breath"). Sometimes I count the breath. You can count your inhalations, exhalations, or even the spaces between breaths. Try different things until you find a way of being with the breath that feels good. Settle into a state of mind where the breath is in the foreground and sounds, sensations, feelings, and thoughts are in the background.
IV. Getting Lost
Inevitably--and probably immediately--distractions will arise. You'll find yourself lost in thoughts about the past or future. This is to be expected. How we respond to distractions is very important because if we have the wrong attitude, we'll get frustrated and stressed out, and our meditation will not unfold as it otherwise might. We have to play a little mind game here: Although we are trying to train the mind away from unwholesome states and towards wholesome states, we have to pretend we're not. Ultimately the way to discipline the mind is to give it enough space to do whatever it's going to do. So how do we respond to the endless distractions it produces? There are many ways to describe the basic attitude and method, but the one I like is "R.O.A.R." because I can actually remember it, and because it makes reference to "the lion's roar."
V. The Lion's R.O.A.R.
R. Recognize -- Recognize that you have strayed away from the breath.
O. Open -- Open to the reality of what's here now. "It's like this." Acknowledge the distraction. Note it. One form of noting is called labeling. You can label whatever has grabbed your attention. "Thinking, thinking...." or "Hearing, hearing...." If you have repetitive thoughts (tape loops), giving them names helps derail them: "Poor me," "Thinking about the future," "What will I wear?" etc.
A. Accept -- Opening and Accepting are two ways of describing the same attitude. We practice willingness to be with whatever arises from the depths of the heart and mind. Nothing is excluded. Whatever arises, beautiful or hideous, we Recognize it and respond with patience, Openness, and Acceptance.
R. Return -- After taking a moment (sometimes longer) to recognize and accept whatever has pulled the attention away from the breath, we return to the breath and start again. Meditation is a endless process of beginning again. There's no winning, no losing--just beginning again. In fact, each time you Recognize, Open, Accept, and Return, you've strengthened your meditation muscles.
That's it. Buddhist meditation is endlessly rich and rewarding. Once you start studying and practicing, there's no end. But this method is enough to keep you busy for at least a couple years while you patiently and diligently sit and watch unprocessed garbage from your past (karma) rise like bubbles to the surface of consciousness and burst, "self-liberating in the light of awareness." Over time, you can expect to become much more patient, more emotionally stable, and more aware of phenomena as they come and go. You'll learn how to relax and how to let go, and letting go is the whole game:
"If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.”
― Ajahn Chah
One More Thing
Practicing with other people is a powerful catalyst. It's no accident that sangha (community) is considered one of the "Three Treasures," one of the three legs of the tripod without which Buddhism can't stand. Look up local Dharma/meditation groups in your area and go sit with them. For sitting alone at home, I highly recommend Insight Timer. This free app motivates you to sit consistently, helps you feel connected to other meditators worldwide and in your area, and provides a conduit to a variety of teachings. I use it when I sit at home.