The Cycle of Meditation enables us to look upon meditation as a continuous and dynamic process. It IS a process, not an isolated event.
Meditation begins with sitting, not with relaxation. It is easy to confuse the two, but important not to do so. It is common for beginners to do some formal relaxation prior to meditation, but eventually you should be able to dispense with this and move straight into meditation.
The Lotus position is popular in the books and other media, and is the considered the position 'of choice'. In this position, the foot of the right leg is placed over the left thigh and the foot of the left leg is placed over the right thigh. If you can do this, then full kudos to you. Personally I find that the pain involved distracts too much from the meditation. Another, easier version is a Half Lotus position, with one foot on the opposite thigh while the opposite foot lies under the other thigh. There is even a Quarter Lotus, one foot goes under the opposite thigh, and the other foot lies under the opposite leg.
Unfortunately, many Westerners just can't manage these. Remember, you need to be comfortable while meditating. Pain is just going to distract you and put you off from doing it again. It is not worth it.
There are easier alternatives. There is the Japanese kneeling posture, where you have your feet tucked under you, with the soles of you feet facing upwards. It is helpful to place a cushion under your buttocks (on your calves) when using this position. I don't recommend it for those who have had ankle injuries though; I have a bad ankle and cannot maintain this for too long. If you are not sure, give it a go.
You can also sit on a chair or ottoman. You should be sitting straight-backed, on the edge of the chair, with your feet firmly on the floor (not crossed) and your hands folded in your lap. HOW you put your hands seems to be different according to the exercise and the practitioner's previous experience. I, personally, being familiar with Chinese systems, place my hands over my lower belly, in the Dan Tien area. Males place their right hand on top of their left, with the centre of the palms lining up (an acupressure point) and then gently place it about 3 fingers below the navel. Females should place their left hand on top of their right. There are many other methods.
It is important that your back is straight. Your hips should be tucked slightly forward to assist with this try moving cushions around until you are comfortable. If you are having trouble with this, imagine that there is a string attached to the crown of your head that runs down your spine. You are like a puppet dangling from this string gravity itself will pull you upright.
You can also lie down, if you think you can resist going to sleep. Lie on a mat or a doubled blanket, on you back on the floor. DON'T lie in bed. Move your legs to approximately shoulder width apart and let your feet flop outwards, so your toes point away from your body. Your arms should be comfortably by your sides, palms up. Cover yourself with a blanket if you think you may get cold. Don't use a pillow under your head if you are very uncomfortable use a rolled or folded towel under your head instead.
As an aside, there are many other postures that are themselves conductive to the meditative state, such as Hatha yoga asana and some Qigong stances. These won't be covered in this course. Just take note that when you are more advanced you may want to try out some other postures.
Ah, it used to be so easy. You sucked in air when you needed it, and let it back out after, and you didn't have to worry about it. Well, now you will. The very nature of breathing makes it a great subject for the meditating mind, especially that of a beginner. It is automatic, yet you can also consciously participate in it. Awareness of the breath is a universal meditative technique, and is likely one that you have heard of or experienced already. Different meditative traditions have different ways of using this, for example, yogic practices tend towards intervention and control of the breath, Buddhist ones of active participation and awareness.
During meditation, breathing takes place through the nose, to permit a deep abdominal breath. Usually we think of breathing as being a two-step process, in and out. When practicing a conscious meditative breath cycle, however, it has four components inhalation, pause, exhalation, pause. The pauses should be a quiet, natural affair, not an enormous great gulp of air, followed by straining lungs and a violent exhalation, only to begin again!
When meditating, breathing is conscious, and this awareness underpins all meditations. Even when your awareness is focused on the breath, random thoughts will still arise. When this happens, just allow the thoughts to pass through. Just continue counting your breath, remain calm, and don't berate yourself that just involves more thinking. It is OK to have thoughts pop in. Just don't pay attention to them, and they will go.
Some additional tips
Relax! Easier said than done, right? Drop your shoulders. If you are tense, your shoulders tend to be raised. Relax them; consciously drop them as far down and as loosely as you can. You might find that rotating them helps.
What do you do with your eyes? Well, that depends on you and what meditation you are doing, and whether or not you are sleepy. There are three options. The first is to close your eyes. The problem with this is that it is easier to go to sleep this way, which is not good. The Japanese tend to close their eyes. Buddhist traditions have their eyes at 'half mast', i.e. half open, with a soft focus. This prevents you from sleeping, but can be uncomfortable if you tend to have dry eyes. The final option is, you guessed it, fully open. This is best for when you are contemplating something, like a candle or a picture. Keep your eyes on a soft focus or you might get a headache. I suggest you try out all three and see which you prefer.
Almost forgot! WHEN do I practise!?
It is preferable to meditate first thing in the morning. Your mind and body are rested, there's a good vibe in the new day, and if you are lucky the rest of your family may be still asleep and will leave you alone. The bad part is you're going to have to get up earlier. Yep, you're going to have to crawl out of your lovely, warm bed to do your practice, preferably at the same time each day (even on the weekends), and if you don't do it every day you will progress more slowly, if at all. Personally, I get up at 5:30 to get in meditation and stretches before the demands of the family begin to impinge. Yes, I miss my bed some days, but the peace and calm generated by meditation assist greatly throughout a busy day.
The other option is in the evening. You are more likely to be disturbed at night, and your body is tired and may rebel, your mind is tired and will babble back all the things that happened to you that day. If you really can't do it in the morning though, find a time when you will be undisturbed and do your sitting then.
One last thing. In the morning, it is best to begin your day with meditation, then energy work if you do it, then physical activity. This warms your mind and body in the proper manner. Reverse this sequence in the evening.
The vehicle used to keep one focused doing meditation is the 'subject'. This may be our breath, a symbol such as a mandala, a phrase (mantra), or a visualisation. The intention is to return to the subject over and over, if our mind wanders, still we return to the subject. The process of learning focused concentration requires patience and perseverance, and cultivates the development of mental awareness and self-control.
We will explore this topic further in another lesson.
Every time you meditate, it is like planting a seed in your mind. It will bear fruit, but in its own time. This may take many forms; there may be a change in your understanding, your personality, your attitudes in general. It may be a feeling, or a knowing. Awareness is the key to this.
This part is difficult to see yourself, because it is so slow, often others will see it first. Meditation works at a deep and potent level, and you will experience a gradual transformation of yourself. How you change can only be seen, I cannot predict this for you.