Most new meditators lose heart because they do not know the fundamentals of meditation. Their struggles are caused by not knowing where to begin, but it doesn’t need to be that way! At a high-level, meditation is just a skillset consisting of concentration, mindfulness, investigation, and morality. These are the fundamental skills, and you can practice them in only a few minutes every day.
Our world is continually soliciting our attention to all matters of nonsense. Between text messages, emails, and notifications, it’s surprising we find time for ourselves. For this reason, concentration is often the largest barrier to entry for most beginners. Concentration is our ability to focus on something for an extended period. Just as a microscope magnifies its object, showing the minute and unseen; so too, concentration heightens our awareness, revealing the elusive and obscure.
Concentration is not incredibly challenging to learn with proper practice. Begin by closing your eyes and mentally noting the rising and falling of your abdomen for ten breaths. Inside your mind, you should be saying, “rising, rising, rising … one, falling, falling, falling … two,” and so on. Should you find yourself distracted by any means, do not worry; instead, just begin again at “one.” This practice is difficult and may take some time to master. Once you can get to ten breaths without distraction, try fifteen or twenty. You can practice this anywhere at any time, and it only takes a few minutes.
Mindfulness is a subtle yet more ubiquitous level of concentration. Instead of focusing exclusively on the abdomen’s rising and falling, note everything within your awareness. For example, when noting the breath, you may become distracted with thoughts of fear or anxiety. Instead of being absorbed by these distractions, merely note them as “thinking.”
You can do this with any sort of distraction and note it according to its sense door (e.g., touching, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasted, and thinking). For example, suppose you’re concentrating on the breath. You hear a distracting police siren outside, note as follows, “rising, rising, rising, falling, falling, hearing, hearing, hearing, hearing, rising,” and so on. The point being, you’re mindfully concentrating on the breath, and should a distraction occur, you simply note it and return to the breath.
Once you have the basics of concentration and mindfulness down, you can begin an investigation. This investigation is a deep subject, and we’ll mention the basics here. The purpose of this inquiry is to uncover the truth behind your sensate reality. At first, things appear to be one way, but you’ll discover they’re another way altogether.
The first insight into your sensory awareness is separating the physical sensations from the mental. Not only is there the physical rising and falling of the abdomen, but there’s also the mental desire to breathe and the mental noticing of the breath. Before every inhale, we have the mental sensation of desire. Then, we find the physical sensations of the rising of the abdomen. Lastly, there’s the mental noting of the physical phenomenon.
Time some time to practice this. Begin by counting ten breaths with the rising and falling of the abdomen. Should any sort of distraction occur, mindfully note it according to its sense door. Once you have a firm concentration on the breath, begin to separate the physical and mental sensations. At first, try noticing the desire which occurs directly before the physical sensation. Once you’ve mastered this causal relationship, begin recognizing the mental labeling happening after the physical sensation.
This practice may be challenging, but with daily effort will yield incredible results. As you continue to grow in your training, you’ll develop fundamental insights into both the world and yourself.
As you begin to hone these skills of concentration, mindfulness, and investigation, you’ll stumble time-and-again upon all sorts of distractions. If one is living an immoral life, they’ll find these distractions burdensome, making meditation more difficult. Before meditating, one should have the intent to become a morally outstanding person. Our meditation practice is not only for the improvement of our own lives, but the lives of those around us. Try and do your best.