Meditator Sharon Salzberg answers the most frequently asked questions about meditation.
How do I do it?
Sit comfortably, with your back erect. It is fine to sit in a chair or on an arrangement of cushions on the floor. If necessary, you can lie down. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, feeling the breath as it enters your nostrils and fills your chest and abdomen; then release it. Allow the breath to become natural, without forcing it or controlling it. Let your attention rest on one breath at a time.
What if my mind wanders?
If your mind wanders, don't be concerned. Notice whatever has captured your attention, then let go of the thought or feeling, and return to the awareness of the breath. In this way, meditation teaches us gentleness and an ability to forgive our mistakes in life and to go on.
How do I find the time?
If you can pick a set time and place to meditate each day, it will enhance the sense of sacredness. But if you're not able to sit regularly, you can still benefit. Even the ordinary activities of daily life can be times of meditation when you free yourself from the strictures of habit and the tendency to be only half-alive.
What will happen to me when I'm meditating? What will I experience?
Sometimes you will tap into a wellspring of peace. Other times you might feel waves of sleepiness, boredom, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Images may arise, old songs might replay, long-buried memories can surface. Success in meditation is measured not in terms of whatever may be happening but rather how we are relating to what is happening. If you feel overwhelmed by thoughts or feelings, use awareness of your breath to anchor your attention to your body.
What do I do when my thoughts just won't stop?
Some people have a mistaken idea that through meditation all thoughts disappear and we enter a state of blankness. There certainly are times of great tranquility when concentration is strong and we have few, if any, thoughts. But other times, we can be flooded with memories, plans, or random thinking. It's important not to blame yourself. Notice that you don't invite your thoughts. You haven't said, "At 6:15 I'd like to be ruminating about the past." Thoughts come and go without our volition, but we don't have to be ruled by them.
Can meditation help me deal with physical pain?
What you learn about pain in formal meditation can help you relate to it in your daily life. In meditation, one of the first things you may notice about pain is that when you start to feel it in one part of your body, the rest of your body tenses up. This can increase the pain. Consciously take a deep breath and relax your muscles. As you relax physically, you will discover greater ease of mind.
Can meditation help depression?
Depression has many causes. While it is important to investigate its possible biochemical basis and seek out psychotherapeutic help if necessary, meditation may also be useful. Dedicating some time to meditation is a meaningful expression of caring for yourself that can help you move through the mire of feeling unworthy of recovery. As your mind grows quieter and more spacious, you can begin to see self-defeating thought patterns for what they are, and open up to other, more positive options.
How do I know if I'm doing it right? Do I need a teacher?
There are many different ways to practice meditation ; it's good to experiment until you find one that seems to suit you. If you feel confused about the techniques, it's useful to consult a teacher, speak with more experienced meditators, read a book, or listen to a tape.
From the March 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!