For the beginning meditator I believe it would be helpful to establish an order in the various steps taken in meditation. First, then, it would be wise to establish a place of quiet to which one may retire daily and not be interrupted in his endeavors. Then wash carefully face, hands and feet. Better yet, if time permits, take a cleansing shower and put on loose, comfortable clothes. It is wise to meditate at the same time daily to establish a habit. I do it at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. when the birds begin to retire in the evening. Then when you begin to meditate consider your posture. With spine erect and a spirit of awareness be mindful of sitting without strain but with complete alertness. Now you are ready to begin. But, first, some introductory thoughts.
As Sujata states in his little book Beginning to See, "Meditation is the best thing you can do for yourself." However, it is far from the simple thing it may seem to beginners. It takes a strong urge to peer deeply within oneself and beyond it. It takes discipline and willingness to go farther than merely trying to escape or sidestep personal problems one may have.
Why meditate? There are many reasons. But those that stand out most strongly are learning to think clearly, and to dispel ignorance, illusion, greed, hatred and craving. This is the road to Nirvana or Nibbana through which one must lose all clinging to "self." The feeling of having a self is highly resistant to extinguishing. It is persistent and devious. Often one may feel it has vanished only to have it crop up again. Only by diligence and persistence -- and the road for many may be long -- can victory over it be achieved.
You are seated now, cross-legged on the floor, in a quiet chamber. In lotus position, if you can, or in half-lotus, or even on a chair if disability precludes otherwise. Keep your head erect and balanced lightly on your shoulders. Still, do not strain; be comfortable, relaxed and attentive.
The first stages of meditation should be simply observation of breath. Concentrate on the nostrils where the breath flows in... out... in... out. Be aware of the touch of air as it strikes the passage through the nostrils. In fact be aware of everything and nothing. This sounds contradictory. Yet it is really not. For this is no time to daydream, to entertain vagrant and migratory thoughts. You are aware of your physical posture. Then you forget that also. You are aware that the past is dead, that it is gone. Yet specific consciousness of your whole preceding life is absent. The future does not yet exist. All you have is "right now"... the in... out... in... out rhythm of the breath of life.
The idea is to "empty the mind," to get rid of all "garbage," all fleeting and intruding thoughts. Simply to breathe -- in out -- in out, never forcing the breath. You are not even the breather, but the breathing breathing you, the you, which as time goes on, will grow more and more vague as it begins to dissipate, disappear.
Just allow the mind to feel the "touch" of breath as it flows in and flows out. In your first sessions think of nothing more. You will find the breath thinning out as it becomes more subtle and finer until in time you begin to feel you are not breathing at all. This is the calming of the breath flow. It becomes very pleasant and satisfying.
I keep a candle burning in the meditation chamber. It serves two purposes, maybe three. At first, if the mind wanders, it serves as a point of focus. The eyes, at first observing the candle, soon close, lightly, easily, by themselves. But even through closed lids one feels the presence of the light. One can see it in one's mind's eye. It restores the mind's wandering back to the present. The second purpose is symbolic: to me it signifies the Light of the Dhamma, the doctrine on which the meditation is based. And finally, it makes for a pleasant, lovely atmosphere. Incense, flowers, Buddha sculpture are nice but really not necessary. One can, in truth, meditate anywhere, any quiet place where there can be no interruption. Wherever you meditate, if it is at home and you have a telephone, it is wise to remove the receiver to avoid incoming calls.
Bear in mind that the place of meditation is not of key importance, but it is wise to return to the same place at the same time daily so that the habit of meditating becomes established. The Buddha meditated under a Bodhi tree where he achieved enlightenment. An advanced meditator can choose almost any place and it will serve his purpose -- a crowded market place, a burial ground, a cave, a park or a refuse dump. In his inward turning he becomes totally oblivious of his surroundings; or, contrariwise, makes the very surroundings, as he advances deeper and deeper into meditating, the subject of his thoughts. The important thing to remember is that these thoughts must be schooled and channeled. They must be kept "on center."
But you, now, are still in your beginning stages. Untoward thoughts will persist in entering your mind. This is only natural. You will be amazed at how many and how trivial these intrusions can be. You must learn, however, to treat these intruders with courtesy. Do not shove them away in anger. Be gentle, kindly. Label each one -- past -- present -- future? Worthy? Unworthy? Animosity? Vanity? Desire? Egotism? Your very act of branding them will assist in their cessation. As they begin to disappear, your mind will gently return to your nostrils, your breathing. It will grow quieter and quieter.
Other hindrances will obtrude themselves. Noises will penetrate your consciousness -- children playing and shouting, buses or airplanes passing. Label them as you do other passing thoughts. Keep centering on the breathing, the slowing inflow, outflow. In time the noises, too, will vanish. Whenever you find yourself "out there," bring yourself gently back to "here" and to "right now." When you have been able to accomplish this "no thought" for at least a half hour, your breathing will have slowed to a point of almost indistinguishable rhythm, to "it" breathing "you" and not the other way around.
I find it helps in all of this to keep a semi-smile on my face such as that of the Buddha. It aids in brightening the mind, makes it happier.
At this point in your beginning meditation, if you have been at it a half hour or longer, you may terminate it if you wish or continue as before. Or you can go on to extend metta or loving-kindness. This meditation subject is good because it eliminates hatred, envy, anger and self-pity. It accomplishes love for all, destruction of self, sympathetic joy, and a good feeling for every being or non-being that lives or has left this life. Your extension of loving-kindness should reach out to encompass the earth, the universe. You will find it difficult in time, to snuff out the life of even the smallest insect.
In extending loving-kindness it is of great importance that you first love yourself. In the right way, of course. You accomplish this by ridding your thoughts of all "impurities." Think to yourself "I will rid my mind of every defilement: anger, hatred, ignorance, fear, greed, craving. I will make my mind clear, fresh and pure. Like a transparent window is my mind. Then with my stain-free mind, I pour out thoughts of loving-kindness, of love and of kindness."
Try to get a mental image of each one you are extending this loving-kindness to. Get into that person. Feel his or her personality enter your own being and direct your feeling straight into the mind and heart of that individual. You will find in time, that there is a sort of mental telepathy emerging. You will feel the warmth of response. Do not dwell on this. Go on to the next person and the next and next. Bring forth all the warmth and kindness of your spirit and instill this into the being or non-being it is directed toward. If you do this once or twice daily, your horizon will widen. You will find yourself directing these vibrations to all beings and non-beings who have entered your consciousness, without exceptions. This will include brand-new acquaintances you hardly know. People you do not even know but see pass by regularly or irregularly down the street. All who live. All who have died. Known and unknown. All animals, insects, trees. Everything organic and inorganic. And in this outflowing there will ride your self, vanishing into the all-inclusive.
When you have completed this meditation sitting, later try a walking meditation, and, in this, think of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha; that all beings are born to suffer, etc. Then go on to find the "way out"; the way out and the "end" of suffering. Find this secure path and incorporate it into your daily life, and, this accomplished, find Nibbana right here on earth!