Meditation, Easy as 1-2-3

by Tim Keim

Meditation is often seen as some mystical, unattainable state of mind meant only for the few who have the aptitude for such mental skill and facility. This is simply false. Meditation has been and continues to be a vital part of most spiritual traditions from ancient shamanic culture to the great Asian schools of practice, to the desert dwelling progenitors of early Christian communities in the Middle East. Meditation is a global practice that can be mastered by anyone, anywhere, religious or secular.

In past columns I’ve enumerated the many benefits of meditation. It promotes brain growth and health by stimulating neuroplastic development of various parts of the brain like the hippocampus, parietal lobes, and amygdala. As it does, our capacity for learning, memory, and empathy increases. Meditation has also been shown to preserve the telomeres, the caps of the chromosomes, to nourish longevity. Multiple volumes of literature have been written about meditation and the transcendental experiences it can produce and the modern scientific research that confirms its great beneficence to humankind. For me, focus, concentration, and daily mental fortification are the benefits I get to help me live with optimism and emotional strength.

But how does one meditate? There are as many styles of meditation as there are practitioners. So which one is right for you? Experience will ultimately teach you how to effectively plumb the depths of your own psyche and build Union with the Divine. But there are some simple starting points that can serve as training wheels to help you blossom into an accomplished meditator with all the skills that accompany this great art of mental and spiritual health.

First, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit in any comfortable position with the spine straight and the posture erect but relaxed. Pay attention to the breath; it’s the bridge between the body and mind, between the physical and spiritual. Indeed, the word for breath and spirit are the same in both Greek and Hebrew.

Feel the inhalation open up into the belly so you know you’re using a diaphragmatic breath where the lower abdomen swells as the bottom lobes of the lungs inflate. Watch the easy fullness of the breath fill the pelvis and rise through the navel, solar plexus, heart, throat, and head. These cardinal points in the anatomy correspond with the spiritual power centers known as chakras.

Now, notice each stage of the breath as it moves upward through the body from the pelvic floor to the crown of the head. By fixing the attention on these stages of the breath, we begin the process of withdrawing the senses from the physical world. At first, you will no doubt find it difficult to maintain the attention on the breath as the mind is fantastically adept at wandering off like an errant toddler. This is where the mantra comes in. Mantra simply means mind-tool, man-tra. The Sanskrit word for mind is manas.

As you begin, the mantra can be as simple as the numbers 1-2-3-4-5. Assign a number to each stage of the breath. Inhale to a slow count of five, hold the breath for a count of three to maintain focus and then exhale to a count of five and reset the attention at the bottom of the exhalation for a one count. This easy 5-3-5-1 breathing pattern will get you started on the road to building a focused mind. You will cultivate the release of serotonin and dopamine, the happiness chemicals the body naturally secretes from the gut during meditation. As you gain experience, your technique will help you achieve a steady state of focus and peacefulness. Feel free to adjust your counting mantra to suit the length of your breath.

Simple, right? Simple is not always easy. Consistent practice is the key for developing a calm, strong, composed mental state. You may get frustrated. There is a saying in meditation circles that the mind is like a monkey stung by a scorpion. Its wild gyrations are difficult to control. This practice takes persistent devotion. But the benefits are boundless. Begin with a few minutes per day.

Meditation is an indispensable practice that helped me defeat chronic depression and dependence on pharmaceutical medication. I learned how to create my own happiness chemicals without being a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical industry. It’s been nearly a decade since I stopped taking meds, and what a joy it is to have less anxiety and more confidence, mental acuity, and tranquility.

This is an investment that will change your life and the lives of those you love. If we could but teach our children to master their minds through meditation, there is no goodness that we could not achieve.

Tim Keim is a Yoga Therapist and Ayurvedic Health Practitioner in Pittsboro.