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                   A Primer on the Intentional Practice of Awareness
                                       by Chuck Dunning, M.Ed.

What is meditation?

There are many answers to this question, and to those who practice meditation it often seems as
though there is no single definition that suffices. Perhaps one of the simplest answers is that
meditation is the intentional practice of awareness. Many people practice meditation without
putting the name “meditation” on what they are doing. Reading, prayer, journaling, gazing at a
painting or a sunset, dancing, jogging, indeed just about anything can be experienced as meditation.
This primer provides you with basic instructions for silent sitting meditation and other common
applications of meditation, as well as information for further reading and study.

Why would I practice meditation?

Perhaps the most popular motivation for meditation is the abiding sense of inner peace and harmony
it typically engenders. Meditation has also been shown to provide a wide range of benefits for
physical and psychological health. Although it is not necessarily a religious practice, people of
many different faiths find that meditation has a positive spiritual dimension. In fact, most religions
have some traditional form of meditation. If you are seeking a particular change in your physical,
psychological, or spiritual life, chances are that an application of meditation can help you move in
the direction you desire.

What are the possible health benefits and risks of meditation?

Much research has been performed on the physical and psychological benefits of meditation. The
following points are based on information from the National Institute of Health, CNN.com1 reported
the following:
   Possible risks of meditation

   Although the positive effects of meditation clearly outnumber and outweigh the negative effects, the latter
   have also been studied. Potential adverse effects include:
        adverse psychological feelings (e.g. feelings of negativity, disorientation) in a small percentage
           of meditators after meditation retreats
        elicitation of acute episodes of psychosis by intensive meditation in schizophrenics.

   Benefits of meditation

   Until recently, the primary purpose of meditation has been religious, although its health benefits have
   long been recognized. During the past 15 years, it has been explored as a way of reducing stress on
   both mind and body. Cardiologists, in particular, often recommend it as a way of reducing high blood

   If practiced regularly, meditation develops habitual, unconscious microbehaviors that produce
   widespread positive effects on physical and psychological functioning. Meditating even for 15 minutes
   twice a day seems to bring beneficial results.
    A study conducted by Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, along with additional research, reports that
    the use of TM2 is discretely associated with:
         reduced health care use
         increased longetivity and quality of life
         reduction of chronic pain
         reduced anxiety
         reduction of high blood pressure
         reduction of serum cholesterol level
         reduction of substance abuse
         longitudinal increase in intelligence-related measures
         treatment of post traumatic stress syndrome in Vietnam veterans
         blood pressure reduction in African American persons
         lowered blood cortisol levels initially brought on by stress

    Relaxation Response

    Convinced that meditation was a possible treatment for high blood pressure, Benson later pursued his
    investigation at Harvard Medical School. He identified what he calls "the relaxation response," a
    constellation of psychological and physiological effects that appear common to many practices:
    meditation, prayer, progressive relaxation, autogenic training and the presuggestion phase of hypnosis
    and yoga. He published his method in a book of the same name.

    Meditation goes mainstream

    Over the last 25 years meditation in general and the relaxation response specifically have slowly moved
    from alternative to mainstream medicine, although they are still overlooked by many conventional
    doctors. Benson's research has demonstrated a wide range of effects resulting from the relaxation
    response on bodily functions:
         oxygen consumption
         carbon dioxide and lactate production
         adrenocorticotropic hormone excretion
         blood elements such as platelets and lymphocytes
         cell membranes
         norepinephrine receptors
         brain wave activity
         utilization of medical resources
         One study indicated that chronic pain patients who meditated had a net reduction in general
            health care costs, suggesting that this approach is cost effective.


2. TM, Transcendental Meditation, is an international movement and commercial school of meditation founded by
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This reference should not be considered an endorsement of TM above other methods, systems,
or schools of meditation.

How do I start practicing meditation?

Here is a suggested method for beginning with silent sitting meditation:

Sit upright in a chair, or on the floor with crossed legs. If you sit on the floor, it can be helpful to
use a cushion thick enough to keep your hips elevated slightly higher than your knees.
Your spine should be held in a straight and comfortable position. Use some kind of back support if
necessary. Avoid slouching or tipping your head too far forward, backward or to one side.

If you are sitting in a chair, it is ideal to sit with your hips slightly higher than your knees and your
shins perpendicular to the floor. Sitting on the front edge of the chair prevents uncomfortable
pressure on the backs of the thighs.

Rest your hands in your lap or on your legs. Either close your eyes, or allow your eyelids to droop
as you stare blankly at the floor.

Relax your belly and take a few deep full breaths, paying careful attention to the air flowing in and
out of your body. Be conscious of the entire airway and all the muscles in your chest and abdomen
that are involved in breathing. Each time you exhale allow your mind and body to sink into a deeper
state of calm and relaxation.

After the deep breaths, simply allow your breathing to settle into a peaceful and natural rhythm.
Continue to attend to the breath. If you wish, think “in” as you inhale, and “out” as you exhale.

Allow your mind to become as still and quiet as possible. It is no longer necessary to focus on the
breath as you become more aware of the stillness and quietness between and around your thoughts,
feelings, and sensations. If you become distracted by anything, simply allow it to pass away as you
return your focus back to stillness and quietness. If necessary, turning your attention back to the
breath can help clear your mind.
When the time for meditation is over, take a deep breath and fully open your eyes. It is a good idea
to massage and stretch your muscles before and after standing.

What can I do to improve my concentration so that I don’t get distracted so easily?

First, understand that distraction is perfectly normal and even experienced meditators can be
distracted from time to time. So when this happens it does not mean that you are failing at
meditation. If you think of it as failure, then you may become upset, and this would only further
distract you from the stillness and quietness.

Second, when you reach the stage of attending to your breath’s natural rhythm, count the breath like
so: “in one, out one, in two, out two….” Do this through ten complete breaths. If you lose count,
that’s okay; just start over. Be patient with yourself and in time it will come easily.

Once you have developed this level of concentration, it will be easier to focus on the stillness and
quietness surrounding and between your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.

How often should I practice, and for how long?

Most experienced meditators agree that a consistent yet flexible routine is best. Sitting in silent
meditation at least once a day is usually most effective for establishing meditation as a meaningful
part of your life. On the other hand, there are many people who practice sitting meditation only
three or four days a week, but also practice meditative awareness in other if not all areas of their
lives. When practicing silent sitting meditation, 15 to 30 minutes is typically recommended as
optimal for beginners, though even 5 minutes can produce noticeable effects.

After I learn silent sitting, what’s next?

Maybe nothing! Meditation does not have to be like other aspects of our lives that require us to
progress through stages of more complex and demanding tasks. It’s entirely up to you to decide
what you do next, if anything. Some people practice nothing but silent sitting for their entire lives
and have no desire for anything else. However, this primer provides you with some additional ways
that meditation can be applied in your life: mindfulness, contemplation and spiritual enrichment.

                               Many experienced meditators practice a meditative state in all that
                               they do, which is often referred to as “mindfulness.” Just as in silent
                               sitting one allows thoughts and feelings to pass through the mind
                               without attachment to them, so too in mindfulness one does the
                               necessary actions for any given thing in a relaxed state of acceptance
                               and openness that is nonetheless very attentive to the task at hand. It
                               might also be described as slowing down in order to be fully present
                               in the here-and-now moment of one’s life. In mindfulness, our
                               focused awareness is not so cluttered by a million thoughts about
                               what else we could or should be doing, and it is also relatively free of
                               thought about the past or future.

                               Many people begin bringing mindfulness into their everyday lives by
the practice of mindful walking. In mindful walking, be very conscious of each step. Attend to all
the physical mechanisms involved in taking each step – toes, feet, ankles, shins, knees, thighs, hips,
abdomen, back, shoulders, chest, arms, breath, heart, etc. Allow your mind to become filled with
the sensations of walking. Make each step an intentional rather than automatic act. At first, your
focus may need to be very restricted so that you don’t become distracted. However, if you continue
to practice mindful walking, you can eventually expand your awareness to include not only the
experience of the walking itself, but also the environment and context of the walking. All of these
perceptions can come together in one complex yet unified experience in your awareness. Try
mindful eating too!

It should be understood that the way this primer uses the term “contemplation” might significantly
differ from the way others use it. By contemplation we refer to thinking about any issue in a
meditative manner. There are situations and circumstances in life that often provide us with
significant learning challenges, difficulties in understanding, and tough decisions. Whether such
challenges arise in academics, in personal relationships, in the puzzling images of your dreams, in
trying to clarify your beliefs and values or your self-concept, contemplation can be applied to help
achieve greater insight and understanding.

Choose a focal point for the issue you are contemplating. Focal points are single words, short
phrases, or images that help keep attention on a specific matter. For example, if you are studying
something in a book, you might memorize one of its keywords or sentences. In addition to or
instead of the word or sentence, you might choose a fitting visual image.

Once the focal point is chosen, begin with silent sitting. When you have established a state of peace
and calm, turn your attention to your chosen focal point. Begin by simply keeping the focal point at
the center of your mind. If you become distracted or go off on a tangent of thought, then simply
return to the focal point. After several minutes start brainstorming, and note all the thoughts,
images, and feelings that arise in association with it. Don’t ignore or reject anything at this point;
simply allow your associations to flow. After a while, begin analyzing and speculating about the
issue. When it seems to you that there is nothing new arising in your contemplation, allow yourself
to once again become quiet and still. At this stage there is no point in striving for insight or
understanding. Just let your mind rest. At some point during or after meditation you may naturally
find yourself drawn to form some sort of hypothesis, and possibly further questions that demand
more study or investigation. You might also find yourself struck by some kind of intuitive insight
that seems to provide all the understanding you desire.
Spiritual Enrichment

                            I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my
                            spirit. - David, King of Israel.

                            From meditation wisdom arises, and without meditation wisdom
                            wanes. - The Buddha

                            Only after knowing what to abide in can one be calm. Only after
                            having been calm can one be tranquil. Only after having achieved
                            tranquility can one have peaceful repose. Only after having peaceful
                            repose can one begin to deliberate. – Confucius

                            When meditation is mastered, the mind is unwavering like the flame
                            of a lamp in a windless place. – Sri Krishna

                            Contemplation is the perfection of love and knowledge.
                            - Father Thomas Merton

If you follow a religious or spiritual tradition, meditation can enhance your experience of it. If you
do not adhere to any particular tradition, but rather think of yourself as an open-minded seeker or a
student of all traditions, then meditation can be especially useful in gaining a greater appreciation
for both the similarities and the differences of various traditions. If you consider yourself an atheist
or agnostic, then know that your experience of truth, beauty and meaning in life can be enhanced
through meditation.

To apply meditation for these purposes, simply use the previous applications accordingly. Silent
sitting is an excellent entry and exit for prayer. It is an effective way of regaining your sense of
centeredness, which is conducive to the practice of understanding, compassion, forgiveness and
faith. Contemplation can help incorporate important values and principles into your life. It can be a
meaningful part of prayer that leads to a deeper understanding of any philosophies, scriptures,
doctrines, and symbols. Mindfulness can provide a much richer experience of relationships,
ceremonies and rituals. Many religions also have their own forms or systems of meditation that you
may wish to investigate.

Recommended Reading

      How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery, by Lawrence LeShan
      The Meditative Mind: Varieties of Meditative Experience, by Daniel P. Golman
      The National Institute of Health provides information on clinical trials involving meditation at
      The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Review of Contemporary Research with a
       Comprehensive Bibliography, 1931-1996. Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan, ed. by E. Taylor.
      Seeing with the Mind’s Eye: The History, Techniques, and Uses of Visualization, by Michael Samuels and
       Nancy Samuels
      Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

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