a Quiet Mind:
Questions and Answers About the Practice of Meditation
by Mark W. Muesse
following questions and responses are presented for the better
understanding of meditation. Familiarity with meditation's guiding
principles and techniques can be a first step to beginning a
practice. Through meditation, many people are able to connect
with their true self and better communicate with the sacred.
The world's major religious traditions-Christianity, Islam,
Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, and Judaism-all teach practices
that might be called meditation. Not all traditions refer
to these disciplines as "meditation," but they all
recommend some form of calming the mind and body to gain insight
and wisdom or to communicate with the god. "Be still,"
writes the Psalmist, "and know that I am God" (Ps.
all religions emphasize these practices as strongly as others.
Buddhism and Hinduism are most frequently associated with
meditation because these traditions feature this discipline
more prominently than do traditions such as Christianity,
which tends to stress worship, doctrine, and social action.
Yet deep within the contemplative and mystical dimensions
of Christianity and other western traditions are meditative
disciplines similar to those taught in Asian religions. Christian
mystics such as St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart
refer to practices akin to the mindfulness practices of the
Buddha. Father Thomas Keating, more recently, has developed
the method of "centering prayer," a meditative practice
rooted in the mystical Christian classic, The Cloud of Unknowing.
But theologians such as these are not extensively celebrated
and studied in the institutional churches. This is especially
true in Protestantism, which has so often made spirituality
a matter of belief rather than experience. Finding resources
on meditation in the Christian traditions, therefore, is not
as easy as finding them in the Hindu or Buddhist traditions.
We seem to hear more these days about meditation and spirituality.
Why is that?
persons who have grown up in the indigenous traditions of
the west-Christianity, Judaism, liberal secular humanism-say
they feel their native religious perspective has become too
concerned with matters of theology, doctrine, and institution
and has neglected to attend to matters of the heart and religious
experience, the essence of spirituality. There is a growing
interest among many sensitive persons in deepening their interior
lives in ways that doctrine and religious institutions as
such cannot. This desire is perhaps the central reason for
the growing interest in meditative practice. Meditation is
not intrinsically related to religious doctrine or institutions.
It is a practice that is "beyond belief," one concerned
with the experiential core of spirituality. Hence, one may
practice meditation regardless of one's particular religious
is it about modern life that drives people to seek refuge
in spiritual disciplines like meditation?
life is not especially conducive to personal and communal
wholeness. Innumerable things compete for our attention, driving
us in dozens of directions at once. We often experience our
lives as fragmented, over-stimulated, and restless. Most of
our common methods for gaining relief from the stresses of
modern life-such as entertainments and alcohol-tend only to
intensify the tensions. Increasingly, people are discovering
that they need sanctuaries of quiet and calm and practices
for strengthening their inner lives. There are not many places
to find these things other than the world's spiritual disciplines.
is meditation really a spiritual discipline? Isn't it just
a form of stress reduction and relaxation?
a culture that tends to medicalize and psychologize almost
every facet of life, it is not surprising to find a spiritual
discipline such a meditation marketed as a form of stress
reduction or as a relaxation technique. Such an effort, of
course, is a way of trying to remove the modern stigma of
"religion" from meditation. Meditation is, to be
sure, a form of stress reduction. Those who practice meditation
will often discover their levels of stress diminishing. But
stress reduction and relaxation are only by-products of the
practice; they are not its principal purpose or aim. Meditation
is a discipline for gaining awareness, or what many traditions
call mindfulness. Relaxation assists in the process of cultivating
mindfulness, but relaxation is not the goal. Indeed, the development
of mindfulness may initially exacerbate one's feelings of
stress and tension, because it involves being silent and attending
to one's experience. Paying attention to one's inner self
may stir up unpleasant memories and emotions; that is one
of the reasons most persons neglect their interior selves.
are some other misconceptions about meditation?
as many assume that meditation is essentially a technique
for relaxation, they assume that the practice is easy. It
isn't. Many beginning students get discouraged with meditation
and choose not to continue after a little bit of experience.
Usually, they give up on the practice because they believed
that meditation would be an easy and relaxing thing to do.
In order to realize the deepest benefits of this discipline,
one must practice with commitment, diligence, effort, and
courage. Yet it is heartening to realize that meditation actually
helps us to develop commitment, diligence, effort, and courage.
as some might think meditation is easy, others seem to hold
the idea that it is too difficult. This attitude seems to
prevail in Asia where meditation is more commonly practiced.
Some apparently think that meditation takes a particular talent
or a special quality of holiness. While it may be true that
some persons have a natural affinity or aptitude for meditation
practice, it is more accurate to think of meditation as a
skill rather than a talent. As a skill, meditation can be
learned. And, like any skill, it must be cultivated through
persons think that meditation is a technique for producing
altered states of consciousness or extraordinary experiences.
They believe the purpose of meditating is to have a trancelike
state or to eliminate all thoughts from one's mind or to become
one with the universe. But in actuality, meditation is not
about having any particular kinds of experiences. One may
indeed experience a deep sense of connectedness to the world
or even to God; one may have profound and creative thoughts;
one may even experience feeling out of one's body. Any kind
of experience is possible during meditation. But meditation
is not oriented toward having particular kinds of experiences.
Rather, meditation is concerned with how we relate to all
our experiences, not about inducing specific sorts of experiences.
In essence, meditating teaches awareness of whatever happens
and allowing our experiences to come and go without judgment.
In this sense, meditation is profoundly ordinary. There is
nothing extraordinary or exotic about it.
another common misconception is that meditation is an escape
from reality, that those who practice this discipline find
life too difficult and hence seek refuge in some narcissistic
haven shut off from the rest of the world. My experience with
meditation is that just the opposite is true. Rather than
being an escape from reality, meditation is more of an escape
into reality. Consider how most of us live our lives most
of the time. Usually, we are not present to the world as it
is or to our experience of the world. We live our lives according
to routine and habit; we are slaves to clocks, deadlines,
and schedules; we impose our beliefs and preconceptions on
the world. We don't so much relate to the world as we relate
to our ideas about the way the world is or should be. This
is not living in reality. Meditation, on the other hand, teaches
one to be aware of the present place and moment, whatever
they are. Meditation is more like an escape from the unreality
of everyday routine life.
this is a lot about what meditation isn't. Say more about
what meditation is.
good apophatic fashion, it may be easier to express what meditation
is not rather than what it is. Like many things spiritual,
meditation is best grasped experientially, not descriptively.
I therefore discourage beginning students from reading a lot
about meditation. All too often, reading about meditation
becomes a substitute for meditating, which is like the difference
between reading a recipe for apple pie and eating a slice
of apple pie.
despite this limitation, I can say some things about what
meditation is and about the benefits it can confer. Already
I have indicated that meditation is a discipline for stilling
the mind and body to develop greater awareness of and insight
into the nature of the world and self. I can add that over
time meditation trains us to be more open to and receptive
of our life's experiences. It nurtures in us the qualities
of equanimity and compassion. It teaches us the skill of letting
go. Ultimately, according to some practitioners, meditation
is a way to end suffering.
do I get started? Do I need a teacher?
what follows, I will describe the fundamental aspects of insight
meditation practice, the discipline first taught by the Buddha
2,500 years ago. Ideally, one should learn the practice in
a setting where one has access to a flesh-and-blood teacher.
But not all of us have such opportunities, and so trying meditation
on your own with the help of the written word is a good substitute.
Of course, your practice will be enhanced if your ever attend
a retreat or speak to an experienced teacher. But there is
no need to wait until such an opportunity arises for you to
begin this path toward greater awareness.
find a suitable place and time. The place should be quiet
and calming, free from distractions and interruptions. The
time should be what works best for you. Perhaps it is the
early morning, just after you rise; perhaps it is when you
return home from work. Choose a time during which you are
not likely to be called away from your practice or lulled
to sleep by drowsiness. Initially, try to set aside ten or
fifteen minutes for your practice. As you develop your discipline,
you may wish to increase your practice time to forty-five
minutes to an hour.
there a particular posture?
one engages in meditation while sitting. In the Buddhist tradition,
meditation is commonly referred to as "sitting practice"
or simply "sitting." But meditation can be practiced
standing up, walking, or lying down. To learn the basics of
the discipline, it is best to start with sitting. Since it
is necessary to still the body in order to still the mind,
one must assume a stable, stationary position. And since one
will try to avoid movement, it is necessary to find a comfortable
posture. Sitting works well on both counts.
can sit on the floor or in a chair. For most persons, sitting
on the floor requires a cushion to be comfortable. A traditional
meditation cushion, such as a Japanese zafu or a Tibetan gomden,
works well, but so does a pillow or sofa cushion if it allows
sufficient height while sitting. A chair is especially good
for those who finding floor sitting to be difficult or painful.
In both modes-cushion or chair-it is important to sit up straight
without external support for the back. Do not rest against
a wall if you are seated on the cushion or against the back
of chair if you choose that approach. Maintaining a straight
back without external support allows one to keep the sitting
posture longer without fatigue. To keep the back in proper
alignment, it may help to imagine a string attached to the
crown of the skull gently pulling the head upwards toward
the ceiling, allowing the back to elongate.
legs and hands may be placed in a variety of positions. If
you use a chair, both feet should rest flat on the floor.
If you use a cushion to sit on the floor, the legs may be
crossed several ways. Many teachers prefer the traditional
"full lotus" position, with the feet placed on the
top of the opposite thighs, but it is hard posture to hold,
especially for beginners. The "half lotus," in which
one foot is placed on the top of the opposite thigh and the
other foot tucked beneath the opposite thigh, is easier, but
it too may prove uncomfortable for beginners. The "Burmese"
position may be best for western practitioners. It consists
of crossing the legs and tucking the feet under the opposite
thighs. Shifting the pelvis slightly forward on the cushion,
creating a gentle curve in the small of the back, helps to
make this posture more stable and comfortable.
hands may be placed on the knees or kept on the lap, one hand
on top of the other. Choose the position you find most comfortable.
mouth should be closed and the tongue resting on the roof
of the mouth. The eyes, too, should be shut, at least as one
begins to learn the practice. This reduces visual stimulation
and helps to facilitate concentration. As one gains experience,
it is possible to meditate with eyes partially open, and focused
on a place on the floor about six feet away.
am I supposed to do with my mind?
are many different styles of meditation; practitioners of
each of them may answer this question differently. Some practices
entail visualizing certain images, some encourage silently
repeating a syllable or phrase (mantra), some involve gazing
at a candle or some other object. All of these activities
essentially serve to focus and affix one's attention for the
purpose of cultivating concentration.
the best anchor of attention for beginning practitioners is
the breath. The breath is a simple focus, requires no additional
accoutrements, and is omnipresent. Rarely, however, do we
ever attend to it. Yet, the breath has much to teach us about
ourselves and the nature of reality.
you settle into a meditative posture, begin to relax and pay
attention to your breathing as the breath moves in and out
of the body. There are two convenient locations on which one
can place the awareness: the nostrils and the diaphragm. Choose
the place at which the sensation of breathing seems most prominent.
If you focus on the diaphragm, try to be conscious of the
way the breath rises and falls as the belly expands and contracts.
If you select the nostrils, attend to the sensation of the
air as it moves in and out of your nose. Focusing awareness
on the rhythms of the breath almost automatically aids in
relaxation. Keep your attention on the breath as best you
can. You need only be aware of one inhalation or exhalation
at a time.
will discover, if you are paying attention to the workings
of your own mind, that you will not be able to stay mindful
of the breath for very long. Try as we might, unbidden thoughts,
feelings, and sensations begin to intrude. That is fine and
to be expected. The goal of meditation is not to eliminate
these intrusions but to be aware of them. When you become
aware of a thought or sensation, take note of it. You might
simply say silently to yourself "thinking" or "tingling"
or "hearing" or whatever term seems appropriate
to your experience. Keep it simple, though; don't become overly
analytical. The point is simply to take note of experience
as it is happening. When you have become conscious of a thought
or sensation, let it go. Gently return attention back to the
breath and be present to your breathing again. When another
thought or sensation arises, note it and return to the breath.
you allow yourself to get absorbed into your thoughts, it
may take a long time before your realize you are thinking.
One moment you are focused on your breath, then suddenly you
waken from your reverie twenty minutes later to discover you
been fantasizing about your vacation in Cincinnati. That's
the way the mind works. Don't become judgmental about that
process; that only stimulates further thinking. No matter
how long it takes for you become aware of your thoughts, simply
recognize that you've been thinking and return attention to
is the basic technique for strengthening concentration. It
is a simple practice, but it is not an easy practice. Initially,
one will find it hard to stay focused on the breath. Don't
be discouraged. The mind has been conditioned your entire
life to resist discipline. It has to be gently but firmly
trained to stay attentive. Don't expect instant and dramatic
results. The benefits of meditation are cumulative and gradual.
Over time, you will recognize that your mind responds to training.
Increasingly, your concentrative powers are sharpened and
you find it easier to remain focused on the object of your
the value of meditation practice is even more than just enhanced
capacities for concentration and awareness. The practice gradually
inculcates a different and wiser perspective on our experience.
By learning to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and
sensations and them letting them go, we learn the invaluable
discipline of non-attachment. One of the central insights
of the Buddhism is the intrinsic connection between suffering
and attachment. Unskillfully clinging to the items of our
experiences-whether other persons, ambitions, goals, ideals,
feelings, or beliefs-causes us greatly to increase our suffering
and the suffering of others. Reality is simply not structured
to sustain our attachments. Nothing is immune to the flux
of change, and attempting to relate to anything as if it were
permanent or absolute is bound to cause us sorrow. Our greatest
attachment, perhaps, is to our very notion of self, our illusion
that there is something substantial and permanent about who
we are. Even this belief-indeed, especially this belief-must
be released. By learning that it is not necessary to identify
with any thought, feeling, or sensation, we increase our ability
not to cling to or grasp at the elements of our life's experience.
liken the mind in its natural state and function to a clear
blue sky. The thoughts and sensations we experience they compare
to clouds. As long as those images, thoughts, and feelings
are allowed to drift through the mind like clouds on a blue
day, we maintain clarity and wisdom. But when we begin to
cling, to hold on to that which is fundamentally elusive,
our minds become cloudy, unable to see the world and our lives
in it as they truly are. Our minds become so filled with opinions
and beliefs, our entire experience is filtered through them,
distorting our understanding of what really is.
there any advanced techniques for mindfulness practice?
described the basic practice of insight meditation. There
are, of course, other techniques and practices that can be
profitably added to this fundamental discipline. But one should
gain a secure grounding in the rudiments of the discipline
before augmenting it. When it is appropriate to do so, I recommend
that aspiring meditators learn walking meditation practice,
to supplement sitting practice, and metta, or loving kindness,
meditation, which enhances our capacities for compassion.
it beyond my limitations here to detail these practices, let
me recommend that you consult a basic meditation instruction
manual. I've listed some of the best below.
do I incorporate meditation into the rest of my life?
is for the purpose of conscious living, not for having interesting
experiences while seated on your ass. Meditation is a discipline
for learning mindfulness and gaining insight for the rest
of life. It means very little if we leave the cushion and
return to our slovenly habits of mindless living.
the benefits of the practice gradually manifest themselves
throughout our lives with little effort as long as we remain
committed to the discipline. The hard work is making a place
in your life for meditation. Once you start to practice meditation,
you will discover dozens of excellent reasons not to meditate.
Suddenly, doing the laundry and mowing the grass seem far
more interesting and more important than sitting to train
the mind. I have often found it helpful to practice with a
group. Group practice provides an external structure that
is not always possible, however, to meditate with a group.
Commit yourself to meditate at particular time every day.
Don't be overly ambitious. Start with a goal that is reasonable.
If you can only sit mindfully for five minutes, begin with
that. With practice, your length of meditation can increase
to forty-five minutes or an hour. You will discover that the
benefits of meditation increase proportionally with the regularity
and length of your practice. But begin modestly, with humble
books are available if I wish to pursue this practice?
is often a temptation simply to read about meditation rather
than pursuing the practice. Don't spend too much time with
books; their value is limited. A few good texts, however,
will be of benefit, especially in the beginning stages of
practices. Here is a list of some of the best English books
that I have found.
Goldstein. Insight Meditation: The Practice of Freedom.
Boston and London: Shambhala, 1994.
Gunaratana. Mindfulness in Plain English. Boston: Wisdom
Perhaps the clearest and most concrete explanations of
Insight meditation available.
_______.Eight Mindful Steps to Happiness: Walking the Buddha's
Path. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2001.
fitting sequel to Mindfulness in Plain English. Read Mindfulness
Nhat Hanh. The Miracle of Mindfulness: A Manual on Meditation.
Boston: Beacon Press, 1976.
Written by a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, this is an excellent
introduction to mindfulness meditation.
Kornfield. A Path with Heart: A Guide through the Perils
and Promises of Spiritual Life. New York: Bantam Books,
A well-written meditation manual by an American Vipassana
Rahula. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove Press,
A classic introduction to the teachings of the Buddha according
to a prominent Theravadin monk.
Rosenberg. Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice
of Insight Meditation. Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
Salzberg. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.
Boston and London: Shambhala, 1995.
An excellent introduction to metta meditation, a practice
to cultivate compassion.
Trungpa. Meditation in Action. Berkeley: Shambhala,