The following simple meditation is drawn from the well of Theravada Buddhism, which is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism. The meditation is called Anapanasati: Anapana means inhalation/exhalation, while sati means mindfulness, and so the meditation is no more than mindfulness of the breath. Seeing as we all share the breath in common it is a meditation that can be performed by anyone, at anytime, and anywhere. You don’t need to go to the shop to buy anything and you don’t need to find a teacher, you are the only instrument you need. The Buddha promised his devotees that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” Anapanasati is the meditation that Buddha practiced as he sat underneath the Bodhi tree and realised his own enlightenment, and so it is the method that he stressed the most to his followers, and is the core meditation practice in Theravada Buddhism.
The Buddha’s teachings of this meditation can be found in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta (The Greater Discourse on Foundations of Mindfulness). In it he says: “A monk, having gone to the forest, to the foot of a tree, or to an empty hut, sits down. Having folded his legs cross-wise, straightened his body, and set up mindfulness in front of him, at the tip of his nose, just mindful he breathes in, mindful he breathes out. Breathing in long, he knows: ‘I breathe in long’; or breathing out long, he knows: ‘I breathe out long.’ Breathing in short, he knows: ‘I breathe in short’; or breathing out short, he knows: ‘I breathe out short.’; thus he trains himself.”
And now you have read the Buddha’s own words on this meditation practice; I will elaborate on his instructions slightly:
1. Find a quiet place where you will be alone and undisturbed, the Buddha recommends finding shelter under a tree, as nature is the perfect environment for cultivating a meditative state, but anywhere quiet will do. Find a place in your home where you can regularly conduct your meditation.
2. Place a small pillow on the floor, or a folded blanket, and sit on it with cross legs. You can either sit in half lotus or full lotus position. Half lotus position is when you sit cross legged, with your right foot placed gently on your left thigh, or your left foot placed gently on your right thigh; it is easier to perform than full lotus, but doesn’t offer as much support. Full lotus requires you to place your right foot on your left thigh, and your left foot on your right thigh – the result is your whole body should feel locked in place, and the position will naturally erect your spine almost as though you are sitting in an imaginary chair.
3. Place your hands in your lap, the right hand cupped underneath the left one, with both your thumbs touching and pointing up towards your chin. Close your eyes and imagine yourself as being a mountain or pyramid, unmovable and still – embody these qualities. Next breathe in three deep and forced breaths.
4. Continue breathing after these three breaths, at any tempo or intensity as is natural to you, all the while fixing your attention on the tip of your nostrils. Your mind always needs a mental object to focus on, and seeing as the breath is always available to us, always breathing in and out, we use that as our mental object and focus on nothing but that. Other thoughts will arise, but we simply dismiss them and continue on with the breath. This is surprisingly difficult at first, very difficult, but what we are doing is training ourselves to develop a deep level of concentration, where we can focus on one thing (the breath) and nothing else. Eventually waves of bliss will follow, but we simply ignore these and continue with the breath.
5. Imagine your nostrils as a gate, and in your meditation you become the gate keeper. Just as a gatekeeper examines each person entering and leaving the city only as he passes through the gate, without following him inside or outside the city, so the meditator should be aware of each breath only as it passes through the nostrils, without following it inside or outside the body. The gate keeper remains at the gate both physically and metaphorically at all times. A gatekeeper also does not discriminate a visitor based on whether they are short, or tall, or skinny or fat, they simply note their appearance and let them enter and leave, so too we should not discriminate between any types of breath. All breaths are good; if our breathing is deep and heavy we just note it, and continue, if it is short and light, we notice it and continue. This is the goal of anapanasati meditation.
For beginners it may be extremely difficult to focus just on the breath, and so it may be useful to incorporate counting along with the breath. For each inhale/exhale we mentally count 1, and we continue till we reach 10, and then from 10 back to 1. Repeat this until you are confident you can continue watching the breath without the help of counting numbers. If your mind begins to wander then see it as an opportunity to bring your awareness back to your breath, don’t get frustrated with yourself, just go back to the breath. Every time you successfully leave a train of thought, no matter how important it appears to be at the moment, you will train yourself to cultivate a clear state of mind, and eventually you will be able to enter meditative states almost instantly.
A common analogy used in India is that of a elephant and its trainer, our mind is analogous to a wild elephant – not completely under our control. And so the elephant trainer chains the elephant up in order to train it; the elephant goes crazy with rage and pulls against the chain, cutting into it’s legs in the process. Eventually the elephant realises it cannot break free, and will suffer less if it remains still, and so the elephant is trained. Our minds are like this when we begin to meditate, they do everything in their power to break the silent chain wrapped around them and they do this by exploding with thoughts. Your job is not to tend to each of these thoughts, this is what you have spent your whole life doing, you are meditating to free yourself from these thoughts, because thoughts manifest and you are what you think. The only way to liberate your mind is to abandon your thoughts as they are traps along the way, leading nowhere important.
Another analogy for meditation is that of a muddy lake: the lake, when disturbed by rain, becomes full of tiny grains of dirt and silt that gives the lake a muddy appearance. In time, however, the dirt and silt slowly drops to the lakes floor, and then the lake becomes as clear as the sky above it. If your mind was a glass of water, then a handful of dirt poured into that water would be your thoughts, and every time you think you are effectively shaking the glass. When you meditate the objective is not the shake the glass but to let it sit still so your mind can become completely clear. Practice this meditation daily, for at least 20 minutes, either first thing when you wake up, or last thing before you go to bed.
Here is a transcript of a guided Anapanasati meditation by Ram Dass, that may help you better understand the process.