Following a few guidelines for successful meditation

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Think of your meditation as a tree that you must water every day — not too much and not too little. Trust that one day your nurturing will bring the tree to bear beautiful blossoms and delicious fruit.

Here are several vital tips to help you set the stage for a meditation routine:

✓ Practice regularly. Try to meditate every day. If that isn't possible, meditate at least several times a week.

✓ Cultivate the correct motivation. People meditate for all kinds of reasons: health, wholeness, peace of mind, clarity, spiritual growth, and so on. Be clear in your own mind why you're sitting down to meditate. The best motivation for meditation (and Yoga practice in general) is to live to your full potential and to benefit others by your personal achievements.

In Buddhism, this motivation is known as the bodhisattva ideal. The bodhisattva ("enlightenment being") seeks to realize enlightenment (the ultimate spiritual state) for the benefit of all other beings. As an enlightened being, you can be far more efficient in helping others in their own struggle for wholeness and happiness.

✓ Meditate at a regular time. Take advantage of the fact that your body-mind is a creature of habit. After a few weeks of meditating at the same time during the day or night, you may find yourself looking forward to your next meditation session. Traditionally, Yoga practitioners prefer the hour of sunrise, but this time isn't always practical. (Head to Chapter 18 for more on morning meditation.)

Inevitably, you have moments when meditation is the last thing you want to do. In that case, resolve to sit quietly for at least five minutes. Often, this break is enough to get you in the mood for full-fledged meditation. If not, don't beat yourself over the head; just go on to something else and try again later or the next day.

✓ Meditate in the same place. Choose the same place for the same reason you use the same time: Your body-mind enjoys what is familiar. Use this fact to your advantage by setting aside a room or a corner of a room that your mind can associate with meditation.

✓ Select an appropriate posture for meditation and do it correctly. Sit up straight, with your chest open, and your neck free (see the following section for instructions about posture). To avoid falling asleep, don't recline while meditating and don't meditate on your bed, even in a sitting position, because your mind is likely to associate the experience with sleep. If you're not used to sitting on the floor, try sitting on a straight-backed chair or on a sofa with a cushion behind your back. If you can comfortably sit on the floor, you have a variety of yogic postures to choose from, several of which appear in Chapter 7.

✓ Select a meditation technique and stick with it. In the beginning, you may want to try out various techniques to see which appeals to you the most. But after you find a good technique for your particular needs, don't abandon it until it bears fruit (in terms of increased peace of mind and happiness), a meditation teacher advises you to change to a different technique, or you feel really drawn to a different technique.

When you have your routine sorted out, keep the following suggestions in mind as you grow your meditation tree:

✓ Begin with short sessions. Meditate only 10 to 20 minutes at a time at first. If your meditation naturally lasts longer, simply rejoice in the fact. But never force yourself if the timing creates conflict or unhappiness in you. Also, beware of overmeditating. Often, what beginners regard as a nice long meditation is just self-indulgent daydreaming. Make sure that your meditation contains an element of alertness. When you start drifting off into a comfortable space, you can be sure that you're no longer meditating. Like the practice of the Yoga postures, your meditation must have an edge (that is, you must push against the limitations of your mind but without frustrating yourself).

✓ Be alert, yet relaxed. Inner alertness, or mindfulness, isn't the same as tension or stress. Cats are good examples of this alertness. Even when a cat is completely relaxed, its ears move around like radar dishes catching every little sound in the environment. The more relaxed you are, the more alert your mind can be, so make sure that your body is relaxed by regularly practicing some of the relaxation exercises we describe in Chapter 4.

✓ Don't burden yourself with expectations. Entering meditation with a desire to grow spiritually and to benefit from the experience is certainly acceptable. However, don't expect every meditation to be wonderful and pleasant.

✓ Prepare properly for meditation. As a beginner, don't expect to be able to jump from the fray of your daily activities straight into meditation. Allow your mind a little time to unwind before you sit for meditation. Have a relaxing bath or shower or at least wash your face and hands.

✓ At the end of your meditation, integrate the experience with the rest of your life. Just as going straight from overdrive into a meditative gear isn't prudent, you need to refrain from jumping up from meditation to return your other activities. Instead, make a conscious transition in and out of meditation. At the end of the session, briefly recall your reasons for meditating and your overall motivation. Be grateful for any energies and/or insights your meditation generates. Equally importantly, don't feel negative about a difficult meditation experience. Rather, be grateful for any experience. Sometimes important insights surface during meditation, and then your challenge is to translate these messages into daily life. When you continually perform this kind of integration, your meditation deepens more quickly as well.

✓ Be prepared to practice meditation for a lifetime. You don't grow a tree overnight. On the yogic path, no effort is ever wasted. Therefore, don't give up if your meditation isn't what you think it should be after a month or two. Don't conclude too hastily that meditation isn't working or that the technique you're using isn't effective. Instead, correct your understanding about the nature of meditation and carry on. Your very effort to meditate counts.

Be wary of weekend workshops that promise immediate success, if not enlightenment itself. Meditation and enlightenment are lifelong processes.

Roses come with thorns

If you're a beginner and your meditations are consistently comfortable, you have every reason to be suspicious. The purpose of meditation is to clear your mind, and doing so entails clearing away the debris (or what one teacher has called "the frogs deep down in the well").

In the beginning, meditation consists largely of discovering just how unruly your mind is. If your meditation practice is successful, you encounter your shadow side (all those aspects of your character you'd prefer not to think about). As you go on, more profound insights into your character can and do occur, which then requires you to make the necessary changes in your attitudes and behaviors.

Few meditations are spectacular, which isn't at all what meditation is about. Even a seemingly bad meditation is a good meditation because you're applying mindfulness. Don't be surprised to find that your meditation is calm and uplifting one day and turbulent and distracted the next for no apparent reason. Until your mind reaches clarity and calmness, you can expect this fluctuation. Just keep a sense of humor and graciously accept whatever happens in your meditation.

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