I feel this question is the fundamental reason people tend to give up their meditation practice early on, as they seem to believe the mind must be emptied to meditate correctly. It is a huge misconception that thoughts simply cease when practicing, meditation is not the eradicating of mind but merely the noticing of it therefore not becoming weighed down or distracted by non-existent worries, anxieties or delusions. The first piece of advice to somebody struggling to let go of their thoughts is to say ‘DO NOT TRY TO’ this enables space between thoughts to arise, revealing a natural sense of being. As one practices more frequently the awareness of this gap will become longer having an even more peaceful effect on the mind. Certain disciplines or intentions can be put in place prior to meditating which can provide a supportive guided routine enabling a person to settle more calmly. For example having a regular time slot to practice, a comfortable familiar place, affirming a positive experience, writing a journal before and after meditating letting go of any negative thoughts on paper, trying different techniques, joining a group and most importantly being compassionate towards yourself, directing loving kindness and be confident in the knowing that being is ‘NON-DOING’ and no effort is required!
It is inevitable that every meditation that you participate in either with a group or alone will be completely unique as a contemplation and experience. Not necessarily always being the positive one you may expect. Expectation is a key hindrance to all practices and should be avoided from the outset when deciding to take up a regular practice. As with all new skills we learn it takes diligence and commitment to begin to feel at ease with the chosen pastime, however, with meditation a degree of lightness in approach should be implemented so as not to allow self-criticism to overtake our thoughts. Your attention will definitely wander in the beginning and is the same for every person, just knowing this fact will make one feel settled observing their behaviours are completely normal and shared with everybody else. One time your meditation may be magical and spacious and everything you dreamed of leaving you in a complete state of nirvana! Nonetheless the next time you practice it could be the complete opposite, full of turmoil, distractions and irregular breathing to name a few. ‘Practice’ is the operative word, an athlete has bad training sessions all the time and varying results, the important thing to remember in meditation is that all these experiences are valid and have something essential to teach us. All sessions will be dependent on your particular state of mind which is pointing your awareness to perhaps an unresolved problem. Therefore, acceptance is the key and enjoy all meditations with gratitude.
Basically ‘what ever works for you!’ There are numerous methods and disciplines derived from traditional schools and lineages of meditation that involve extremely strict positions for practicing. For instance, Full Lotus, Half Lotus, Burmese, Seven Point Posture, Zen and Seiza the list goes on. The most important consideration is to be comfortable, there is no point struggling and suffering incessantly during a time where you are supposed to be relaxing into a calm state of being because your legs, knees or back are in excruciating agony. The traditions obviously have their place and methodology intact, but one size does not fit all. As a rule of thumb unless practicing the body scan (lying on the floor) all that is required is a reasonably straight spine and level head to avoid falling asleep, practicing smooth breathing maintaining a state of relaxation but alertness. You should always remain flexible not being afraid to adjust your position to enhance your experience being mindful not to try and create a state of perfection. Generally, a chair, yoga mat or specific zafu cushions are available for students to find a level of comfort, no particular one being superior to another.
This could be considered a personal preference for each individual; however, a guidance and routine should be set to maximise the benefits of a meaningful meditation practice. Conditions are optimum for meditating on just waking up before our consciousness becomes clouded full of thoughts and required tasks to be completed for the day. Also, this allows you to have a short period of tranquillity, quiet and uninterrupted peace to settle quickly aiming for perhaps 10 to 15 minutes practice time. This is a great way to set positive and clear intentions for the outset of the day ahead. Other times that are common to sit are evenings, after work or last thing before bed time encouraging a clear mind before sleep. In the world we live in today there are so many distractions for example family, work and personal commitments that may obstruct and hinder meditation practice. However, that is why although it is essential to remain flexible in our approach a set aside time should be designed around your life and schedule. When beginning meditation, it may be challenging to practice for 5 minutes but with time this foundation can be built upon to attempt two 20-minute sessions per day. This will create irrevocable changes to your life if maintained. When time is limited short breaks of meditation can be practiced any time anywhere, for example on the train to work, waiting patiently in queues or simply walking to the local shop.
Meditation can be said to have originated in religious faiths through various practices of prayer, chanting, contemplation and mantra all designed to bring one closer to god. However, in its essence this equally can be described as our true nature and state of being, hence acting religious is not a prerequisite to practicing and enjoying the benefits of meditation. The practice is clearly regarded as spiritual but as humanity has evolved so has the reasons, desire and focus of meditating and how it is used to gain a sense of wholeness and presence. As people we place most of our attention on physical and psychological aspects of life which are essential and important to maintaining a balanced health. Nonetheless the spiritual aspect can tend to be ignored which actually contains the other facets (physical and psychological) within itself. Meditation will cultivate this spirituality and encourage our attention to be directed towards the awareness that is occasionally veiled when engaged in the normal day to day activities we all undertake. Although religion has clearly shaped and influenced meditation, it remains available to anybody with the willingness or interest in practicing regardless of any personal faith or belief system.