There are many methods for meditation, such as counting the breath, mindfulness of the breath, silent illumination (i.e., mozhao), or meditating on a critical phrase (i.e., huatou). The foundational ones are methods that involve the breath.
Once you have settled into your posture and are relaxed, forget about your body. Otherwise you will not be able to use the method. Do not follow wandering thoughts. When you follow them you’re allowing them to control you and you won’t be able to use the method. Once you realize that you have been following wandering thoughts, just return to your method. They will depart on their own.
The principles behind using your method are: relax, natural, and clear. Keep each session short, but practice frequently. For beginners, each session should be no longer than thirty minutes. If you do it longer, you will probably feel restless or fall asleep. You can use your method a couple of times a day; it will refresh your body and mind and eliminate some of the stress in your daily life. Gradually you will gain the stability of body and mind that makes it possible to, eventually, enter the gate of Chan.
Meditating on the Breath
Breathe naturally, do not try to control your breathing. The breath in meditation is used as a way to focus, to concentrate the minds. In other words, we bring the two things-regulating the breathing and regulating the mind together.
Counting the Breath
Regulating the mind means to stabilize and concentrate the mind. The basic method of regulating the mind is to count one’s breath in a repeating cycle of ten breaths. Starting with one, mentally (not vocally) count each exhalation until you reach ten, keeping the attention on the counting. After reaching ten, start the cycle over again, starting with one. Do not count during the inhalation, but just keep the mind on the intake of air through the nose. If wandering thoughts occur while counting, just ignore them and continue counting. If wandering thoughts cause you to lose count, or go beyond ten, as soon as you become aware of it, start all over again at one.
If you have a lot of wandering thoughts that keeping count is difficult or impossible, you can vary the method, such as counting backwards from ten to one, or counting by twos from two to twenty. By giving yourself the additional effort, you can increase your concentration on the method, and reduce wandering thoughts.
Mindfulness of the Breath
If your wandering thoughts are minimal, and you can maintain the count without losing it, you can drop counting and just sense your breath going in and out. Keep your awareness at the tip of your nose. Do not try to control the tempo of your breathing: just be mindful of it naturally. A less strenuous method, also conducive to a peaceful mind, is to just keep your awareness on the breath going in and out of your nostrils. There is no need to “deal with” wandering thoughts, which may arise. When you become aware that you have been interrupted by thoughts, just return to the sensations of the breath.
Although the methods of meditation given above are simple and straightforward, it is best to practice them under the guidance of a teacher. Without a teacher, a meditator will not be able to correct beginner’s mistakes, which if uncorrected, could lead to problems or lack of useful results.
In practicing meditation, it is important that body and mind be relaxed. If you are physically or mentally tense, trying to meditate can be counter-productive. Sometimes certain feelings or phenomena arise while meditating. If you are relaxed, you will not be affected by whatever that arises. It can be pain, soreness, itchiness, warmth or coolness; these are all natural reactions from meditation. But in the context of tenseness, these same symptoms may become obstacles.
For beginners, if the mind is burdened with outside concerns, it may be better to relieve some of these burdens before sitting. For this reason, it is best to sit early in the morning, before dealing with the problems of the day. Sitting times may be increased with experience. But people who meditate for extended periods may become so engrossed in their effort that they may not recognize their tensions. This frequently exists because their minds are preoccupied with getting results. So to work hard on meditation means to just put your mind on meditation itself and enjoy it. If you can just do that, tension will not arise. Deeper relaxation and calming of the body and mind will result.