Yesterday, I attended an introductory meditation class at the Appalachian Dharma & Meditation Center in Johnson City, Tennessee. It was a lovely way to spend a Saturday afternoon. I’ve participated in group meditation sessions before, and I’ve picked up meditation tips from various books, YouTube videos, podcasts, and yoga teachers, but I had never taken a class like this. It offered a nice overview of different meditation methods. The teacher, Jody Palm, identified herself as a Tibetan Buddhist, but I appreciated that the class material was secular in nature and free from the religious and pseudo-scientific claims I’ve sometimes encountered in yoga classes.
We began by talking about different postures and hand positions. Though cushions were available to us during the class, we meditated seated in chairs, with our feet flat on the ground and our hands comfortably resting in our laps in one of several positions.
Jody offered a couple of tips to avoid falling asleep while meditating:
- Sit up straight. You want your back to be vertical, not resting on the back of the chair or slumped forward. Imagine someone is gently pulling you up by your hair. If you aren’t used to sitting this way, your back may begin to hurt after a while. I found it was helpful to place a cushion between my back and the chair back for some support.
- Keep your eyes open. Your head should be upright and your chin level. The teacher taught us to lower our gaze (eyes only) to the floor, but if we started to feel sleepy, she suggested that we could lift our gaze toward the ceiling. I usually meditate with my eyes closed to reduce distractions, but I can see how keeping your eyes open could help you to stay awake.
When we finished discussing the basics of what to do with our bodies, we began working our way through seven different styles of meditation. We tried each one for about ten minutes.
- Counting the breath. Jody instructed us to count each of our inhales and exhales, silently noting the number of each complete breath. When we reached number ten, we were supposed to start over again at number one. When we became distracted by thoughts and lost count, we were to begin again. While doing this, Jody told us to focus on the physical sensation of the breath as it passed into and out of our noses.
- Insight or mindfulness meditation. In this form of meditation, you still focus on the breath, but you don’t count your breaths. When a thought arises, you notice it and let it go. The goal is to recognize that you are thinking and observe the thought without getting caught up in it. You can then let the thought float out of your mind as you return your attention to your breath.
- Mantra meditation. Jody suggested that we choose a word that makes us feel good, such as “calm,” “peace,” or “quiet,” and mentally repeat the word with each breath. Some teachers suggest using a mantra that does not have meaning to you and is just onomatopoeia — a mental sound on which you can focus your mind as you meditate. I think I started this session using the word “love” or “peace” and then switched to “sat nam,” a mantra I’d learned years ago from a yoga teacher.
- Noticing the bottom of the breath. Next, Jody instructed us to focus on the physical sensation of the breath as it traveled into and out of our torsos, and to notice the pause that occurs between inhaling and exhaling.
- Walking meditation. This is a meditation technique that I’d heard of but had never tried before. It seems like a good option for those days when I just can’t sit still. We stood up straight, placed one hand in the other, and rested our hands in front of us. Then, gazing down, we slowly picked up each foot and placed it in front of us, carefully noting the physical sensation of lifting the foot and placing it on the ground. We walked this way, in a rectangle around the room, for about five minutes. Walking meditation is usually done very slowly, but because we were beginners, we moved a bit faster than usual to avoid losing our balance.
- Chanting. We used the word “hum” for our chant; you are probably familiar with “om” as well. We would take a deep breath and then say “hummmmmmmm” as we exhaled through our noses, lingering on the “m” sound and trying to create a vibrating sensation in the area of our sinuses. (I felt the vibration more in my mouth.) We repeating this humming chant for a couple of minutes, then remained quiet and meditated by focusing on our breath for a few minutes. The chanting and resultant vibrating sensation is supposed to help to quiet your mind and allow you to settle into meditation. I found that it did help, and there was something very soothing about hearing the chorus of hums.
- Guided meditation. In our last meditation session, we listened to Jody describe a scene as we imagined it in our minds. She asked us to picture a goddess-like figure who interacted with us, representing compassion. After comforting us, the woman in our imagination passed her spirit of compassion to us to take out into the world.
My meditations at home are usually some combination of the first four approaches. Sometimes I follow guided meditations that I find online, and often the final meditation at the end of a yoga class is a guided meditation. I’ve only ever tried chanting in yoga classes, and walking meditation was completely new to me. I enjoyed focusing a bit on each of these different meditation styles and adding some tools to my meditation toolbox. Thanks to ADMC and Jody Palm for holding this class! If you live near Johnson City and are interested in taking the class, keep an eye on the ADMC website; they host a class every few months.
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