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How to Meditate: 5 Ways to Clear Your Mind

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They say talking to yourself is the first sign of madness. Our minds rarely stand still, bugging us with our wants, regrets and deliberations. As useful as our consciousness and ability to think things through is, we need ways to stop the endless stream of consciousness and clear our minds from time to time. Meditation is the first thing that comes to mind to calm our thoughts and find inner peace. But how to actually do it? Here are five instructions on how to meditate from some of the most popular thinkers.

1. Alan Watts: The Hum of the World

Alan Watts on How to Meditate
Alan Watts

Our first instruction on how to meditate comes from philosopher Alan Watts. The “spiritual entertainer” popularised Zen Buddhism in the West starting in the 1950s. In one of his talks, he explained how to get into the meditative state:

The easiest way to get into the meditative state is to begin by listening. If you simply close your eyes and allow yourself to hear all the sounds that are going on around you. Just listen to the general hum and buzz of the world as if you were listening to music. Don’t try to identify the sounds you’re hearing. Don’t put names on them. Simply allow them to play with your ear drums.

The key to Watts’ method is to refrain from judging our thoughts. There’s no need to try and make sense of them. Why they came to mind and whether they’re good or bad ones. But even if we put labels on them, because we can’t help it, it’s important not to repress those thoughts either. And while you sit or lie down comfortably, there’s no need to pay special attention to your breath. Allow it “to run just as it wills,” the philosopher recommends.

Look at your own thoughts as just noises. And soon, you will find that the so-called outside world and the so-called inside world, come together. […] Everything is a happening and all you do is watching it.

2. Shunryu Suzuki: The “I” as a Swinging Door

Breathing is the gateway to a calm mind, which is why the question of how to meditate is closely related to paying attention to our breath. Building on what we’ve learned from Alan Watts, let’s listen in on an informal talk on Zen meditation and practice by Shunryu Suzuki.

Shunryu Suzuki on How to Meditate
Shunryu Suzuki © San Francisco Zen Centre

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the legendary Zen monk teaches how to sit zazen. Zazen is a classic form of sitting meditation and the primary practice of Zen. Here’s what Suzuki taught his students about breathing as a means to recognise the oneness of the inside and outside world.

When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer
world,” but actually there is just one whole world.

In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.

Achieving the realisation of oneness is a hard one and the subject of many Zen stories. It’s fascinating to experience what happens when we become aware of our breath. When we realise, as Suzuki suggests, that the “movement of our breathing” is “all that exists” at the moment.

3. Naval Ravikant: The Art of Doing Nothing

You could think that humans are experts in doing nothing. But can we really sit still for more than a minute? Doing nothing? Thinking about nothing? Here’s how to meditate using a truly minimalist approach courtesy of angel investor and philosopher Naval Ravikant.

Naval on How to Meditate
Naval Ravikant

In a Twitter thread, Naval describes meditation as “your birthright” and “natural state”. Following his method requires no mantra, no guru, no gimmick, no music or app or teaching. It’s free to use for anyone at any time. Because there’s only one thing it requires us to do: Nothing.

Just as the sky rains when the clouds are heavy, and the body sleeps when the limbs are tired, meditation arrives when the mind is calm.

Prepare for meditation by sitting quietly in the morning, with eyes closed and back upright, in any comfortable position that will minimize movement.

Sixty minutes are easier than thirty, as it takes time for the mind to settle down.

Sixty consecutive days are needed, just as it takes time for the body to go from unfit to fit.

Realize that at this moment, you are the only person in the world and there is no one to instruct you, praise you, or judge you.

With this way of meditation, there’s no need to practice a special breathing technique. Similar to Alan Watts’ method, Naval asks you to refrain from exerting any effort, judging your thoughts, or resisting whatever your mind conjures up at the moment. That includes doubts about whether you meditate the right way. “Meditation,” Naval explains, “is not going through thoughts but rather letting thoughts go through you.”

Doing nothing truly is an art form. And might as well be a luxury good. So if you can’t afford to sit quietly for an hour every morning, you may want to try our next meditation method.

4. Wim Hof: Hold Your Breath

Admittedly, this one’s kind of an odd one out. Wim Hof is a Dutch athlete and speaker who is most famous for his ability to withstand extreme cold. Anyone can learn how to do it, the Iceman insists. And one of the secrets is his breathing technique, which he considers a form of meditation. Here’s how the meditative breathing exercise of The Wim Hof Method works:

  1. Sit or lie down comfortably. Don’t get into the water or behind a steering wheel while you do it. Because this meditation is going to alter your senses.
  2. Breathe in deeply through your nose and into your belly using abdominal breathing. Exhale through your mouth. Do that 30 times.
  3. After the last repetition and exhalation, hold your breath. See how long you can hold it until you feel too much discomfort. Then inhale deeply once more and hold your breath one more time for 15 seconds.
  4. Do this for two more rounds to get the full benefit. You’ll find that you can hold your breath for much longer the more often you do it. One minute, then two, maybe even three. You may also experience a tingling in your body, which is normal.

In practice, Wim Hof’s breathing technique is very deliberate and requires effort. But it achieves the goal of clearing your mind and rejuvenating your body. Together with cold showers (which you’ll be able to withstand more easily after breathing) and commitment, Wim Hof claims a plethora of health benefits. This includes better regulation of the nervous system and a strengthening of the immune system.

5. Thich Nhat Hanh: Becoming Fully Present

Thich Nhat Hanh was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk popular with Western audiences. In his book, Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully Present, the “father of mindfulness” shares several ways to achieve peace of mind in daily life. Because you can meditate during pretty much any day-to-day activity, one of which is walking.

As opposed to Naval’s method, we can easily incorporate walking meditation into our day. On our way to work, when walking around the house, or taking a short walk outside. Nhat Hanh suggests walking mindfully by paying close attention to our breath and steps. Become aware of how your feet touch the floor or ground. Be mindful of how each step connects you to the earth and the universe as a whole. Here’s how the Zen monk describes the practice:

Your steps and your breath are two very effective means to help you be in control of your body and mind, especially the strong negative emotions that can carry you away and take away your freedom. Your breath and your steps can help you come back to the present moment.

There is peace in the present moment. You bring your mind back to the body, and when the body and mind are united you’re truly present for the moments of your life and you’re the sovereign of your body and mind.

We can help mindful walking along by reciting a mantra such as I have arrived, I am home. As we breathe in, we take a few steps while verbalising our realisation that we have arrived in the here and now. As we breathe out, we take a few more steps as we become aware that we’re home in the moment. And that’s all there is.

BONUS: Jon Kabat-Zinn: Guiding Your Mind

Jon Kabat-Zinn was a student of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His career, however, differs greatly from our previous meditators. He’s a doctor and former professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. More importantly, Jon is known as founded Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program designed to reduce stress, pain and depression.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

In his MasterClass course on mindfulness and meditation, he shares his very own five-step guide on how to meditate.

  1. Your meditation session begins by adopting a posture. Sitting on a chair is easiest. Lying down or sitting on the floor work, too, of course. Just make sure you’re comfortable and consciously aware of your surroundings. You can close your eyes. But you don’t have to. Jon also recommends deciding on the length of your meditation beforehand.
  2. Now it’s time to drop into your meditation. “Drop in” as opposed to embarking on achieving a goal. Meditation isn’t supposed to feel like a chore. It’s about experiencing the present moment and becoming aware of “what it’s like to inhabit your body”.
  3. We’ve heard about the importance of our breath before. Kabat-Zinn invokes the image of “being breathed” by our body compared to actively breathing in and out. There’s no need to force your breath. Your body does it all by itself. Now pay attention to different parts of your body, such as your legs, chest or your breath itself. You’ll notice how the sensation is similar to riding a wave.
  4. As every meditator knows, repressing and judging our thoughts during meditation is futile. Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests guiding your mind instead. Observe the thoughts and ideas that pop into your head from an indifferent distance. Then invite your mind back to the present moment. As Jon notes, a wandering mind is a feature, not a bug of meditation.
  5. When you finish your meditation session, it’s important to do so mindfully. Don’t just drop out abruptly and go about your day. Slowly change your posture. As you get up, continue to pay attention to your breath.

If done skillfully, transitioning in and out of your mindfulness sessions will make you realise: There’s really no difference between meditation and your everyday life.

Closing Thoughts

The need for practice is what all methods have in common. Even Naval’s minimalist approach. Just like we have to train our muscles for them to grow, we need to train ourselves to calm our thoughts. We may not have sixty minutes a day to sit in silence. But when choosing the right method, we can meditate and clear our minds anywhere at any time.

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