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Basic Meditation Practice


Basic Practice

This practice is based upon a form of insight meditation. In order to do this basic practice, first, find someplace quiet to sit, where you won’t be disturbed.

Pick out a chair that you won’t mind sitting on for half an hour, more or less. You should be able to sit with your spine relatively straight, without slouching. You do not need to sit in the “lotus position,” or any other special posture in order to do this practice. Of course, if it’s easy for you, go ahead. It just isn’t necessary, that’s all. The most important rule for practice is… You don’t need to sit in pain!

Get some kind of timer. (Or sit with somebody who keeps time!) Some people are able to sit for just the right amount of time without any kind of timer. That’s fine, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other. A kitchen timer is good, but you don’t want it to be too loud, either the ticking sound or the bell.

When you begin this practice, you can start sitting for 10 minutes and then quickly go up to 15 minutes per session. After a while you can go up to 20 or 25, which is a good time to settle at. You can eventually work up to 45 minutes if you want, but it’s not necessary unless you are comfortable sitting for that long.

Start by just sitting down in a comfortable position. Move around until you feel good sitting where you are. Then go through your body checking for tension, and just relax. Drop your shoulders a little. Take a reasonably deep breath and let it out. If, at any time, you start feeling uncomfortable, shift around a little. This is also true about scratching. If you have to scratch really badly, go ahead. Try to put up with a little manageable pain or itching. But this practice is not about learning a new method of self-torture.

Rest your hands someplace. Some people like to put their hands together and let them rest in their lap. Others like to rest their hands palm-up on their thighs.

Some people like to close their eyes. Others like to keep them part-way open, looking at a place just in front of them on the floor. Either way… It may be best to keep your eyes closed, because if you look at one place for too long, you’re liable to get bumped into a trance. This isn’t about trances.

Breathing is very important. When you start your practice, notice how you are breathing. Pay attention to where you feel your breath coming in and going out. Do you feel it clearly in your nostrils? Or maybe you feel your abdomen moving up and down. Or maybe you can clearly feel the air filling up your lungs and then flowing out of your lungs. Wherever the place is where you feel your breath the clearest, just let your awareness settle in there.

Follow your breath coming in and then going out. Just breathe naturally. Don’t try to make your breathing different. After a while, start to say something to yourself (subvocally, silently, just to yourself) in order to help you follow your breathing. Say something like “now I am breathing in,” and “now I am breathing out,” or “in” and “out” or whatever. It doesn’t matter what you say to yourself as long as it is geared to your breathing.

Just settle down with what you have been doing. You’ve got a place to sit, you’ve got your chair to sit on, you’ve got your natural posture, and you’ve got your breathing to pay attention to. The pattern goes like this: Breathe in. While you breathe in, say “breathing in” to yourself. Then breathe out. While you breathe out, say “breathing out” to yourself. No need to rush. No need to do anything besides just sit.

After a while you will begin to notice that there is a little pause between breaths. As you settle down, the pause will probably get a little longer, but that doesn’t matter. During the pause between your breaths you can check to see if you have been thinking. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have been thinking, and it doesn’t matter what you have been thinking about. Just notice. You can say something to yourself like “thinking” if you notice you have been thinking. Sometimes you’ll get in the habit of saying “thinking” in the pause between your breaths whether or not you’ve been thinking, and it will remind you to check. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, because it will get you to actually check. But see if you can say “thinking” only when you actually notice that you have been doing it.

In addition to simply thinking thoughts, you will notice yourself doing things like planning for the future, or remembering things that happened in the past, or rehearsing, or imagining. It is important to notice these aspects of mind as they arise. You can name them separately to yourself, like “remembering” or “imagining” or whatever it is. Or you can just lump all these aspects together as “thinking.”

When you find yourself thinking, it’s not necessary to force yourself to stop thinking. The whole trick is just to notice whether you are thinking. After a while you’ll just get used to being in a place inside yourself where you can watch whether or not you are thinking, and your thinking will naturally decrease. But you don’t need to force yourself to get there.

Of course, there will be many times when you forget to do any of this. You’ll forget to follow your breath, and you’ll forget to check your thinking. When this happens, you simply start all over again. You can start to follow your breath again, and then you add the check to see if you’re thinking. Everybody loses touch. The moment you come back is a moment of awakening.

As your practice proceeds you will begin to identify other realms of awareness besides thinking. There are two other realms of experience you will notice - these are experiences of the outside environment, and the internal realm of feeling.

First you might become aware of internal bodily experiences, like a tension or pain in you shoulders. You can say something like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “tension.” Then you will probably begin to notice other feelings and moods. For instance, say that you notice you’re feeling sad. You can say something to yourself like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “sadness.” Don’t try to change what you’re feeling. Just be present with whatever is happening in a mindful way.

Next you might become aware of the external sounds around you. So you can say something like, “inhale,” “exhale,” “hearing.” And you might become aware of the movement of air against your skin. So you might say, “inhale” “exhale,” “sensation.”

At first you will probably just pay attention to thinking, because that’s what we tend to do most of all with our minds. But eventually you will become aware of the other realms of experience. As your sitting practice deepens, you will begin to distinguish the three realms - an internal realm of feelings and moods - then an external realm of sensing - as well as the realm of thoughts, memory and imagination.

But there is no need to rush. All you need to do is just sit there, following breath, and being aware of whatever arises.

john... you are a gift to so many on this planet
John Francis Ca... – January 18, 2007 – 3:44pm

I have been  folowing this as part of  meditation, for a while now. Thank you for adding to the  depth  of  the experience. Amazing difference!

AnjelaM – October 28, 2007 – 11:54am

You do honor to my many fine teachers. They and I are grateful for your dedication. We are all student of practice.

John Francis Ca... – October 28, 2007 – 12:33pm

That is a truly fine explanation of mindfulness meditation. So clear, so well written.

Scarlet Rose


  Totally Committed

I give thanks for unknown blessings already on the way

Scarlet Rose – September 17, 2009 – 6:12am

Thank you for this concise, encouraging guide. I learned TM in the '70s (who didn't?) and still use it. I'm going to introduce your suggestions and see if it helps, my biggest "problem" is falling asleep.

Kathleen C – September 25, 2009 – 7:53am

I can remember writing a rough draft of these instruction 8 or 9 years ago, while sitting in a loft apartment in an old converted telephone factory, looking out the huge windows across the street toward the Carter Center. Jane Fonda had just moved into the penthouse of a new condo building next door, although I never saw her or Ted (who was rumored to visit occasionally).

No matter what kind of wierd meditation practice I might try, I still come back to this basic practice. Back in the 70s I tried to meditate in ways that were totally impossible for me. Then I ran into Jack Kornfield back in 1980. He (incredibly) was merely another member of a group that I was in at Esalen. (This is before he became famous.) And he taught me basic Vipassana practice. That made all the difference for me. (Jack certainly doesn't remember me, so this is not officially name dropping.)

So this last week I got back from an amazing trip to California. I sat a lot with Andrea Fella at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City. (Gil Fronsdale was away leading a retreat.) And I even got the chance to go up to Spirit Rock for one of Jack Kornfield's increasingly rare Monday Night Classes. It made me really happy to see, first hand, what a wonderfully productive life Jack has led.

One thing I have learned is that meditation can just make me happy, in the moment of practice. I can take a breath, being aware of breathing in and out, and just be happy with that. Of course, the more my practice matures, I find that I can let go of some of the things I grasp onto in my mind during practice. I hold onto quite a bit, so it's been a gradual process. But the more I let go of in practice, the better I feel. Finally, there's the happiness of letting go into trancendence, which still makes me feel pretty pretentious when I start talking about it.

Anyway, a few days ago I couldn't go to sleep, and I just started doing basic practice lying down - following my breath, breathing in and out with awareness. I didn't fall asleep immediately, but I started to enjoy just being there breathing, and I started to feel happy!

John Francis Ca... – September 26, 2009 – 10:15am

You are a wonderful man, John.  Thank you for relating this authentic experience.  It is generous of you to share.

With Love... 

Kristy Bliss – September 27, 2009 – 9:47am


John Francis Ca... – September 27, 2009 – 2:31pm