I start with the caveat that I am by no means an expert, but I have been practicing this and reading the writings of the real experts for decades. This is my own synthesis that works for me. The transformational path goes beyond meditation, which you typically only do in dedicated sessions once or twice a day, by adding things you can work on throughout the day.
There’s an amusing quote in the book Altered Traits , by science writer Dr. Dan Goleman and psychology research Dr. Richard Davidson. They emphasize that many of us can temporarily change our brains during meditation, reaching an altered state, but what matters is permanent long term change that persists: altered traits. Otherwise “after you come down from the high you’re the same schmuck you were before”. Things you do throughout the day in addition to meditation help make permanent change.
Yoga philosophy identifies different personality types who may do better with different approaches. With exercise, you may turn out to really enjoy resistance training, but if your fitness trainer emphasizes cardio you may end up not enjoying exercise. Some people respond better to emphasizing meditation as the core technique. Some people prefer applying discriminating wisdom (using the mind to inquire into its own nature), by pondering questions like “what am I?”. Others prefer selfless service, such as doing volunteer work. And still others are more devotional, with a personal concept of God and responding to things like Gospel music or devotional music and dancing. These are by no means mutually exclusive, you may enjoy some or all of them.
But I start by pointing this out because there are many valid paths, and fine tuning it to what works for you will make it more enjoyable.
Elements of Practice
Some of the most crucial elements of practice are meditation, mindfulness, and compassion. Meditation helps with relieving stress but also trains the mind so it is calmer. It is hard to practice mindfulness, for example, during the day, if you have “busy brain” (also known as monkey mind or puppy mind). As the great teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has pointed out, it’s not going to do as much good meditating half an our a day if you are wandering around mindlessly the other 23 1/2, which is where mindfulness comes in. You could follow both of these, and be calmer and more aware, but still not living up to your highest ideals. An aspect of practice that encourages compassion helps with that.
There are various books by meditation teachers that emphasize a complete practice. I recommend one by Eknath Easwaran, Passage Meditation , because he spells it out clearly. You can find a lot more detail in his book and at www.bmcm.org. I have, however, generalized the meditation part, because not everyone might take to passage meditation.
This is the formal session or two per day that you sit down to meditate. He recommended a 30 minute session in the morning, and if you are extra enthusiastic you could add a second 30 minutes in the evening. Other teachers recommend as little as one 20 minute session per day or 2 times 20. I’ll go over some popular methods below.
In any technique, when thoughts intrude, do not judge them as good or bad, and try not to get carried off by them. Just try to gently bring your attention back to whatever you are focussing on without judging yourself. I recently found out neuroscience now understands this crucial “bringing back” step better than I’d thought , p 149: there is a well-known part of the brain responsible for our “default mode”, which is active when we are doing “nothing”, which really means we have lots of wandering thoughts. Another circuit in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for bringing the attention back to a focus when it wanders. Repeated training at this, such as in meditation, strengthens this skill but also quiets the default mode. Puppy mind is real, says neuroscience, but you can train your puppy.
Also, a good tip is to try to make it feel effortless. Let a mantra, “say itself”, or watch your breath as it “breathes itself”. This may be harder at first because learning a new skill always takes some effort, but as you get more experienced the sense of effortlessness should increase. And for all of these methods, sit upright in a comfortable chair with your eyes closed as described here.
This next tip is a bit unusual, but it happens automatically for me. At West Point when we were doing calisthenics, the instructor would lead with “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four”, with the noted emphasis on the last 4-count. I’m sure anyone whose gone through a military boot camp has experienced something similar. When this rhythm is established, you are automatically counting from 1 to 16 then repeating. I first noticed this when I was running, I’d notice every 16 breaths. Later it transferred to mantra meditation, and it worked for breath meditation too. That subtle metronome is always there for me, and it keeps my mind from wandering off too long, I’ll almost always catch it at the end of the current 16-count. I don’t know if this will be helpful for anyone else, but it works for me.
Breath Meditation: simply observe your breath, don’t try to modify it. Find a place like your abdomen or nostrils where you naturally feel it, and just watch it go in and out. This is also the basic focus for mindfulness and insight meditation. Books going over this in more detail include Rev. Roy Eugene Davis’s An Easy Guide to Meditation , The Miracle of Mindfulness  by Thich Nhat Hanh, and Insight Meditation  by Joseph Goldstein.
Mantra meditation: repeat a word, sound, or short phrase to yourself. Ideally, it is a pleasant sound your “busy brain” becomes fascinated with and the inner dialogue quiets down. I first learned this technique from a transcendental meditation (TM) teacher as I mentioned in the last post. One good tip from that teacher was “you should never try to meditate”. Just gently repeat the mantra to yourself, and hopefully, it will start effortlessly “repeating itself”. The TM instruction was good, but it is pricy, and from later reading other books I realized I could have learned the equivalent for free. There is detailed instruction in Dr. Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response as well as a selection of suggestions for a mantra, and there are more suggestions in An Easy Guide to Meditation . This is the method I use, and it works well for me. The mantra can be repeated once per breath, which is what many teachers recommend including Dr. Benson. For me, it works a little better if it’s twice per breath, once on the in-breath and once on the out. That is something you can experiment with to see which way calms your busy brain down better. In TM they teach not to intentionally time the mantra with your breath, but that it’s ok if it “syncs up” on its own. For me, it naturally syncs up at 2 per breath.
Dr. Benson’s generic suggestion for a mantra is the word “one”, said on the out-breath, drawing it out like “onnnnnnne”. You could also use a short phrase like “I am at peace”, with “I am” on the in-breath, “at peace” on the out, again drawing out the sounds. A famous breath mantra from yoga is the Sanskrit phrase “ham sah“, which means “I am that”, where “that” refers to your true nature. The English translation also works well as a mantra, it is what I use. Again in either the Sanskrit or English version, draw out the “m” sound. Dr. Benson found that a mantra that appeals to someone’s deepest beliefs (such as from a religious tradition) is more effective at causing relaxation.
The distinction between using your breath and mantra meditation is not black and white. Some sounds like ham sah are intended to be used as a “breath mantra”, to aid in keeping your focus on the breath. And you can let the sound of the mantra become subtle, which can make the sensation of the breath more evident.
Mindfulness meditation- The sitting version of this is very similar to breath meditation. It is emphasized to not get carried off by your thoughts, just let them go and return to your focus. I was introduced to this in The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh.
I recently read in Altered States that an early text from Theravada Buddhism, from which many modern mindfulness practices have been derived, actually suggests forty different focuses, of which the breath is one choice. So there’s nothing wrong with doing mindfulness meditation with, say, mantra meditation. That works well for me. There can be a “watched pot never boils” effect that is beneficial in this case: When I’m focusing on the mantra, if I try to notice when a distracting thought first arises, there are often fewer thoughts.
Insight Meditation: This is a step beyond mindfulness. You start out by being dispassionately aware of your thoughts and letting them go. But you progress on to trying to gain insight into the workings of your mind, by “noting” your thoughts. You can just note “thinking” or “feeling” or be more specific like “thinking about work”. Also, you try to dis-identify yourself from these thoughts, or sensations, instead of “I’m uncomfortable in this chair” note something like “discomfort is arising”. An important insight is that your thoughts are not you. They are just activities in your mind. There is a passive observer witnessing them, that’s closer to who you really are. Metaphors are used like your thoughts are just images on a movie screen, and the observer is the screen, or your thoughts are clouds in the sky. The classic introduction to this technique is Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein
Passage meditation:, This is the method recommended by Easwaran. You slowly repeat the words of an inspirational passage you have memorized to yourself. There is a good anthology of suggested passages in his book God Makes the Rivers to Flow, or religious practitioners could find plenty in their own traditions.
Lovingkindness meditation: This bears some similarity to passage meditation, but specifically uses a passage that tries to invoke unconditional love and compassion for everyone. A classic passage to repeat is the Buddhist one “may all beings be happy, may all beings be at peace, may all beings be free from suffering”. I highly recommend the book Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness , by Sharon Salzberg. In Altered States, the authors mentioned that lovingkindness meditators seem to show permanent brain improvements sooner than practitioners of other techniques.
This list is not meant to be complete but it’s a good start, hoping to give you the idea there is more than one method you can try if you don’t like the first. But I would caution about what teachers refer to as the “many small holes” phenomenon: Bouncing around from one method to another without giving any one of them a good try is like trying to dig a well by digging many shallow holes instead of one deep one. At some point, you have to choose one method and stick with it.
Other practices are what you do throughout the day to supplement your meditation.
This is trying to stay in the present moment throughout the day, as described in The Miracle of Mindfulness . In Zen, there is a teaching that the hardest part of the practice is “remembering to remember”. For that it helps to have a focus, so paying attention to your breathing is helpful. An interesting alternative recommended by Easwaran was the repetition of a mantra (also called mantram): unlike mantra meditation, this is done continuously throughout the day. It’s kind of like humming, only you do it purposefully with a phrase you choose. It helps prevent boredom, and keeps your mind on a more even keel. I saw an example of how this works when the great pitcher Orel Hershiser was in the world series. He seemed remarkably steady under pressure. Part of his secret was when his team was at bat, he’d sit quietly by himself in the dugout, softly singing hymns to himself.
Using a mantra also taps into the “earworm” phenomenon, like when you get a fragment of a song stuck in your head, but now it is in a positive way. After you’ve continuously repeated a mantra to yourself it becomes automatic. It recedes in the background when you are having a conversation, reading, watching a movie, etc., but it softly comes into consciousness in between. It helps you stay patient in line, stuck at a red light, etc. This is common in various traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam (the Sufi’s call use of a mantra this way Zikr which means remembrance). As far as what to use for a mantra, Easwaran gives a variety of suggestions in his book. The suggestions in Rev. Roy Eugene Davis’s Easy Guide to Meditation are also useful.
Walking meditation, paying attention to the breath, is a recommended mindfulness practice during the day. Easwaran suggests something similar, walking while repeating the mantra.
Selfless service, as in some kind of volunteer work, is a good way to cultivate compassion. And we get a lot out of it too, I remember hearing a doctor say a good predictor of continued health in his older patients is the answer to the question “do you volunteer”. Easwaran recommends another relevant practice called Putting Others First: I mentioned how this one has been going really well for me recently. As I said there, you have to be a little careful with this, some people may take advantage of you if you practice this with them. Easwaran stressed that the idea is not to make “yourself a doormat”, and gave tips and inspiration on this point.
This covers the three main aspects I mentioned above. Here are a couple more recommended by Easwaran:
Training The Senses: In both Buddhism and Hinduism, it is emphasized that a major problem with our ordinary consciousness(also called “false self”) is “attachments and aversions”, things we desire or things we would like to avoid, which often are perceived through the five senses. An obvious sense that comes to mind is taste, we can have an aversion to what’s good for us and attachment to less healthy foods. I discussed how training the palate works for me previously. I’ve tightened up on that more in the past few weeks and it is going really well. I’ll devote a post to that soon with some more pointers. Aside from avoiding junk food, Easwaran was not big on junk entertainment either. Often the news media, tv shows, and movies do not portray an uplifting portrayal of humanity. He recommended being more discriminating in our choices.
Spiritual Association: This is finding like-minded people to be with from time to time. If you are a practicing member of a religion, then attending church or other temple is an example. Or it might be a meditation or mindfulness group. There are even online ones now. A good source is meetup.com. If you enjoy following Easwaran’s practices, there are online groups at https://www.bmcm.org/community/.
I hope presenting all of these practices did not make it seem too daunting. You don’t have to dive into all of these at once. It might be a good idea to apply Stephen Guise’s Mini Habits approach, maybe trying to gradually add more practices from time to time.
[Update 03/22]: One of the most important prerequisites for self-transformation is ethical behavior, such as following the Golden Rule. I like the idea that the reason for ethical behavior is not to avoid future punishment or gain a future reward, but to help us to be happier now.
- Goleman, D, and Davidson, R, Altered Traits, Penguin Group, 2017.
- Easwaran, E, Passage Meditation, Nilgiri Press, 2016.
- Davis, R, An Easy Guide to Meditation, Csa Press, 1995. Available on kindle or here
- Nhat-Hanh, T, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Beacon Press, 1996.
- Goldstein, J, Insight Meditation, Shambhala, 2003
- Salzberg,S, Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, Shambhala , 2020.