Meditation is not just for Asian monks and dissatisfied yuppies. Regular meditation helps with the treatment of addictions, mood and anxiety disorders, improves concentration, reduces stress and provides greater insight into one’s psychology. It is not just a metaphysical process: new research indicates that regular meditation changes the way practitioners process emotional stimuli and can even reduce feelings of physical pain by altering processing mechanisms in the brain.
While meditation and stress reduction in general is promoted by the bourgeoisie as a means to better adapt oneself to cope with alienation or to sell various products (Stressed at work? Buy the new aromatherapy stress reduction meditation pillow!), that does not invalidate the actual practice of meditation. Revolutionary organizing is stressful and burned out, “grim and determined” revolutionaries are not inspiring to the people or effective organizers. Dogmatic Marxists that cling to beliefs out of a psychological motivation rather than a clear understanding of the world are lousy theoreticians. That’s why it’s important to be able to apply the same critical eye that we apply to the outside world to the inner workings of our minds so that we have a keen insight into our own thought patterns, beliefs, and delusions (and we all have them).
To start meditation, start meditating. One piece of advice I’ve heard a few times is that it is better to not read too much about meditation before starting meditation, so that you can enter the practice free of goals and expectations and that in any case meditation was not something one could learn about but rather something that one had to do.
At first you will find that focusing your mind is almost impossible. After a few seconds your attention to your breath will slip and your mind will drift off and start thinking about dialectical materialism, the lyrics to a 90s pop song that you hate or an argument you had with someone ages ago. When that happens, gently bring your mind back to your point of focus. Repeat as necessary. Remember: while meditation helps us deal with stress, meditation itself can be stressful, so just because you had to wrestle with your thoughts doesn’t make it a “bad” session. Try to leave good and bad out of it and just focus on the practice.
In terms of how the physical practice works, Brad Warner (author of Hardcore Zen) provides a brief guide to sitting zazen here (with pictures), although that is only one particular position. There are others (see illustration). The Secular Buddhist podcast and blog has many discussions on meditation practice, neurology and philosophy from a non-religious, scientific perspective as well as links to other resources. If you know of any other online resources , feel free to post them in the comments.
An introductory meditation class can be a great asset. Just as it is good to start a new physical exercise with guidance from knowledgeable people it is also good to have a teacher and fellow students with which to begin a meditative practice. Most urban areas have inexpensive meditation classes offered at Universities, community centers, or Buddhist temples. Zen is the least religious of the various schools of Buddhism. The Tibetan traditions are rife with feudal mystification. As with encountering any other school of thought, use what works and set aside what does not.