It all starts with learning to concentrate

A lot of folks get discouraged with meditation because they find sitting still too difficult. And if they can sit still, they find their mind wandering all over the place. You have to learn to concentrate before you can 'relax' into the natural state. Almost all meditation traditions, even the so-called 'sudden enlightenment' teachings, assume you have learned to 'bring your mind to a point' -- to have learned to fixate on an object or a thought or a deity. Buddhism recommends focusing on the breath, the feeling of air on the nostrils or the rise and fall of the diaphragm muscle. Personally, I've found that if my eyes wander, even if closed, my mind wanders. Perhaps in cultures that emphasize memorization, knowing how to focus strongly is acquired more easily. In primitive times, hunting taught this sort of focus, the ability to stand as still as a tree -- to become so mindless that the animal didn't pick up your thought waves. But in our sound-bite-driven, zippy, all-written-down culture, few of us learn to focus down to this level of concentration.

The first thing I had to learn was how to keep my eyes settled on one spot. From the point of neuroscience, focus constantly shifts no matter what we do, but a subjective feeling of 'on target' develops. One easy method I use is to stare at a light source - a regular low-watt light 3 to 5 feet away. I stare for five seconds, then I turn away, close my eyes and concentrate on the after-image, visible as a purple oval on my eyelids. I stare while it slowly dissolves, which takes about 1 or 2 minutes. As long as I keep my focus centered on the afterimage, ignoring my thoughts becomes quite easy. If a thought hovers and doesn't float on by, I swat the offending thought away with a blink (see the blink topic for more information). Counting my breaths to 10 and back to zero also helps.

After a while, concentrating the eyes on one spot becomes easy, and a certain 'feeling' begins to spread from the third eye, the forehead, into the body. It then becomes possible to stay concentrated more or less at any time, and I think this can be defined as 'fixation.'

The classic texts describe various levels of concentration, as well as various levels of fixation. But once fixation becomes permanent, one then can 'relax' away from observing the object -- in this example the afterimage -- and just learn to unfold deeper and deeper into that feeling that starts in the forehead-third eye area.

Although terms differ according to various traditions, I call this relaxation 'meditation,' which also can be described on many different levels as the subtlety of the concentration/relaxation increases. But I believe the Buddhist 'first jhana'(bliss absorption) begins with that certain feeling in the forehead that gradually spreads into the rest of the body. The main thing is not to just stop at these early levels, but always 'go beyond,' remaining alert and not spacing out.