Focusing On Nothing: First Steps To Meditation



By Austin Fisher

Sitting in the Kansas Zen Center in Lawrence, I try not to fidget. Six others have joined me in the dharma hall of the Center to meditate. We begin with vows and chants. No one speaks. Chalres Vitale, the abbot of the Center and leader of today’s practice, signals us to start and stop meditating by striking his hand with a wooden rod. The point of this focused-attention method is to let thoughts come and go. I count my breaths from one to 10 repeatedly and focus on the air entering and exiting my lungs and my body on the cushion. We sit in meditation for 25 minutes. We get up and walk single file around the zafus, black meditation cushions, arrayed in a square on the hardwood floor for 10 minutes. We sit again for another, much harder, 25 minutes.

This was my first try at group meditation. I had started on my own earlier that week, guided by a meditation app called Headspace. I don’t consider myself religious but I see value in traditional forms of self-contemplation, and I feel calm and a sense of relief every time I meditate. I’ve also been sleeping better since I started. The three types of meditation—focused-attention, mindfulness, and compassion—require no workout equipment or clothing. Meditation requires practice, but it can have enormous benefits. Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and many others suggest that meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, and general well-being. Compared to novice meditators, the brains of those with many hours of practice go through physical changes in parts of the brain associated with attention, pain, anxiety, compassion, and positive emotion through a process called neuroplasticity. But you can start to feel the effects in four to six weeks.

As I sit, thoughts of school, food, life, and how I’m going to write this come and go. Squirrels crawl on the roof above; leaves fall from the tree outside. A motorcycle tears through the neighborhood, its disruptive roar eventually fading away. Meditation practice is about examining thoughts and feelings without judgment.

“When you’re sitting in traffic, standing in line, or you’re late for class, you can either be aggravated, or you can use the time to tune in to your body,” says Sara Brenner, a psychiatric social worker from Massachusetts and former Harvard lecturer who meditates daily.

Meditation gives her the emotional space needed to respond more thoughtfully to events in her life. I got interested in meditation as a way of relieving stress from college.

“It can be amazingly helpful to have this mental place inside of yourself where you know you can drop into anytime and get some relief from the stress that you’re feeling from the outside world,” says Meghan Searl, a neuropsychologist at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts who is interested in how mindfulness and meditation can improve health, cognition, and even relationships. “You can pay attention better, and it can make you a better listener. It can make you more attentive to what’s happening with another person.”

Anyone can start meditation, but like my Zen experience it can be difficult at first.

“In the beginning, people can hardly hold themselves to keeping their eyes closed for five minutes because there are lots of thoughts coming into the mind,” says Krishna Ghimire, who is currently studying for a master’s in civil engineering at KU.

Ghimire is president of the KU branch of the Art of Living Foundation, a humanitarian organization associated with the United Nations. He has been meditating daily for three and a half years, and at this point he feels time move faster when he meditates. After doing some yoga postures in the morning he sits for 20 minutes, and again in the evening after class. He says meditation is a better way to get energized than napping because it doesn’t affect his sleep schedule.

The form of sitting meditation Ghimire practices has three main points. The first is to want nothing. The mind is constantly bombarded by desires, and seeks things from the outside world. You must fool your mind into giving them up. The second is more simple: Feel free to do nothing while you sit. The third is harder: You must be nothing; you have to give up your individual identity.

“You’re neither a student, nor a brother, sister, boyfriend. Just drop your identity. Letting go is the main principle,” he says.

While meditating, Ghimire experiences a state of mind that he can’t express through words. Sincere commitment and a gradual increase in practice time can make one habituated to dealing with busy, stressful situations. He recommends sitting in the same place at the same time each day, regularly. When he skips a day he just doesn’t feel right, like someone having nicotine withdrawal. You can’t fall into the trap of thinking you don’t have time to meditate; the best times for it are the busiest moments of your life.

“To make yourself capable of doing many things in a short period of time, you need meditation,” Ghimire said. “That’s why it’s there.”

Edited by Katie Gilbaugh

Photo by Austin Fisher