Special Topics

Five Basic Trainings for Meditation Practice

Regulating our Diet, Sleep, Body, Breath, and Mind

Before starting our meditation practice, we first need to adjust and relax our body, to make sure our mind is sufficiently calm before adopting the practice methods. Therefore, as a basic training, one of the essential principles for spiritual practice is to regulate five aspects of our daily life: our diet, sleep, breathing, physical body, and mind. The purpose of meditation is to regulate our mind, but its foundation starts with regulating the aforementioned four aspects.

1. Regulating our Diet
Everyone needs to eat every day, so the first and foremost principle regarding the five trainings is to regulate one's diet. With the advancement of our material environment, some people tend to eat too much, whereas others may follow an unhealthy diet just to lose weight. Moreover, people may have irregular meal times, indulge in snacks throughout the day or late at night, and develop a habit of emotional eating. These seemingly small habits will lead to an imbalanced intake of nutrition, eventually compromising our health. We should establish good healthy diet habits, eat in moderation, and take in balanced nutrition. When going on a meditation retreat, avoid stimulating food and drink such as tea, coffee, spicy food, and alcohol, as they will affect our meditative practice. In this way, we need to regulate our diet and how we eat.

2. Regulate our Sleep
We all need to sleep, but sometimes a good night's sleep seems quite hard to come by. Many people suffer from insomnia or frequent dreaming, and thus long for the blessing of a good night's sleep. Having a good sleep will make us feel better during the daytime, experience refreshment, and enjoy good health. Otherwise, we will feel absentminded, agitated, irritable, and mentally stressed, which will take a toll on our health in the long run. This in turn will affect our regular meditation practice, causing us to easily fall into dullness and torpor. 

Many night owls like to stay up late at night, which harms their health. Adequate sleep in essential, but is a long sleep necessary? Actually, it is most important to have quality sleep. Try to sleep on your right side. This will put less strain on your heart and stomach, as well as help your brain and body fully relax, thus allowing you a good sleep. Going to bed with stress on your mind will often lead to frequent dreaming and sleep deprivation. Before going to bed, tell yourself to temporarily put aside what is in your mind, and not worry about unfinished tasks. Getting worried is of no value while getting a good sleep is always beneficial.

In the meditation hall, some practitioners may doze off as soon as they sit down. One possible reason is that they feel chronic exhaustion or stress, and, once given the chance to relax, , may  simply fall asleep in the absence of external pressures. . This is normal. They will recuperate after a day or two of adjustment, and realize that even a six-hour sleep is rejuvenating enough.

3. Regulate our Body
Regulating our body can be done either in motion or stillness.r In the  former case, we can do gentle, mild physical activities such as walking or strolling; for the latter, we can do silent sitting in the correct posture, to make our body gradually relax. Whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, try to remain relaxed, naturally composed, and stable. Keep the body relaxed, while the mind remains clearly aware. A mind that is not confused and chaotic is the very foundation for meditation practice.

4. Regulate our Breathing
To regulate our breathing is to maintain a natural, consistent rhythm of breathing, without attempting to control it. Instead, appreciate and enjoy your breathing. When our breathing is labored or irregular, we can feel our body tensing up, which in turn can affect our judgments and cause our emotions to fluctuate. Breathing is even more closely linked to our posture in meditation; breathing cannot happen smoothly when the body is not sitting upright. Furthermore,  when our nerves and muscles are tensed, we will find it hard to breathe naturally. So, in our daily life, whether walking, sitting, standing or lying down, we should try to maintain correct postures at all times. Regulating our breathing is correlated with regulating our body and mind, since breathing is an essential bridge linking the regulation of our body and mind. In regulating our breathing, we are also regulating our body. When our breathing is even, so is the qi circulation in our body. Regulating our breathing should go together with regulating our body and mind. When our body is healthy and our breathing even, our emotions will be stable. So, it is best to take three deep breaths when our mind is foggy, or when we feel emotionally disturbed. The traditional Theravada practice of the "four foundations of mindfulness" also starts with the basic practice on breathing known as anapanasati. All fundamental meditation practices require the methods of breathing; by properly regulating our breathing, we can then proceed to regulate our mind.

5. Regulating our Mind
The aforementioned four kinds of regulation are connected to our state of mind, which in turn is dependent on our diet, sleep, physical condition and  breathing. With all of them in balance, we will naturally enjoy a joyful and peaceful state of mind. Therefore, in our daily life, we can start with regulating our diet, sleep, body and breathing, and then incorporate the methods of Chan practice, such as seated-meditation, Huatou (koan) investigation, silent illumination, and direct contemplation. Doing so can change our afflicted mind into one of wisdom and compassion. With this sequential practice, we will gradually transform our mind and change the way we live.

Extended Reading:
Q&A for Meditation Beginners
2. Five Basic Trainings for Meditation Practice
3. What are the Regulations in the Meditation Hall?
4. A Guide to Meditation Practice
5. Dharma Instruments Used in Meditation Retreats

Resource: Issue 370 of Life Magazine, Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation
Cheng-Yu Chang (張振郁), Shujen Yeh (葉姝蓁)
Editing: Chia-cheng Chang (張家誠), Keith Brown