Zafu Meditation Cushion: Since many traditional forms of meditation are done sitting one of the most basic tools a student will need is something to sit on. Commonly you will find people using a Zafu (a little round pillow on which to sit) but there are so many different types of instruments out there designed to make you sit tall yet comfortably for your meditation session. From chairs to stools you will find it all and there is no right or wrong tool. It all depends on what you want to sit on. In truth, while your comfort in sitting is the most important step to begin your practice most likely you could find something around your home that will work. If you have a yoga mat you could sit it on the floor with your back against the wall and find enough comfort for your session. While you should start with this tool, do not worry too much about whether or not you have the “right” sitting setup. It is right if you are comfortable yet erect (in other words no slouching meditators here).
Mala Beads: Mala beads very simply are prayer beads. They are used in many different types of religions (even Catholics use prayer beads, commonly called a rosary). The number of beads and the style of beads will vary (in yoga there are 108 beads) but all are designed to help you concentrate on restating a mantra (for example: gaté, gaté, paragaté, parasamgaté, bodhi svaha). The idea is that you touch each bead on the strand, say your mantra then move on the next bead and repeat. Once you have come full circle on the strand you have completed your meditation.
Zen Gardens: A Zen garden is a small sand garden often with a few rocks and a rake. In order to help focus your attention on only one task you are to rake the garden. I have a small Zen garden and I at times find it useful when I have difficulty entering into my meditation. It is calming and aesthetically pleasing in any room. You can find relatively simple and inexpensive Zen gardens almost anywhere. You can also very easily make your own.
Singing Bowls: If you are a student of meditation or yoga you will find yourself hard-pressed not to have run into a singing bowl sometime in your practice. They are so commonly used in both meditation and yoga classes throughout most of the U.S. Singing bowls are usually of two forms metal or crystal. They come in various sizes that will be tuned for different areas of the body or mind. The sound and the vibration from the bowl are wonderful tools for helping you to enter further into yourself, but you do not necessarily need to have a bowl present in your meditation to enjoy the benefits of their music. There are several good recordings out there of bowls that you can put on your mp3 player and listen to on a personal device or on a stereo in your meditation room. Out of all the tools I have tried and used my recording of singing bowls is the one that I still use daily.
Incense and Aromatherapy: Incense or other forms of aromatherapy are commonly used to create a mood in your meditation room. It is also used cleanse an area. It is used in many cultures and religions. I am not aware of smells being used specifically for concentration purposes but I certainly do not see why one could not use a smell as a concentration tool. You could introduce a smell into your meditation room and begin to find adjectives to describe the experience of the smell until no other thoughts but the smell exist in your mind. If you are a meditation guide I would avoid using smells with students (unless you are familiar with all your students) because there are many who have sensitivity to smells. Many types of incense for example give me a headache and make it difficult for me to concentrate.
Candles: Whether real or LED candles can be an inexpensive and useful concentration tool. They not only help to set a mood in your meditation room but the flame can also be a tool used to meditate on. Candle gazing is common for many beginning meditators. Focusing all your attention on the flickering flame will help you to draw inward sooner and keep your concentration in one place.
Alarms and Timers: Besides your meditation pillow, the alarm or timer you use to end your session is one of the most important tools you will want to always have with you in your meditation sessions. I would highly recommend not using a regular alarm clock. The annoying beeping can be somewhat jarring when coming out of a long meditation. There are many products out there that offer more soothing sounds to end your sessions. Personally I use my cell phone. I have used my favorite Om chant recording and created a ring tone out of it and it is my alarm. Put your cell phone on airplane mode so no incoming calls can interrupt your session and set it for the desired time. The best part about using a cell phone as your meditation alarm is that you will more than likely always have it with you and you can easily change the tone.
The above are just a few things that you may run into when sitting with others in meditation studios or monasteries. All of them are useful, but in the end it is only you that can decide which tools you choose to use. Remember your practice is the most important thing not necessarily what tools you use to meditate.
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