When you first start out meditating, you might feel overwhelmed by just how busy and chaotic the mind is most of the time. Maybe you doubt you could attain a meditative state at all, let alone the supreme happiness and freedom mentioned in the introduction. Don’t worry. You are not alone. In this chapter I share with you my best, hard-earned tips for a successful meditation practice.
Meditate Smarter, Not Harder
Practicing meditation will improve your ability to pay attention, even if you are currently very easily distracted. Depending on your dispositions you may have the discipline to just keep practicing until you make it, but not all is lost if you also have a lack of discipline. You just need to be clever and find a way to make the meditation object more interesting, because when the mind is naturally interested in something, it requires less willpower to remain focused. Salience generates interest, so make your meditation object stick out from the rest of experience. Pleasure generates interest, so choose a meditation object you enjoy paying attention to. Curiosity generates interest, so choose a meditation object you find worthy of investigation.
As per the introduction, it is the training of self-awareness that ultimately leads to the goal of this spiritual path. All forms of meditation require some self-awareness in order to notice whether or not you are still paying attention to the meditation object. However, there is a more direct approach. If you meditate on an internal meditation object (e.g. your body, feelings, emotions, thoughts, or awareness), self-awareness is not just a small aspect of the training, but also part of the meditation object itself, rendering your practice much more efficient.
Meditation can be seen as a struggle between various parts of the mind. One part wants to pay attention to the meditation object, the other parts want to pay attention to their respective distractions. The common perspective on meditation is that you focus on the meditation object and starve distractions of attention. However, you may also experience this conflict from the point of view of the distraction. Here, successful meditation means relinquishing or letting go of the distraction, and giving up or surrendering attention to the meditation object. Depending on your dispositions, this approach may be far more effective. The next time you notice a distraction, instead of forcing your attention back to the meditation object, try letting go of the distraction and surrendering attention to the meditation object. Think of it this way: For the duration of this meditation, you don’t have to think about anything at all, and you don’t have to do anything at all, except being aware of the meditation object. Letting go in this way can be quite liberating and joyful.
If a distraction just keeps coming back no matter what you do, make the distraction your new meditation object for a while. For example, a common source of distraction are painful memories or pleasant fantasies. The reason these narratives seem so important is because they evoke intense feelings. Allow the memory or fantasy to come up, or even bring it up on purpose, and then practice mindfulness of feelings. If the feelings are pleasant, this should be quite enjoyable, and if the feelings are unpleasant, surrender completely to the experience and you will find that they lose their power over you. In any event, you are no longer distracted, but successfully meditating on an internal meditation object. When the feelings eventually subside, you can stay with whatever feelings (or lack thereof) remain, or return your attention to your original meditation object.
In summary: Enjoy your practice, be aware of yourself, let go of the narrative, and surrender to the experience. Keeping these four things in mind will lead to a joyful and fruitful spiritual journey.
Create A Supportive Setting
When the mind is at peace, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do – you are always calm, alert and at ease. But until the mind reaches such peace, its state is affected by environmental influences. You can use this to your advantage by adapting the environment to support a calm and alert mind.
Three common environmental sources of distraction are sights, sounds and speech. In subsequent chapters you will learn meditation techniques to specifically address such distractions, but you can make it easier for yourself by meditating in a quiet and secluded place with few visual distractions (or closing your eyes).
If you can, create a place just for meditation, e.g. a meditation hut, a spare room, or even just a spot in your bedroom dedicated to your meditation practice. Repeatedly meditating in the same spot, the mind will learn to become more calm and alert whenever you return to this place. Your meditation place should be free from temptations. For example, when I meditated near my computer, I often found myself fighting the temptation to use it. I didn’t always win this fight, but meditating in a different room solved the issue.
Make yourself comfortable. While pain, heat and cold are very salient stimuli and therefore easy to focus on, they are also often unpleasant. Since we tend to avoid unpleasant experiences, needless discomfort during meditation might cause you to avoid meditation. I generally recommend sitting on the floor with a comfortable cushion and/or blanket, one leg either in front or on top of the other. It feels more stable to me than sitting on a chair, and stability is a quality I found very useful in my meditations. However, if you are used to sitting on chairs, your legs might fall asleep within a matter of minutes. It may take a lot of practice before you can find comfort sitting on the floor. Use whatever works best for you. Personally, I sawed off the legs of my desk so I would have to practice sitting on the floor more often. It might not be for everyone, but it worked for me.
Meditate Before and After Sleep
Whenever I scheduled my first daily meditation session in the afternoon or evening, there was a greater chance I ended up cutting short a session or doing something else entirely compared to when I meditated first thing in the morning. When I meditated in the morning, not only would I finish the session, but I was far more likely to spontaneously meditate again later that day, doubling, tripling, sometimes quadrupling my daily practice time.
Whatever I did about 30 minutes before going to bed often stayed with me throughout sleep. Worrying while lying in bed at night led to stressful and unpleasant sleep. When I worked really late I would often wake up with solutions to problems I encountered during the day. Meditating on pleasant emotions dramatically increased my quality of sleep. It was like the mind continued to meditate while I was sleeping, and when I woke up in the morning I sometimes felt as well rested as I could only recall from my early childhood.
Know When Less is More
At some point in my practice, I noticed that the time I meditated seemed to be getting shorter every day, even though I hadn’t changed the duration of my sessions. I also hadn’t entered any sort of meditative state that might account for a distorted perception of time. Nope, it was just the same old meditation every day. When I looked into it, I discovered that my mind simply wasn’t paying attention most of the time because it thought it knew what to expect from meditation. The tricky bit was that the mind had lowered the level of alertness so much that I remained completely unaware that this was even happening. After some experimentation, I found that this effect was more pronounced the longer I set the meditation timer. There was also a kind of inner resistance when the meditation timer was set for too long. I had previously shrugged it off as something that needed to be overcome by means of discipline, but I decided to try something else. From that time forward, whenever I experienced resistance upon setting the timer, I would shorten the meditation time until I found a duration that felt comfortable, and then I resolved to practice with determination. It worked. Whenever a meditation was going really great, I would simply reset the timer and continue, and when I was having trouble for some reason, it was easier to see it through because the shorter timer meant the mind no longer felt entitled to doze off.
What is a good meditation duration? It depends. Does 3 hours sound too long or too short? How about 2? 1? How about 45 minutes? 30? 20? 10? 5? Once you feel okay about the duration and can confidently commit to paying attention for the entire meditation session, set the timer and start meditating. If you feel absolutely clueless as to what might be a good duration, try 20 minutes for a start. If you meditate for longer than an hour and you are not absorbed in some very deep meditative state, I recommend to get up and practice some moving meditation for a couple of minutes every hour to stimulate circulation.
Mind Your Mood
If you are feeling lazy, dull or drowsy, rouse some energy. Bring more activity into your meditation, e.g. by sitting up straight, standing up or moving your body. Remind yourself of why you practice and that your lifetime is limited. If you don’t practice now, when will you practice? Resolve to practice with maximum determination.
If you are feeling nervous, tense or anxious, relax and maintain a light focus only, to avoid panic attacks. Bring more stability into your meditation posture, e.g. by leaning back or lying down. Remind yourself that slow and steady wins the race, and be gentle and forgiving in your training. The mind will learn eventually. Instead of pushing yourself to pay attention to the meditation object, surrender to the experience, and allow the meditation object to guide you through the session. Resolve to let go.
If you find yourself both wired and tired, set your meditation timer, lie down, breathe slowly and deeply, and let go of everything else. If the body begins to fall asleep, allow it to sleep. Continue to breathe slowly and deeply whenever you are awake. When the timer goes off, you will have meditated a little and you may have slept a little. Let that be okay. If this happens regularly, try meditating at a different time of day.
Practice, Practice, Practice
It is important to practice often and regularly, so that the mind doesn’t have too much time to revert to its old habits. As you will soon discover, you can meditate during many daily activities. That means there is no such thing as “not having time to meditate”. The very moment you think you don’t have time to meditate is in itself an opportunity to practice mindfulness of your state of mind. Not feeling good is also no excuse. Even when you can’t drag yourself out of bed during a depressive episode, it is still possible (and actually particularly important) to practice. Just meditate lying in bed, feeling shitty. Perseverance is key.
How about an experiment? Commit to practicing diligently for 8 weeks, and meditate your way through the exercises of this book. If you don’t like a particular exercise, just skip it, and if you really like an exercise, integrate it into your practice. Keep a journal of your meditations, noteworthy experiences, overall wellbeing, and any other variables you may care about. When you have completed the experiment, analyze the journal and see if you notice any changes and trends in the way you experience life. If you like, share your progress, data and insights on the DhammaTime community forums at https://www.dhammatime.org/forums/. This will not only help you stick with the practice, but may also help your fellow meditators do the same.