“Meditation is not for me.”
“I’m too anxious.”
“I can’t stay focused.”
If you’ve said any of these phrases, well, that’s exactly why you should meditate.
Imagine if you could tell people you feel less stressed, or less anxious when they ask you how you’re doing. What would your productivity be like if you got better sleep, and felt more focused? What would your life be like if you were in a better mood more often?
My own experience with it has been impactful. After a few months of daily meditation, I felt like I could approach problems (including problem people in my life) more calmly. I felt less impulsive and more self-reflective. I felt more in control, more curious, and more peaceful.
Seeing as it has been on of the most important practices on my own well-being and on the well-being of so many others, I thought I would clear up a few meditation misconceptions, and I provide a few examples of different ways you can practice.
By far the most common things I heard from people who have tried meditation were variations on “I can’t clear my mind,” or “I can’t keep my mind from racing.”
So the first myth I want to bust is this:
You don’t have to clear your mind.
Regardless of what type of meditation you do, the goal is not to have no thoughts, but rather to simply quiet your mind, allowing thoughts to come and go. Although this is easier than getting rid of your thoughts altogether, it still usually presents a challenge, which I’ll address below.
Basic Types of Meditation
There are two main types of meditation: focused attention, and open monitoring (mindfulness). Guided meditation apps will often combine aspects of both types.
During focused attention meditation, you may choose to center your focus on a single object, experience, or idea, such as the breath, a mantra, or a feeling (as in loving-kindness meditation).
Open monitoring, or mindfulness, is a continuous awareness of your moment-to-moment experience, including sensations such as sounds, physical feelings, like a pain or an itch, emotions, or thoughts. Attention to the breath, although a form of focused attention, is also a common teaching in mindfulness practices.
The goal of mindfulness is simply to be aware of your thinking. Most of the time our thoughts are scampering around our heads we don’t pay any attention to them. We take for granted that they’re there. But what happens when you start to notice them? That’s what mindfulness meditation helps you to discover.
Before you get started with a practice, here are a few common questions regarding both types of meditation:
Q: Can I do it anywhere?
A: Yup. Ideally, you’ll have a quiet space where you won’t be too disturbed or feel too self-conscious.
Q: Do I have to sit cross-legged and do the weird finger thing?
A. Not at all. The most important thing is that you’re comfortable. You can sit in a chair, on a couch, on your bed. You can sit cross-legged or legs straight. You can even stand, or lay down. The idea is to find a balance between comfort and alertness. (Don’t lay down if you’re going to fall asleep though.)
Q: Should I play music?
A: If you’d like, but it’s not necessary. If you’ve got a lot of background noise, it might be nice to play some music or white noise to help you relax and tune out the sounds of your neighbor’s children screaming or the tv blaring in the next room.
Q: Do I have to breathe deeply the whole time?
A: Nope. You actually shouldn’t try to manipulate the breath. If you’re focusing on the breath, just let it come, and observe your natural inhalations and exhalations.
Q: Eyes open or closed?
A: Whatever you prefer. If you are trying out focused attention meditation, you can keep your eyes open and use something in your visual field as an object of your attention. Or if you would like to practice mindfulness of whatever enters your visual field, you can do that as well. If you feel more comfortable and relaxed with your eyes closed, do that.
Q: How do I silence my thoughts?
A: Don’t. :) If you think about silencing your thoughts, that’s introducing a new thought! Here’s what to do instead: If you’re doing a type of focused attention meditation, when you notice yourself thinking, just come back to whatever you’re focusing on—the breath, a mantra, etc. If you’re doing mindfulness meditation, just acknowledge the thought, and watch what happens when you catch yourself thinking. If the thought created an emotion, observe the changes in your mind and body that arise.
Q: I don’t feel like I have the quiet time needed for meditation.
A: Many people find the best time of day to be first thing in the morning. If you’re having trouble finding time first thing in the morning, or during the day, or if your attention is constantly in demand, you can even take a minute in the shower.
One common obstacle is finding a private place to do it; another is finding the time. You don’t need an hour, or even a half hour, or even 15 minutes to meditate.
Especially if you’re just starting out, you’ll want to keep your practice incredibly short. Start with just one minute, and work your way up from there.
The following two extra tips are from my friend Chris (see his meditation practice in the section below). If you’re struggling to stick to a meditation practice, I think you’ll find them both extremely useful:
1. Start small
Originally, I started with sitting for 1 minute and worked up to 20 minutes, adding one minute when I felt comfortable.
By far the hardest length of time to meditate for was one minute.
Sitting still for that first minute was extremely difficult. This is not a joke.
Actually, what's even more difficult is getting yourself to the point where you can justify sitting down and meditating at all, because that's a huge mountain to climb in itself for some strange reason. It was certainly my biggest challenge out of all of this - the length of time is really irrelevant in the beginning.
Once I got past sitting for just one minute, then 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes were all comparatively easy.
2. Take the pressure off
I set my timer for "20:25" (20 minutes 25 seconds). That means I purposefully give myself 25 seconds to get settled in, fidget, shuffle, do whatever I want to do - absolutely zero pressure. No rush. That way I'm not beating myself up if I'm particularly tired, restless or "not into it" that morning. I inevitably fall into "meditation mode" within seconds every morning because of this mode of thinking - which is way better than if I was constantly beating myself up to "focus more" or whatever. This is one of the best meditation "hacks" I can suggest.
I try to keep my focus on my breath - but really, my overall condition for success is that I simply sat down for 20 minutes that morning. That's it. Less fidgeting is better, more awareness and focus is better, of course, but really, none of that matters. All that matters is that I sat down and just stayed there for 20 minutes. If I did that, I win.
Examples of Meditation Practices
Me: Every morning, I wake up, use the bathroom, put in my contacts, and then go back into my bedroom to meditate before I do anything else. I lay on my bed, because it’s the most comfortable for me, and because I have been doing this long enough (and get enough sleep) to know that I won’t fall asleep.
I meditate for 10-20 minutes, depending on what time I wake up, using a guided meditation app. I use the app Waking Up with Sam Harris, but there are many good meditation apps out there, including Calm and Headspace. (I have no affiliation with any.)
Here is Chris’ description of his meditation practice: “I do twenty minutes every morning, and I've been meditating daily for over 3 years now.
Every morning, after I wake up and brush my teeth, I sit and stare at the wall for 20 minutes. That's the extent of my meditation practice, whenever anyone asks me about it.
During those twenty minutes, my only aim is to bring my mind back to focusing on my breath. In and out, in and out, mind wanders away, bring it back to my breath, over and over, for that entire twenty minute span... whatever school of meditation that is, that's what I do.” [It’s a focused attention meditation, a form of Buddhist meditation called anapanasati, which means mindfulness of breathing.]
If you find it difficult to sit for a meditation practice, you can do a type of mindfulness meditation while you perform a task.
My client Tara said, “Making coffee is my meditation.” This is an absolutely legit form of meditation. The difference between just making coffee and meditating is your level of presence during the task.
If your brain hops on a train and heads off to Absentminded-ville, you’re just making coffee. But if you retain your presence, quiet your mind, and focus on what you are doing, in the here and now, you will feel entirely different.
Pay attention to every sensation and every step of the process. How do the filters feel in your hands? What do the beans sound like as you measure them out? As you grind them? How do they smell? Does that trigger and feelings, of anticipation, familiarity, any memories? How do you feel that morning? Anxious, rested, impatient, sleepy, grateful? When your mind runs off to what you have to do next, can you bring it back to the present moment?
One thing to note about all three of our practices is that we do them at the same time each day. Most people find it most effective to do it first thing in the morning, as it sets the tone for the day, and it’s much harder to get distracted by life’s chaos and put it off.
Ready to start?
Get into a comfortable position.
Choose a type of meditation. (If you’re not sure where to start, I would recommend focusing on your breath. Count each breath, and when you get distracted or lose track, start over at 1.)
Set a timer for one minute.
And that’s all there is to it. When you’re comfortable with meditating for one minute, start setting your timer for two minutes.
If you have any other questions about getting started or ingraining a practice into your schedule, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.