Stop Making Up Rules

It’s common for new meditators to question whether or not they’re doing something wrong.  Actually, it’s common for long time meditators to do the same. But for this article we’re going to focus on some of the more common issues that arise for those who are new to mindfulness meditation.

1. Your mind will continue to wander. This isn’t anything to get upset about. In fact, it’s the very practice itself.  Mindfulness is not so much about stopping your mind from wandering as it is about catching it when it does. The number of times your mind drifts during meditation will vary and it does not matter. Just notice it when it happens and gently bring your attention back to the sensation of your breathing.

2.  It’s okay to moveYou don't want to turn your meditation period into a session of itching and self-massage, but you shouldn't  go trying to sit full lotus with two blown knees either. Be reasonable.  It’s okay to sit through minor discomfort and just observe them like any other experience you have while meditating.  Simply observe how discomfort changes as you sit. However, if you experience serious or enduring pain. Just consider the movement a part of your practice and shift only as much as you need.
3. Yes it still counts. We all find ourselves planning, daydreaming, and yes – nodding off. Don’t beat yourself up about it. If you realize that your entire meditation was spent in a fantasy, just noticing that and coming back to the present is a mindful moment in itself. If you fall asleep, you may have truly needed the rest. Now this does not mean you should call your naptime a meditation or willingly engage fantasies to pass the time, but so long as you enter your meditation period with the right intentions you can work with most anything that takes place.

4. Interruptions happen. You can probably stand to miss a few text messages, but you don’t have to try to sit through an incessant neighbor banging down the door or an attack from your roommate’s dog. It’s unrealistic to assume that you will always be able to find a completely tranquil environment. Do your best to limit potential distractions, but when interruptions arise just do whatever is reasonable to return to meditating.

5. Times will vary. There is no ideal length of meditation. Thirty to forty minutes seems to be pretty common for those who have been practicing for a while, but that’s not practical for someone who is relatively knew. We recommend starting with 5 minutes and adding a minute each day. After you experience a variety of lengths, you can choose the amount of time you feel is appropriate for your situation.  To reduce the length of time you spend thinking about time (and you still will) set a timer. A simple kitchen timer or cell phone alarm will work, but there are also applications like Insight Timer be download for free to a smartphone.

6. Begin and Continue. As we say in our book, the only two rules to meditation are to begin and continue. If your focus is broken during meditation - that's okay, just begin with the next breath and continue. If you miss a day or more just begin again the next and continue on.  As you begin and continue again and again, you will be able to develop your own set of guidelines for your personal practice. 

Invitation and Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation

We're going to invite you to give yourself 3 minutes of your time - which can actually be quite a substantial commitment. However, if you've come across this article, chances are that you're curious enough about mindfulness meditation to give yourself that time,..and at the end of the exercise, you may feel inclined to give yourself that time again. 

The initial technique for developing mindfulness is simply to sit and follow your breath as it goes in and out. Invariably, your mind will wander from your breath in the present moment to thoughts of the past and future.

When you become aware that your mind has strayed from sitting and breathing, don’t take any forceful action.  Just note where your mind has drifted (e.g. boredom, a future or past event, an incredible daydream) and gently bring it back. Simply let your wandering mind return home to the present moment.  There’s no need to engage thoughts and emotions by trying to push them away or make them stay. Don’t get attached to them. Simply accept that a thought or emotion has emerged and let it pass. No matter how many times your mind drifts, allow your mind to return to observing your breath in the present moment.

The point of developing mindfulness goes beyond sitting and following your breath.  Eventually, you hope to apply what you have learned in your first mindfulness practice to other areas of your life.  You take your morning shower mindfully; play Angry Birds mindfully; listen in class mindfully; and study mindfully. You can consider anything you do meditation in action.  It only requires that you follow the procedure for returning to the present that you learned in breath meditation.  If you do this, you’ll find anything you do more satisfying and you'll perform more effectively and efficiently.

The only caveat is that although mindfulness is easy to understand intellectually, it is difficult to put into practice.  It requires determination, commitment, and persistence.  Our minds will always stray from where they should be, but we all have the capacity to bring them back. The basic guidelines have been provided above, the only two rules for mindful attention are (1) begin, and (2) continue. 

We will be writing additional articles on the precise aspects of meditation here. When to do it, where to do it, what it is and what it isn't. But for now, just take 3 minutes. Set a timer, take a seat, soften/close your eyes, and follow the instructions above. Feel free to contact us with questions, and check back for more.

Paying Attention to Paying Attention

The typical approach to paying attention is forced-concentration. It’s an aggressive strategy in which we use strength of will to stay on task.  When our mind strays, we fight to get it back. When our mind is on task, we struggle to keep it there.  Forced-concentration is a mind-knuckling, brain-smoking attempt to pay attention, and it’s not very successful.

An assumption of forced-concentration is that keeping in mind what you’ll get for doing something (e.g., grades, love, money, a six-figure contract and super-stardom) will help you pay attention to what you’re doing (e.g. studying, going to work, exercising, or playing pick-up basketball at the local YMCA).  The result is your attention is divided between anticipated rewards and the task or activity at hand required to acquire them. It’s a terribly inefficient and frustrating back and forth struggle between the present and the future. Fortunately, there is a better method of paying attention than forced-concentration.          

The mindful approach doesn't require that you focus on results and rewards to keep your attention on what you’re doing.  You don’t have to force your mind to pay attention.  You just allow your mind to settle on the task in the present moment.  It’s a change in an attitude toward what you’re doing.

In the mindful approach, you still set goals, but you focus all of your attention on the activities or tasks required to reach them.  All of your attention is on the present.  This doesn't mean goals and rewards are unimportant.  It means that once you establish them, you don’t have to constantly attend to them to attain them.

Devoting all of your attention to what you are doing in the present moment improves the chances that you’ll do a quality job, which increases the likelihood that you’ll achieve your goals and rewards.  So rather than throwing air balls while fantasizing about playing in the NBA finals, you may be able to hit a few clutch shots to win the intramural championship you’re playing in currently.  

The best way to develop mindfulness is through meditation, a set of prescriptions for staying in the moment that has been practiced for thousands of years. Today, more and more research is coming out showing the benefits of mindfulness meditation in a wide range of endeavors.

If you’re ready to give it a shot, see Introduction and Invitation to Mindfulness Meditation.