I’ve been having some discussions with a friend who’s been wanting to get into meditation, and I thought I’d share the following email I sent him. I know in other areas of my life where I am no longer a beginner, I sometimes find it tough to get back into the mindset of one in order to properly help. I’ve been meditating fairly regularly (daily) for about 9 months now.
As far as having trouble sitting still and the racing mind, it still happens to me. In fact, the meditation handbook “Mindfulness In Plain English” tells us this happens to advanced meditators as well. The more I meditate, the less it happens.
One thing I got from that Mindfulness book and something my dad is hung up on is the idea of “clearing your mind” or “not thinking about anything”. It seems that is not the right way to approach meditation. The idea is to become detached from your thoughts, or in other words be able to not be fixated on them and overthink them. Don’t try to “not think”. Let them happen, notice them, then get back into the meditation by focusing on the breath, and your feet on the ground or your butt on the chair.
Some good analogies I’ve read:
- Think of the mind (thoughts) as a puppy on a leash. He wants to run around and sniff, but you just tug on the leash. He’s going to keep doing it, you accept that and nudge him back to the sidewalk. You don’t try to stop him from being a dog. (from the book How To Meditate)
- Think of yourself as sitting on a bench near a street, watching cars pass. The cars are your thoughts, you can’t stop them from passing but you can stop your mind from fixating on them. Just notice them pass. (from the Headspace app)
I’ve found a few things:
- eventually you will “feel” “the zone”*, but it takes time to get to that point
- I drift in and out of “the zone”, interrupted by thoughts, itches, shifting my posture, etc.
- I get better and better at staying in the zone, or getting back into it after a distraction – I continually have distractions
- longer meditations help get into the zone. I started with 5 mins, then 10, then 15, now 20. I didn’t really feel the zone until I did 15 minutes, and they were right towards the end which is why I am now doing 20m sessions.
*A good analogy for “the zone” is that mental state one sometimes achieve while playing guitar (for me it’s drawing) or any other deeply enjoyable activity, where you realize an hour or so later that you were totally locked in to just doing what you were doing, oblivious to everything else even though it was all going on around you. It’s not exactly the same, but similar. Maybe that will help for a signpost. But don’t try to “achieve” that state. Just try to literally do the physical techniques, forget about what your mind is doing. Count the breaths, be hyper aware of your body’s position and sensations.
For the time being, when I have an itch, I scratch it. If I notice i am slouching I sit back up straight. I found that focusing on the body helps a lot, like focusing on the exact position of the feet, where they sit on the ground, in very exact detail. And it helps to “lock” my awareness between my nostril breathing, breath counts, and feet positions.
My breath counts are up to 10: in 1, out 2, in 3, out 4, etc.
The learning experience is very much like learning the guitar, especially the fret hand. The initial practice is more about attaining strength and flexibility of the left hand to even do the things you want to learn, then it’s about learning chords and scales. Equally foreign and uncomfortable/painful at first, equally easy to want to give up and feel like you’re getting nowhere. But I can tell you that if you stick with it, do it consistently (daily) and follow the technique and stop trying to “achieve” anything, it will get easier.
I think they should suggest you think about anything you want while you meditate, as long as you are counting breaths and focusing on the physical sensation of breathing. I do this while walking, driving, etc. If you maintain the physical techniques, the mind will eventually settle down. I think people get the wrong idea (as mentioned above) about “emptying your mind”. I think a clear, undistracted mind is the end goal, not something you should try to accomplish when you get started.
You prob can’t jump right into a 15 min session, so do 5 mins until you start wanting to do longer (it will happen on its own and you will know when). Then repeat as you progress. Daily repetition is key. First to establish the habit, but also to stretch the “mind muscles” so they are agile enough to do the work. Once the basics are covered, you can extend the sessions. I found that I intuitively knew when I needed to go longer. The biggest breakthrough to date was sensing “the zone”, and realizing I was hitting it towards the end of a 15 minute session. Naturally I added another 5 minutes to my meditations.