I’ve spent over 20 years exploring many different meditation techniques and, more recently, helping hundreds of people with their own meditation practice. Looking back, much of those early years of effort were wasted, because I didn’t really understand how to practice effectively.
With the benefit of hindsight, here’s six of the things I’ve learned about mindfulness meditation that I wish I had known when I was starting out.
1. Understand what mindfulness is.
Mindfulness had become so popular lately – everyone seems to have their own version of what the word means. It can get pretty confusing!
The hands-down most precise and practical definition I’ve come across is the following:
“Mindfulness is an alert, receptive, equanimous observation of the present moment”
Let me break this down further, so you know exactly what this means.
Mindfulness means being alert …
First, is the word ‘alert’. Mindfulness is not a sleepy, or hazy, or dull kind of observation. It’s alert. It’s clear.
You want to clearly know what you’re observing. You want it to be sharp and in focus.
… and receptive and equanimous
Mindfulness is also receptive and equanimous.
What on earth does that mean?
That means that you accept your present moment experience, whatever it happens to be. Whether you like it or you don’t.
It means that you’re curious about everything that pops into your awareness, both the pleasant stuff and the unpleasant stuff. You take an equal interest in them.
You don’t try to push away or avoid the stuff you don’t like and you don’t try to hang on to the stuff you do.
You just observe, without trying to change what you’re observing in any way.
This non-reactive observation is the very heart of mindfulness practice. It’s what gives mindfulness it’s incredible power.
… right now
And, finally, you’re being mindful of what your experience is right now. Not what you’d like it to be in the future, or what it was like at some point in the past.
You’re focused on now, here, this moment.
2. Make it a habit.
Now that we have a shared, and hopefully clear, understanding of what mindfulness is, let’s talk about the practice of mindfulness.
If you’re at all serious about this stuff, your very first goal should be to turn your daily meditation practice into a rock-solid habit.
Well, until you have a consistent, daily practice, you will be on an endless roller coaster ride of making some progress, then slipping back, then starting up again, catching up to where you used to be, then slipping back, … on and on and on.
Trust me on this one. I was like that for years.
Once you make daily meditation a habit, everything becomes possible in the practice.
Sessions begin to build on each other.
You start to develop a momentum.
If you’ve ever had a stretch of a few months or longer, where you didn’t miss a single meditation session, you know what I’m talking about. There’s a real sense of forward progress and skill development.
It’s very motivating!
How to do it
Find a block of time when you can meditate every day of the week. Ideally, it will be at the same time each day.
Stick it in your calendar. Put a reminder on your phone.
Then set yourself a goal.
For example, “I’m going to meditate for 15 minutes every day for the next week.”
When you reach your goal, celebrate! Reward yourself.
Then set another goal and repeat.
Enlist the help of your friends and family. Join a local meditation group.
Plan for setbacks. Decide how you will “get back on the cushion” if you mess up and forget, or need to work late, or whatever life event you can imagine that would derail your carefully constructed plans.
Then, when it happens, don’t beat yourself up. Just follow your contingency plan.
Do anything and everything in your power to turn your daily meditation practice into a rock-solid habit.
The sooner you get this squared away, the sooner you’ll start to actually experience the many wonderful benefits of mindfulness that you read about in all those books.
3. Mindfulness is a learnable skill. So learn it like one.
You wouldn’t sit down at a piano for the first time and expect to play Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# minor.
You’d expect to follow a well-designed, progressive training program that over time will allow you to learn the skills necessary for playing beautiful music.
Mindfulness is no different.
A training program for developing mindfulness
So start with the basics.
A relatively narrow focus of attention (but not too narrow), such as the sensations of the breath in the abdominal area.
Get used to your chosen sitting posture.
Get used to observing your breath, getting distracted, and then returning your attention to your breath.
Do this over and over and over until you’re really good at returning your attention to the breath, in a gentle non-judgemental way.
This is the basic, beginner’s practice.
The main skills you are developing at this point are:
- the skill of noticing, as early as possible, that your attention has wandered away from your breath
- the skill of allowing your breath to be “natural”
- the skill of being ok with needing to return your attention back to the breath, repeatedly
The first skill is related to the “alert observation” part of mindfulness.
You need to be pretty alert to be aware of when your attention is beginning to weaken and is about to wander off your meditation object, such as the breath.
The second and third skills are related to the “receptive and equanimous” part of mindfulness.
Allowing your breath to be “natural” means accepting the breath however it is right now. Whether it’s shallow or deep or raspy or smooth. Resisting the urge to change the breath to be how we imagine the “ideal meditation breath” should be.
These are baby steps toward training “equanimous observation”.
Going beyond the basics
But, this basic beginner practice is just the starting point.
Most people who get into mindfulness never get much past this point. Part of the reason is that they don’t make their daily practice a habit (see #2). But part of it is because they don’t know, or haven’t been told, where to go from here.
They haven’t been shown how to progress in their practice.
After you have a good handle on the basics, it’s time to move beyond the breath to incorporate other physical sensations. That pain in your knee, the itch on your cheek. The feeling of pressure from sitting on the cushion or chair.
All these physical sensations, arising and passing away, moment by moment, are now your meditation object.
Once you can do this without straining, gradually incorporate the other senses: hearing, smelling, tasting, seeing.
Then throw in thinking, too!
Keep expanding the scope of your attention until you can be mindfully aware of all incoming sense data and thoughts as they arise.
And, as part of this progression, work hard to improve the continuity of your attention.
You want to minimize the ‘spacing out’ that occurs as your attention moves from a physical sensation, to a thought, to a sound, to another sensation and so on.
Now apply it
At this point, you’ve reached what I would consider to be a solid level of mindfulness skill for real-world applications. And it’s also a great jumping off point for some hard-core spiritual exploration, if that’s your kind of thing.
4. The devil is in the details.
Mindfulness meditation is really simple.
Just pay attention to the sensations of breathing at the abdomen. When your attention wanders, gently bring it back.
But hidden in these simple instructions are layers and layers of subtlety. Little details that can mean the difference between years of wasted effort and fast and steady progress.
When should your attention be narrowly focused during meditation?
When should it be wide? And why?
When is it ok, even beneficial, to be a little dull and sleepy during your practice? And when should you insist of high standards of crystal clarity?
Should you focus your attention on your abdomen, or the tip of your nose, or something else entirely? Does it even matter what you focus on?
And when you focus on the breath, what, exactly, are you supposed to be paying attention to?
How can you tell the difference between the bare physical sensations associated with the breath, and your conceptualization of these sensations?
And, my favourite, what are you supposed to do with all the thoughts constantly racing through your mind?
Find a qualified teacher
Now, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool, die hard DIYer. The last thing I wanted to admit to myself was that I couldn’t figure this stuff out on my own.
Well, my pig-headedness cost me over 10 years of floundering in a stale meditation practice.
Please, take my advice.
Check your ego at the door and find an experienced teacher who really knows this stuff and is willing to teach you these critical details. Don’t be satisfied with a surface level of instruction and understanding.
You need clear, precise instructions.
Keep asking questions until you know exactly what you need to do and understand why you’re doing it.
That’s when your practice will really take off!
5. Thinking isn’t bad.
This one had me tripped up for years.
I’m sure you’ve had meditation sessions where it feels like, no matter what you do, you just can’t stay focused.
Instead, your mind is filled with a train wreck of thoughts! Thoughts that just won’t go away. Thoughts that seem to make it impossible to do something as simple as “observe the breath.”
Do you ever think to yourself, at moments like this, “Man, I really suck at this meditation thing! I must be doing something wrong, I just can’t stop thinking. Maybe I’m just not cut out to do this?”
One of the biggest misconceptions about mindfulness meditation, a misunderstanding that is one of the main reasons why so many people quit and never develop the benefits of their practice, is this idea that you’re doing it wrong if you can’t still your mind.
Allow me to lay this one to rest for you once and for all.
Mindfulness is an alert, receptive, equanimous observation of the present moment, a present moment that very often includes thoughts.
So just observe them in the same way you’d observe, say, the itch on your left big toe.
Don’t do anything to suppress them, change them, or monkey with them in any way.
Just accept and observe them, with equanimity.
If it’s so simple, why is it so hard?
Because we’re used to treating thoughts as very important. In fact, most of us completely identify with our thoughts. They define who we are.
So, naturally, treating them in a very casual way, as simply mental objects and processes that come and go, is a big shift for most people. And takes some practice.
When you’re still in the beginning stages of mindfulness training, thoughts can be too difficult to use as a meditation object.
They’re fast and seductive.
Before you know it, you’ve been lead by the nose from one thought to another, only waking up minutes later wondering what happened to paying attention to the breath!
So, until you’ve developed some decent mindfulness skills and a bit of equanimity, it’s best to stick with things like physical sensations and the other senses (see #3).
Working with thoughts
The first stage of working with thoughts during meditation is clearly notice their presence without engaging with them.
When thoughts become predominant, which can happen quite often, just mentally label them as “thinking” and redirect your attention to your meditation object.
This way, you don’t need to suppress the thoughts and you minimize the chances of getting lost in their content.
As you develop more mindfulness skills and equanimity, you can examine the thoughts much more closely and even use them as your primary meditation object.
You can explore the conditions that led to the arising of the thoughts, how they hang around for a brief moment and then vanish on their own, and how they condition other processes, such as physical sensations, mental states, moods and so on.
6. It takes effort.
Cultivating mindfulness takes effort.
Diligent practice takes effort.
That shouldn’t be a surprise if you view mindfulness as a skill. Just like any other skill, if you want to get good at it, you need to put in the work.
What’s interesting though, is that there’s a pervasive myth, here in the West, that expending effort during meditation is bad. It somehow means you’re doing it wrong.
Non-doing, non-being … not so fast!
There’s the expectation that meditation is supposed to be relaxing, goal-less and effortless. Non-doing, non-being and all that kind of stuff.
Well, it’s time to burst that bubble!
It’s true that, at more advanced levels of practice, you need to drop the effort and the goals and allow the meditation to kind of just do itself.
At that point, it’s no longer you who’s doing it. There’s only awareness being aware. You’ve finally gotten out of your own way =-)
It’s an amazing experience!
But it takes a lot of effort and practice to get to the place where you finally “let go”.
Letting go of effort too early in the development of your mindfulness skills just leads to spacing out and fooling yourself that you’re “effortlessly in the now”.
The trick is to know where and how to apply that effort in your practice, so you make consistent progress, without tripping over your own striving.
This is another one of those areas where it really helps to have the guidance of an experienced teacher who knows when to crack the whip and when to tell you to chill out.
10 years in 30 days?
You may think that the title of this post is a bit of hyperbole on my part, but it’s actually not.
There’s a massive difference between diligent, daily practice following precise instructions and haphazard, inconsistent practice with only a hazy idea of what you’re doing.
If you know what you’re doing, and you practice hard, you really can make more progress in 30 days than most people make in 10 years of on again, off again meditation practice.
I should know, I’ve tried both =-)
There’s a lot more to say about this stuff than I can fit into a reasonably sized blog post. If you’d like to learn more, I run an in-depth, interactive mindfulness training program, called the 30 Days of Mindfulness, that covers these six areas and much more. You can find out about the program by clicking here.