In the current 7 Day Meditation Kickstart group, there’s been a lot of discussion going on about the difficulty of “staying focused” during the meditation session. In fact, this is a common theme that comes up in pretty much every meditation group I’ve ever led!
Here’s some advice I gave to the participants of this group, and I thought that I’d share it more broadly, because feeling frustrated when you’re having trouble keeping your attention from wandering all over the place is very, very common.
And there’s a pretty simple cure 🙂
Make the commitment
When you’re just starting out, your primary focus should be on creating and sticking with a commitment to practicing every day. In fact, for most people, this is hands down the hardest part about meditating (and the reason I created the 7 Day Meditation Kickstart group)!
I like to think of meditation as similar to things like exercise. The first step to getting in awesome shape is to make a plan and stick with it. Without that, you don’t have much chance of reaching your goals.
Have realistic expectations
Once you’re working your plan, it’s important to be clear on what your expectations are for your practice.
Meditation is a skill.
Like any skill, the more you practice, the better you get at it 🙂
Like with any skill, some people will have a natural knack for it, and others won’t. But even so, you wouldn’t expect to go from being mostly sedentary to competing in the Iron Man in a few days!
So, be realistic. Take it one step at a time and go easy on yourself.
A perspective that I found really helpful when I was getting started is that you should expect to lose your meditation object many, many times during your meditation session.
And that’s really good, because each time you “come to” and realize that your mind was wandering, that is a moment of mindfulness! Congratulations! You’ve just been mindful!
Relish that moment so that you encourage your unconscious to produce more of them in the future (I wrote an entire blog post about cultivating this kind of spontaneous mindfulness that you may find useful).
Have constructive goals
A great goal, if you find it hard to stay focused, is to gradually reduce the amount of time between losing your meditation object and noticing that you’ve lost it.
Just accept it as a given that you will lose your object numerous times and make a strong intention to notice that when it happens as quickly as possible. Treat it like a game!
Then, each time you notice your attention has wandered, congratulate yourself on noticing that and pay attention to how, in this moment of noticing, you feel more alert and aware than you perviously were.
What you definitely want to avoid is setting goals based on achieving a particular state or meditative attainment.
Things like “My goal is to get back to that amazingly calm and peaceful place that I got to the last time I meditated.”
This kind of goal is bound to lead to frustration and the wrong kind of attitude about practice. The fact is, you often don’t have that much control over the immediate result of your practice. Maybe you’ll get some calm, maybe you won’t.
All you can do is create the conditions for calm to arise, or for peace to arise, or for insight to arise.
And the most effective way to do that is to focus your goals on skill development.
“My goal is to really notice and appreciate the moment when I come back from mind wandering”
“My goal is to notice, as clearly as possible, the sensations associated with the beginning of every inhale.”
I think you get the idea!
Thoughts are not evil!
And, just to reiterate what I’ve already talked about in my videos about working with thoughts here and here, it’s both normal and expected that you will have lots of thoughts during your meditation session. Not a problem.
Whenever you can, label them as “thinking” and let them do their thing.
When you get sucked in to their content and forget about your meditation object, don’t worry! Eventually, you will “come to” and your mindfulness will get a boost. Congratulate yourself and keep going.
For those of you just starting out on this amazing journey of developing mindfulness, I hope this helps you to start out on the right foot.
And for those of you who’ve been at this for a while, I hope this serves as a useful refresher.
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