At last you’ve made it to your meditation seat! What a relief to actually get down to it. You sit in the correct posture, you go through your settling routine,and then begin with your method. All seems well—for about 10 seconds and then all kinds of things you never expected start to happen.
Let’s take a look at what some of those might be.
Your thoughts are out of control
There is no problem to have thoughts going through your mind during a meditation session. The thing is not to follow after them. Just let them come and fade away. Our habit is when a thought comes, we pay attention to it, and get into it. We follow it through to see where it is going. This is what we are aiming to change in meditation. It’s not about stopping our thoughts but about changing our habit in relation to them.
There is nothing like sitting down to meditate to make you realise how busy your mind is. People often tell me that they are not very good at meditation because they can’t stop their thoughts. First of all, it is a misconception to think that meditation is about stopping thoughts. It is not. It is a way of seeing thoughts for what they are and developing a different relationship with them.
A helpful image is of the sky and the clouds. Our minds are like the sky—spacious, vast, sparkling. Our thoughts and emotions are like clouds—sometimes light and fluffy, sometimes dark and looming. Whichever they are, they don’t stay and moreover, they do not stain the sky. When they pass away the sky is still as spacious and limitless as before.
It is because our minds have this sky-like quality that we notice when we get distracted. The more we notice our thoughts, the better we get at working with them. If we let thoughts come and go without grasping at them, then we can use the thoughts themselves as a way of waking up our awareness.
So, we could imagine sitting on our meditation seat and a thought comes into our mind, Oh I need to buy vegetables. We can just notice the thought—we can even label it ‘thinking’, or ‘thought’ if it helps. Then we place our attention back on the method. That way, each time a thought, or feeling carries our attention away, we use it to strengthen our meditation by bringing our attention back.
2. You get sleepy
It’s very natural to get sleepy. Generally, we are so busy and doing all kinds of things all the time. We actually take so little time to rest and just simply be. In meditation we get to sit and relax, so it is not so surprising that drowsiness sometimes overcomes us.
One thing you can try is to raise your gaze. I always recommend meditating with your eyes open. If you feel sleepy, just look up a little. Keep your gaze soft and not too highly focused.
Just stay with your meditation method and if you fall asleep, just wake up again and continue. The thing is not to get anxious or frustrated about it. Just feel that you had a couple of moments of deep rest. If it continues for several weeks – make sure to do your session in the morning, rather than in the evening when you are more tired.
3. You are bored
This can get us in two ways. Firstly, the fear of being bored can stop us getting to the meditation seat at all. We like to stay entertained and engaged and the thought of sitting quietly by oneself can seem daunting. In fact, there is even research that shows that people will even give themselves electric shocks rather than sit alone in silence. College students were asked to sit for 15 minutes alone in a plain room, with nothing to entertain them. Most people reported feeling uncomfortable and distracted. In a follow up experiment, 67% of the men and 24% of the women opted to give themselves electric shocks.
In meditation we do not have anything outside of ourselves to entertainus, and sometimes this can feel confronting. We might feel some excitement at beginning with meditation, but we quickly become used to the method and then we can feel restless and bored. It’s not unusual to have stretches of memories, and things that worry you come up. Then we notice we are lost in thoughts and remember to come back to the method and try to settle.
The more we do this, the more we do settle. Then we may begin to find our stories slightly boring and not as compelling we previously thought. This is the beginning of the process of coming to know ourselves fully through meditation.
4. You are uncomfortable
People often complain of back pain, knee pain, stiffness and pins and needles. We are not used to sitting still in a particular posture, so it is inevitable that some discomfort will arise. The thing is not to worry about and not to pay it too much attention.
If you feel slightly uncomfortable, then shift your posture slightly. If you feel very uncomfortable, stand up and stretch. Whatever you do to ease your discomfort, do it as part of your meditation—with mindfulness and awareness. Just pay attention to the discomfort lightly without reacting to it and making it into a big deal.
A traditional example
Often meditation teachers compare the early stages of learning to meditate as being like a waterfall. All our thoughts and emotions come crashing in with lots of noise and fuss. If we stay with it, this begins to settle, and the meditation becomes more like a mountain stream—active and bubbly but less chaotic. Eventually our meditation can become like a broad river flowing towards the sea—calm and serene.
This example goes to show that this is all natural, recognisable and simply part of learning to meditate.
What to take forward from all this
Getting used to meditation is so important for us. Most people do not have a habit of sitting still and being with their minds. It’s no wonder that all kinds of stuff come up. We just need to relax—it’s all fine. My meditation teacher always used to say to us that there is no such thing as a bad meditation. It’s all just meditation.
A meditation method is really just an activity we can give our restless mind when we want it to settle. The meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpochecalls this restless mind, our monkey mindand he advises giving our monkey a job to do. That’s how we try to tame it and get it working for us, rather than against us. The job we give our monkey mind is to pay attention to an object that we use as a support for our meditation. In actual fact, we can use pretty much anything as a support for meditation but when we are starting out, it helps to keep it simple.
In this post we will look at two excellent meditation methods that can work for beginners.
Using the breath as a meditation method
This is a very accessible method of meditation. Here are the guidelines.
- Our breath is always with us – we breathe all day long.
- We can do this meditation anywhere and at anytime
- Because it is so accessible, we can do very short moments of this meditation throughout the day
The only disadvantage that I know of is for people who might be asthmatic or have any kind of problem with their breathing. Putting attention on to the breath can be uncomfortable.
Using a candle as a meditation method
This is another easy-to-do method. Here are the guidelines.
- This is a useful alternative for people with any kind of breathing sensitivity
- Having a lighted candle makes a very pleasant atmosphere and helps us focus.
- The method is not portable – you need to do it in one place.
- You need to prepare your session with a candle, a lighter and so on.
- Some people find the flame itself hard to focus on.
Which method should you use?
If you are beginning with meditation, my advice would be to try both methods but to do this in a systematic way.
- Only use one method in each session
- Try one method for a few days and make a note of how it works for you.
- After the few days are up, try the other method and keeps notes again.
- Choose the method you feel worked best for you during the experimental period.
Another idea would be to use the candle method when you are at home and doing your formal session. Use the breath method throughout the day for short moments of meditation on the bus, waiting in queues, before a meeting and so on.
Things you might find useful when you do a meditation session
It’s best to keep things as simple and uncluttered as possible. However, from a practical point of view there are things that help a session to feel stable and welcoming.
Here are a few pointers:
- set your timer before your session so you can relax and not keep checking
- turn off any devices that might buzz, or bleep during your session
- perhaps have a cup of tea, or glass of water at hand to drink
- often people like to have a shawl to wrap around their shoulders or put across their knees
I once saw a very funny comedy sketch about someone setting up their meditation session. They arrived with a huge bag of stuff and spent ages laying it all out. The audience were in fits. By the time they were ready and finally sitting down, their timer went off and it was time to finish! So do be comfortable but don’t go overboard.
I have been coaching Tom in meditation for a while now. Recently he had the idea to try to increase the time he meditates each day. In order to get a feel of what it means to meditate for longer periods, he designed this one-day intensive for himself. It skillfully plots a series of meditations to keep the meditator engaged, while achieving the goal for the day.
What was your purpose in doing this one-day meditation intensive?
The purpose was to consolidate my meditation practice and kickstart a greater depth and regularity in my daily practice, without committing to the schedule of a traditional retreat. I wanted to create space where meditation could be the main purpose and focus of a day rather than something squeezed into one’s timetable between myriad other daily commitments.
Did you have a goal for the day?
I aimed to do 4 hours of meditation in the day. That compares to my usual daily target of 30 minutes. Upon Maureen’s suggestion I also wanted to retain the unquantifiable quality of meditation; something of the specialness that gives it a place in religious practice. This I saw as a way to inspire better practice giving better tangible results.
Can you describe the schedule you adopted?
I started off by being pretty uninspired by the simplistic idea of a day retreat that came to mind shutting myself off from the world in a quiet place and sitting for long periods. I chose to schedule the day as a series of meditations in different places in London. Looking for places where I could sit undisturbed for up to an hour, some of the most suitable I found were London’s many churches, especially in winter when outdoor venues were ruled out.
Whilst travelling to the venues I would meditate on public transport (which unsurprisingly constitutes quite a large part of my regular daily meditation whilst commuting), or walking meditations, which is a technique Maureen and I had been working on. Once at the venues I planned different types of meditation, depending on the circumstances, for example a meditation using the ambient noises as the object (rather than seeing them as a distraction).
What worked well and what was less useful?
Meditatively using public transport, outside of rush hour, is an entirely different experience! Partly because of removing the goal-directed mindset of rushing to your destination, and partly because of the greater awareness engendered by a walking meditation, it brought a very different level of interaction with one’s environment whilst travelling.
I also found it very useful having an app called Insight Timerto record the time spent meditating and various other stats useful when reviewing the day’s efforts.
What did you learn from doing this? Did you achieve your goal?
I didn’t achieve the goal of 4 hours meditation during the day, but I did achieve my purpose of the day’s intensive meditation. I learnt however that an intensive day’s meditation is not an aim in itself but a way to build on and progress towards the benefits of a regular daily meditation habit.
Would you do it again?
Yes, without hesitation.
Tom Price is Head of Tea for JING Tea, a London-based premium tea company, which Maureen has been working with over several years on transforming stress at work and one-to-one meditation guidance.
Here are some guidelines for a meditation on sound, as Tom mentioned.
A friend of mine told me a wonderful story about his early days of leading meditation sessions. At the time of this story he was working full time, had a young family and had really only been meditating himself for a couple of years. on top of all this he volunteered at a local Buddhist centre in Dublin, where he was asked to hold the introductory meditation session before the talk of the evening began. He was eager to help but really over-extended. My friend told me that he would rush out from work, grab a quick bite to eat on the run and dash across town to get to the Buddhist centre. Oh, and by the way, the room where the evening talk was held was up eight flights of stairs with no lift. He said he would arrive out of breath, hassled and all over the place. When he sat down in front of the group, he would have trouble remembering what it was that he was supposed to do.
I am sure he was exaggerating because he became a really good meditation guide, but his story often comes back to me. Our lives tend to be so busy and over-scheduled. When we finally sit down to do our meditation, our minds are often racing. We don’t give ourselves time for settling into meditation.
In this post I am going to share a simple routine for this process of settling.
Choose your meditation spot well
You don’t need to be fussy about where you meditate. At the end of the day you can do it anywhere. You just need to be sure that where you choose works for you and you feel comfortable there. If you want to choose a place outside, then go for a spot where people will not stare at you. You need somewhere a bit secluded—or you can always wear sunglasses!
If you are doing your session at home, then make sure you are going for a place where your family, or flatmates are not about to start an activity. You don’t want a hassle about who is going to do what, where.
Above all, choose somewhere that feels right.
Remember why you want to meditate
It is good to just take a moment as you sit down to remember why you wanted to meditate in the first place. You will have heard about all the benefits of meditation. Which are the ones that resonate with you most? Bring them to mind as a way of inspiring your session.
Perhaps you have a favourite benefit? Bring it to mind and remember why this was important to you. It could be that one benefit pre-occupies you at the moment but next moth it will be a different one. That’s fine. The point is to connect with the inspiration for yourself right now.
Take a few deep, slow breaths
It’s a good idea to take a few really good deep breaths before you start. It helps us to relax and to arrive on our meditation seat – to settle into meditation. I find it helps me to make a break from the activities I have been busy with and the focused, quieter time I am going for in meditation. You can do this before you sit down and combine it with a stretch. Do whatever works for you.
Pay attention to your posture
The way you arrange your body for meditation will affect the meditation itself. It is a crucial element in how you settle into meditation. The posture and the meditation go hand-in-hand. There are two fundamental things to keep in mind—relax but be alert. It’s easy to get stiff and self-conscious when we sit to meditate. We try to sit ‘properly’ and usually end up being uncomfortable.
Here is a simple checklist:
- Back straight but respecting the spine’s natural curve
- Chin slightly tucked in
- Eyes open with the gaze slightly downwards
- Relax your shoulders
- Legs crossed if you are on a cushion, feet firmly on the floor if you are in a chair
- Hands relaxed on your thighs
- Mouth relaxed, with lips slightly parted
If you feel uncomfortable, just stretch and come back to the posture.
Do a simple body scan
A full body scan meditation takes about 45 minutes, but you can do a simple body scan in just a few moments.
Bring your attention to the top of your head, and slowly let it travel downwards through your whole body. Try not to miss any parts of your body—remember the back of your neck, your arms and elbows, your hips, legs and so on. When you reach your feet just relax. Whatever aches, pains, and sensations that you notice, that’s fine. Really. Just notice them. Try not to have a reaction—I don’t like this feeling in my shoulders, my stomach is too big. Just notice and move on.
This is just a simple check-in with your body to help with settling into meditation.
Notice your mood
The next part of the checklist for settling into meditation is to check in with your mood. This does not mean you have to arrange yourself to be in a good mood. Just look into how you feel and notice whatever is going on. Perhaps you are a bit tired – just notice. Maybe you are looking forward to an event you have coming up – just notice your excitement. The idea is to look at your mood without judgment, accepting it as it is, without wanting to change it. This is the kind of attitude we have to our thoughts and emotions as they come and go during our meditation session.
Connect your meditation to your world
I find it helps to make a brief aspiration at the beginning of my meditation session. Sometimes I make it quite general—like a hope that through meditation I will learn to calm my mind and become more useful for other people. Other times I will try to connect it with something that is going on in the world, or in my own life. I might think of people going hungry in Venezuela and hope that as meditation becomes more popular in society it will lead to great wisdom and kindness in politics. It helps inspire me to complete my session.
The 7 steps that I have shared here are ones that help me with settling into meditation. You might not want to take on the whole 7, or you may have one or two others that help you as well. If you do, please do share in the comments section. One last tip—decide what you need for your session and make sure you have it to hand. Are you using a timer? Have you turned your phone off? Are you drinking tea, coffee, or water? Do you need a blanket? Decide on all this before you start, so that once you sit down you can relax and not worry about anything else.
If you like checklists here is one to help you remember the steps to help you settle into meditation. You can download the pdf Settling infographic-2
If you would like to go deeper into meditation, then try this online course – it’s packed full of practical tips for making room for meditation in a busy schedule.
The short answer to the question, what is the best time to meditate is—any time and as much as possible! However, this does not help us so much when we are trying to get used to meditation and to find a place for it in our lives. In this post we will take a look at three popular times for your meditation session that can work very well—as well as where they can be problematic.
First thing in the morning
In many ways this is the best time to meditate. Your day has not yet got going so there is some space. You can control when you set the alarm and what time you choose to get up. It’s always a good idea to get up a bit earlier than usual if you want to do a meditation session. Having some quiet, focused time is a great way to begin the day. It gives a flavour to everything that comes after and makes it easier to come back to meditation at odd moments throughout the day. It feels good to prioritise making this special time for yourself.
There can be drawbacks of course. Getting up earlier cuts down on how late you go to bed the night before, which is not always easy. You might not be a morning person at all. You need to consider whereabouts you will do your meditation session. If you live with other people, they are going to be affected by your decision to start with meditation. You might need to negotiate some quiet space for yourself.
During your lunch break
This can work for anyone, but it is particularly helpful if you go out to work. Creating a space to be quiet and present is a good way to cut through the busyness and stress of a working day. It also brings meditation directly into your work environment and makes it easier to take short meditation moments at any time.
There are two disadvantages. The first is that your lunch break is quite vulnerable to interruption. Things come up all the time and you could find yourself with only a moment to grab a sandwich. There is also the problem of where you do your session. Do you have a quiet place at work you could go to? One hint I picked up from a client of mine recently is to find a nearby church and go there for your meditation session. He said it worked brilliantly for him!
Before going to bed
This is popular with a lot of people who like the idea of having a peaceful finish to their day. It’s true that meditating in the evening can help you to sleep better. Some people do their session as soon as they get home. Others wait till they are going to bed and make it part of their usual routine.
The disadvantages are that by the end of the day we tend to be more tired and the temptation to skip our session and get straight to bed is very real. On the other hand, we might want to go out and have social plans for the evening, which makes fitting in a meditation session quite hard.
So, what do we do?
It is important to just play with which time works best for you. Take it lightly and don’t beat yourself up when you can’t stick to a routine that you’ve set up. It’s a good idea to experiment with all three times. You could set out to meditate every morning for a week. Next try lunchtimes for a week, and then the evenings. After an experiment like this, you can see what has worked best for you. No one method will be perfect—you will need to choose the one that has the least disadvantages for you. If you feel daring, you could try having your first choice for a meditation session, and if that does not work out you go to a fall-back position—your second choice. This would mean not meditating at the same time every day, but it would increase your confidence if you felt you could be flexible. That’s what we are aiming for long-term.
What other times of the day have your tried to have your meditation session? Let me know in the comments section.
Here is a simple checklist that shows the pros and cons of the three times we talked about in the post. You can download a PDF here Time to meditate
Some people use their commute as a time for their meditation session. Check out this free five-day e-course to see how that works HOW TO MAKE YOUR COMMUTE BENEFIT YOUR WORKING DAY
Introduction to the Meditation Checklist
There is a great deal of information out there about meditation. To meditate is very simple but to make time and space for it in our lives can be tough. We need to find simple, practical ways to make it a habit – just like cleaning our teeth – so it becomes a natural part of our daily schedule.
Here is a simple checklist that outlines the main stages of a session of meditation.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to look at each part of the checklist and go into more detail.
Until then, please get in touch and let us know if you think we have missed anything out. We always like to hear from you.
You can download the Meditation Checklist here Meditation checklist