Practicing Mindfulness: 15 Tips on Meditation Practice
We often go through life on autopilot, not really being present or aware of what is going on inside of our heads or in front of our eyes. Life just happens. We follow routines automatically, regardless of how damaging they may be, just like a robot.
Through meditation we can change this; we can disengage from autopilot and enter the present moment. Meditation creates conditions that make us aware of what’s going on, so we can make choices based on our awareness and intuition, not just our thoughts. Simply put, through meditation we can understand ourselves better... not completely, but better. That understanding provides us with clarity, flexibility, and freedom when facing all of our life situations.
Photograph by Ivonne Begue de Benzo
Meditation is tremendously helpful in understanding our emotions and thoughts, which are often the very reason we perceive unhappiness in our lives. Meditation helps us find inner balance, and given that health is a balance within you, meditation also makes you healthier.
It is not easy to cultivate the habit of meditation… but it is worth it.
Keep in mind that these tips are not aimed at helping you become an expert meditator… but they may help you get started and keep on going. Find your own practice.
- Trust that you can do it.You already have all the necessary skills. Just as when muddy water is left to sit it becomes clear, so too do we achieve clarity, a clear view of life, through meditation. When you let muddy water sit, you do nothing for that clarity; you do not “make it happen.” It just happens because it is the nature of the water to be clear. Be prepared to sit and do nothing. This is a very humbling experience, particularly in our society where we have been conditioned to want to “make things happen.”
- Start sitting for just three minutes. This will seem ridiculously easy, to just meditate for three minutes, but in reality it is perfect. Start with just three minutes a day for one week. If that goes well, increase by another three minutes and do that for another week. If all goes well, keep increasing the length of your meditation practice just a little at a time. See what is doable for you. Start small first.
- Make a specific time in the day for your practice. Choose a time that is doable in your life. For example, meditate first thing each morning – a very popular time. Make your practice fit your life. It’s easy to say, “I’ll meditate every day,” but then we forget to do it because we are not well set-up for our practice. Set a reminder in places that you go often, such as your bathroom, your kitchen, or set an alarm on your phone.
- Be patient.Every skill needs time to become polished. Keep practicing, and let go of the need to control. Just like you can't control the speed of muddy water settling into it's natural clarity, you also can not control the speed of your improvement. All you can do is sit, breathe, and be patient.
- Do not sweat too much on “technique” — just do it. Most people worry about where to sit, how to sit, what cushion to use. However, none of that is important to get started. Start simple, by sitting on a chair, on your couch, on your bed. If you’re comfortable on the ground, sit cross-legged. It’s just for three minutes at first anyway, so just sit. Later you can worry about optimizing your sitting position so that you will be comfortable for longer, but in the beginning it doesn’t matter much. Just sit somewhere quiet and comfortable. There is no retreat to go to, no trip to the East to plan, no book filled with wisdom to read in order to learn to meditate. Just sit, and observe what happens. It all comes down to this: just do it.
- Have a beginner’s mind. Every day is different, as we move through new and different situations and stages in our lives. When we recognize that, we have the chance to start anew everyday. Have a beginner’s mind: observe what is going on as if it is the first time. This mindset breathes freshness into life situations that, at first sight, seem routine and repetitive.
- Count your breaths. Place your attention on your breath as it comes in, following it in through your nose all the way down until inflates your belly. Try counting “one” as you take in the first breath, then “two” as you breathe out. Repeat this to the count of 10, and then start again at one. This technique has been used for centuries and there is a reason that still is taught – it works. Commit to counting your breath, and free yourself of the idea that you must do something “spiritually advanced.” Just pay attention to the breath, particularly in the part of your body where the sensation is most noticeable (like your belly). This practice may seem to be common sense, even ridiculously simple, and it is... but it is also profound. Words are not enough to describe it – just try it.
- When you wander, come back. Your mind will wander; it is normal and nothing to worry about. When you notice your mind wandering, smile(that is the best remedy). Do not feed your thoughts or emotions, just let them be. Then simply, gently, return to your breath. If you feel a little frustration, it is perfectly OK. We all lose our focus, what is important is to smile and gently come back. Like in any other practice, it can take a while until you see progress.
- Monitor how you are feeling, and accept it. As you settle into your meditation session, simply check to see how you are feeling. How does your body feel? Is there anywhere you feel tension or soreness? What is the quality of your mind? Busy? Tired? Anxious? Importantly, do not be judgmental, just accept your state for the day. It is completely OK to agree with what is... it is already, whether you like it or not.
- Cultivate smiling and friendliness to yourself when you sit. When you notice thoughts and feelings arising during meditation, look at them with a friendly attitude. Attend to these thoughts and feelings as a mother looks at her baby, as you approach your puppy to teach him to obey, which is always with love and kindness. Harshness does not work, not in any arena. Make friends with yourself as you feel in the moment.
- Don’t worry about clearing the mind. Lots of people think meditation is about clearing your mind, or stopping all thoughts. It’s not. Meditation is about awareness of what is. If you have thoughts, that’s normal. We all do. Our brains are thought factories, and we can’t just shut them down. Instead, just try to kindly focus your attention on the breath or on your belly, and smile more when your mind wanders.
- Stay with whatever arises. A good question that I like to ask myself when meditating is: What am I sitting with today? It changes a lot and makes everything different. That question tells about your life in that particular, never-to-be-the-same moment of your life. When thoughts or feelings arise, just notice them with curiosity. Instead of trying to solve them, just notice them. We tend to want to avoid and push away feelings like frustration, anger, anxiety… but in meditation trying to push away and trying to grab onto mental states are two sides of the same coin. Instead, try to view these thoughts and feelings with a nonjudgmental attitude (without liking or disliking). It is difficult, but doable with practice. Do not react to worries: let them be. They will go away the moment you stop paying attention to them. As you get to know yourself, and sit with a friendly attitude (instead of one of criticism), you are getting to know your best friend: you. Smile and give yourself love.
- Follow guided meditations. If it helps, you can try these guided meditations from my lab.
- Find a community. Even better, find a community of people who are meditating and join them.
- Smile always; Smile when you’re done. When you’re finished with your 3 minutes, smile. Be grateful that you had this time to yourself. Be grateful that you stuck with your commitment. Be grateful that you showed yourself that you are trustworthy. Be grateful that you took the time to get to know yourself and make friends with yourself. That is an amazing 3 minutes of your life. Smile.