These are commands we give our two dogs every day. Sometimes they listen; sometimes we need to repeat ourselves several times. Today one of my dogs came over to me while I was sitting for meditation and just waited for me to acknowledge her. I could feel her there, hovering and staring. So I tapped the floor in front of me and she came over to lay down. She always takes her time and we think this has to do with pain in her body, but when she does drop her weight, we always feel it. She doesn’t have the same capacity to distribute her weight as our other dog, so when she leaned up against my shins this morning, I felt her like an anchor, almost as if she was conveying the commands back to me:
I’ve been taking part in a 31-day meditation “challenge” this past month so the dogs have gotten used to me getting up each morning and sitting. The staying part is always the hardest, and I don’t mean physically. Staying focused on my breath, or on the guidance offered by my colleagues – pre-recorded yet so very relevant to each morning, when it feels so much easier to be distracted by thoughts, emotions, stories or sensation. Sometimes I feel like my mind is the character of the dog in that children’s movie, “Up” and just as I start to follow my breath, my focus is interrupted by my thoughts: “Squirrel!” This is when it’s good to have an anchor nearby to bring me back to my focus, and a 50-pound dog helps.
If you are interested in taking up meditation (and I highly recommend that you do), here are some other tips to help you to sit and stay.
Location, Location, Location
Make sure you set aside a time and place for your meditation that is as distraction-free as possible. You’ll already be distracted by internal events, so limiting the external ones (electronic alerts, clock ticking, traffic noises, etc.) will help you stay focused. Unless you have access to a sound-proof room with a lock, you will always have some external noises, so don’t get too caught up in blocking it all, but also don’t try your first meditation in the middle of a shopping mall during the holidays.
Reserve Your Seat
You are a creature that experiences the world through sensation. Those sensations do not stop when you meditate; in fact, their impact seems to amplify when you dampen the external sensations. In order to be as distraction-free from your internal sensations, be sure you construct a comfortable seat. If you’re not sure what seat would be comfortable, start with a chair. Graduate to sitting on the floor with support under your pelvis and knees, if necessary. Most people who grew up in the western world don’t just sit on the floor for hours without support. Once you find the seat that allows you to remain for a while without your feet falling asleep or your back aching, attempt to maintain the platform for the next practice. Having a corner of your room or house where all you have to do is plop down makes practicing much easier than having to hunt through the house to collect what you need and build it each time.
There is no set “dosage” for meditation to be effective. In other words, one minute of meditation can be as helpful as one hour, depending on circumstances. I have found that when I’m restarting a meditation practice after abandoning it for some time, I need to begin with short sits, like 5-10 minutes at a time. This is just like when I restart an exercise routine; I don’t get back on the treadmill and walk two hours if I haven’t dusted it off for months. Start with 5 minutes every day. It’s better to develop the practice of fitting meditation into your day, every day, and you’re less likely to make skip it if you keep it short. We can endure anything for 5 minutes, right? After a week, see if you can extend it by a few minutes.
Use a Guide
Humans are pack animals. We want connection and acceptance. Without tools, sitting with our own thoughts can feel isolating. I recommend either joining a beginning meditation group, where you can sit together in the same room (this is ideal) or using recorded guided meditation, at least to begin. The guidance will bring you back from whatever thought, emotion or distraction you’re experiencing in order to refocus. In the last month, I listened nearly every day to guided meditations from my colleagues and enjoyed the variety of wisdom they offered. One very powerful cue was delivered in the middle of the meditation, after there had been a stretch of silence (typically when my mind goes wandering) and the facilitator asked the question, “Are you listening?” It was like she had struck a bell. It brought me back from my meandering mind with so much clarity. I never would have thought to ask myself this question and I’m grateful to have had that moment. I often find that a guided meditation settles me down enough to be able to sit without guidance after the recording concludes. This “bonus” time is incredibly calming. I don’t believe in using guidance forever, as it can become a crutch, but when you’re just starting out it’s helpful.
Understand the Nature of Your Mind
Many of our internal organs produce material. The kidneys secrete digestive enzymes, the liver secretes blood proteins, the thyroid secretes hormones, etc. Our brain secretes thoughts. We want to have thoughts, but we also want to correctly identify that these thoughts are secretions of our brain and we don’t necessarily have to believe everything we think. In fact, it may be harmful to believe all our thoughts. I often hear people complain that they can’t sit for meditation because they can’t stop thinking. Somewhere, someone told them that we have to stop thinking in order to meditate, which isn’t true. What we need to do is stop believing every thought, or stop letting the thoughts pull us from our focus. So when you sit and your thoughts arise, let them. It’s what your brain, your mind does. The more you become aware that this is normal, the less you’ll be hooked by each thought.
The Start and End of the Practice
It always happens the same way; I settle down to begin my practice and become very interested in my breath. I feel the beginning of my inhale, the quality of that inhale, the short pause at the top and the gentle release of my exhale… Over and over again for the first few moments. But at some point I drift off. The allure of following my breath is no longer appealing and I’m entertained by some plan or sound that takes me away from studying my breath. That moment when I realize that I’ve drifted, that is the moment when the practice actually begins. I’ve studied with teachers who tell me to label my drifts with names like “sensing”, “thinking”, “judging”, etc. before returning. This helps to mark when the practice truly starts, or restarts. There are days when the I have fewer restarts and days when it seems like my practice is just a series of restarts. In this way, I don’t feel like the practice ever really ends. I may finish my sit and move into the world, but when I notice those moments when I’ve drifted away from a conversation or missed my exit because I was lost in thought and I come back to the present moment, that’s when the practice shows up again.
Patterns and Other Tools
It’s important to have some structure in your practice when you begin. Psychologists tell us that it takes us three weeks to set a habit. I know from experience that when I sit at the same time each day, I am better about maintaining that habit. I try to sit first thing in the morning, so that I don’t let the rest of the day override my need to sit. I know some people do better meditating right before bed, but I’ve never have a very disciplined bedtime routine so that doesn’t work for me. You’ll find the pattern that works for you, but it will take time. Reflecting on this 31-day meditation challenge that I just finished, I noticed some patterns in myself. I really liked the idea that I was sitting with others who just weren’t with me physically. I felt like I could reach out with my mind and feel my sangha, my community, all sitting on their respective cushions at the same time as me. What I didn’t like was when the guided meditation included chanting. Don’t get me wrong: I love to chant, but I had a very interesting experience with chanting alone. Suddenly, my image of us meditators all connected by a web was shattered by the sound of me chanting alone in a room. My external sensation (hearing) overrode my internal sensation (imagining) and I felt isolated. I know there are many people out there who chant their daily prayers and mantras and find connection in it, but I didn’t experience that, at least not with these mantras. You may have a different experience. Perhaps for you, starting with chanting and then internalizing the mantras works best. There are gross and subtle ways to work with your mind, and not every tool lands perfectly every time. The important thing to remember is to keep trying until you find one that works.