Meditation is defined as "a profound and extended contemplation or reflection in order to achieve focused attention or an otherwise altered state of consciousness and to gain insight into oneself and the world. Traditionally associated with spiritual and religious exercises, meditation is now also used to provide relaxation and relief from stress; treat such symptoms as high blood pressure, pain, and insomnia; and promote overall health and well-being." (American Psychological Association; APA, 2020). These kinds of definitions make it seem as though meditation should be a serious and peak event. The truth is unless you are a Buddhist monk or meditation guru, that is likely not going to be your experience. I’ve summarized the key points from the book “Meditation: An In-Depth Guide” by Gawler & Bedson, (2011) to help answer any of your meditation questions.
Three Basic Styles of Meditation
The three most common styles of meditation are attention, intention and inquiry meditation.
Meditation utilizing attention: an alert yet passive meditation where you are simply paying attention to your moment to moment experience;
Meditation utilizing intention: your meditation is focused on a particular outcome. This practice often uses imagery, invocation, and prayer. An example would be setting an intention to let go of stress or send love to another person.
Meditation utilizing inquiry: this practice is contemplative, where you consciously ask a question and focus your meditation on finding or experiencing the answer.
Getting started with Meditation: Direct vs. Gradual Approach to Starting Meditation
There are typically two approaches to starting meditation, direct and gradual. The direct approach is where there is no particular process or plan; you simply sit and start. The gradual approach is one whereby you build your way into the process, using strategies or techniques to help you begin the process. The gradual approach often includes relaxation techniques, visualization, or guidance.
Why we focus on our breath?
By beginning our meditation practice by narrowing the focus of attention, we help develop the qualities of mindfulness (presence, acceptance, patience, perseverance). We can gradually open up our attention to other aspects of our present moment.
The Monkey Mind: 65,000 Thoughts Per Day
Often our mind is set on default; it is constantly thinking and working, shifting from present to future to past over and over again. This state is often called "the monkey mind," where we are always jumping from one thing to another. During meditation, we want to bring some discipline to the monkey mind; however, too much discipline destroys the lightness and spontaneity of the practice. Too much discipline (focusing too much on stopping our thoughts or redirecting back to the breath) covers a hidden agenda of expectation, craving, aversion, which will undermine the qualities of presence, patience and acceptance. The monkey mind is not tamed by fighting thoughts or trying to eliminate them; it is tamed by becoming aware of them without judgement or reaction. We have approximately 65,000 thoughts per day; it is unrealistic to think that we can stop these thoughts from coming to us.
Tips for Bringing Lightness and Mindfulness to your Meditation
Sitting silently, doing nothing, spring comes,
and the grass grows by itself.
The Physical Position of Meditation
Eyes: it is often easier to meditate with the eyes closed, as you progress, you can open the eyes and either focus on a single point or adopt a broad focus.
The paradox of discomfort: the posture will support your practice if it is a little uncomfortable. When we relax too much (ex. Lying on the floor), the relaxation comes from the body. With a slightly uncomfortable position (actively sitting), this discomfort forces the relaxation to come from the mind.
Three Noble Principles from the Tibetan Knowledge of Meditation:
Good in the beginning. Good in the middle. Good in the end.
Good in the beginning refers to our motivation for meditation, the more encompassing the motivation, the more meaningful the meditation.
Good in the middle refers to our attitude about meditation. The attitude we maintain during our meditation will impact our ability to find stillness and settle into our meditation.
Good in the end refers to how we should recognize that practicing meditation has merit. Recognize that meditation is working on you, which is an important task. There is no bad meditation; there is only meditation.
Progressive muscle relaxation: a practice of bringing your attention to each part of the body and contract (5-10 sec), then relax the muscles. Start with your feet and work upwards, taking your time and going very slowly.
Relaxing body scan: a practice of simply bringing attention to each part of the body and relaxing it without contracting. Taking your time and bring true attention to each part without judgement or action.
Rapid relaxation: the practice of relaxing with the breath and the sigh. Take a fairly deep breath in and then gently sigh it out. Do that 3-5 times.
Boredom, Restlessness and Impatience
These are the most common mental struggles experienced during meditation. Here are a few tips to overcome them:
Variations of focusing on the Breath
If you are having trouble focusing on the breath, here are a few techniques you can use:
Counting the breath: count the inhale and count the exhale. Ex. Inhale 1-2-3-4, exhale 1-2-3-4.
Naming the breath: with each breath, say "breathe in" and "breathe out" in your mind. You can say inhale, exhale, or whatever feels good.
Naming the thought: whenever thoughts pop up, name them. When your start planning for tomorrow say "planning, planning" in your head. If you start worrying, say "worrying, worrying" etc.
Practicing Mindfulness in Meditation
Here are two techniques to become more mindful during your meditation if you find you are getting lost in thoughts.
Four access points of attention: feet, tummy, shoulders, face. Spend time on each of these four points drawing as much attention to them as you can.
Whole-body scan: move your attention from each part of the body in a non-judgemental way, seeking awareness. Start with feet and work your way up, don't worry about trying to relax. Go through this process slowly and thoroughly.
If you are interested in trying a few different experiments during your meditation, here are a few examples you can use:
Notice the thoughts: be a non-judgemental observer of the thoughts that come into your mind. Use your curiosity and see what comes into your head.
How to thoughts appear: as thoughts come into your mind, notice how you are seeing them. Are you talking to yourself, seeing yourself, feeling yourself, etc.
Thoughts as segments: notice over the course of your meditation where thoughts begin and end, when you know they have started and when they have finished.
The gap between thoughts: notice the quiet space between thoughts and try to focus on them.
Milestones Indicating Progress
Here are a few examples of milestones to celebrate:
Motivation and intention: you have the motivation and intention to get started Establishing a practice: you have a routine of some kind
Being able to sit still: you actually can sit still
Feeling heavy: feeling heavy and relaxed
Feeling lighter: feel like you are floating or light
Temperature changes: feeling hotter or colder (usually goes on for 1-2 weeks) Feeling the same all over: feeling pleasantly hollow
Changes in body awareness: noticing more
Loss of body awareness: you no longer have any awareness of your body Transitional experiences: finding stillness or seeing a light
Infinite space: a sense of being in an infinite space
Infinite consciousness: feeling connected to or a part of an infinite consciousness Oneness: the duality of mind and body is gone, and there is only you
Other Types of Meditation to Try
Forgiveness Meditation: Ask forgiveness from others, then forgive others, then forgive yourself Gratitude: think of all the things, people, experiences you are grateful for
Loving-kindness: send love and kindness to yourself for a few practices, then someone you love for a few, then someone neutral or a stranger for a few, then someone you have difficulty.
Contemplative: you can journal before and identify a specific question you want to contemplate, or meditate on an inspirational quote
I hope this summary helps you as you continue your practice, and remember, there is no bad or good meditation; there is only meditation.
APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/meditation
Gawler, I., & Bedson, P. (2011). Meditation: An in-depth guide. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.