Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go There You Are
My note earlier this week on coming to terms with time sparked some interesting conversations, most of them about meditation and how to get started. I have only just begun myself, but I find that beginning anything is always the most difficult step. Once it’s a habit it becomes easier, and once it’s easier it becomes enjoyable. So here are some personal tips on how to get started:
Meditation isn’t mystical
There are hundreds of YouTube videos of white dudes with shaved heads & saffron robes that whisper about meditation and chakras, reincarnation, tantric sex, and who knows what else. Ignore them. For me, practicing meditation isn’t about becoming Buddhist. It’s about recovering my ability to pay attention, think clearly and live my life intentionally. You know that feeling when you’ve spent all day lying down in a park reading a book and then you grab an espresso and notice how the light falls between the trees, the shadows dancing on the ground? Or when your mind is so clear that a piece of music becomes especially moving? Or when you’re having a conversation with a friend and the words begin to pour out of your mouth with unexpected eloquence? That’s what I get out of meditation.
Commit for six weeks, without expectations
Any trainer at a gym will tell you the same thing. If you start lifting weights for 30 minutes a day with the expectation that you’ll look like an underwear model in two weeks, you’re going to be let down. It takes at least a month to form a new habit. It’s extremely difficult for us to commit to an activity without seeing the fruits of our efforts — and meditation does take effort — but it’s the only way to get started. Put time on your calendar, schedule an alarm, put sticky notes on your mirror, whatever you need to do. As Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in Wherever You Go There You Are:
Don’t expect things to happen just because now you are meditating. You’ll get caught up in wanting to have a “special experience” or in looking for signs of progress, and if you don’t feel something special pretty quickly, you may start to doubt the path you have chosen, or to wonder whether you are “doing it right.”
Meditation isn’t golf. There’s no reason to obsess over technique or posture at the beginning. It took me three months to shift from lying-down meditation to seated meditation. Just start. Just lie down, close your eyes, and focus all your attention on your breathing. When you realize that you’re thinking about something else other than your breath, that’s fine — just observe what you were thinking about and slowly come back to focusing on your breathing. That’s it. Just do that for 10 – 15 minutes a day to start.
Start with an audio guide
This is all you have to do for the first three weeks: 1) turn off the notifications on your phone, 2) lie down on a yoga mat or blanket, 3) listen to a 15-minute guided audio MP3.
I enjoy Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations, which are about 25 minutes in length. I also use the guided meditation classes from UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center, which are shorter. You can download them from their website, or by using the iTunes U iPhone app.
Once you feel that you no longer need the audio guides, you might want to try focusing on your breath while listening to Tibetan singing bowls. There are some free recordings on SoundCloud. I use this recording by 33bowls.
Sure, by a meditation cushion if you want
After three months of meditation while lying down on a mat, I realized that frequently I would use meditation as an excuse to rest, rather than to work on my mindfulness. Occasionally I would drift in and out of sleep while meditating.
I realized that I needed to shift from meditating while lying down to seated meditation. At first I sat on a simple throw pillow (the kind you put on your sofa, not your bed), but then I decided to buy a meditation cushion at a nearby meditation studio. There are lots of different types. I went with the most basic. Now I meditate in the “half-lotus position” with my right foot below my left knee and my left foot above my right knee. I simply rest my hands on my knees. But really, don’t worry about the positions or your posture or where to put your hands. All of that will come naturally over time.
Other mindfulness exercises
Meditation helps me become more mindful, more observant. My posture has improved, and I have become aware of how my breathing changes when I’m anxious or in a bad mood or staring at my computer screen. Just by breathing deeper I become calm and focused. But there are other little exercises that I have been fitting into my day to become more mindful:
- Stare at a plant for 90 seconds. It sounds crazy, but just looking at the details of a plant — from a blade of grass to a large tree — for 90 seconds helps give me perspective about time, the environment around me, and my place in it.
- Listen to music with good headphones and my eyes closed. I have begun to appreciate classical music much more ever since I started getting serious about meditation. I realized that I didn’t have the attention span to focus on the intricacies of an entire piece of classical music. I also like doing this with jazz, zooming in on the individual notes of each instrument and then zooming out to hear how they all come together. If you also struggle to pay attention during an entire piece of classical music, check out this essay by Jonathan Berger on Schubert’s String Quintet in C major.
- Tongue an almond. OK, that sounds weird. I tend to eat mixed nuts as a snack sometime in the afternoon. When I do, I’ll grab a single almond, put it in my mouth and detect its texture with my tongue, and think about how crazy it is that this thing came from a tree. For some reason, just thinking about that connection with the natural world and really observing the texture of the almond helps me slow down and focus.
- What I did today, through the eyes of others. Each night I write a paragraph or two in my journal about what I did during the day, but through the eyes of others that were with me. What did I do this morning through the eyes of my fiancee? What comments did I make on our team call, but through the eyes of my colleagues? What did I do at the coffee shop this afternoon, but through the eyes of the barista that works there? By shifting the perspective I become more honest about how I really behave and where I still need to grow.
You don’t have to do any of that. Of course, you don’t have to do anything. But, if you want to try meditation, then just lie down for 10 minutes and focus on your breath, always bringing the focus back to your breath without getting frustrated by the way we inevitably get distracted by our thoughts. I’ve been meditating nearly every day for the past six months and I still can’t get through a sitting without getting distracted at least once, sometimes ten times.
Just keep trying that, 10 to 15 minutes a day for the next six weeks.