This section is basically for those who are just beginning to meditate or who have struggled with fully integrating a basic meditation practice. This section has also been published as on article Elephant Journal (Nov. 2013).
IF YOU ARE HAVING TROUBLE MEDITATING…….
BY Barry John Johnson
Nowadays, people are receiving numerous prompts from media, health experts and elsewhere that meditation is a good thing for a variety of physiological, mental health and spiritual reasons. There is also a wealth of scientific and anecdotal information out there supporting its use. Yet with so many prompts, many people have maybe attempted meditation, but have not been able to sustain a practice and fully integrate it into their lives. In working with beginners or people who have had trouble meditating, I teach the following:
Realize that there are many ways to meditate, many different forms and practices. You should pick something that works for you. Don’t worry about some other person’s idea of what is proper or not.
There are different definitions of what a meditative state is as well. I can only say that you know it when you first get glimpses of it. And at first it is a like a wisp of smoke if you attempt to grab on to it. In general, it is a different state of consciousness, whereby you are alert, in tune with your surroundings and body, with your mind being calm and relaxed, in a neutral position. For me there is a certain joyful hum of energy achieved in pausing to arrive at this intersection of mind, body and spirit.
Cut yourself some slack. Meditation is a skill. It takes time to learn. Some days even experienced meditators don’t have a great session. Be cool with giving your skills time to develop. Watch out for “I just can’t do it” types of thoughts.
Start small. You don’t need to sit for thirty to forty minutes or more when you are fist starting. Remember you are just developing your skills. Start with five to ten minute sessions. If you can do two of these short sessions per day, awesome! If only one, awesome! I personally would rather that everyone in the world meditated for just five minutes versus some small percentage sitting for forty minutes or more. The world would be a better place. And once you start small, you can build up, if you like.
Sit in comfort. No lotus is necessary. Back support is okay. I say just use a regular chair with a relatively straight back. Put a small pillow or rolled up towel at your lumbar if you like for some support. In general, you want a straight spine. We want to be awake and not so reclined that we get “sleepy-relaxed”. The seat in your car likely works well for meditation. Leaning against a tree in the park works as well.
Don’t try. The poet Charles Bukowski was asked how he accesses his creativity to be such a prolific writer. He answered “Don’t try”. Same goes for meditation. You can’t force it or make it happen. What you are trying to do is set up an environment conducive to meditation happening. If it does, great, if not, that’s okay too. We still sat and relaxed for a bit.
If you get an itch, scratch it. If you need to sneeze, cough, pass gas, just do so. I don’t want you worrying about what is right or wrong in meditation. Just do what you have to do to be comfortable.
There will always be a dog barking or some other noise when you are sitting in meditation is what my not-so-Zen dog, Ziggy the beagle taught me. What we learn to do is hear noises without putting any thought with then. Our heart knows what the sound is, no other action is necessary. We just let outside noises happen, and just be.
The body must be relaxed before meditation. No duh, right? Well, I have had clients I call HIGH R.P.M. (ruminations per minute). Their bodies are just wound up, tense and anxious which in turn sets the mind spinning. For them to meditate, it would be best after some body movement, after a workout, a long walk or yoga class. The rest of us can learn from this in terms of recognizing whether we are wound up a bit than normal. If so, we can do some gentle neck rotations and shoulder shrugs beforehand commensurate with our anxiety levels. I generally do this, every time before I meditate.
Make a routine. You are more likely to continue meditating if you tie it to a certain time or routine. I always meditate after a shower for example. I am relaxed and I just go straight to meditate without too much of a thought. It is my routine. Find one that works for you.
Use a simple breathing technique that works for you. This will be a point of focus during meditation. There are different types out there. I teach deep belly breathing. I call your attention to how a baby in a crib or puppy breathes. I say they know better than us. Their inhale expands low in their bellies with their rib cages following suit. Some say that the chest centered breathing that most of us engage in is actually a stress response. Deep belly breathing relaxes us stimulating the relaxation-envoking vagus nerve. I teach to inhale through the nose, expanding that beautiful belly and rib cage, followed by a long, super slow exhale out of the mouth. I teach that the more anxious you may feel, the more exaggerated the breaths should be.
Just breathing is okay. When you first start your meditation practice you are more than likely just engaging in a breathing relaxation exercise versus reaching a meditative state. I say that’s okay. Be cool with that. The meditative state will come in time. Allow patience to kick in.
Your mind will wander. People will say to me, “I can’t meditate. I get too many thoughts”. I say “Exactly”. Just let the thoughts be and refocus on your breath. We are trained to react to thoughts. Here we are learning to not react and that our thoughts are not us; that they can be fairly random. We take a curious, professorial approach to just noticing any thought that pops up and then refocusing upon our breath. That’s the drill: Notice Thoughts; Refocus on Breath; Repeat.
It is not a battle. We are not forcing our thoughts away. They will kind of just leave due to lack of attention (They attention seeking little buggers!). We are just not that interested in them during meditation time and they usually fade.
Use a mantra or music with your meditation. A mantra is a carefully chosen word or phrase which serves to occupy the mind while emphasizing a desired state or feeling. Plain silent meditation is probably more difficult than using a mantra or music. The concept, for me, is that we humans aren’t true multi-taskers. That’s so 90’s. We can actually really do only about two things at the exact same time effectively, so focusing on our breath and a mantra at the same keeps the mind from wandering about and helps train you in meditation. In the same vein, there are many voice guided meditations available on-line.
Use a cough drop. I found with some people this keeps there attention focused around the breathing apparatus. It also generates saliva which is a relaxation response.
Practice mindfulness when not meditating. For me, meditation is beneficial in itself, but is primarily a method by which I am training and practicing for mindfulness throughout my life. The more I meditate, the easier it is to be mindful through my day. The converse is true as well, the more mindful I am during the day, the better and easier my mediations are. Basic mindfulness can include watching your thoughts and bodily reactions throughout the day in a third party manner; slowing down in general and being very aware of your breath (conscious breathing).
Learning to meditate is a training process. We are training our minds to be less reactive with less wanderlust. It will seem to resist and that is what discourages newbies. Working through this, recognizing that this is part of the process is key. As you improve this skill, longer meditations may be possible and you can start to explore different meditation approaches, ultimately formulating a practice that works perfect for you.