12 Tips for Meditators

1. Meditation takes practice

Meditation, just like any other skill takes practice.  When we start meditating our attention is not stable. We lack the capacity to simply be with our breath. It also doesn’t help that as adults, we have less tolerance for being beginners at much of anything. It’s hard to start meditating. Our brains are wired to constantly scan, assess, judge, and sort.  Our attention is untrained. It’s not anybody’s fault.

2. Consistency and quality are more important than quantity

The advice I received to start with twenty-minutes twice a day was the norm ten years ago.  Today’s research shows that is not necessary.  Two to five minutes of quality attention is more impactful to your spirit, mind, and brain chemistry than 10 to 15 minutes of fragmented attention. Start off by meditating regularly for small increments of time. If you try sitting for too long a period of time, meditation will become a burden. Like exercise, for it to work it has to be regular.  Start with bite size chunks, whether 3 breaths or 3 minutes a day.

3. The goal is NOT to be a good meditator

Meditators with twenty plus years of experience still sometimes have monkey mind (where your mind is jumping all over).  Mindfulness is about choosing to pay attention to the moment with kindness and curiosity. It’s about noticing when your mind has wandered and bringing it back to what’s right in front of you. To become more conscious of all the thoughts running through your mind.  To feel all of your feelings and bodily sensations.

4. Dig the well before you are thirsty

We often meditate in difficult times and stop when life is good.  However, our brains have a hard time learning or doing something new when they’re under stress. The more you practice paying attention to the present moment when you’re calm and happy, the easier and more effective it’ll be when you’re freaking out.

5. Make conscious decisions

When you are meditating, you may notice that you have an itch or something has become uncomfortable.  Our immediate reaction is to scratch or move.  That is your limbic system controlling your behavior.  Try just noticing the discomfort.  Even if your hand is halfway to the itch, just stop and notice the discomfort. Try sitting with it for a moment and then make a conscious decision whether you can sit with it longer or if you need to scratch or move.  This trains us to respond to what is by engaging our pre-frontal cortex, instead of just reacting with our limbic system.

 6. Meditation is not about going to your happy place

Meditation is not all lollipops and unicorns.  Sometimes it brings a calm feeling, but at other times it brings up negative emotions.  The experience you have while meditating is not the point.  The point is training your brain to be aware of what is happening in the present moments.  If you are looking for calm or your happy place, you may want to try relaxation instead of meditation.

 7. Bad sits are good for you

During some sits, my mind wanders all over the place.  Though I shouldn’t, I still evaluate how I did in each sit.  If I had monkey mind it was a bad sit.  If I had a calm mind and was able to focus my attention on my breath it was a good sit.  But, bad sits give you more practice bringing your attention back to your breath, thus creating stronger mindfulness neural pathways in your brain. So, actually bad sits are good for you.

8. Be with whatever arises

One of the core principles of meditation is non-judgmental awareness – the idea of allowing thoughts, sensations, and perceived phenomena to come and go. The goal, in other words, isn’t to master the art of controlling our minds. The goal is to learn to be with whatever is arising, whether pleasurable or painful, comfortable or uncomfortable.

9. Clearing your mind is not possible

If you sit down with the intention to meditate, you are doing it right.  Even if your mind wanders the entire time.  Each time you bring your mind back, you are experiencing a moment of mindfulness, strengthening the neural connection.  There is no need to strive to clear your mind.  The mind secretes thoughts like the salivary gland secretes saliva.  The purpose is not to get rid of the thoughts, but to become aware of them.  Meditation is about experimenting with gathering your attention and focus.

10. The magic moment is when you have realized your mind has wandered

After a few breaths your attention will wander. When you notice your mind has wandered, congratulate yourself.  You have just experienced a moment of mindfulness.  You are building the neural pathway to becoming more aware of the present moment.  As Thoreau said, “A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”  The most critical piece of meditation is returning back to the breath over and over again.                                                                                                          .

When you notice your mind has wandered, you may choose to acknowledge where you have gone with a soft word in the back of your mind, such as thinking, wandering, hearing, itching. After silently naming where your attention has been, relax and gently return to feel the next breath.  Over time, our attention learns how to connect with what’s actually happening here in this moment. It is the coming back that makes the difference.

11. Emotional Whack-A-Mole

When thoughts keep popping up during meditation, it is often because we have been ignoring them. When we do that, they don’t go away. Rather, it just becomes an emotional Whack-A-Mole. The thoughts pop up and we push them down, and eventually they pop up again. Thwack! If a thought keeps popping up, just sit with it.  As you sit with the thought, try not get caught up in the stories and analysis.  Simply sit with it and ask yourself, is this thought really true?

 12. Find a meditation buddy or group

Being part of a group helps with motivation.  It’s easy to find excuses not to meditate at home.  If you’re new to meditation, you might find that other members of your group can help you learn more about mindfulness, help you to be with difficulties, and provide feedback regarding experiences that arise during the meditation process.

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