Like many people I’ve encountered in the first days of this fresh year, establishing a regular meditation practice may be on the 2014 checklist.
Perhaps you’ve tried meditation but haven’t had much luck in creating a daily practice that sticks, or you’re completely new to meditation but are intrigued after reading one of the many articles published last year in the mainstream media about the benefits of this ancient practice. Maybe you’ve just witnessed firsthand the profound effects meditation can have via a friend, colleague or loved one.
Whatever our reasons and no matter how strong our convictions, chances are we will encounter some obstacles on our paths. Here are some tips I find helpful in creating a lasting and fulfilling meditation practice:
1) Find a time that works.
Many traditions emphasize that meditation will have the deepest effects when practiced first thing in the morning, when the mind is often its quietest. This may work for many people, but there are countless reasons why it doesn’t work for everyone, whether it’s that we’re not a morning people, have too many responsibilities to get our families out the door on weekdays, and the list goes on.
I typically advise my clients to begin trying out morning meditation, but if you find you’re too distracted, too tired, or otherwise unable to commit your energy to your practice, try out different times until you find the golden time that works for you. When I worked a nine-to-five job, I would meditate at the end of the workday, before transitioning into “my” time. I found this was a great way to release my thoughts about work responsibilities and re-energize myself after a long day. You might find that meditating in the middle of the workday is beneficial, or perhaps at some point in the evening.
Find what works, and then try as much as possible to practice at the same time each day. Establishing a consistent rhythm means we’re less likely to skip a session, but we can allow ourselves flexibility as life demands it.
2) Invest in a quality cushion.
Sure, we can meditate using a pillow from the couch or a yoga block, but we’ll likely find y=we’re able to sit longer with less pain or fewer aches if we seek out a cushion that suits our bodies. This doesn’t always mean buying the most expensive cushion, rather finding one that feels like home when we sit on it.
To find the perfect cushion, don’t order online… it’s really best that we go out and test drive a few cushions to find the one that works. If you’re unsure where to buy cushions in your area, try calling a local meditation organization or a yoga studio for guidance. Stores that sell Tibetan/Himalayan imports often carry a range of cushions too.
3) Create a dedicated space for meditation.
Just as having a consistent time for meditation helps promote regularity of practice, creating a space for meditation likewise helps our practice. We don’t need a separate room for meditation, although if we have one, that is fantastic. All we really need is a clean corner where we can put our cushions. If we share a home with others, we can try to find a place where we won’t be disrupted while we sit.
We can energize our practice space by including photos, inspirational quotes, deities or other statues, and other personally significant items there. Fresh flowers or a plant can help enliven the space as well.
4) Practice with others.
It’s not a coincidence that the historical Buddha emphasized sangha (community) as an essential part of the meditative path. While we can be successful with a purely solo sitting practice, we’ll likely find that your meditation practice takes on new dimensions when we sit with others. You may be able to find centers or groups in your area that offer guided meditations and opportunities to explore different types of sitting practices.
Ideally, we’ll find a group that we resonate with, and will sit with them on a regular basis. In my experience, belonging to a sangha has not only connected me to amazing, like-minded people, but it has given me energy even in weeks when I can’t be physically present with them. Simply knowing they are there helps motivate me to continually deepen my own practice on days when I feel resistant to sitting.
5) Try sitting for at least 20 minutes.
Many articles I’ve read will tell us that we can achieve benefits from sitting just five to 10 minutes a day, and researchers in both neuroscience and the social sciences have begun to document this in their work.
Although a short sit can be a great way to slow our breathing and release physical tension and stress, it is my experience (and the advice of many master teachers I have encountered) that sitting at least 20 minutes is necessary to begin to access some of meditation’s deeper, more subtle benefits, notably insight into our personal experience and mind patterns.
To delve even deeper, a 30- to 45-minute practice can be especially beneficial on days when we have time for a longer sit.
6) Know that meditation is not a linear practice.
So many things in our world operate in a seemingly linear flow, and many people I’ve worked with have expected meditation to be similar. In truth, it’s anything but linear. Yet, many people try to force meditation into a linear box and come away frustrated, saying it doesn’t work for them when their mind constantly wanders or they don’t get taken to a deeper state of awareness. I therefore encourage you to embark upon meditation fully knowing it to be a non-linear process, with no end result or goal.
My personal advice to students I work with is to approach meditation as a practice of “continual returning.” From this viewpoint, one goes into meditation fully expecting to be distracted, to get lost in thought, and to once again return to the breath, body or whatever other anchor one uses in practice.
7) Live our practice.
This will almost inevitably happen if we establish a consistent practice with sincerity, but it’s worth noting that meditation connects us more deeply to a broader state of mindfulness that is accessible to us at any time of day, no cushion needed.
Over time, we’ll likely begin to see our capacities for compassion outwards and self-reflection inwards expand, but we can also aid this process by learning more about mindfulness and how to imbue it into life’s seemingly most mundane moments. A great handbook on this subject is my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s classic work, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
8) Be compassionate with ourselves.
Almost everyone who begins down the path of meditation initially feels that he or she has the busiest, craziest, most active mind on the planet.
Many people use this as an excuse to stop meditating altogether, but those who do stick with meditation often use it as fuel for self-criticism and negative internal self dialogues precisely in moments when they are trying to meditate. Avoid tendencies to compare our own experiences of meditation to the stories of others (especially people who have been meditating far more many years than us). We can use our newly sprouted seeds of mindfulness to recognize when we’re allowing our minds to drift into negative territories regarding our personal practices, and gently and compassionately allow ourselves to return to the moment, letting go of all stories about what bad meditators we are.
I hope these tips are useful to you now, and I encourage you to return to them periodically if you find your practice begins to lose steam as the year coasts by. I wish you a fruitful and easeful year ahead, both on and off the cushion.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Big Mind Zen Center/Flickr