Meditation is a productive use of time when you're doing it well
Perhaps you've been wanting to establish a meditation practice, but want to be sure that you're going to set off on the best path. If you want to make progress on most important and fruitful practices in a shorter period of time than going to sit in a monestary for days on end, you can get started on a highly skillful set of habits with just 5 minutes per day.
Mindfulness enhances the appreciation of your life
Mindfulness is a state of meta-cognitive awareness. It is being able to observe what you are doing, feeling, thinking as it is happening. It is a sweet spot between being lost in something without awareness when you're in it, but also not so detached that you're functioning without reflection. It can be held too tightly. It cannot be forced into submission. Held too lightly it loosely falls into inattention. In my own experience it has a particular sort of mental posture that I can engage at will with intention and action. It does take practice though.
Meditation occurs not only in the sitting quietly sort of brain-training, but in an abundance of skills and practices. You can look to other places of relaxed-concentration, absorbed yet in control, to get to know this particular feeling. Imagine an archer, so absorbed in concentration that they are no longer thinking of any conceptual thought: just light, transient observations moving around all types of awareness: from the arrow, to the fingers, then a muscle tension released near the elbow, etc. Calling it open awareness is helpful, though in technical practices that can refer to another specific aspect. So yeah, you probably already know what a skilled meditation state feels like, even if it's hard to describe. It is not sitting still and forcing out all thoughts with a broom.
A way you can practice this meditative absorbtion immediately is through mindful observation of a mundane action. Eating an orange or other fruit is often recommended. The goal is to slow down a bit, and really be conscious and aware of the sensations of that experience, as well as your thoughts and intentions as they arise. It's like having a key piece of evidence on film and going back in ultra slow motion, frame by frame, and looking at each area to see what you might've missed when it's all going by at normal speed. It takes a bit of extra concentration to focus like this, and also to be able to catch yourself when you suddenly remember that time you found the most ripe clementine still on the tree, but then you return to mindfulness of the moment that is happening to you right now.
How to practice meditation well:
Traditional wisdom says to get a teacher. Experienced ones of quality are the best at knowing where you are at and what you need to move forward from there. Reading things like this guide are a great way to make meaningful strides forward, but teachers are necessary if you want to be a master. Luckily, many benefits of meditation are available way before mastery.
At the beginning, the most important thing is to actually practice. To be practicing frequently is more important than practicing well, because you cannot get to a skill necessary to practice deeply until you are able to practice with a regularity enough to solidify the familiarity with the state, and to be aware of where and when you are straying from a mindful state.
Getting a practice established seems to get stuck on two points for people:
Motivation to practice can be reinforced by:
A regular practice is facilitated by good habit-establishing technique:
The second way of encouraging a regular practice is to make a specific time and place for it. I regularly do 15 minutes in the morning and late afternoon, with longer stretches when I want to try a new technique or go deeper. Honestly, getting a daily practice of 5 minutes is infinitely better than doing an hour once on the weekends. At the beginning it is a lot about being able to create the brain-muscle-reaction of catching your mind as it drifts and wanders from mindfulness back to other ways of experiencing. So those 5 minutes of highly dedicated focus, even if wound a bit too tight sometimes, can be more fruitful than an hour of unfocused, bored practice. Quality over quantity.
You can make it more fun by attaching other things to it. I highly recommend getting a meditation app for your phone. Having the little gamified record of your habit is quite encouraging, and it creates a separation in your life: open the app, time for meditation. Having access to guided meditations is also a great way to encourage yourself, and it's like free teachers that you can have on demand! Not all teachers are created equal, but again, the beginning is just about getting started. So have fun with it. If you're the spiritual type, creating a sacred space temporarily or permanently will help with the intention and dedication. My blessedly wonderful partner made me the gift of a painted meditation cushion, which was incredibly motivating. And when I inevitably started slacking, it's the type of object you can leave lying in the middle of the path/room so that you trip over it. If the question arises in your mind "why shouldn't I sit and meditate?" then you should probably meditate. Is checking FB or watching a quick clip going to relax you as much as taking time for yourself for 3-5 minutes? Unlikely. Hey, you could take 3 breaths right now since this reminder came up. I'll do it with you. Okay? 1...2...3... Simple and playful. Easy to do, but easy not to. When the simple opportunity for choice arises, you don't need to hesitate to make the choice in your favour.
At this point you might have some fair ideas of how meditation and mindfulness can fit in your life.
If you haven't already done so, please take a moment now to solidify how you are going to do meditation in your life. Whether that's an entry in your To-Do list, downloading an app, or scheduling your next meditation time in your calendar.
How to do it properly / well, to commit to going down a good path if you're going to go through the bother of starting:
Your definition of well is going to depend on the school of meditation that ultimately becomes your favourite, but we all basically have the same brain matter to work with, so there's still a suite of skills that are helpful to prioritize. The two ones that are fundamentals are:
I will give a brief introduction and then a single technique for each that I have found consistently produces skillful results quickly.
Some schools focus wholly on one to the exclusion of the other, some place primacy on developing one such that the other one develops easier after, and a few balance them but sometimes make it indistinguishable which you're practicing.
1. Focus has many names: single-pointed awareness, calm abiding, shammata. It's all about being able to focus your awareness like a spotlight, and catch it when that light starts to drift away from the object of meditation. So as a beginner, you can consider that whenever there is an object of meditation, that it is including focus meditation. The most common object of meditation is the breath, for so many good reasons. There's lots to watch of what is going on, and it is such a persistent object that it is easy to bring you back to noticing "Oh! I'm not watching the breath. Time to return". That moment of recall and refocus is an essential muscle to strengthen. There will always be bigger and badder distractions arising, so having a frustrating session where you are coming back so many times, while perhaps exhausting, can be highly fruitful compared to when you are completely absorbed and everything feels easy. Though, if you can consistently stick with the object of meditation, distractions become slight flutters, and the stabilization allows you to go much deeper. That's why it's an essential skill. Who's driving your mind? If you're not aware of turning the wheel back to center, then I hope you stay on the road, or find yourself off on a secondary highway in Nebraska looking for what you need to buy for dinner.
2. Insight is many things. I suppose you could describe it as perceptual capacity; an ability to experience many things in parallel. But you could also call it intuition, or awareness of multiplicity of relations. It is more closely linked to the subconscious, whereas focus is like executive function. In order to do really well at insight, you need a reasonably strong focus. So that's all I'll say for now. Zen goes the opposite approach and says: be empty and it will just happen. Which may be true, but I don't think it's the most practical for most of us.
1. My favourite practice for Focus
I got this from the classic PDF floating around the internets called Mindfulness in Plain English, which apparently has too much Buddhist-flavoured dogma for some, but I found ot to be a nice, approachable balance. I'm biased towards Buddhism anyways, sorry not sorry! I've adapted it slightly after working with clients to find something that produces good results and is easy enough to practice for beginners.
The essence of it is:
Even if you cannot make it through 3 loops on this, a week of dedicated practice for this (I would start with 10 minutes to give yourself enough time to get somewhere) will really sharpen up your focus. Doing focus practices exclusively can wind your mind up too tight (remember, it's a balance between control and letting it just be). If you find that's the case you can take a break and do some guided practices where the focus is up to someone else, or do insight practices.
2. My favourite practice(s) for Insight
Insight meditation may not give you as many secondary effects in your life right away (stress reduction, health, sleep, interpersonal awareness, etc), but when combined with a strong focus skill can lead to unlocking more benefits of meditation (creativity, insight, flow, peace, enlightenment). Personally, I think they're harder, but that might just be that I generally connect with very brainy people (scientists, entrepreneurs, etc). There are other forms of intelligence that are incredibly useful when the mind is able to get out of their way: physical intelligence, emotional intelligence, some even would say spiritual intelligence. These are aided by the development of insight
Labelling and Noting are possibly the most accessible Insight practices for Westerners. Stuff like Zen and mantras are great too. The body scan of Goenka's Vipassana retreats are also excellent insight practices, but seem to require the buffer of having the retreat time to really dive into practice, or a level of previous experience that makes them accessible in a home/daily practice.
If you want to jump ahead, a good practice to try is:
Shinzen's Do Nothing : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZ6cdIaUZCA
Shinzen Young's labelling and noting practices are more accessible than many, because he gets very specific with the details of what and how to do it. The mind really likes to 'do' stuff, but we're basically trying to trick it into recognizing that things are happening even when it's not able to do anything to make them happen. By giving it very specific tasks, it stays occupied and sets the ground for insight to happen. The full, overly detailed aspects of his techniques are all in this 74 page PDF https://www.shinzen.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/SeeHearFeelIntroduction_ver1.8.pdf, but he often gives a short version of it, which I cannot immediately find a video for, but I will outline here.
Some Final Advice
The practices presented here are gathered from many online communities and experience (personal and those of clients), but they are not a complete meditation school in themselves. They are two strong places to develop skill that will complement any other meditations you do. Whether that's in a class, or following the curriculum of a book or an app. The above practices will give you skill and strength to make the most out of whatever you do, and are very likely to show practical, tangible real-life results faster than many introductory meditations. They can feel like striving, and they are more of a work out, whereas many introductory meditation practices are a warm up. But if you have strong motivation to actually get something out of it, then they are worth the effort.
As you advance, you may find that either practice is harder to do, or is showing less effect. The Western practical meditation communities seem to be coming to consensus that it is more fruitful to go deeply into a style of practice / specific technique, but not stay there indefinitely if the results stop (when there is no change, growth or new challenges). And while I really do recommend seeking out a community and skilled teacher if you are going to go deep with meditation, trying out another set of techniques to reinvigorate your practice is not to be looked down upon.
Have fun, and best wishes to you in your practice :)
Purging negatives vs creating positives
Trying to get rid of all the negative and uncomfortable things in your life
is like bailing water while standing in the middle of a shallow lake.
If you want to be happy,
you cannot remove ALL the things
that prevent that from happening.
You think "Well, I'm somewhat dry. So
I will just try to remove all of the water around me
and then I will be able to dry out more".
But of course in this situation,
there is always more water that comes back in
to make you at least as wet, and maybe splashes you in the process.
So you can spend your whole life bailing water
without really getting to the source of the problem.
Which would get you dry - as the solution you really want.
But supposing you see an island in the distance.
You think to yourself
"If I could only get over there up on its rocky shoreline,
then I would be dry forever."
The problem is that it is a long ways away
and you really just want to be dry right now.
You are tired of being wet,
and just want to be less wet right now.
So, you keep bailing water.
Because it's kinda better than nothing
and also gives you a feeling of enacting control over the situation.
From our outside perspective we can see that of course the best solution is to
just suck it up and swim to the island.
But when we're in the midst of it,
swimming seems completely opposite of trying to get less wet.
While we might think of it from time to time,
it's not something that we might be ready to follow through with.
we can just be
totally fed up
with trying the same thing
over and over...
...that we are literally willing to take the plunge,
just to see if it might work out differently.
And if we can keep going
despite submerging in the uncomfortable wetness,
it's doable to get there.
It might not be expected. It might take longer, it might go faster. We might keep our head underwater and swim right past it, thinking that the method didn't work. We might try again. We try something new. If we don't give up, eventually we will hit on the right method.
But almost always,
once we're on that island soaking in the sun,
we ask ourselves why we didn't start swimming earlier.
if you never learned how to swim,
and all you had was a bucket...
Who might be able to teach you to swim?
One of the hardest things to do when work is piling up and the urge of procrastination derail you constantly, is starting. That moment between when you have the intention to do, and actually start doing it, can be agonizing long and prevent you from making progress. But you've probably experienced that if you can get over that initial hump of activation energy required, things go a lot more smoothly from there on.
Thus, today I'll talk about a practice you can use to get better at moving past that initial anxiety of starting.
I'm not going to pad this with needless banter, because your time is important. Here's the overview of what we're trying to accomplish.
Lower the pain threshold - make the discomfort of starting less
You cannot do everything right now. You can do something. Holding onto expectations of what it 'should be' is going to set a goal that is intimidating and demotivating.
I often say: "Shoulds are swears" Be gentle and don't swear at yourself. It doesn't work with your inner child as much as it doesn't work with actual children.
You can acknowledge the difficulty of what's preventing you from starting as a real and valid concern but still choose to do it anyway. The stress of needing to do it will still be there until you do it.
So you can literally say (out loud if you want): "I know that this is difficult for me because of how it feels, but getting some of it done will make me feel better than getting none of it done. So I want to do a little to relieve some of this discomfort."
Increase the probability of success - set yourself up for a win
Nobody wants to do something that's pointless, but we've already acknowledged that achieving something is a non-zero result. And the only way a finished product can happen is through a series of adding up non-zero results. But, a big intimidating, impossible goal feels the same as a pointless goal. So we need to break it down. This practice is just about getting good at starting. You know that you can get a lot more done if you can get past this hurdle more often, so by getting better at getting over that challenge, you will literally have more productive time.
But, to set ourselves up for a win, we want to make our winning conditions achievable. After we are consistently succeeding, we can raise the bar. Create some forward momentum, and then accelerate. An object at rest, stays at rest. That's a physical law that is fundamental, and I bet you cannot disprove that it has held true for your motivation too.
So, to start, we will set a very minimal goal, and then increase it. The two goals we have here are:
Five seconds is all you need. Check out Mel Robbins if you want more convincing. It's a practice of meta-cognitive flexibility to be able to redirect yourself like this. Especially when faced with challenging thoughts and feelings. Instead of giving in to rumination and feeling bad, you accept that those are probably going to happen anyways, but you are still willing to take action to practice moving towards solutions that will fulfil you rather than just dull the pain.
Five seconds to start.
And only 3-5 minutes on whatever it is that you need to do. If you're super depressed, that could be a shower or grooming. It could be starting a scary email. Whatever it is, you only have to do a little bit.
If you can't or don't think that you can manage 5 minutes, start with 3. It's more important to succeed at starting than to achieve the impossible. Get good at starting, and making progress is easier.
habit ritual - decide what you're doing when you have more willpower
It's harder to make a decision when you are under stress. Even a little twinge of fight-or-flight mindset can skew our choices towards actions that will relieve that stress, rather than actually deal with that stress. The brain that is responsible for running away is very loud. It's a panicking screaming little lizard that's afraid of a lot of things. But our higher decision-making capabilities evolved afterwards, and they can see further into the future. Lizards are not as smart as monkeys. Who do you want to be in charge of the show?
But the lizard can be comforted by familiarity, and does actually trust the monkey when they insist. So the creation of a habit ritual is basically saying: "Yeah, I know this feels like a threat, but we have a plan, don't worry. If we follow the plan, we can deal with this." And then the lizard goes back to sunning itself on a rock, because really it just wants to be happy and couldn't reason itself through your plan anyways.
The plan should include two things:
1. What to do - this isn't even the full plan, it's just where to start. What do you have to do for that initial 5 seconds? Is it going to your desk? Is it getting out a book, pens and paper. Is it grabbing your coat and shoes and a grocery bag? Single smallest step, that's where you have to start.
2. A way to do it - the action needs to last longer than 5 seconds though, but figuring out the next minimal step as you go can usually be decided along the way. Even if that ends up being "Oh, I'm missing this thing. Do I absolutely need it? Yes, then the next step is to get that thing".
But the way to keep doing is to have a habit that keeps you moving for that 3 or 5 minutes. And the smallest required thing there is: keeping track of time! This can be a timer on your phone/desktop/watch, or merely just the practice of noting what time it is you start on a piece of paper. Having a physical trace of it is essential, not only for the effect of a somatic behaviour (actual physical movement to do the thing) but it demarcates in your reality the line between the ritual habit of doing and not doing. You only are committing to do for within that time frame, everything else is bonus. Committing to doing everything all the time is scary and exhausting, stop it. Just commit to getting good at doing this small chunk, and then put as many of them in a row as you want, and voila, productivity. You can of course start to increase the time window. I started at 5 minutes, and I still use the technique when I'm feeling a lot of resistance to doing something that I won't enjoy (like taxes and stuff), but will start at a minimum of 25 minutes (a pomodoro, basically) or even longer if it's crunch time. Do not start at the expectation that you can work at crunch time rates when you're a stationary rock. Unless you can somehow prove to me with evidence not excuses, I do not believe it's possible.
Okay, we've got a starting point, and a timer, but how do we stay on task for the timer? Good question, which leads us to...
Avoid exit points - identify failures and build alternatives
You've psyched yourself up, you've done the most important part of getting ready and starting your timer, your hands are on the keyboard and... something happens. It might be fear, guilt, shame, panic, worry, rumination, projection, a freaked-out lizard screaming that it's hair is on fire (shh lizard, you didn't evolve hair, c'mon be reasonable), whatever. Thoughts and feelings as internal distractions AND/OR notifications, changes in your surroundings or whatever external happenings will happen as external distractions.
We need to be able to stay on track in the face of these, otherwise we're back at the starting line and have to overcome the resistance to starting again. And while that may be good practice, it can be exhausting when we already had to psyche ourselves up to get past the hump the first time.
And here's the kicker:
Notice when a distraction happens
When you start to get distracted, make a note of it.:
As in - literally write it down.
Do not pass go, do not do anything else.
You get distracted, you immediately note it.
And then you resume doing what you wanted to do for the rest of the timer,
or until the moment in which you notice another distraction.
For this I recommend the following methods:
This feedback loop requires that you maintain some level of focus for awareness when distractions happen. If that's difficult, then set the goal as something smaller. You can go as low as a minute or 30 seconds for your timer if you are not catching distractions. Sometimes, it's unavoidable that a distraction carries us away and we find ourselves thinking or doing something else. At that time, the moment that you notice it, note that as a distraction and come back to what you were doing.
It is imperative that you never do this:
You're working along steadily, and then the urge to check social media strikes, dilligently, you note the distraction, but then you switch over to the social media anyways, as your work timer is still running.
This is not the method, and if it happens, stop the timer completely or start over. If not, you'll just be creating a new habit of noticing that you're distracting, but not investing in yourself enough to create a way out of distraction other than following them.
Thus, the exit point we're trying to avoid here is all the habitual reactions and distractions that tend to take us away from staying on task. Instead of following those, we have committed to staying on task for the duration of the timer, and are replacing those behaviours all with the simple noting of their existence. Some methods recommend that you write your distractions down so that you can deal with them later, but I find that this just takes you out of the task flow. If they were important, you will still remember them a few minutes from now.
And the alternative is the new behaviour of just noticing. The distractions will always be there, but you are building the capacity through practicing that you can defer those at will.
Reinforce positive behaviour
If you get distracted, you win points.
Hooray, everyone is a winner!
No but seriously, good luck getting through it without getting distracted. If you think you can, then up the difficulty.
It's my favourite tracking app, and allows for many different styles of trackers (increments, on/off per day, timers, numerical entry, notes, etc). For use in this method you'll need to set up two distinct trackers. One as a timer, and the other as your distraction avoidance counter. For distraction avoidance you could set it to increment (if you are manually tapping for each distraction) or a numerical entry. I find that the tapping is the most effective because you are making a response in your body as a reaction to the distraction instead of your habitual avoidance behaviours. However, depending on how you have your device set up, it may go to sleep / lock / dark screen when the timer is still running but it's been too long in between noting a distraction. If that is the case, it increases the amount of time that it would take to record a distraction (instead of just a single tap and then back to the action, it would be a tap, then unlocking, then another tap). That's less ideal for staying in flow, which is the best outcome here, and you can get there with this, really. So, if the phone sleeping thing becomes a problem for you, just make the note of distractions elsewhere and then enter your results numerically at the end. Paper or a simple text app (if you're doing computer work).
Aaron Ball. Recovered Academic. Grieving Environmentalist. Evidence-Based Transformational Coach. Electronic musician. Transrationalist.