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 :)
Aaron Ball. Recovered Academic. Grieving Environmentalist. Evidence-Based Transformational Coach. Electronic musician. Transrationalist.