Meditation, Mindfulness, and How the Hell Do You Do It?
Many people have a misconception on what meditation is or how to do it. Granted, there are many forms of meditation, so some of the things I describe here conflict with certain approaches. That being said, anyone can do vipissana meditation or a related form, which is a type of meditation the historical Buddha utilized. Meditation is a practice, it is meant to improve mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to remain present and aware of what one is doing in the present moment. When you are not engaged in the present moment then your mind defaults back into itself, and often our minds offer future anxieties or past regrets.
Anything you practice you will become more skilled in, even being anxious. If you utilize meditation regularly to practice mindfulness, then you will become more and more mindful and eventually it can become an automatic behavior. Think about it this way, what is the first thing you do when you sit down in the car and close the door? Hopefully you all answered ‘put on my seat belt.’ But you do not think about it, you do it automatically. However I used to have my parents have to tell me to put it on when I was younger so I don’t fly out of the car and have my head pop off! Eventually I would remember without being told, sometimes, then one day I just started doing it without thought. If you meditate often enough you can become so good at calming your body and mind and being present that you could walk around and be in that state without effort.
So how do you do it? First, it is not about making the mind quiet or empty. Yes there are forms of zen meditation or other meditations that practice this, but I want you to have control of your mind, not empty it. It is about teaching your mind to focus where you want it when you want it to, and not wander aimlessly and rapidly so often. Here is a test to see how mindful you are. Set an alarm to go of every hour one day, and every time the alarm triggers I want you to write down exactly what you were thinking of and exactly what you were doing. Unless you are already a mindful person, almost every time what you were doing and what you were thinking about are unrelated. You will be eating cereal and thinking about what you are going to wear, you will be walking to the store and thinking about that bad joke you shouldn’t have told. We are rarely present.
So the goal is to focus the mind and not judge ourselves when the mind wanders. The mind has been trained to wander, it is not because you have failed in anyway. The first step is to sit or lay comfortably. Sit or lay with intention, you are not trying to sleep, you are actively practicing mindfulness. Now choose a sense to engage. Ideally we use the breath because it is always with us, however I would suggest you start with sound. Choose a sound to focus on, white noise, fan, chant, ambient music, waterfall, etc. Choose a sound that is rhythmic, repetitive, and steady so as not to have your interest peaked. I suggest flowing water or white noise. Now set a timer for however long you wish to practice being mindful. Focus your attention on this sound and try to keep your attention here until time is up. When your mind wanders, just notice and tell yourself ‘oops, come back’, and bring attention back to the sound. Do not get upset or frustrated, you are practicing. Even monks have wandering minds.
I suggest you do this for only 1-2 minutes at first and then up the time by a minute each week until you get to 10 minutes a day. A lot of the research shows 20 minutes daily is the sweet spot, so this could be your long term goal. You can then move to different types, such as moving on to true vipissana meditation and focus on your breath with no sound. There is an amazing book in the resources section on vipissana meditation by S.N. Goenka I suggest you look into. You could even try a body scan meditation, starting at the head and noticing the crown of your head, then your ears, tip of your nose, etc. Just set a time to practice every day, meditation and mindfulness is the key to reduce and relieve anxiety and stress.