Over the last few entries in this blog, we've talked about a range of different meditation techniques. We've looked at mindfulness of breath and body, the cultivation of loving kindness and compassion, self-inquiry as a route to meditative insight, the development of mental stability and stillness, and open awareness as a way of 'being, not doing'.
When there are so many possibilities for practice, how do we decide what to do with our practice time? For some people it can be daunting even to get started - what happens if we pick the wrong technique? Should we practise just one technique, or several? And how long for - how much is 'enough'?
As I've said before, meditation is one of the most personal and individual activities you will ever undertake. As a teacher I can offer suggestions for how to practise, but ultimately the real power in this process comes when you start to figure out for yourself what works for you and what doesn't. There are really very few hard-and-fast rules about how to do this stuff - 'some' is better than 'none', and that's about it!
That being said, I'll give some suggestions here for how you might start to explore meditation practice. If you've never meditated before, I'd suggest it's worth trying a range of different techniques, to see what works for you and what doesn't feel like such a good fit right now. On my beginners' course we spend a week on each of six practices - mindfulness of the breath, the body scan, metta and compassion, self-inquiry, concentration and open awareness. (The links here take you to blog posts talking about each practice and providing some wider context.)
I'd suggest spending at least a week on each practice, rather than dropping them after a day or two. All meditation techniques take a while to get used to, and it might be that it takes you a few tries to get into the groove of a particular practice.
You can also use these first few weeks to explore how meditation fits into your life. Are you a morning person or an evening person? Are you better off finding ten or fifteen minutes in the middle of the day, perhaps during a lunch break if you're an office worker? Most people find it helpful to have a specific time each day when they practise, so it becomes part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.
How long should you practise? Well, how long do you have? Five minutes is infinitely better than nothing! Even short sessions like this produce noticeable benefits given time. Ten minutes is at least twice as good as five minutes, of course. If you have longer, could you try sitting for twenty minutes, or half an hour? However, it's probably worth starting small and building up, rather than trying to jump straight into two-hour daily sits and giving up immediately. Trying to force yourself to sit for twenty minutes every day when you can really only honestly fit in ten minutes is usually counterproductive - at some point you'll start skipping days, and soon you won't be practising at all. The key thing is to do some practice, no matter how much, and keep doing it. That's all. If you can do that, you're on the right road!
So once you've figured out how to fit meditation into your day, and you've got a sense for which techniques work, how should you use the time you have?
Again, there's no one 'right answer', just some loose guidelines based on what I and others have found to be helpful. Any of the practices I've listed above have the potential to transform your life over time, so feel free to go with whatever speaks to you (although see the caveat below about concentration meditation).
I'll suggest three common ways to structure your practice which you might find helpful.
1. Pick one technique that you like and do that every day.
This is a great way to go - as the saying goes, it's better to dig one deep hole than lots of shallow ones. The only caveat here is that concentration practice shouldn't be the only meditation you ever do, since this can sometimes lead to a kind of avoidance strategy where we use our powers of concentration to turn away from our problems rather than dealing with them, and this can result in people disconnecting from their lives in a way that isn't helpful.
2. Pick a few techniques and cycle through them.
Perhaps you could do mindfulness of the breath on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and metta on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Or maybe spend a week on one, then a week on another, and so on.
This can be a nice way to keep your practice fresh and interesting if you find that focusing on one technique gets boring quickly. Be careful that you don't jump around too much, however. Some of the modern meditation apps offer a constant stream of new guided practices, which can seem great at first, but actually tends to turn meditation into a kind of entertainment where there's always a new 'episode' to consume. The real power of meditation comes from consistently applying a technique to build skills and capacities within yourself, rather than simply entertaining yourself for ten minutes each day. (That's not to say that entertainment is a bad thing! But we're trying to do something different here.)
3. Use a specific sequence of techniques each time you sit.
For a long time, my own daily practice started with a few minutes of metta to open the heart, went into concentration practice for roughly half the remaining time to settle the mind, and then on to an insight practice for the final portion. Clearly it's helpful to have slightly longer sits if you want to use several techniques in a session - I was sitting around forty minutes each day at the time - and it's also important to be clear about what techniques you're going to use, for how long and in what order. Avoid the temptation to jump around from technique to technique whenever you get bored - that's just a more sophisticated form of distraction, the mind's way of wriggling out of having to settle down and meditate properly. But if you find several techniques appealing and would like to practise them every day, structuring your sits in this way can be a great way to do that.
All that being said, there are really no rules! Experiment, play, try things out and see what works for you. Sooner or later you'll find something that clicks, at least for the time being; take it, run with it and see where the path leads. You won't know until you try...
Some of us suffer from 'hurry sickness' - forever rushing from one task to the next, always thinking about everything that still needs to get done somehow, never giving our full attention to what we're doing right now. For others among us, time weighs heavily. The minutes and hours crawl by slowly, dragging on forever. In both cases, we experience 'time stress' as a result.
So is there anything we can do about it? (It might not surprise you to learn that I'm going to say 'yes', and that meditation can help...)
Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi coined the term 'Flow' to describe a powerful experience that he'd observed across many different people in many different situations. The 'Flow' state comes about when someone is engaged in a challenging activity which provides immediate feedback and is toward the upper limit of the skill of the practitioner, but not out of reach. (Think of a skilled acrobat performing a dangerous and challenging routine, or a concert pianist performing a very difficult piece.)
Some of the characteristics of the Flow state:
Interestingly, there's quite a bit of overlap between Flow and meditation. Csikszentmihályi even said that meditation is like a carefully planned Flow activity. It's also true that regular meditators seem to be more likely to experience Flow states and stay in them for longer, perhaps because the skills trained in meditation are so similar to the conditions of Flow.
One interesting point here is that this suggests a way to escape from time pressure. Flow activities are in part absorbing and enjoyable because they distort our sense of time - in Flow there's no room for worrying about the future or obsessing over the past, because we're purely focused on the present moment. Likewise, meditation trains us to come back to the present moment again and again, allowing us to step out of time pressure and into the 'timeless now'.
For people prone to 'hurry sickness', meditation can sometimes feel like just another thing that needs to be done. And some meditation techniques can even reinforce this - some techniques involve quite a bit of setup, a lot of 'doing' during the meditation period, and so on. But if we're looking to tap into a sense of timelessness, we need to emphasise being rather than doing, and it can be helpful to employ a meditation technique which really focuses on 'just being'.
In the Zen tradition, one very popular way of practising is an open awareness approach variously called 'just sitting', shikantaza or silent illumination. The practice is very simple, but can seem initially bewildering to people used to more structured practices. In the open awareness practice we don't use any particular 'anchor' or object of focus. We simply sit, and allow our experience to show itself to us. In a sense, there's nothing at all to 'do' here, but that can be a bit misleading because we very quickly find that the mind likes to wander and get tangled up in thoughts, sights or sounds. A better way to think of the practice might be as 'resting in awareness' - allowing our awareness to be broad and open, allowing absolutely anything and everything to come and go within our experience, while we 'do nothing', simply sitting there as it all unfolds.
Open awareness is a beautiful practice, but one with a couple of subtle pitfalls.
Sometimes people wonder if they're 'doing it right', because it's so hard to tell when there's 'nothing to do'. But as soon as you become aware that you're wondering if you're doing it right, you're already back in the open awareness, aware of the thoughts about whether you're meditating properly. So we can trust completely in awareness to do its thing without any interference from us, and let go deeply into the practice.
The other challenge is what's sometimes called the 'near enemy' of open awareness practice, which is a state of dullness. This is a kind of 'sinking' or 'drifting', a vague, hazy state in which the mind is subtly turned away from what's going on. It can feel vaguely pleasant, but it isn't particularly helpful. In true open awareness practice, the mind should be clear and bright, your attention turned toward your experience in all its fullness.
If you'd like to try stepping into the 'timeless now', you can find two guided open awareness practices in the Audio section of this website, one ten minutes long, the other twenty-five. Give it a try!
One of the most fundamental skills developed in meditation is the ability to focus. This is usually referred to as 'concentration', but for some people this word can conjure up ideas of striving, gut-busting effort and so on, so it might be more helpful to think of focus in terms of mental stillness, stable attention, or even simply the ability to stay with something without getting distracted. With enough practice you might even come to think of it as 'resting the mind' on an object or task, but for most beginners the experience of learning to focus doesn't feel particularly restful!
It turns out that the mind likes to be still, quiet and stable, at least once it's had some time to get used to the idea. We tend to go through life constantly absorbing new information and experiences, hyper-stimulated by adverts, music, television and the general busyness of modern society. This leaves our minds in a constant whirl of novelty, never able to rest for a minute, and so the mind habitually jumps from one thing to the next, never settling anywhere. When the mind is allowed to come to rest, however, we find that the resulting experience of peace and stillness is deeply enjoyable and profoundly nourishing. Over time and with practice, this comes to be experienced as a source of inner well-being - a place inside ourselves that we can go to experience joy and contentment, rather than always having to look outside ourselves.
Focus isn't just for sitting meditation, either. It's very helpful to cultivate a sense of being grounded - in the here and now, in our physical body and in the present moment. Many of us live most of our lives fretting about the future, regretting the past or caught up in abstract ideas about how things ought to be now. Learning to come into the present moment and stay here, without becoming distracted and wandering away into the past or the future again, is enormously helpful as we try to navigate life's ups and downs. Compared to the horrors of the past and the future's veiled threats, the present moment is usually not so bad!
Sitting meditation is one way to develop focus, but we can also use movement to explore focus and grounding together. In an informal way, it can be helpful simply to walk a little bit slower and tune in to the physical sensations of the walking - your feet on the ground, the air moving past your skin. It's important to be aware of your surroundings and notice the sights and sounds around you, of course, but learning to do that whilst remaining in touch with what's going on in your body, rather than being 'pulled out' into those external stimuli all the time, is the key to staying grounded. More formally, you can set aside a period of time for walking meditation, just as you might with sitting meditation. In walking meditation we generally choose a predetermined path - either round in a circle or back and forth in a straight line - and then walk slowly and mindfully, paying attention to the physical details of our experience (perhaps the soles of the feet on the ground, or alternatively the breath as it flows in and out of the body), for a set period of time.
A third, related, skill is what we might call embodiment. Embodiment is about how we are in the world; how we act, how we express our deepest intentions and truths, how we live in the most authentic way possible. It takes a lot to be fully embodied. We need a significant degree of grounding to provide the foundation. We also need a great deal of inner clarity (which we can reach through insight practices such as self-inquiry), and the integrity to be honest with ourselves about what we want to say and do and how we want to go about it. Finally, it takes courage to be fully embodied. Expressing that which is deepest within us can feel risky and vulnerable. But it's also hugely rewarding, and over time you'll develop a profound sense of confidence which others will instinctively recognise and respect.
Concentration is intrinsic to all meditation techniques, so it will develop simply through having a daily practice. However, it can also be useful and even fun to cultivate it more directly with a specific concentration practice. First, pick an object to focus on. Any object will do; the breath is a good one (it's very portable!), but you might also like to experiment with using a candle flame or any other visual object that you find appealing. Set a timer, bring your attention to the object, and any time you notice your attention has wandered, relax and come back to the object. And do nothing else! In concentration practice you aren't really interested in where the mind goes when it gets distracted; you're simply inclining toward the object, coming back to it again and again whenever the mind drifts away, allowing the mind to calm down and settle itself on the object of focus.
Guided concentration practice is a bit of a contradiction in terms, because the instructions tend to take the mind away from the object of focus. Nonetheless, I've recorded a ten-minute guided concentration practice with some sparse instructions scattered throughout. The main value of the instructions here is to serve as a gentle nudge if your attention has wandered far away from the object and you've become lost in distraction. You can find the guided meditation on the Audio page, but please feel free to practise without the audio as soon as you've gotten the hang of the technique.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.