Five things to do at the start of a meditation session
When my teacher Leigh Brasington is leading a retreat, a few days into the practice he'll introduce a list of five things to do at the beginning of each sitting. It's a neat little list that does a great job of setting up supportive conditions for any meditation practice, so let's take a look and see what's in there!
It's very helpful to begin your practice by cultivating a positive mind state. Whether you're interested in samadhi, insight, heart-opening, energy practice or something else, it all tends to go better when you're starting from a place of well-being. Negative states tend to reinforce contraction, grasping and clinging to old habitual patterns of thinking and behaving, whereas positive states tend to open us up to new possibilities.
Thus, Leigh recommends starting every meditation practice by generating a sense of gratitude. How you do this is really up to you, but here are some starting points for consideration:
So another approach is simply to cast your mind back over the last few days and pick out three or four small things for which you can feel some degree of gratitude. Even if this is hard at first, please persevere, because you'll find it gets easier over time, as you train your mind to notice and remember little incidents throughout the day that would otherwise be overlooked and forgotten.
Why are you doing this? What brings you here, to this website, to this article? More generally, what brings you to a meditation practice?
This inquiry can actually be a complete practice in itself (as can most of the items in this list, with the possible exception of the next one). You can work with 'Why am I here?' as a koan, just like 'Who am I?' or 'What is this?' (Koan practice is discussed in the latter part of this article.) However, for today's purposes, we're going to take it in a slightly different direction - koan practice is more about the exploration of the question than the answers we arrive at, but if we're looking at our motivation as a preliminary to a meditation practice, it can be more helpful to arrive at some kind of answer, even if it's only a provisional one.
We are meaning-making creatures. We like things to make sense, to be contextualised in a wider frame, to be part of a broad narrative that tells us who we are and what's going on. Generally speaking, people who feel that their lives are meaningful tend to report higher levels of subjective well-being than those who feel that life is meaningless and arbitrary. And, interestingly, people who spend time assigning meaning to things tend to report the subjective sense that their lives are more meaningful. In other words, by actively relating to our lives as meaningful, we feel that they are, indeed, meaningful. You may have heard the story of the janitor at NASA who, when asked why he was working so late, replied 'I'm helping put a man on the moon.' Now that's meaning!
So - why are we here? What is the meaning of our meditation practice to each of us as individuals? Are we here to find a way out of suffering? To explore a rich and fascinating historical wisdom tradition? To learn things about ourselves and how our minds work? To find peace of mind?
Leigh's term for this one is 'determination', but I'm personally not so keen on that word. Perhaps it's because my natural tendency is to try a bit too hard, but whenever I think of 'determination' I get a kind of anime-esque image of myself enwreathed in a halo of flames about to transform into my most powerful form. Then I tend to charge headlong into my meditation practice like a bull in a china shop, totally lacking the subtlety needed to navigate my internal landscape.
So let's not do that. But it's still useful to take a moment to set a firm, clear intention for our practice. In the previous step we reminded ourselves why we're here. Now we should get clear about what we're going to do. What is your practice for this sitting? Are you going to cultivate samadhi, do an insight practice, something else?
It's all too easy to sit down to meditate, start your timer, and then fifteen minutes later realise that you've been lost in thought and haven't actually started meditating yet. Deliberately setting a clear intention at the beginning of each sit can really help to avoid this pitfall.
Having a clear intention in mind can also help if you find yourself getting bored part-way into the sit. This is especially a problem if you have a sizeable toolbox of different practices (which is the way I teach, so the longer you hang around me, the more prone to this problem you'll be - sorry!); it's easy to think 'Ahh, this body scan thing isn't really working, I'll do some jhana practice instead. Hmm, nope, jhanas don't seem to be happening, how about some noting? Ugh, this is making me agitated, maybe I'll do some metta.' And ultimately you end up spending the entire session jumping from one practice to another, never settling into anything properly.
One last point worth mentioning is that part of your intention-setting can include a reminder to treat yourself kindly when you notice that your mind has wandered. As I mentioned in a previous article, if we beat ourselves up whenever we notice our mind has wandered, we'll ultimately train ourselves to be less likely to notice mind-wandering - because who wants to get yelled at? The intention-setting stage of practice can be a good time to remind ourselves 'For the duration of this sitting, whenever I notice that my mind has wandered, I will consciously celebrate that moment of clear mindfulness before returning to my practice', or something like that. (It sounds cheesy but it really works - try it!)
4. Metta / loving kindness
Of the five, this is the step that Leigh is 100% adamant that you should never, ever skip. Leigh's recommendation is that you should always do metta for yourself, and optionally for others if you have time and feel so inclined.
Actively cultivating loving kindness is a central practice in early Buddhism, and it can be powerfully transformative. By cultivating love within ourselves, we become less dependent on external sources of validation and affection; we also become kinder, friendlier people to be around. A deep enough metta practice can also lead us to states of samadhi and deep insights into the nature of dualistic perception, so don't be tempted to write it off as 'just some hippie thing', even if it isn't really to your taste at first. It took me a long time to 'click' with metta practice, and honestly it'll probably never be in my top three go-to practices, but equally there have been times when metta practice has been exactly what I needed in the moment, and my practice would be impoverished without it.
You can find out some more about metta on the Brahmaviharas page in the Early Buddhism section of this website. There are also a couple of 10-minute guided metta practices on my Audio page - one based around visualisation, the other using phrases. A third approach is simply to generate the felt sense of wishing someone well, and rest in that feeling.
By the way, metta isn't just a great practice in its own right, it's also serving an important purpose at this stage in Leigh's list of preliminaries. We started by generating a positive, relaxed, open frame of mind with gratitude, but the motivation and intention-setting stages can sometimes have a kind of 'sharpening' effect, generating a certain amount of intensity and 'spiritual urgency'. It's helpful to have this kind of energy fuelling our practice, but as I said above, we don't want to go too far in this direction. So bringing in metta at this point will tend to soften everything back down again, making us flexible rather than overly rigid.
5. 'Breathing in I calm body and mind, breathing out I smile'
The final step is a 'gatha' - a short verse recited mentally in rhythm with the breath. The use of a gatha is a practice popularised in modern times by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, and indeed this particular gatha comes from him.
Reciting a phrase in this way acts as a support for mental focus, in much the same way as counting the breathings. Unlike counting the breaths, however, the meaning of the gatha is also intended to support the practice, reminding us to move towards relaxation and well-being. (Leigh has commented that this particular gatha is potentially all the instruction you need to enter jhana - one of Leigh's preferred techniques for entering jhana is to focus first on stilling the mind to the point of access concentration whilst smiling, then shifting the attention to the pleasantness of the smile itself as a route into the first jhana.)
So this is the final part of the 'on-ramp' for your main meditation practice - having cultivated gratitude, set up the frame of motivation and intention, and opened up the heart with metta, we now let go of all of that and simply focus on breathing, relaxing and smiling, calming the whole mind-body system down and letting us slide smoothly into whatever comes next.
How long should I spend on all this?
There's no single answer to that - as I mentioned above, steps 1, 2, 4 and 5 could potentially be complete practices in themselves. If you never got past the gratitude step for the rest of your life as a meditator, there are worse ways to spend your time!
In general, though, we're looking for these to be preliminary steps, and once you've done each one a few times you should be able to move fairly quickly through them. In a 30-minute meditation session, you might want to spend a minute or so cultivating gratitude (perhaps a little more if you're coming to the practice in a negative frame of mind); once you've clarified your motivation sufficiently, it only takes a few moments to reconnect with that, and likewise with the intention-setting. For metta, Leigh would recommend that the absolute minimum is a minute focusing on yourself, longer if you have more time and/or would like to include other people.
As for the gatha, it depends a little on how busy your mind is and where you're going next. In the same way that if you're working with the breath, you might start out by counting the breaths and then later drop the count once the mind is a bit more settled, you'll tend to find that you reach a point where the gatha is no longer supporting the practice and actually starting to get in the way. Certainly if you want to move on to an insight practice, at some point you'll have to shift gears and let go of the gatha to make space for the insight practice.
But there's no particular formula (35 seconds of gratitude, then 12 seconds of motivation, then...). Rather than looking at these preliminaries as a rigid set of obligations that you have to drag around with you like chains, see them instead as optional supports. As you learn more about your own mind states and the effects that these preliminaries have on them, you'll develop an intuitive sense of how much of each one is 'enough'.
So give them a go and see what works!
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!