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...
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!