Beginning meditation students’ often struggle with clearing their mind of thoughts. They report getting anxious and wanting to get up and do something.
The first goal of meditation is to sit still and watch the mind. Don’t engage with it. Just watch what’s going on. Notice what your mind does.
So, you’d think the first thing to do would be to sit down. But first, we have to prepare.
So, the first thing is to find where and when you will not be distracted. The bedroom is great, and the closet is better. If you can disappear into a no-traffic area of the woods, garden or park, that would be great on fair weather days. Find a time when everybody is normally gone and won’t be looking for you. Master meditators meditate around 2 to 4 a.m., but you may not be ready for that yet. Pick your best place(s) and time(s).
The next distraction is your own body. Set up your meditation space so you’ll be comfortable. You can meditate standing or lying down, but neither is ideal. Standing adds the task of keeping your balance. Lying down invites you to fall asleep. If you need to sleep, prepare by taking a nap before you meditate. It’s okay to fall asleep, but that’s not meditation.
Sitting is ideal in that you can relax while remaining alert. You’re not going to fall over, and you’re not going to fall asleep. You can sit on the floor with legs crossed or in a chair. You may notice the little aches in your body, so prepare by doing some warm-up exercise and loosening your body. Check the temperature in the room, which is cooler near the floor. I sometimes meditate wrapped in a blanket.
As you sit, you’ll notice other things that are distracting you, and you’ll be able to prepare for them before your next meditation session.
Okay, so you prepared, and now you’re sitting comfortably.
Your mind is a thought-generation machine. Ever since our ancestors were hiding in caves, the brain was alert to what was going on around us, and inventing scenarios of what could be a threat. That’s the brain’s job, to help you stay safe. The difference is that now there are no threats or outside distractions. Just thoughts: Inside distractions.
As a beginning meditator, your job is to watch your thoughts. As you watch your thoughts, choose which of them is important here and now, in this moment of meditation. If you have decided to meditate, you have already chosen. None of those thoughts are important right now.
You have a long list of chores that need to be done, but you’ve already chosen that you are not going to do them during this time. So, when car repair rises in your mind, notice that it is there; and let it float away because you are not going to do that just now. You want a club sandwich; and just let the thought fade away.
It’s a continuous flow of thoughts, one after the other. It’s normal. It’s natural. It’s okay. Just watch them come and go.
You’ll feel antsy, like you have to get up and do something … anything. That’s because that’s what you’ve always done. Stay busy. It distracts you from your self.
Okay, let’s use distraction to our benefit. As you sit there watching your thoughts rise and fade, notice your breath. Breathe into your heart and exhale. Sometime breathe into your heart and down into your belly … and exhale. See what we’re doing here: You changed your attention from watching thoughts to intentional breathing. Your focus changed. You distracted yourself from thoughts to breath.
You can also put your attention on sitting upright, so your spine is not compressed or unnaturally curved. That’s a good one that will benefit you as you advance. Or you can put your attention on rocking your body gently forward and back, or side to side. Gently!
After you do any of these intentional distractions for a while, you’ll notice that your thoughts have come back. There they are! Normal and natural, streaming by, and fading away.
If you want, you can pick a thought and hold onto it. You can think about it and consider what you’d do if this or if that. When you work with a thought, this is called contemplation. You can do that if you want, but it’s not meditation. Meditation is watching your mind, not using it. And just as easily as you put your attention on one thought, you can release it, and allow the next thought to come and glide by.
You’re just watching your mind. That is the first goal of meditation. Practice that for about nine months.
Or, when you feel ready, you can move to another meditation exercise. I know you’re anxious. You want to be good at meditation right now. Release that thought. Release the urge to be busy.
Just be present in the here and now. Watch your mind. The thoughts come and go. The brain does its job. Just sit and watch.
Sit quietly now for five minutes.