A few years ago I was at a party, talking to a few friends. One of them had just returned from a 10 day meditation retreat, and she was telling us all about it. Complete silence for 10 days; no one is allowed to talk, do yoga, or use their phones. She was up at 4:30 every morning, meditated for huge swaths of the day, and dined on the provided 2 vegetarian meals per day.
Another friend who was listening to the story commented, “Oh, that sounds so cool for you. But I tried meditation and it didn’t work for me”. He assumed that just because he couldn’t immediately get his mind to shut off when sitting down to meditate, that he wasn’t made for it.
But here’s the thing – NO ONE can get their mind to shut off! Everyone struggles with the monkey mind. And believe it or not, that’s not the goal of meditation anyways. You don’t have to go on a 10 day silent retreat, and you don’t have to sit cross-legged on a fancy cushion to meditate. You don’t even have to shut your mind off.
In fact, saying that there is a “goal” to meditation isn’t even accurate. It’s true that people from all walks of life meditate for a number of reasons, and that it can improve your life in numerous ways. But if you dive in with too specific a goal, you’ll miss a lot of those benefits.
Basically, what you’re looking for in meditation is to be present. When your mind starts to wander (and it will) just notice it. If you hear a noise or get a pain in your back, just notice it. If you spend 10 minutes mentally writing your grocery list, don’t beat yourself up and declare you’re not a good meditator. You’ve just reached the first step: noticing the thoughts in your head.
And that first step may last weeks, months, or decades. Then slowly the awareness you cultivate while sitting starts to bleed into your everyday life. After a while you can take a step back from your thoughts and emotions, and see them more clearly. So when your boss criticizes you, or your toddler spills (another) glass of juice, you don’t immediately react. You can take that brief second of space to think about how to appropriately respond.
So, if this sounds appealing to you, don’t give up on your meditation practice just yet. And if you haven’t started, now is the time. Below I’ve listed a few tips to either get you started, or to breathe some new life into your practice.
Helpful Meditation Tips
1. Focus on something
Meditating with a completely open, empty mind is a very advanced technique, so for now, find something to focus on. Many people choose to follow their breath. It’s free, simple and always available. You can follow the breath by feeling it come in and out through the tip of your nose, you can notice your chest rising and falling with your inhale and exhale. Or maybe you feel your lower abdomen and ribs expanding and contracting as you breathe.
But there are also other things you could focus on. Some people listen to the ambient sounds in their environment. Others notice body sensations, like their bum on the cushion, or clothes brushing their skin. You could gaze at a flickering candle, a flower, or picture. Play around with it a little bit until you find one you like. And if you’re feeling stagnant in your practice, these are some good ideas to play around with.
2. Find a style that fits you
If sitting and focusing just isn’t working for you, there’s still hope! You can try other forms of meditation until you find something that sticks.
Mantra meditation can be helpful for calming a busy mind. You just repeat a phrase over and over again, and the repetition lulls you into a more calm state. In transcendental meditation (A type of mantra) your teacher gives you a mantra, and insists that you get benefits even if the mantra is just going in the background of your mind while you’re thinking of something else. You can also just pick any phrase that resonates with you, in any language.
For those who just can’t sit still, try walking meditation. Walk very slowly, either indoors or out, and feel your feet touch the ground. Breathe slowly and deeply. During walking meditation, your focus is on the sensations in your body. The best part about a walking meditation is how easily it can be incorporated into your day. Meditate while grocery shopping, walking to your car or around the house.
3. Be consistent
Even though this is number 3, it’s actually number 1 in importance. Working meditation into your everyday schedule is the only way to reap the benefits. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, but if you make it a habit, like brushing your teeth, pretty soon you’ll notice how different you feel when you don’t do it. Just like you notice if you forget to brush your teeth!
When you have a little time every day to just be still and notice your mind, you’ll find that stillness working its way into the rest of your life. So don’t worry so much about how you’re doing, or whether you’re meditating correctly, just do it!