Perhaps the biggest key to success in getting your practice started is not in the mechanics, but in the mindset. Here are four suggestions for helping you “enhance and deepen” your practice from the very start, courtesy of Elisha Goldstein and Bob Stahl.*
- Be a learner. Treat your practices as just that, practices. They are not performances. Simply be curious about what actually is happening as you practice, without comparing it to some vision of an “ideal” meditation.
- Add tenderness. Let your curiosity be warm and welcoming, as if you’re “bowing with respect to the life being lived.” When you experience discomfort, which you will, this tenderness will incline your heart toward being supporting and understanding.
- Add forgiveness. “You’re going to be completely imperfect at this – like the rest of us.” Distractions coming from your mind, your body and/or your heart are going to appear, usually quite often. When they do, simply note that life is present, and kindly invite yourself to return to your practice, to begin again.
- Add gratitude. It might feel awkward at first, but you might conclude each practice by acknowledging yourself for showing up and “taking time out of daily busyness for your own learning, health and well-being.”
Along with cultivating a curious and kind attitude, here are some more suggestions in response to practical questions that often arise when we’re just starting out:
- When should I meditate? The best advice here is to experiment with different times of day (or night) and see how they work for you. As a rule, ending up with at least one regular time you can set aside for near-daily practice (for example, 6am, or, right after your coffee or tea, or, right before bedtime) can be very helpful with establishing consistency. But we work with the actual lives we lead, so if you need to practice on the fly, do so.
- How long should my meditation practices be? When you’re beginning, allow yourself to be a beginner. Do what feels comfortable.
Here’s a gentle suggestion: start with a length of time you would be embarrassed to tell your friends about, and move up slowly from there.
Most people find that the immediate benefits they feel from their practices do rise with longer durations, and that might be the case with you – or not. And it’s worth remembering that what seems like a lot today will probably seem easy in a week or two.
- What if I can’t get comfortable with the correct posture? On the one hand, meditators have been refining the techniques of posture for over two thousand years, so it’s worth listening to their advice: sitting upright, shoulders back and down, chest open, hips above the knees and tilted forwards, head balanced atop the spine, etc. On the other hand, the best posture for you in any given moment is the one that lets you complete your practice. For some people with low back issues, the best posture for long meditations might be sitting in a recliner and letting the chair support them in their practice.
- What is the correct breathing technique? In mindfulness practice, we generally aim to be in “being” mode, as opposed to “doing” mode. Therefore, as a rule, we simply observe our natural breathing with curiosity, but without trying to fix or improve it. That said, if you also have the goal of improving a less health breathing pattern (i.e. a goal of breathing deeper or slower), you can incorporate this into your practice by simply setting the intention of breathing more deeply, or more slowly, at the beginning, and perhaps guiding your breathing into the pattern you want for a few minutes, but then letting go of this outcome and simply observing your body breath the way it wants to.
Words of caution
Mindfulness is not a way of making things “better.” It is a way of putting you more directly in touch with the way you are in the moment – whether that’s pleasant or unpleasant. This means you should exercise caution about practicing mindfulness when you are feeling significant pain or distress (mental, emotional or physical). Mindfulness will put you more in touch with that pain or distress, and while this can be helpful, it can lead to overwhelm. If you feel the overwhelm coming on, STOP. And err on the side of caution.
Facing into unpleasant emotions with mindfulness (without reaching overwhelm) can be very help. The trick is to be with the actual sensations or feelings or thoughts, but trying to avoid the stories we start telling about them. Often the real suffering is in the stories. This can be especially true with compassion practices. If it starts to feel like too much, start by withdrawing from the details of the practice and just return to a focus on your breathing. This might be enough. If you find your significant distress continuing or increasing, drop out of the practice altogether. Open your eyes, move around, and realize you’re safe.
- Be a student: bring an attitude of curiosity, kindness and gratitude
- Be creative: experiment with times, postures, breathing and see what works for you
- Be patient: a little is a lot.
- Be realistic: if it is too painful, back off.
*Quotations are from the delightful book MBSR Every Day by Elisha Goldstein and Bob Stahl