If you’re new to meditation, you may find that along with calmness and peace of mind, starting to practice raises a host of questions. The practical insights below should be helpful as you begin your mindfulness and meditation journey.
The primary goal of meditation is not about achieving any particular state of mind. If you go into it with that as the goal, you may quickly get frustrated. Rather, it is about training the mind to consciously control your attention so you can become more aware and mindful. One commonly cited definition of mindfulness is, “Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn) This is exactly what you do during meditation when you focus on your breath, but the ultimate goal is to use seated meditation as a way to learn to be mindful in the rest of your life.
You can’t just resort to meditation when you think you need to relax or deal with stress. Just like working out in a gym, meditation is something you need to do on a consistent basis. Being mindful and aware are not really natural states of mind for most people, so we need to constantly retrain this skill, aiming to learn how to drop into the present moment more frequently, and automatically, so when we really need calm and clarity, it just comes naturally.
Being in the present moment is really what it’s all about. Our brains have evolved to be really great at re-running the past, or trying to predict the future. Unfortunately, the brain became too good at this and this is often our only way of being, creating a false sense of self, one that defines who we are by what we’ve done or what we think we’re going to do. Identifying yourself as who you were or who you might be is a kind of attachment, and ultimately self-defeating, simply because any kind of attachment leads to suffering (as Buddha so astutely observed thousands of years ago).
On Breath Focus
Breath focus is one of many ways to meditate (other objects of focus include visualizations, mantras, focusing on points in the body, and so on). Focusing on the breath, though, is not the goal. The goal is to learn to identify that moment in time when you have a thought or emotion that distracts you from your object of focus. You can then detach from the thought, not getting caught up in it. By returning attention to the breath, you achieve this. That said, there are a few tricks you can use when you’re having a hard time keeping focus on the breath.
You can use a particular kind of counting. There are 5 general areas in the body where you can most easily sense the breath: the nostrils, the nasal passages, the throat, the chest, and the stomach. So with each breath, and each count, focus on a new area. Breath #1, focus on the nostrils, breath #2, the nasal passages, etc. Once you reach five, count backwards, and move back up the body. In this way, one full round is exactly ten breaths, which for most people takes about one minute to complete.
If you are counting, when you discover you’ve been distracted, instead starting back at the number you left off on, you may want to try just restarting over at one. It becomes a little game: see how high you can count before you have to start over. More often than not, you may not get much past 1 or 2, but with practice you may make it up to 10 or higher.
Another technique is to pay close attention to each breath and mentally note how the current breath differed from the previous. How did it physically feel different (or the same) - in terms of depth, smoothness, length, etc.
One common way to detach from thoughts is to try to label them in some way. So, when you have a thought or emotion, you simply think to yourself, “Ah, that was a pleasant thought,” or “That was an unpleasant emotion.” It’s important to choose from the right sets of objective adjectives, though. Here are some that seem to work well:
Pleasant or unpleasant (do not use “good” or “bad”, as these are judgments)
About the past or about the future
About myself or about others
You’ll notice these are in pairs. That makes the labeling process quick and easy. You can also combine them, as in “Ah, that was an unpleasant thought about my past,” or, “That was a pleasant feeling about my friend’s future.” By labeling, you are interjecting space between your thought and the next one (which helps you avoid getting carried away), and you’re also building awareness of the nature of your thoughts, so you can decide whether or not they are productive and healthy.
It may seem strange to include something about compassion when speaking about meditation. It turns out, though, that mindfulness and compassion are intricately intertwined. Compassion is simply a way to be less judgmental of others. So, as you learn to be less judgmental of yourself, you’re actually training yourself to be more self-compassionate, and this tends to cross over into your interactions with others as well. You can amp up your compassion for others using another very simple practice:
Every day, try to silently wish happiness to at least one random person you encounter. You could use a phrase like, “May you find happiness and live in peace,” (not said out loud, of course!) or find a phrase that resonates with you personally.
This practice is deceptively powerful, and incredibly rewarding. It’s important that the person you choose be random - don’t just wish happiness to friends and family, but even to that guy who cuts you off in traffic or mindlessly blows cigarette smoke at you. You’ll quickly realize that everyone has a story, and you have no idea what that story is. Regardless of what the story is, every single human on this planet deserves to find true happiness and peace. Including yourself! This practice literally changes your entire outlook, to the point that you may find yourself sending good wishes to every person you meet. Luckily, kindness is contagious, and “as you sow, so shall you reap.”