As difficult as it is to believe for me now, there was once a time before I was a meditator. Ten years have passed since I took my first meditation class, and I can honestly say that my life has drastically improved ever since. Through meditation I have learned so much about myself and have become a better person because of it. I have been able to notice tension in my body and consciously release it in order to be more relaxed, and I have been able to recognize when I'm paying attention to the task at hand or daydreaming and not present. I have learned to observe my thoughts as they are without judging myself harshly for the ones that I would rather not appear in my mind, and I have also learned to cultivate more positive thoughts and perceptions on life.
I'm not going to tell you that meditating is easy, and it definitely was no walk in the park for me in the beginning.
I was very frustrated at my inability to remain focused on my breath for more than two or three inhales at a time during those early meditation classes, however after taking a weekly class for several months I made a commitment to myself to meditate every morning as soon as I got out of bed. On some days it was easier for me to focus, and I could see progress being made. On other days my inability to focus seemed to stir up harsh self-criticism which I could have easily used to tell myself that meditation is not for me and that I should quit the practice.
But that's just it. Meditation is a practice. It's not a perfection. You see the results of meditating from doing it consistently.
There’s a quote from Zig Ziglar that I used to have posted in my classroom that said, “People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing - that's why we recommend it daily.” I could say the same thing about the effects of meditation. They won’t last unless you do it every day.
Nutritionists will tell you that you can’t really determine the effects of a change in your diet for 2-3 weeks when you follow the plan daily so don’t go into meditating thinking you can get great results by sporadically meditating. Make a commitment to yourself to meditate daily for 21 days and then assess how you are doing.
You don’t have to meditate for long periods of time either. A daily practice of 3-5 minutes will provide greater results than one 6o minute session per week.
Mindfulness meditation, however, is not simply sitting cross legged with your eyes closed. That’s a recipe for disaster, and will not give you any of the benefits I described for myself above. Try to just sit in silence right now.
Take one minute to sit with your eyes closed. (Use a timer or alarm on your phone to ensure you do a full minute but no more.)
How was that? For a beginner it might have gone something like this. You close your eyes, and nothing seems to happen. Then you think to yourself, “What am I supposed to be doing?” and a flow of thoughts begins. You might answer yourself next by thinking, “I don’t know” or “Am I doing this right?” Another possibility is that you start thinking of things you could be doing instead of meditating. Whatever thoughts you recognized or didn’t recognize, I can guarantee that one thought after the other flowed through your mind, and I think of this as the River of Thoughts.
When you start meditating, it is easy to get swept away by the current of the River of Thoughts.
You tend to be no better than driftwood floating in the river as a beginning meditator, and you are at the mercy of the current. You seem to have no control of the thoughts that appear in your mind, and they take you wherever they want to. The current of the River of Thoughts may take you through white water rapids (tumultuous thoughts of fear, anger, hate, contempt, etc.) or direct you to get stuck in a tide pool (churning over the same thought over and over again). In order to protect yourself from getting thrashed in the white water rapids you need a boat, and to help you steer clear of the tide pools you need a paddle.
Your inhale and exhale can act as your boat and paddle to help you navigate through the River of Thoughts.
There are many reasons why we use our breath as a focus in meditation including the fact that it is an involuntary function of the body that we can consciously change, and by changing our breath we can relax our nervous system and in turn affect other internal functions of our body like our cardiovascular and digestive systems.
The main reason to use the breath to help you navigate the river of thoughts is because the breath is neutral. It is neither good or bad, happy or sad. The breath simply is. When caught up in the current of thoughts, the simple act of focusing your attention on your inhale and exhale places you in control of your mind and pulls you back to center as opposed to your thoughts (good or bad) telling you where to direct your attention. Let’s give it a try to see how it feels.
Set your timer for another minute and as best you can, hold your attention on every inhale and exhale you breathe.
How did that minute feel? Different than the first? You might have been able to hold your attention on every breath for that minute, but there’s also the possibility that there were still thoughts appearing and tempting you away from paying attention to your breath. Thoughts do not have to be negative to tempt you away from focusing on your breath either. I have found that happy thoughts, daydreams, and to-do-lists are very enticing and quickly seize control of my attention sending me on a wild goose chase to see where these thoughts will lead me.
Following the thoughts that appear in your mind is like throwing away your paddle and jumping out of the boat back into the river.
When this happens you will eventually either be taken by the current into the rapids (negative thoughts) or a tide pool (obsessive/repetitive thoughts), or by an undercurrent (neutral or pleasant thoughts) that pulls you underwater (mindless daydream or sleep). None of these are beneficial places for you to be. If and when you notice yourself following a thought regardless of it being positive, negative, or neutral, simply let go of following it down the river and direct your attention back to your inhale/exhale to gain control of your boat and paddle.
Increasing your ability to focus on your breath for a minute or two can quickly influence your ability to hold your attention in your day-to-day activities.
By learning how to pay attention to your attention in your meditation practice you will become more aware of when you are directing your attention or when you are lost in thought or daydreaming. This will affect the efficiency of your work, the presence in your conversations, and quality of your thoughts. Being able to “snap out of it” and redirect your attention to what you are doing in the moment is an incredible skill to have.
If you want to be able to hold your attention on your breath for longer than a couple of minutes and start building the strength and stamina of your ability to focus for longer periods of time, then you’ll need to fortify your boat and trade in your paddle for a motor. After you have practiced focusing on your breath for a few days and two minutes goes by too quickly, it’s time to add another technique to keep your attention glued to your breath for longer meditations.
When you’re ready to meditate for 3, 5, or 10 minutes at a time, count your breaths until you get to 21 or until you lose count. Whichever happens first, start your count over.
When counting, one inhale/exhale pair counts as one breath, and as you breathe, simply hold the count in your mind. If you get distracted by a thought and lose count, start back at 1. If you’re able to hold your attention on 21 breaths, start over. The goal is not to count to 21. The goal is hold your attention on your count as long as you can. One day you might start over every couple of breaths, and another day you might get to 21 several times. As long as you know where your attention is and either hold it on your breath or redirect back to it, you are strengthening your ability to focus and building the stamina to hold it for longer periods of time. This will prevent you from following your thoughts for too long and ending up in daydreams, obsessive thoughts, or negative ones.
For those of you that do not have a current daily meditation practice, then take the 21 Day Mindfulness Meditation Challenge.
Start today. Look at the date and figure out when the 21st day will be. If you haven’t already meditated today, do your first one right now. It doesn’t have to be long, and all you need to do is count your breaths. I’m going to add a few suggestions on building a practice over the 21 days to be able to do at least 10 minute meditation on your own.
If you are a beginner, than start with the 1-minute meditation and build from there. If you have some experience meditating but are used to doing guided meditations, start with the 1- or 2- minute meditation plan. If you think you can do a 5 minute meditation right off the bat, start with the 2- or 3-minute meditations and build from there.
When starting a daily practice, do less time per meditation than you think you can do. The low time commitment per day will make it easier to stay committed for all 21 days and will build confidence in your ability to stay focused rather than getting frustrated from getting distracted too many times in each session.
For complete beginners:
Week 1: 1-min (MTW), 2-min (ThFSa), 3-min (Su)
Week 2: 3-min (MT), 4-min (WTh), 5-min (FSa), 6-min (Su)
Week 3: 6-min (M), 7-min (TW), 8-min (ThF), 9-min (Sa), 10-min (Su)
For a novice meditator:
Week 1: 2-min (MTW), 3-min (ThFSa), 5-min (1 day)
Week 2: 5-min (MT), 7-min (WThF), 8-min (SaSu)
Week 3: 8-min (M), 9-min (TWTh), 10-min (SaSu)
For those that are used to guided meditations:
Week 1: 3-min (MTW), 5-min (ThFSa), 7-min (Su)
Week 2: 5-min (MTW), 7-min (ThFSa), 9-min (Su)
Week 3: 7-min (MT), 9-min (WTh), 10-min (FSaSu)
For those of you that take the challenge, keep me posted on how you do. I’d love to hear from you about any successes you achieve or any struggles that you have with it.
Until next time, keep breathing!