No longer the exclusive domain of Buddhist monks and new age hippies, meditation is going mainstream. The newfound popularity of meditation is driven by a slew of new research in both psychology and neuroscience supporting the practice as a means of relieving stress, finding peace, and maintaining physical and mental health.
Although more Americans than ever are interested in developing a meditation practice, many more try it and find that it is just too difficult. In our fast paced, high tech, over-stimulated, multi-tasking culture, it is harder than ever to find a moment to simply sit, breathe, and clear the mind. For many people, clearing the mind seems like an almost impossible task. You can sit calmly in the lotus position and close your eyes, but the thoughts keep streaming in. It’s hard to find the off switch.
I participate in an online forum of leaders in the field of positive psychology where the challenge for beginners in starting a meditation practice was recently discussed. Via an exchange of emails between professional coaches, researchers, and mind-body scientists a slew of suggestions and ideas were put forth to help a new meditator begin their practice.
Here they are:
1. Find a point of focus and whenever the mind wanders return to the point of focus (Jeremy McCarthy)
2. The two general aspects of awareness in Buddhist meditation are concentration (i.e. sustained attention), and mindfulness (i.e. metacognitive awareness of one’s thinking process, emotions, and/or sensations). (Marcello Spinella, Associate Professor of Psychology, John Stockton University, www.snurl.com/marcello)
3. As you sit and breathe, bring your awareness to the slight cooling effect of the incoming breath on the tip of your nose, bringing your awareness point to a simple physical sensation connected to your breath. A small piece of tape at the nostrils can help to amplify the sensation if that is helpful in the beginning. (Mike Sands, Collaborative Mentoring Educator, www.stopanxietyshyness.com)
4. If it helps, you can count your breaths in cycles of 4 breaths (“in-out 1, in-out 2, etc.; Mike Sands)
5. Rather than punishing yourself when your mind wanders, reward yourself for every time you manage to bring your attention back to your point of focus. “Every single re-focusing is a success.” Treat it as such because this is how you strengthen your “muscle” of attention. (Marcello Spinella)
6. Take Buddhist Monk Rinpoche’s (“The World’s Happiest Man”) advice and practice “non-meditation” to remove any pressure you might have put on yourself while “trying” to meditate. (Jeremy McCarthy)
7. Start with shorter sessions. Don’t beat yourself up if your meditation practice seems to fall apart before you get to the finish line of your 20 minute, 30 minute or 60 minute session. It is OK to start wherever you are, even if that means beginning with 5 or 10 minute sessions. You can always extend the duration later when you build up your endurance. (Jeremy McCarthy)
8. Develop a “body scanning” practice: visualize moving through the body and relaxing each area independently while observing the sensations (Megan Shean, Master in Health Science, firstname.lastname@example.org)
9. Use “alpha wave music,” to help induce a state of relaxation (also recommended for insomnia; Mike Sands)
10. Read Neural Path Therapy by Matthew McKay and David Harp. The book includes short and easy approaches to meditation that you might not find anywhere else. (Megan Shean)
11. Use HeartMath or another program for improving Heart Rate Variability. Practitioners advise to focus on your heart and feel as though you are breathing in and out through your heart. Think of something that opens your heart such as joy, gratitude, or appreciation and then observe the sensations in your heart. You can do this technique anywhere for just 2-3 minutes and try to accumulate 20 minutes worth during the day. (Karen Shue, neuropsychologist, http://www.brainandhealth.com)
12. Use an EmWave machine, a portable biofeedback mechanism, as a breath and relaxation trainer. Using the EmWave, you can observe each part of the body systematically, from the top of your head down to your feet. Notice if there are any tense parts and relax them consciously, using the flow of breath. (Megan Shean)
13. If you have a hard time sitting still, a movement meditation such as the “Dance of Shiva” might be better. Mistakes are encouraged! (Karen Shue)
14. Practice a walking meditation. Walking can make boring concentration easier (see this article on treadmills and learning; Yechezkel Zilber, blogger on Happiness, Truth and Everything, http://yzilber.blogspot.com/)
15. Practice very slow motion walking on a level trail while gazing to the side into the adjacent bushes or trees slowly reeling past. (Norman Brown)
16. Listen to Meditation Oasis, a podcast by experienced meditators who have a knack for helping people of all levels deepen their practice (Jessica Colman, Master of Applied Positive Psychology, author of an e-book on Positive Psychology.)
17. Follow Herbert Benson’s “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.” (Anonymous)
19. Listen to the Center for Contemplative Mind podcasts (several from 5 – 10 minutes; Joy Salmon)
20. Watch these Digital Guru video clips (several 2 min; Joy Salmon)
21. The http://www.wccm.org/ World Community for Christian Meditation is teaching meditation techniques to children as young as 5 years old. One minute of meditation for each year, so 5 year olds meditate for 5 minutes, 6 year olds 6 minutes and so on. In an adult group the recommendation was 20 minutes. The instructions are geared towards beginners. (Oriana Tickell de Castelló, founding partner of Corpxcoach SC and Co-president of the International Coaching Federation of Mexico.)
22. Try “Open Focus,” an alteration of the type of attention you pay to eyes-open activities (see Les Fehmi books–he is now 76 and “has ADD” which he feels he has optimized by his natural mind altering methods, originally derived through biofeedback in the 60s; Norman Brown)
23. Perhaps a low complexity focus could be listening to rain on the roof or sitting near a waterfall like a Chinese sage. Rerunning a dream that has already been committed to your dream-archive through rerunning as you woke up from it. (Norman Brown)
24. Visit Headspace (http://www.getsomeheadspace.com/) for a unique approach to meditation practice that makes a lot of sense to some beginners (watch their intro video on the “About Us” page of the site; Darren Townsend-Handscomb, Moonpoppy Coaching, email@example.com)
25. Try Marcello’s guided meditations https://sites.google.com/site/guidedmeditationssite/home (Marcello Spinella)
We have absolutely no control over when our minds are going to wander next or where it’s going to go. Despite our best intentions, it’s guaranteed to wander and there is no way to predict when. So putting effort toward “not wandering” is like putting effort toward making a cloud not rain. Trying to control something you can’t control can only produce frustration and helplessness, which erodes motivation.
However, re-focusing can be operantly conditioned and produces results. The more this is conditioned, the sooner the mind/brain catches the wandering and returns to focus. This gradually results in staying focused for longer and longer periods before wandering again.
Eventually, this results in unbroken attention and freedom from distraction for long periods of time. People who do advanced concentration practice (e.g. “jhana”) can stay focused without wandering for hours at a time. Emotionally, there is an enormous sense of well-being and stability that comes with this.
The two general aspects of awareness in Buddhist meditation are concentration (i.e. sustained attention), and mindfulness (i.e. metacognitive awareness of one’s thinking process, emotions, and/or sensations).
So this is also why concentration is useful to mindfulness practice. Our minds wander so much that it’s hard to get a clear picture of what is going on in our subjective experience. It’s like trying to read small text with a magnifying glass, but your hand keeps moving around so that you can’t get a good look at what’s there. Concentration practice is like exercises to steady the hand, so that you can use mindfulness to read what’s there. Together, these are like a cognitive microscope. The greater one’s ability to sustain focus, the more turbo charged one’s mindfulness practice becomes.