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This depends on your motivation. Why do you want a meditation practice? Spend some time with the thoughts & feelings that entice you to meditate. Cultivate and encourage them.
If you know meditation makes you feel and function better, then look at the motivation that makes you not sit down to do it. You might try sitting with those anti-meditation thoughts and feelings. They may yield helpful insights into your mind, or raise specific questions to ask a teacher.
Another approach borrows motivation that’s worked before in establishing other good habits, like an exercise routine or music practice.
It helps some people to make sitting attractive by finding an appealing place to sit, setting up an altar, getting just the right chair, bench or cushion. For some a ritual or yoga or a period of walking meditation helps transition to meditation.
The right time of day can be important, too. Your biorhythms may dictate when you’re best able to meditate. For others, timing depends on their daily routine and finding a lull when they can stop the constant rush and just sit. It can help to tie meditation to some daily activity, like after first getting up or before a meal.
If you think meditation requires a block of time too large to carve out of your day, then let go of that idea. Surely five minutes can be spared. No? Then ten breaths. OK, three. The important thing is to get into the habit of stopping all the busy-ness of the day. Just go and sit down once every day. Watch your body take three breaths. Just keep doing that daily and voila, you’ll have a practice. The length of your daily sitting may then grow on its own.
Also, consider any times when you “take a breather” during the day and return to mindfulness. These are part of your meditation practice, too. Celebrate these and let them motivate you to have more such moments. Let the pleasure you get from them add to your motivation to sit down to meditate.
“Is it better to breathe in a regular rhythm?”
In vipassana we usually just watch how the body breathes for us on its own. It’s possible to “take over” our breathing, but the body does fine when we’re busy with other things. Just be a passive observer of how the body is breathing.
This way of watching the unfolding of things encourages us to be accepting of what we experience in meditation. As our practice deepens, acceptance becomes very important. So it’s good to start at the beginning by accepting our breathing just as it is. If it’s hard to sense the breath, a few deep breaths can help identify the sensations of breathing.
The sensations of breathing are traditionally observed in the movements of the chest or belly, or the air entering the nose or mouth. To get started, try all these places, find the sensations that are easiest for you to observe and practice staying with them. Focusing on something purely physical diverts attention from compulsive thinking and helps hold the attention where it’s been directed.
“I’ve been sitting for over 4 years. Recently anxiety has been making me feel suffocated and like my throat is closing up. I’m working on the underlying issues, but this has made it difficult to focus on my breathing any longer than 15 minutes.”
Try shifting your attention away from your breath to other sensations of the body. You might begin your sitting with a survey, head to heel, of just what sensations are present. Then move the attention systematically from one point to another, or stay with predominant sensations.
You may discover that paying attention to some areas increases anxiety more than others, so adjust accordingly. Just like you do with pains that make you want to shift your sitting posture, explore it a little first to determine if an adjustment is necessary. You may discover that your reaction changes and passes away. If not, then go ahead and move your attention elsewhere.
Perhaps you’d do better switching from mindfulness (Vipassana) to metta practice until your anxiety decreases. Wishing yourself and others well can be a wonderful antidote to anxiety. It’s what Buddha taught monks to do when they were afraid of meditating in the forest.
Another possibility is to do walking meditation. Also, a daily task can be turned into meditation by doing it mindfully. Combine these suggestions in any way that works for you. You may feel attached to the way you’ve been practicing and hate to give it up, but don’t worry. You will definitely still be “really” meditating.
The most useful meditative state is mindfulness, which requires enough concentration to remember you’re in a body here, and now. The basic meditation instructions given at the beginning of most Vipassana sittings or books can guide you to this state. They suggest you watch the sensations of breathing, noting when thoughts arise and inviting attention back to the breath, over and over.
There are many other states you might call “meditative.” We don’t really achieve any of them, though. We just create the conditions for these states to arise. Any experienced meditator will tell you it doesn’t always “work.” We all have days when the mind won’t do what it’s told. That’s why we call it practice, and it benefits us whenever we do it, no matter what the results.
I realize in my meditation sessions my wind is wandering all over. I keep bringing it back but I think it can be better.
In daily practice your attention will almost always drift eventually. Still, there are three ways to help hold it on your breathing longer. These three things are: interest, pleasure and effort. Most people use only effort and get quite frustrated. That’s a form of suffering, so it’s counterproductive. Learn to use the other two.
It’s great to develop concentration by using pleasure. In meditation this pleasure can be found in a feeling of relaxing, a sense of peacefulness, or a delight of the body or mind that may be quite subtle at first. Being aware of the pleasure of meditation naturally holds our attention on the breathing.
Using interest can be fun, too. Pretend you’re an alien studying what it’s like to be human. What is this phenomenon of breathing really like? How can you tell it’s happening? Look for the sensations that tell you if it’s deep or shallow. Is there a pause between breaths? Where, and how long? If you really can’t find anything interesting about breathing, try not doing it for a few minutes. Normally, though, it’s best to just watch how your body breathes on its own.
I’ve been meditating for over a year and I still can’t stay with my breath. My mind calms a little, but I’m still distracted by thoughts and stuff happening around me. Should I be doing something else?
It sounds like you have enough concentration to be mindful of what enters your awareness, like thinking or sensations. At this point in your practice, just notice what’s going on, with acceptance and kindness toward yourself. Investigate the way you feel as a result of whatever has taken you away from the serenity of watching your breath, then return your attention to your breathing.
This is how we get to know our minds. As we notice the kinds of thinking that lead to happiness or suffering, we can learn to encourage thoughts that support serene, positive states of mind, and avoid those that make us miserable.
When you’re trying to develop concentration at the beginning of your sitting, your primary concern is to let go of thinking and return attention to the sensations of breathing. To do this gently, it’s helpful simply to note that thought is present and go back to the breath.
Once a base of concentration is established, we can give a little more attention to thought. We don’t want to drift along with discursive thinking. We just want to be a little more present with it than merely noting that it’s happened.
This requires enough concentration to anchor mindfulness in the physical sensations of breathing. With this, we can notice: 1) what a thought is about, and 2) the effect it has on our bodies. In essence, this is an exercise in memory, performed immediately when we realize we’ve been thinking.
We’ll notice that the body feels a lot more relaxed when we’re mindful of the breathing than when we were thinking. Thinking almost always involves a tightening in the body and a shrinking of awareness. The body might also register heaviness or burning or other sensations of being uneasy.
Whatever pulled us away from the tranquility of mindfulness probably involved some form of dissatisfaction, taking the form of desire, aversion or delusion. In other words, as we sat there being present, some residual desire, aversion or restlessness arose and took shape as a thought. As we explore how the thought made us feel physically, we get a look at the very nature of suffering.
The trick to “being present” with thought is to be anchored in the sensations of the body at that moment. The details of this thought are not important. Far more important is how it affects us. For this exploration we hold attention on any physical sensations that remain after we notice we’re thinking, until those sensations fade away, then go back to the breath.
By noting the general topic of thought and examining its effect on how we feel, we gradually learn what mental habits lead to thoughts and emotions that cause dissatisfaction. With that understanding, we can begin to transform our mental milieu and gradually liberate ourselves from suffering.
Since I started meditating, I’ve improved in the way I think and act, but still I keep doing some things that I’ve never liked. What can I do to make this stop?
It’s a wonderful gift of this practice when harmful thought and behavior patterns begin to occur less often. This change isn’t something we achieve, but a natural result of meditation that seems to happen when we’re not looking.
We don’t often get this gift completely all at once, and sometimes we have to watch ourselves doing or thinking the same things that have led to suffering in the past. It’s really important not to scold ourselves then. That just multiplies our suffering.
As we become increasingly aware of the suffering caused by habits of thought or action, they gradually lose their strength. All we need to do is keep meditating. For more about this process of change, you may want to listen to my dharma talk called “Letting Go: Garage Sale of the Mind.”
“Members of my family have done some things that have made me angry, and I want to change how I feel. The inward struggle is awful.”
It’s hard to accept that our feelings can’t be “changed.” It is possible to change the mental conditions that cause emotions, but once feelings come into being they hang around until we fully feel them. When we try to suppress them, they build up strength for when they can get our attention.
The way to deal with difficult feelings is to feel them. They are what we call them: feelings. They’re a somatic experience, something the body registers. Anger is often a surface feeling, covering other emotions like hurt or sadness. When we bring an accepting and loving attention to feelings, they finally get to play themselves out. This way, we heal ourselves.
We can pay this kind of attention to feelings only by shifting attention away from thoughts about why we feel this way, or “the story.” Buddha said that when we mentally obsess about something upsetting, it’s like standing beside a fire out of control, throwing logs into the flames.
So the formula is: “More feeling, less thinking.” Concentrating on the body’s experience takes attention away from thoughts that would otherwise keep feeding the feelings. It allows those we already have to be processed and fade naturally. It may take several sessions, but shortcuts are illusions.
Having “gone through” feelings, we can be watchful of the kind of thinking that gave birth to them. Then, perhaps sooner next time, we turn attention away from such thoughts, while letting the feelings play themselves out.
It gets easier to channel attention this way when we’ve clearly seen the damage caused by thoughts that have exaggerated feelings. We then understand that ego-driven thoughts of fear, anger, etc. give rise to real, physical suffering in the form of unpleasant feelings. That helps motivate us to turn away from those lines of thinking.
So grab some tissues, sit down and pay healing attention to the sensations of your emotions. And stay out of the story. It’s simple, really. And it is the path to liberation.
I’m in a 12-step Program and the idea of asking a Higher Power “to remove my shortcomings” feels negative and seems to be standing in the way of my growth. Is there a way my Buddhist practice can help?
In both the Program and Buddhist practice, we don’t change ourselves by force of our will, but by encouraging the process of change to take place. In both approaches we look closely at our habits to see the harm they do to us and others. Then we naturally become willing to be rid of them.
In the Eightfold Path, this state of mind is renunciation. The Program breaks this into the 6th and 7th Steps, developing willingness and humility respectively. In either scheme, it’s a movement of the heart away from the self-oriented desires and aversions that tied us to those habits.
Once we get to this point of being really disenchanted with our old habits, a process of transformation takes place. We do not make the change happen. You could envision the active force (or Higher Power) in this process as our True Nature, or the open Awareness that’s ordinarily clouded by our mental habits and misunderstandings. Letting go of self-will facilitates this change for the better.
I have a lot of thoughts like , “I did this – I am good, I’m better than others, etc.” Do I do anything active for this or just let it be and expect it to go down as I proceed forward in my practice?
One of the last barriers to freedom is comparing ourselves to others. Some people feel they need to be famous. Others want to make some great contribution. It’s very normal to want to be special, but if taken too seriously, it causes much suffering.
A good way to deal with this desire is to watch it work. See how it makes the body feel and what thinking is associated with it. By focusing on the effects of this craving, we gradually become able to see it as just a thought and not take it personally, as part of “who we are.” We can let it just come and go. Eventually, it won’t visit so often and may even fade away.
Another approach is to practice actively accepting and loving ourselves. We can use metta (or lovingkindness) phrases, wishing ourselves (and then others), “May I be happy, may I be at peace, may I live with ease, may I know and accept myself just as I am.”