Thank you to Jer Clarke for this article.
Meditation takes time and effort, but the benefits are enormous. Anyone who manages to maintain a daily sitting practice is likely to sing its praises, the hard part is making time and finding the motivation to keep at it day after day.
As someone about to hit 650 days in a row of meditation (find me on Insight Timer to check!), I think maybe I have some valuable advice to give, and figured I’d write up the tips I give to new people who ask me how they can get started.
So please forgive my hubris, and may all beings meditate at ease.
1. First things first
If there was just one piece of advice I could give you, it would be to meditate as early as you possibly can in the morning. I find it best when I meditate before I start working, before I talk to anyone, and most importantly, before I check Facebook!
Not only does meditating before doing anything else give me a clear mind, free from the distractions of the day, it also gives me a sense of peace and acceptance that I can bring with me to those challenges when they come up.
I invite you to do yourself a favor and schedule time for sitting before anything else in your day, and if that means getting to bed earlier, then make bedtime a priority too.
2. Find a position that helps rather than hurts
I’ve heard people say out loud “it’s just going to hurt, so be ready for it” and I have to say, I don’t think we should give up so easily! Yes, when we’re on a retreat meditating 10 hours a day, there will be pain for the first few days, but if we’re sitting for 20-30 minutes per day, there are usually ways to get through it without major discomfort.
Of course, for those with physical limitations or chronic pain conditions, sitting might not be the best way to meditate! Lying, standing, walking and other forms of meditation are just as valid. Do your best to honor and listen to your body and find a position that works.
Assuming sitting is a position that works, try making sure the back is straight and your ears, shoulders, and hips are aligned to the best of your ability.
If sitting on a cushion, make sure your butt is elevated enough compared to your feet, so that your legs make a ramp to the ground.
If that doesn’t work, a nice firm chair that keeps your back straight and lets your knees bend at 90° is a good option as well.
This “About Posture” PDF by Stephanie Nash helped me a lot in resolving my many painful problems with meditation. In it you can learn about different positions, types of cushion, and likely problems. It took me months before I was able to figure out what works for my body, but the effort was definitely worth it.
If your meditation hurts you day after day, know that you deserve better.
3. Keep the lights on
Some people feel that meditating in the dark helps them clear their mind, and some schools even teach that it’s vital to the practice. From my own experience, I’m here to tell you the opposite, especially if you ever have problems with sleepiness during meditation.
When I close my eyes in the dark, it’s no surprise my brain thinks it’s time for bed! Yes we can train ourselves out of this eventually, but why go through that?
If it’s daytime and there’s a window, open the curtains and sit facing the daylight, I bet it will feel good and help you stay alert. If it’s nighttime, turn on the lights and point yourself towards a lamp.
In my experience great meditation is like great sex: It’s better with the lights on!
4. Nowhere else you need to be, nothing else you need to do
One of the biggest challenges I faced when I started meditating was impatience. When I sit still and be quiet, my brain goes into overdrive, thinking of all the other things I should be doing, like chores, work, writing that book, etc. It can feel like I’m wasting my time sitting there when I could be doing something more productive. This can lead me to spend the whole meditation thinking about other things, and ultimately avoiding the mindfulness of the present moment that was my actual goal.
If this comes up for you, try reminding yourself that there’s nowhere else you need to be, and nothing else you need to do.
This reminder can completely change our relationship to the time we spend meditating, from something we wait through to something we take full advantage of.
You already made the decision to meditate, and you had good reasons! Have trust in yourself and in the value of meditation to improve your life. Let the past and the future have their time later, meditation time is dedicated to the present moment.
5. Any sit you finish is a good sit
This is simple advice and I encourage you to take it literally. It’s very tempting to assign value to our different meditation sessions: This one was good, I had a lot of concentration, that last one was bad, I was distracted the whole time!
Resist that urge! Let each meditation be whatever it is, and approach the experience with acceptance. Judging our practice is one of the fastest roads to getting discouraged and losing the impetus of a daily practice.
Instead, try to be mindful of how each meditation goes, and use that information to better understand yourself. Maybe it was hard because you’ve got a lot going on right now. If that’s the case, you probably needed that meditation more than ever!
Allow your practice to have ups and downs without judging yourself or getting discouraged. Meditation is always valuable, especially when we are facing big challenges in life and practice.
6. Be choiceless
My last piece of advice is both the simplest in theory and probably the hardest in practice. But if you can pull it off, it can support a daily practice you can rely on and benefit from.
Being “choiceless” means not negotiating about a decision once it’s made, and in this case, that decision can be to have a daily practice. When we’re choiceless, we don’t let excuses, circumstances, or anything else get in the way. We just make time for meditation, and then we meditate!
Choicelessness is how we can maintain abstinence from drugs and alcohol, learn a new language, or achieve many seemingly-impossible goals. Maybe some days we don’t have time for a full 20-30 minute sit, but we still make time for meditation, even if it’s just 5-10 minutes in the morning.
Of course, choicelessness doesn’t mean beating yourself up if you miss a day. We should always be compassionate and understanding with ourselves. One day at a time, we can keep making good decisions that support our practice and our recovery.
Meditating whether we “want” to or not is a key skill to develop, because often the times when we need meditation the most are the same times when we are desperate to skip it. Be choiceless in your commitment to a daily meditation practice, and you’ll free yourself from the suffering of having to re-decide each day to do something you know is good for you.
Alright, there you go! I hope you find these tips helpful, and I wish you peace and compassion on your journey of meditation and mindfulness!