And how to stick with it, even if your mind wanders.
I recently wrote about obstacles to meditation, and how to overcome them. Some readers asked for instructions on how to get started. The good news is that it's extremely simple: You set an intention to focus on something—most often the breath—for a period of time. However, the simplicity of meditation also presents a challenge because our mind's habitual mode prefers noisy distraction over quiet focus.
When I ask people in my practice about their experience with meditation, the most common response is some version of, "I tried it but I was terrible at it." They may have liked the idea but found that their mind kept wandering, so they felt like they were doing it wrong. (See Why You Don't Want to Meditate—and 5 Ways to Make It Easier.)
Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania. His publications include research articles and book chapters on the effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety and depression, how CBT works, and the use of brain imaging to study psychiatric disorders. Dr. Gillihan maintains a clinical practice in Haverford, PA.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
When we're meditating and our mind wanders, it's easy to think we've failed. Our internal monologue during meditation might sound like, "You failed…You failed again…And again…Why can't you focus?…I shouldn't be doing this…I can't even meditate right…"
No wonder it's hard to stay with it!
But consider how often our mind is somewhere other than the here-and-now when we're not meditating. Most of the time we don't even notice that we're not really present. During meditation we start to see how often our mind wanders, and how strong the pull is to leave the present. So each time we realize we've lost focus, we've returned to the present.
Re-finding that focus is meditation—it's as much about the return as it is about staying focused. If we find that our minds wander 11 times a minute, that's 11 instances of returning to the present.
It's important to keep this idea in mind as you begin meditation, because the attitude we bring to the practice has a lot to do with what we take from it—and whether we stick with it.
Following are 4 other guidelines for establishing a meditation practice:
Remember that the goal is not to become "good at" meditating.
If you approach meditation with an evaluative mindset—"I want to be good at this, not bad at this"—you're bound to find the experience disappointing and punishing. Meditation is about focusing on the present and not judging our experience; this includes judgments about our meditation "skills."
Let go of criticizing your wandering mind.
As previously discussed, the practice is about noticing when the mind loses focus. The mind is good at wandering. It will happen. That's not a bad thing. As soon as you recognize it, you've re-found your focus.
You're not a bad meditator.
The habitual mode that leads to a wandering mind is the same one that will tell you you're "bad at it." We can start to treat our thoughts less seriously, and consider the possibility that not all the thoughts we have (including self-critical ones) reflect objective truth.
Release the desire to achieve a specific outcome.
Once we're aware of the benefits of meditating, we might strive to make the experience match our expectations. We might think we'll have some "meditation feeling," expect to feel calm and relaxed, or anticipate a clear and settled mind. In reality we'll have all sorts of experiences while meditating, even within a single session. Part of the practice is approaching it with a heart and mind that are open to whatever happens.
Common Reactions to Meditation
While it helps to let go of specific expectations for meditation, be aware that you might have some of these common experiences:
You may suddenly remember things you've been meaning to do.
Just "taking care of one more thing" before we meditate can be one of the factors that keeps us from the practice. Even once we begin, our mind often reminds us of our to-do list. There will be a time for those activities; for now, return to your intention.
Your thoughts may pile on top of each other.
Once we step out of a "doing" mode, we may suddenly be aware of the chatter in our head. It's a bit like being in a noisy party, where we don't realize how loud it is when we're in the middle of it. But if we step outside and then return, we can hear the commotion. If you notice your thoughts are noisy and clamoring for your attention, stay with it—they'll probably settle down.
You might feel a bit bored.
We're rarely bored with our constant access to information and technology. When we leave those things behind for a few minutes our mind might tell us, "This is boring. I can't stand it." Our boredom is just one more distraction to be aware of. Once we acknowledge it we can return to our focus.
You may feel frustrated or want to stop.
You might have think, "This is a waste of time"; "I'm getting nothing out of this" or "Why did I think this was a good idea?" As suggested before, meditation includes noticing these thoughts and feelings and then coming back to your practice.
The Nuts and Bolts of Meditation Practice
With these principles as backdrop, let's consider the practical aspects of meditation:
- It's best to practice meditating when you're alert (unless you specifically intend to meditate as you drift off to sleep).
- Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Turn off your cell phone (unless someone's life depends on you keeping it on) and any other likely distraction.
- There are countless forms of meditation. The most common, and a good starting place, is to focus on the breath. You'll simply notice the sensations of breathing, and stay with them as you inhale and exhale.
- Find a comfortable place to sit. It could be the floor, a chair, the sofa, the edge of your bed, an ottoman—anything. It doesn't have to be fancy or specifically "spiritual." If you sit on the floor, consider sitting on a blanket or block (see example here) to elevate your hips if that's more comfortable for you.
- Most people close their eyes during meditation. If you prefer to keep them open, look at a point on the floor a few feet in front of you.
- You can practice with or without a recording. If you do it without, set a timer for the amount of time you will meditate. I suggest starting with five minutes, and keeping the clock out of sight.
- If you prefer a guided meditation, there are many apps and free online meditations available. I created an introductory guided meditation to accompany this post,