Advice to a New Meditator

 In Inspiration, McLean Meditation Institute, Meditation Resources, Meditation Tips

Saying a mantra makes me feel silly.

Well, you don’t have to say one then! Instead, you can choose to focus on something else. Perhaps you focus on the sensation of or the sound of your breath, or maybe you pay attention to the sensations that are present in your body, such as your heartbeat. However, if you are interested in focusing on a mantra, you can do it this way: Think the mantra as you would any other thought. You could focus on the word “One”,  or, as you breathe in and out, the words “In” and “Out.” Repeat the mantra without trying too hard, don’t attempt to enunciate it, or say it at a certain volume in your mind.  Instead, listen to the sound of the sound you are thinking, don’t focus on the meaning. Mantras serve as a vehicle to take you beyond your thoughts into the world of more silence.

I can’t find a really quiet place to do it.

I’ve noticed, even in the quietest of places, there will always be noise, even if it is the sounds of birds or a plane overhead.  Sometimes the noise seems to charm your attention away from your practice of meditation. And this happens even for the most experienced meditators. The trick is to easily, without beating yourself up, return your attention back to practice. It doesn’t matter how many times you have to do it. After you’ve been training your attention to turn inward through meditation, noises won’t be so distracting, but until then, they (along with thoughts) can be your first obstacle. What I tell my students is right when they sit to meditate, to welcome the sounds that surround them,  to “receive them, don’t struggle against them.”  Sometimes even in a quiet room when your eyes close, your sense of hearing sharpens and you won’t like the hum of the refrigerator or computer. So instead of revisiting the sounds,  I like to do is notice the quality of the sounds, notice where they arise from and the way they change, and even return to the silence.  Don’t  assign meaning to noise, such as ”That must be a plane,”  or, “That dog sounds angry,” instead,  simply listen to the sound of the sounds. And then return your attention back to the focus of your meditation when you notice you are thinking instead of listening.

My mind just won’t slow down, there are too many things racing through it.

I know, I know, the number one complaint I hear is – I just can’t stop thinking. It’s nearly impossible to stop thinking by thinking about it.   I tell my students that it’s the nature of the mind to think; just the nature of a dog is to bark and the nature of your eye is to see.

Meditation certainly does quiet the mind and the thinking process, but not because you think about quieting the mind. Or you somehow magically make your mind blank. In fact, that’s why you have to choose a focus for your meditation, whether it’s your breath, a mantra, or even something you gaze upon, such as a candle flame.

If a thought arises while you’re trying to meditate, and if you’re human, they most certainly will, then simply observe it without judgment, and when you remember you aren’t daydreaming but are supposed to be meditating, then simply go back to the focus of your meditation.  IT doesn’t matter how many times you have to return your attention. Be nice to yourself.

As you practice meditation correctly, over time, you’ll find that you can easily access more and more subtle levels of thinking, and eventually, the practice will take you beyond the thoughts to more and more silence.  Naturally, the thought process stops for a moment or two. Bear in mind, however, thoughts will always be a part of your meditation. Don’t try to ‘clear’ your mind. Eventually, you’ll find that it gets easier. Your relationship with your thoughts changes. You simply observe thoughts as they arise and then let them go. Or, maybe they let you go!

It’s also important to know that the purpose of meditation is not to stop the thoughts or quiet the mind or to have certain experiences of any kind. The benefits of meditation are not dependent on any kind of experience you have in the meditation period itself. Instead, the purpose of meditation is to have a wonderful, satisfying life.

Sitting quietly makes me want to fall asleep.

Sometimes new meditators have the experience of their head bobbing up and down in the meditation. It may feel as if they are falling asleep. They aren’t, it can just feel that way.  Instead, they are deeply relaxing and the body isn’t used to being at that level of relaxation while still being ‘awake’. I call this the new meditator’s nod, and it should stop after a while. If you fall asleep during meditation, it simply means your body has accumulated fatigue and is taking the opportunity of your relaxation in meditation to rest.  And if you haven’t already experienced this, you will.  If it happens often, consider going to bed earlier.  Another way to be more alert during meditation is to lie down before you meditation period for about 10 minutes then sit up to meditate. If you do fall asleep in your meditation, when you wake up, continue your meditation for the duration of the time, or, for another five minutes.

When you sleep, your blood pressure decreases, your respiration rate slows down, your hormones normalize, cellular repair begins, and your brain dumps excess information and organizes the rest like a computer’s defragmenter.  It is the main way your body releases stress as it recovers, restores and recharges. Meditation can do some of the same things.

Just before sleep, there is a floating between “awake” and “asleep”.  This is the time your brain produces Theta waves, and sometimes Delta brain waves. Theta waves indicate that the mind and body are accessing a deep rest. Theta waves are often the same waves produced during meditation.  Before you fall asleep, this period lasts only a few minutes.  When you meditate you can almost immediately “land” in this deep rested state and extend it for a while.

When you meditate, you transcend thoughts, you lose track of your body and the outside world, even for a moment. This is called a transcendent state of awareness and it’s a natural experience, just as sleeping and dreaming are; and although meditation may seem a little dream-like, it isn’t a dream at all. It is the experience of being – a state that enlightens you to a world beyond your senses.

I can’t find the time.

I’ve found, and so have my students, that when you fit in 10-30 minutes of meditation first thing in the morning, then your entire day goes more smoothly.  How long do you wait in line for a latte? How much time do you spend checking your email or surfing the web?  Most of us can spare five minutes each day, and meditating for five minutes is better than not doing it at all. It’s totally worth taking this time out for a time in. Think of meditation as a mini-nap –  the perfect way to reduce stress, and to rejuvenate.  If you meditate for a short time each day, you’ll receive more benefits than sitting in front of the TV or surfing the internet. It’s all about priorities, and your health and happiness should be a priority for you.

My limbs get cramped when I sit on the floor for too long.

The lotus position, a traditional yoga posture for meditation, is not required for you to meditate. Neither is sitting on the floor. But if you think about it, thousands of years ago when meditation was first practiced, there were no chairs or soft sofas, so it was essential to find a stable seated position, and the cross-legged posture is that.  If sitting Indian style or crossing your legs is uncomfortable, you’ll be more distracted –thinking about your knees instead of the focus of your meditation. Nowadays, you can sit anywhere you are comfortable. Most people prefer to sit in a chair with their back supported. Some, who can sit on a cushion on the floor, that’s the position they prefer. You can meditate while you are sitting down almost anywhere – as long as you are not driving.  There are even standing and walking meditations. I think I said it before, but it’s best not to lie down (you’ll fall asleep and that is NOT meditation.)

I’ve tried it a few times and it just didn’t work.

What does that even mean? How do you judge if your meditation is working? You may have preconceived notions of what is supposed to be going on during meditation and how you should feel or what you should experience. Many of us have seen pictures of the monks in robes or yogis sitting cross-legged, some have heard stories about the wild experiences some meditators have, but I love to teach those who have no expectations about meditation. First timers come and sit with me for 15-20 minutes and then report that they felt great and that it was easy. I attribute this to “beginner’s mind,” an open mind, a mind free from expectations, labels, and judgments.

During meditation, you’ll have all kinds of experiences—some you’ll like better than others, and some you’ll want to repeat in your next meditation. It’s important to treat each meditation as innocently as the first time you learned and expect nothing. Let go of expectations or wanting your meditation to go a certain way. The body and mind are intelligent and will naturally do what they need to do to eliminate stress and to create a nourishing effect.

I’m often asked, How will I know I’m doing it right? My answer is that when you approach meditation without expectations, without trying “too hard” or attempting to control your experience, and have a sense of ease and welcome for whatever experiences arise, then you are doing it right. Instead of judging your meditations as good or bad based on the experiences you have in meditation, you’ll see if it’s working another way. Ultimately, most people notice they are “doing it right” because they notice changes in their lives: they’re happier, more relaxed, less stressed, more creative, more perceptive, and more appreciative of their lives.

I can’t stop fidgeting.

Meditation only works if you stick with it and don’t give up. Even if during your meditation period your mind wanders, you’re restless and fidgety, have a brilliant idea, or you think of something you simply must do (like check your email or write something down), that’s when you may want to give up or stop right then. But don’t. I call this the “choice point”. You have a choice to meditate, or give up, or continue to plan or daydream. It’s at this point that you have to make the choice. Simply begin again and return your awareness to the focus of your meditation.  Have the discipline to do the practices and stick with the entire meditation period you committed to each day, whether it’s five minutes or half an hour, even if you’re antsy or bored.

By staying with the practice, you will create a new relationship with your mind. As you let the thoughts and impulses come and go, without taking action, you change your reactivity to a thought and become the witness to your mental activity. This will lead you to a deeper understanding of how your mind works. And it will alter the structure of your brain, reducing the amygdala’s dominance over your state of being.

Often when you feel a fidgety or feel frustrated in meditation, it’s an indication that you’re releasing a lot of stress. If you stick with the practice, the stress will dissipate and you’ll experience a “meditator’s high”. Don’t quit before the bliss!

Meditating every day will give you the benefits, but not meditating won’t. To get the most benefit out of your meditation it’s ideal is to meditate 15- 30 minutes twice a day. If you can’t do that, once a day will give you some benefit. Even five minutes once a day is better than not meditating. Even if you don’t think anything is happening in meditation, science shows dramatic changes in the minds and bodies of consistent meditators. And you’ll soon believe it once you see the benefits for yourself.

The idea of meditating makes me feel uneasy/scared.

Some people believe if they remain alert, engaged with life, and are continuously accomplishing things, they are in control. That’s simply a myth. Are you really in control of everything? Probably not. Sometimes sitting with your eyes closed in a  quiet room will disorient you. This is because in meditation you transcend your usual points of reference, the stuff of the external world. You might lose track of time, space, your body, your relationships, or your ideas. They’ll all be there when you come out of meditation, but this can lead to feeling a little uneasy.

Sometimes you will feel like you could meditate all day, and other times you’ll want to quit because you’re fidgety, or feel some uncomfortable emotions arise in meditation. Some of these you’ll like and others you won’t. Your job in meditation is to feel what arises, the actual sensations and emotions, and let them pass through you. Once you notice the mind actively looking to explain the reasons behind the emotions, that’s when you return to the focus of your meditation. And stick with it.

A meditation practice can be like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. It’s part of your routine. Some days brushing your teeth feels really good, stimulating, satisfying, and other days, you just want to get it over with. It’s the same with a meditation practice. However, no matter what your experience is during meditation, you will experience immediate benefits, and whether you ‘got to that peaceful place’ or not, the benefits of meditation will show up in your life. Guaranteed. That’s really what mediation is for: to have a great life.

Sarah McLean
Sarah McLean considers herself an American Transcendentalist. She’s dedicated her life to exploring meditation: living as a resident of both a Zen Buddhist monastery and a traditional ashram in India, as well as living and working in a Transcendental Meditation center. She headed up the education programs at Deepak Chopra’s center in California and Byron Katie’s School for the Work. Sarah is a best-selling Hay House author of the books Soul-Centered: Transform Your Life in 8 Weeks with Meditation and The Power of Attention: Awaken to Love and its Unlimited Potential with Meditation. She's also a sought-after speaker who is determined to create more peace on this planet by helping people wake up to the wonder and beauty of their lives and the world around them through the practice of meditation.
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