So I’m sitting at my desk on this, the final day of the month. My mind is blank.

This — even though I’m a meditation teacher — is not good. I have an article to write — by tomorrow.

Then a thought enters my head: “The world doesn’t need another article on meditation.”

A Google Alert delivers me a dozen new articles each week. Most of them say little of value.

What shall I do?

I could meditate!

But how?

Now that’s an interesting question.

Let’s Google: how to meditate…

Yay! About 265,000,000 results (0.51 seconds)

I browse quickly through the first ten articles and watch three youtube videos.

Now I’m confused. I’ve spent twenty minutes trying to find out how to meditate.

The advice I’ve been given has been wildly contradictory.

  • Should I sit, stand, or lie?
  • Do I need to cross my legs?
  • Just how straight does my spine really need to be?
  • Should I focus on the breath, scan my body, or repeat a mantra?
  • Should I try to clear my mind, think positive thoughts, observe all that passes by or wish everyone happiness?
  • Is one minute enough, or should I go for five, ten or twenty?

Maybe there’s a need for another article on meditation after all?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be able to clear up all the confusion.

However, I would like to offer you a new set of instructions. The old ones feel a bit overworked. True, there’s a bewildering array of advice available, from thousands of different teachers and traditions. But the basic principles don’t vary much. Typically, they go something like this:

  1. Find a comfortable posture
    (with your spine straight)
  2. Close your eyes
    (or leave them open if you prefer)
  3. Take three deep breaths
    (then let your breath return to normal)
  4. Focus on one thing
    (usually the breath, the body, or a mantra)
  5. When you get distracted refocus as soon as you can
    (but don’t worry too much about your mind wandering all over the shop)
  6. Keep it up
    (ideally for about 20 minutes, but less is okay, especially if you’re just beginning)

Now, you might be thinking that those instructions are perfectly fine. They’ve been working well enough for millennia. On the other hand, most things become stale with repetition, and sometimes a slight change in attitude or approach can trigger newfound interest and insight. If that sounds appealing to you, try these alternative instructions:

  1. Find a comfortable posture
  2. Close your eyes
  3. Make no effort to relax and don’t try to focus on anything in particular
  4. Be curious about what draws your attention
  5. Make choices about what you focus upon (and with what attitude) based upon how you feel
  6. Keep it up

So you’ve probably noticed that three of the ‘new’ steps are not new at all. They won’t require any elaboration. However, the other three might seem counter-intuitive or even bizarre. Let’s take a closer look at them.

Make no effort to relax

Traditional instructions often begin with little rituals. Psychologically, they signal to us that the time of meditation has begun — and that everyday concerns can be left behind. Finding a meditation space and posture, closing your eyes, setting an intention and taking three deep breaths all serve this purpose.

Such rituals have their advantages. If life feels overwhelming, they can help to create an environment conducive to rest, relief and respite. By performing them, we affirm to ourselves that it’s okay to relax.

However, these rituals can be taken too far, or too seriously. They can become habits without purpose. And they may work as constraints; binding rather than freeing. This can happen in numerous ways:

  1. The rituals become the ‘right’,  best or default way to practice, and other ways of meditating are disregarded.
  2. The rituals compartmentalise our practice. Instead of being a part of life, meditation becomes separate, or delineated from it. Consequently, we expect our time in meditation to be tranquil, and anything that upsets this tranquility is considered unwelcome.
  3. We become overly reliant on the rituals, and use them to escape the messiness of life, rather than to respond intelligently to it.

In contrast, the recommendation that you make no effort to relax helps to ensure that you don’t try too hard. It prevents your meditation practice from becoming too serious and too reverent and it takes the pressure off you to perform, or get it right, or to achieve some special meditative state.

The additional invitation, to not focus on anything in particular,  helps to ensure that you start with a sense of interest and curiosity. It also reduces the tendencies you may have to censor or suppress.

Putting it into practice

You may like to experiment during the first minute or two of any meditation you do. What’s it like to adopt different, less rigid or upright postures? What’s it like to meditate with different intentions? Do you start every meditation in a similar way? What happens if you don’t immediately set out to relax the body or breath?

My feeling is that a comfy posture and closed eyes are all the ritual we need.

Be curious about what draws your attention

It’s possible to find meditation techniques in which you are invited to notice whatever draws your attention. However, the vast majority of teachings recommend that you focus your mind on one thing. The assumption here is that your mind is like a monkey. It’s unruly and can’t be trusted. It needs to be trained. Without training, it will lead you astray, and you won’t be able to find the stability necessary to meditate well.

I start with different assumptions. I believe the mind is like a monkey. It has good survival instincts. It functions best when it is trusted rather than doubted. It doesn’t respond well to force and indiscriminate pressure, but it does thrive on support and encouragement. It doesn’t need obedience training. Instead, we can learn to tap into its innate intelligence and creativity. When treated well it will naturally provide the confidence and stability necessary to meditate well.

Furthermore, the mind does not need to be forced to be calm, quiet and still. It can become profoundly calm with just a little direction. Instead of condemning the mind for wandering, you can reward it for wondering. The trick here is to savour each moment as though it were a delicacy.

Putting it into practice

Make no effort to stay focused on one thing. Give attention and interest to everything. It doesn’t matter whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, mundane or unusual, positive or negative. There are no distractions. Enter meditation with the assumption that everything is workable.

Make choices about what you focus upon (and with what attitude) based upon how you feel

Traditional meditation instructions suggest that you return your attention to a preordained meditation object every time you become aware that your attention has shifted. By doing this you are supposedly ‘building the muscle’ of attention and developing your powers of concentration. I’m not certain this is true (but that’s a debate for another time).

The primary benefit of this approach is its simplicity. It’s easy to understand. A monkey could do it. You can learn a lot from practicing in this way, but it can also be done in a very robotic fashion, without much awareness, and without any discernment. Returning (to the breath) may become a knee-jerk reaction rather than an informed decision.

In this way, you train the brain to be dumb and mechanical. Where, I ask, is the wisdom in that?

Your brain is amazing. Why use it like a light switch when you have the processing power of a super-computer?

Putting it into practice

I’d like to invite you to adopt a more nuanced approach, based on the following observations.

At any given moment, your attention could be drawn into one of four areas:

  1. Sensory phenomenon: sights, sounds, smells, tastes.
  2. Physical sensations (The body).
  3. Thoughts.
  4. Emotions.

Instead of trying to stay with just one of these categories of experience, let you attention flow (roughly) equally between them. I like to picture each of these four categories as spokes on a wheel. If you let your attention flow from category to category the wheel keeps turning. There’s a sense of flow, and progress is made. When your attention becomes fixed on one category, however, you are more likely to feel stuck, or overwhelmed.

Movement through these categories, I would argue, is what leads to a balanced psyche. Conversely, any area that is neglected will tend to become unbalanced.

Of course, you will get stuck from time to time, in which case this model provides a neat solution. Simply focus on something from another category. This will usually help to keep the wheel turning.

For instance, if you’re overwhelmed by an emotion:

  • focusing on sounds can create a sense of space and stability
  • focusing on the body can help to relax you physically
  • focusing on your thoughts helps you to understand and re-evaluate

Similarly, if you were experiencing a lot of physical pain or discomfort:

  • identifying emotions may provide insight into the way in which you inadvertently create additional suffering for yourself
  • shifting your attention to what you can see or hear may offer some respite from the pain
  • exploring your thoughts may help you identify the stories you tell yourself about the pain

This model offers choice and flexibility. It helps free the mind from limited and narrow viewpoints and opens you up to information from different sources. You can tap into the wisdom of both body and mind, connect with the immediate environment, and listen in to the multi-layered messages your emotions provide. When you have all the pieces of the jigsaw at your disposal, it’s much easier to complete!

Your attitude

I’ve just suggested that you broaden the scope of your attention (during meditation). But there’s something more important than that. It’s not what you pay attention to, but how you pay attention. We’ll explore that next month.

I found the course to be very practical.

I like the way the lessons have built on each other — starting from the basics and leading into more layers of understanding.

Everything is presented clearly and simply in a way that kind of demystifies meditation without reducing its impact or importance.

David T.