Week 3

How to Meditate
In week one we answered the question “What is meditation?”

In week two we addressed the question “How does meditation work?”

This week we’ll explore the question “How do you actually meditate?”

Essentially, meditation is a three-step process.

  1. Focus
  2. Lose Focus (get distracted)
  3. Re-focus

Whatever technique or type of meditation you do, that’s basically what will be going on in your mind. Whatever you choose to focus on, or even if you choose not to focus at all, you’ll still be repeating this three-step process over and over and over and over and over and over, again.

Many people assume that you’re meant to remain focused all the time. They conclude that any distraction is a sign of failure, or that you’re no longer meditating at all. In fact, distractions are inevitable. The mind is designed to continually monitor our environment in order to keep us safe. Indeed, if you didn’t regularly get distracted, you wouldn’t be alive today. A distracted mind is what lets you know that a truck is bearing down on you as you cross the road!

It’s a mistake to assume that it’s good to be focused and bad to be distracted. Focus and distraction work together. Focus allows you to examine something. A distraction is your mind letting you know that something might need your attention.

As such, each step in the process above is equally important.

However, if you had to select a most important step, then it would be step two, because it’s here that you learn how to effectively deal with the thoughts, sensations and emotions which grab your attention.

Good focus is the natural, inevitable and effortless result of effectively dealing with — not ignoring or blocking out — ‘distractions’.

A Typical Meditation

Here’s what typically happens during a formal meditation. Of course, it’s just a rough guide, but it should give you some idea of the terrain you’ll be covering.

1. Focus
The first step in most meditations is choosing something to focus upon. (e.g. the breath, body, sounds, emotions, pain, thoughts, or even the movement of your mind).

2. Notice Details
When you focus on something you become more aware. You pick up details, subtleties and information you’d normally miss.

3. Distraction
Quite soon however, the mind will say “OK, I’ve got that”, and without telling you, it will wander off to explore something else: your shopping list, an itchy nose, plans for Friday night…

4. Lost in Thought
Most so-called ‘distractions’ are not a problem. However, when you’re distracted by thoughts, you often don’t even know it. You lose track of where you are and what’s going on. (Keep in mind that this is not bad. It doesn’t mean you’re failing, it just means that your mind has decided to bring your attention to something else. This is completely natural and normal. You can’t stop it happening anymore than you can stop yourself from hearing or seeing. And sometimes this kind of unconscious mental processing is just what you need.)

5. Refocus
Eventually you realise you’ve lost focus. This is a moment of mindfulness. You can now choose to refocus, by either returning your attention to the breath, or by choosing to focus on what has drawn your attention, or by choosing to focus on something else.

6. A Balancing Act
Most of the time your mind will be doing this dance; oscillating between focal points, between the breath, physical sensations, sounds, thoughts, emotions, memories, and so on. Some of the time you will know what you are focused upon. At other times, you’re mind will be drifting without much conscious control or awareness. This is perfectly okay. You do not have to be perfectly aware or perfectly focused in order for meditation to work. With just a little bit of focus your mind will usually begin to slow down or change in other subtle ways.

7. Sustained Focus
Sometimes, as you become more relaxed you’ll find your mind becoming naturally focused, almost as though your attention just comes to rest (for example, on the breath). You may also find that you can watch your thoughts and emotions from a more objective or detached perspective, without being drawn into them as you normally would.

8. Zzzzz
Because you’ve been consciously choosing how to direct your attention, and spending more time than usual focusing on one thing at a time, the body and mind inevitably (and often surprisingly quickly) relax. In fact, you might even slip into sleep or a sleep-like state — pleasant fantasies or memories might be passing through the mind — or perhaps into a trance, in which you are either very focused on one thing or not really sure where you are.

9. Half Way There
Some teachers call this the half-way point or suggest that what precedes this stage is relaxation, and what follows is meditation. This is a somewhat pedantic, even spurious assertion, but it’s true that while you’ve relaxed the body, and while the mind is somewhat calmer, it may not be particularly clear, or alert, or well focused.

10. Back to Square One
To get the most out of meditation — the mental clarity as well as the physical relaxation — you may want to aim for states of deep relaxation and high awareness. Many people assume that to do this you need to try harder and to work diligently on remaining focused. But more effort, or willpower, will not help in this regard. You don’t need to force yourself to stay alert, awake or upright. Instead, you’ll probably find it useful to adopt the mindsets and attitudes — the conditions — which lead to such states. See Jason Siff’s helpful article Three Conditions for an Independent Meditation Practice for more on this.

11. Mental Clarity
If the conditions are right, and you adopt the right attitudes, you’ll find that your mind can become deeply focused quite naturally. It’s the meditative equivalent of being engrossed in a good book or film, and focus won’t feel like an effort at all. You’ll just be absorbed in your meditative experience. This kind of focus will usually be accompanied by deep relaxation, and thoughts may slow right down or even temporarily disappear, leaving the mind relatively quiet and still. When thoughts do bubble up you’ll probably notice that they have little ‘charge’, and your attention is less liable to get caught up or trapped by them. There’ll be a higher than normal degree of mental clarity, as you’re able to see your thoughts, or things about them that are normally transparent. For example, rather than just noticing the content of thoughts, you may notice the tone of voice, who is speaking in a dialogue, or whether you feel like you’re talking to an audience or just yourself. You may also pick up some emotion that accompanies the though, or even associated physical sensations.

12.  A Clean, Clear Mind
While thoughts rarely stop entirely (it’s no big deal if they do) — and in a sense, we never really choose them — at this point the mind begins to feel delightfully calm and clear, and because we can direct our attention without getting entangled in thought, it feels like we’re in control.

13. Ahhhhh
Once you taste this deeper clarity you’ll probably have more inclination to practice a style of meditation that emphasises gentleness, interest and permission (see Jason Siff’s article above), rather than force, will and effort. You’ll look forward to learning about your mind and to exploring all kinds of feelings and emotions (and the accompanying insights and realisations) that come along from time to time. Paradoxically, you’ll probably be better able to tolerate the thinking process itself, and you may look forward to periods of mental activity just as much as periods of mental quiet. You’ll be beginning to adopt healthy, mature ways of relating to your thoughts and feelings, and getting the most out of your meditation practice.

Keep in mind, that these are not 13 sequential steps. They are more like a list of potential states or stages you’ll drop into or pass through as you meditate. Sometimes you’ll drop straight into a deep, restful meditation. At other times you’ll spend 20 minutes thinking through your day. Sometimes focus will be effortless, at others it may feel like a struggle. Neither results in a better meditation than the other. In fact, you’ll probably learn more when your mind is filled with thought or on those occasions when you’re struggling to meditate at all.

As you become more skilled you’ll be able to recognise what kind of state you’re in and to adjust your technique and attitude to suit. In this way, you’ll be able to relax regardless of what mood you’re in.

What you may experience

  • Relaxation and relief
  • Tension and pain or fatigue
  • Trains of thought, worries, ideas
  • Moments of deep peace, inner quiet
  • Random memories
  • Near sleep and dreamlike images
  • Boredom, impatience and annoyance
  • Contentment, calm, delight
  • Reviewing experiences and emotions
  • Re-experiencing old hurts
  • Insights and realisations
  • Unusual awareness of body and mind
  • Sense of control
  • Serenity
  • Tuning up – nervous system returning to balance

A relaxed body and calm mind aren’t things you can guarantee through meditation. With practice and experience, however, you will be able to achieve these outcomes fairly reliably. Of course, there is likely to be some degree of confusion and uncertainty as you learn. The following meditation provides a useful template, and a good varied selection of options, with which to experiment as you develop your own unique ways of meditating.