by Katie Dutcher
Sitting meditation is the heart of many people’s practice of mindfulness. There are, of course, many ways to practice mindful awareness (and the Studio offers a variety of ways-- practices in nature, with movement and creativity, mindful relating, and more). This piece is intended to give a brief introduction to mindfulness meditation. It’s a great place to start, and the author intends to leave herself off the hook for explaining every single detail about every single type of meditation. ;) Many wonderful teachers and practitioners have written about the practice of meditation, and our resources page is a great place to read more.
When I teach, I often divide the broad subject of “practice” into two parts-- informal and formal practice. Informal practice is when we weave moments of awareness into our everyday lives-- moments of noticing when we interact with others, while we’re driving, when we pause before reacting and choose a response instead. In a sense, these moments of informal practice are the intention behind our entire practice-- the more we practice, the more aware we will be in each everyday moment, the more present and intentional our lives will be. So, informal practice is intentional and on purpose, but over time, it becomes more and more just our way of being.
Formal practice, on the other hand, is when we set aside time specifically for the purpose of cultivating mindful awareness. Meditation, yoga, qigong, and other practices fall under this category, as well as other practices, provided that the intention is to cultivate awareness. Meditation happens to be one of the oldest practices, and it shows up in some form in most, if not all, spiritual traditions. Meditation itself comes in various “flavors.”
When there is a teacher who leads the meditation and speaks periodically throughout the meditation, this is called guided meditation, and this happens live, as well as via apps or audio recordings. Guided meditation is very helpful for beginning meditators, as the teacher’s voice provides plenty of opportunities to re-focus attention and return to present-moment awareness. However, guided meditation is practiced by experienced meditators as well, as anyone can find benefit from being led by an experienced teacher.
Silent meditation is just what it sounds like-- silent. When we practice silent meditation at the Studio, we begin and end with the chime of the bell, and in between is simply a period of silence. When you’re meditating on your own, it’s helpful to set a timer with a pleasant sound to signal the end of the meditation. (An excellent resource for guided and silent meditation is Insight Timer.)
Forms of Meditations
So what are people actually doing when they meditate? Well, it depends.
Concentration meditation cultivates the ability to focus in on one object of meditation. In concentration meditation, people often bring their attention to the breath as the object of meditation, not to think about their breath, but just to feel the sensation of breathing. Other common objects of concentration meditation are body sensations, sounds, thoughts, and emotions. When we find that attention has drifted away from the object of meditation, we simply and gently bring attention back, without any need for judgement or critique. The practice of meditation includes moments of focus, moments of drifting into thought, and moments of returning to focus.
Awareness meditation cultivates awareness of the present moment. Rather than selecting one object of meditation, we invite open awareness—just noticing whatever is occurring in the present moment. In awareness meditation, you may notice that your attention moves between sensations, emotions, thoughts, breath, sounds, smells, and any other element. We recognize that all of these elements are part of our experience of the present moment and simply watch where attention goes, remaining present. Again, there will be times when we feel that we’re not present, when we’re “a million miles away.” This is natural, and it is also natural that at some point we’ll become aware of this. In that moment, we’ve returned to present moment awareness again.
Themed & Reflective Meditations
There are also meditations that cultivate certain attitudes and invite reflection and self-inquiry on subjects such as gratitude, compassion, or intentions. If the meditation is guided, the teacher may have crafted a meditation that matches the season of the year, that fits within the context of a certain course or retreat, that they feel is needed by participants, or that simply speaks to them. If the meditation is silent, the meditator is selecting a topic to reflect on, or perhaps asking herself questions about her internal experience.
Some spiritual practices specify a certain posture for meditation; however, in mindfulness practice, there is an emphasis on simply finding a posture in which you can be reasonably comfortable and alert. “Sitting meditation” is named in this way to distinguish it from walling meditation or other forms of meditation, and the name also shows that it is often practiced in a sitting posture. At retreat centers, you will often find people sitting on round, firm cushions (zafus) on the floor in a cross-legged position or kneeling and straddling the cushion. There are different shapes of pillows, low benches, and many other tools for seated meditation. Any type of chair or couch can also be used. In general, when you’re seated for meditation, you’ll want to find a posture where the back can be straight, the shoulders and arms can be relaxed downward, and the hips are higher than the knees. Hands can be placed loosely on the knees with palms up or down, or cupped together in your lap.
Sitting is not comfortable for some people, and they may prefer to lie on a yoga mat on the ground, perhaps covered with a blanket, and perhaps putting a bolster or rolled blanket under their knees. For most people, if they are wanting to remain alert and awake during meditation, lying on a bed may be slightly too comfortable! At the Studio, you will find zafus, chairs, and a few yoga mats, and each person is encouraged to find a posture that feels comfortable for them.
Now you might find that over the course of a meditation, your comfortable position begins to feel problematic! You might get an itch, your leg might fall asleep, your back might start to ache a little. There are choices for you here, and opportunities to practice. The first time you feel discomfort, you can actually make this the object of your meditation for a time. After all, it happens that discomfort is what is occurring in the present moment! You can let yourself explore the sensation: how it feels, how it changes, the thoughts that occur along with it. You can do this again and again, practicing acceptance and non-judgment, “This is what it’s like to have a falling-asleep leg right now.”
Over time, the discomfort may become very distracting, so much that it seems to overtake your meditation. You may choose to change your posture. Again, there is an opportunity to practice here. First, you can practice acceptance of yourself and your experience, as well as self-compassion, knowing that it is ok for people to need to change postures during meditation. When you move, you can move slowly, with full awareness of the sensations of your body as you move. You’re still meditating—you’re just shifting the object of awareness to the movement of the body in this moment.
There are certain questions that all meditators may raise at one time or another, and I’ll try to address the most common ones here.
“How long should I meditate?”
A very short answer to this question is this: You should meditate however long you will meditate. By this, I mean that any length of meditation is valuable. There are folks who might say to themselves, for example, “It’s best to meditate for an hour each day.” And then life comes along and things get busy, and an hour of meditation seems impossible that day…and so they meditate for zero minutes. In contrast, if we bring an attitude that short-and-often is better than long-and-rarely, we’ll meditate for 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes…or even one minute, and feel fine about it. This is the approach that I would recommend. When you are building a meditation practice, the length of time is not as important as actually building a habit of sitting regularly. This how you will see and feel the effects of meditation.
That said, there will still be people who would like a real answer to this question about time. In my reading and listening to interviews and podcasts, I hear a variety of responses to how long people tend to meditate. Tim Ferris, for example, meditates about 20 minutes each morning, and often again in the evening. Our drop-in meditations at the Studio are about 30 minutes in length, and when we incorporate meditations into our courses, they tend to last 15-20 minutes. I know of people who meditate for 30, 40, or 60 minutes each day. In a recent interview, I heard teacher Sharon Salzberg site a recent study by Richard Davidson, reporting that nine minutes of meditation each day is enough to change brain chemistry! So again this is a variable answer, which reflects the fact that each person is different, each of our lives has its schedule and needs, and we are all at different points in our path. Your practice today may be very different in six months or a year. I recommend refraining from judging your practice-- just do it. Which brings us to…
“Am I doing it right?”
In a word, YES. Yes, you’re doing it right, and you can’t fail.
Whenever a new person arrives to my Tuesday guided meditations at the Studio, I begin by asking them if they’ve meditated before. I ask this mainly so that I’m able to give the amount of guidance and support that’s needed-- starting from the beginning or just diving right in. Often, the person responds something like, “Yes...a little...just on my own...but I’m not very good at it.”
When we get right down to it, what people usually mean when they say that they’re doing it “wrong” is that they’re thinking. They intend to focus on their breath, for example, and just a few seconds later, they’re thinking about what they’ll have for lunch or what somebody said to them this morning. And here is something to know, and to remind yourself-- everybody’s doing it! Everybody is thinking! Everybody’s mind is wandering, and then coming back.
We are, every one of us, human beings with wonderful minds that think, remember, figure out, look ahead, and on and on. The purpose of meditation is not to turn off our minds. Sure, sometimes it feels like it would be a relief to step out of the waterfall of thoughts. And sure, you might actually find that as you meditate more and more, you do experience more moments of presence and less moments of “off in la-la land.” But this really, really isn’t the goal. The intention, gently held, is to practice being aware of things just as they are. Being aware of this moment just as it is. Being aware of myself just as I am. Are there crazy thoughts? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Do I feel sad? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Is my neck stiff? Ok, that’s what’s happening right now. Just be with it.
“What if my meditation and didn’t work?”
Well...that’s not a thing. Often, when people ask this, it is because they had some expectation of how they were going to feel after they meditated. They thought they would feel calm, centered, and blissful, perhaps. Here is the thing: the purpose of meditation is not to get to some state of calm bliss. Sure, you might find that you sometimes experience that outcome. Sometimes you sit down all in a frenzy, and twenty minutes later, you’re feeling much more at ease-- the snow-globe effect, where it seems that thoughts and emotions settle with time. But this isn’t always the case, and it really isn’t the goal. If we hold “calm and blissful” as our objective, we’ll probably stress ourselves out even more trying to get there! Instead, the intention is to simply investigate and be with what is occurring with curiosity and compassion. Meditation is being in the present moment, and there are all sorts of moments, aren’t there? There are moments of frustration, moments of satisfaction, moments of boredom, moments of melancholy, moments of feeling all mixed up, moments of feeling like all is right with the world. We don’t know which of these moments we will experience in today’s meditation, so the practice is just to be with all of it. Patience, curiosity, openness, acceptance, self-compassion, gentleness...we cultivate all of these attitudes.
And....this is part of it, too! Guess what? When we practice again and again being patient and gentle with our wild minds, we might find that later, when we really need this patience and gentleness, it’s right there waiting and available to benefit ourselves and other people, too. This is one of the ways that meditation changes us.
Come sit with us!
Each week, we offer at least four drop-in meditations: Katie hosts two guided meditations, and Marianne hosts two silent meditations. Guided meditation is also incorporated into almost everything that we offer at the Studio; it’s part of each course, retreat, and community event. We welcome total beginners, long-time meditators, and everyone in between. We welcome YOU, wherever and whoever you are. And if you can’t make it to the Studio, take a gander at our library (small, but growing more and more!) of guided meditations. We’re wishing you moments of mindfulness today and every day.