Establishing a meditation practice

Basic courses

If you have not done any kind of mindfulness course, then my recommendations would be:

Books to work through at home:

Mindfulness, a practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world – Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Piatkus)

The mindful way workbook (free yourself from depression and emotional distress) John Teasdale, Mark Williams, Zinden Segal)

On-line courses through the Oxford Mindfulness Centre:

Learn Mindfulness: Find a Course

But then what?

But then, as we come to the end of any mindfulness course, the key question is, how do we carry on from here?

And the key answer will be, by establishing some kind of regular practice for myself so that the new insights and learning become a part of my life rather than just fading into a warm but distant memory.

However, establishing a practice is all about building new habits and we all know that building habits can be hard work and requires a degree of perseverance to start with. Once the new habit is built, this will become the structure for on-going growth and learning. But the new structure does need to come first.

Motivation

But because building new habits can be hard, we need to keep connecting with the source of our motivation for practising mindfulness. And one way of doing this can be to allow ourselves a bit of space to linger with the question:

  • So why am I doing this?!

Or perhaps more profoundly

  • what is it that is really important in my life (which I think mindfulness might support)?

And then again,

  • what is it that is really important to me in my life right now?

Taking time to let these questions mull around, noticing what comes up initially and then noticing what else might come up (sometimes the deeper truths take time to emerge) and then keeping coming back to it can be a really helpful way to connect with our motivation. You could try writing your answers on a card and leaving it by the place where you intend to meditate.

Place.

Then the first practical thing is to establish a place where you will practice. It is good to have a designated place if possible, even if it is simply a particular chair in a room. After a while of practising in the same place the unconscious mind will start to respond to the fact that this is where I meditate and will respond more quickly to the simple act of sitting down in this particular place.

 Rule of three.

Next I need to decide when and for how long and how often I practice. And for me the ‘rule of three’ has been very useful over the years. It leaves lots and lots of flexibility for different levels of practice and different lifestyles but essentially it suggests that I connect consciously with my mindfulness practice three times a day.

One of these times might be a longer, more formal time. And the other two could be shorter and more informal but the idea of keeping coming back is a powerful one and likely to be much more supportive than only once a day.

For example, if mornings are good for you, then you might make your longer practice first thing in the morning. And this could be anything from 15 mins to 40 mins either using audios or self-guided – or using an audio then moving into an extended silence.

Then you might stop before lunch for anything from 5 to 30 mins and at end of work or before supper for again 5 to 30 mins. The 5 minute practices could be the brief version of the longer one you used in the morning – just to bring you back. Or it could be the 3 stage breathing space which many will know.

My own practice follows something like this and I find it very supportive. Usually I aim for 7.15 am, 12.30 and 6pm. If I am able to do a longer practice each time I will but if not I at least try to stop what I am doing and connect for a brief couple of minutes.

Weekly.

Finally, for now, setting aside a time once in the week where I have a bit more space to engage more deeply with practice can be really helpful too. Just an hour would be good where you could do a bit of reading as well as sitting for a bit longer without that sense of having to fit it in between other things.

For me this happens every Friday morning where I agree with those I share my house with that I wish to keep silence. Then I choose not to engage with any electronic devices or engage in conversation (other than, of course, with the endless conversations in my head – though even these subside after a time) and I spend my time moving between formal meditation, sitting and looking out on the garden and a just a bit of reading. Sometimes I do some very simple house chores or prepare some bread for baking but I try to do these with mindful awareness so that these too will be part of my practice.

Sometimes these mornings are challenging. But mostly I have found them to be some of the riches hours of my week. And some Fridays it all starts to feel, well, just very normal.

On-going.

Ah, but we have, of course now only just started. The structure is the just the scaffolding. It is not the building itself. The building itself is what happens during my practice – especially how I respond to what emerges while I am meditating. Some days everything will flow beautifully. Other days what emerges is quite challenging: aches in the body; troubling thoughts and memories; compulsive mind-wandering; helpless doziness. But if I can possibly just see all this as simply what has turned up today and wonder how I can respond mindfully, curiously, patiently and non-judging-ly to it – then maybe I will begin to find my way even in the midst of whatever is here. But this is where the formal audios and teaching can be helpful supports.

Right effort – i.e. not too much.

It may take time to work out what works for me in rems of regular practice. Also my practice may have to adjust from time to time (or regularly) according to circumstances (e.g. the children are now home, or the opposite – I am now seeing no one). But I think the important thing to remember is that there is no hurry – it will come in time if I keep persevering but also as I notice the two things which will work against a wholesome practice emerging which are: i. not making any effort at all and ii. making too much effort.

Clearly we need to make some effort to get going even if we are ready to be flexible with our approach. But it is equally important not to get into the wrong kind of effort – i.e. the sense of goal achievement with a timetable for when we would expect to start seeing some change or other – or with the mistaken sense that if I try really hard or increase the length of my meditation sessions, it will automatically translate into improved ‘results’. The attitude we bring to meditation will be as important as the time spent meditating. To paraphrase Alan Watts on establishing a practice: let us use the word ‘practice’ not in comparison with something I practice in order to get better at (what is ‘getting better’ at meditation anyway?) but rather as a doctor uses the word practice to suggest that this is her vocation, this is her life, this is just what she does. 

The ‘rule of three’ still remains good, though, as it allows for a great deal of flexibility. For instance as an innovation (which you could do on your own or share with the whole household) the midday and/or evening  practices could even be simply keeping a few moments silence before tucking into our meal. When I do this I simply invite people to ‘a few moments of silent appreciation’ which is what I have taken to doing instead of a spoken ‘Grace’. I have found most people willing to engage with this. It is also a good way to stop us all rushing into mindless conversation without even noticing the fact that we are here together, that we are a community, that we do actually care for each other. Conversation after this silent moment can be richer. And if we live alone these few moments can help to connect us with all others who may be having food at this time. A silent moment of well-wishing (safe, peace, kindness) for all those you feel connected with can also be part of this.

Going with what is here – stillness beyond calm or storm.

There are days when practising meditation seems hard. Either I catch myself finding any excuse not to sit down in my chair, or when I get there my mind is all over the place or I find myself experiencing only unpleasant emotions or anxious thoughts – which is probably why I was finding excuses not to meditate in the first place (i.e. I had a hunch it would be like this!).

But there may well be other days when practice seems a bit easier and things flow a bit more. ‘This is good’, I may think to myself, ‘I think I’ll do more of this’.

But our experience in meditation will be very much like life in general – there will be easier days and more challenging days. This is just how life is and, in some ways, we would not want it any other way. We know that if it was all challenge it would be too much for us but also that if it was all ease it would probably mean we would never grow or experience new things.

So, a helpful attitude to bring to my meditation would be to let go of wanting it to be either this way or that way (e.g. more of the calm and less of the storm) but rather realising that all of my experiences in meditation are part of the whole and so deciding to come to sit however it will turn out to be today.

And if I can bring this sort of attitude to my meditation practice, then gradually I may begin to perceive the stillness that is beyond either the calm or the storm – a stillness which is always there whatever the circumstances, whatever my mood, my degree of agitation or anxiety.

So, in short, I am not trying to create a certain weather pattern but to learn to be with whatever weather is present today. This is the stillness we seek.

Obstacles and letting the process do its work.

Yes, there will be all sorts of obstacles along the way to establishing a steady meditation practice, especially when we start to get beyond the novelty stage.

And these obstacles will very often come in all the classic thought forms:

  • I don’t have time today
  • Is it really working?
  • I have to get this done first
  • I shouldn’t be spending this much time on myself
  • I am worried it is making things worse
  • I couldn’t be bothered today

There is no space to respond to each one of these other than to say that if you have had these sorts of thoughts then you are not alone. And really this is just the ‘doing’ mode of mind struggling with the fact that it is not entirely dominant any more – and that the ‘being’ mode of mind is being given some priority.

And really the only antidote is to take the attitude of just doing it anyway – and seeing what happens. Then, gradually, even imperceptibly meditation practice becomes a part of our day as naturally as eating and sleeping. And furthermore, when we put aside all these thinking questions about why and whether, what and how much, we may find we are more able to get further into the practice itself and may even begin to notice gradual changes emerging in our lives.

So, almost certainly change will happen but it is still always best not to be too concerned with this but rather just with the practice itself and then to let the practice do its work on us: focus on the process and it will be the process which changes us.