Don’t get me wrong…
Learning how to relax and destress after a hectic day is a really good thing.
But I consider relaxation and stress-reduction, nice as they are, as only incidental benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness goes much, much deeper than that.
In this blog post, I want to show you how to go beyond the conventional approach that’s become so popular, and teach you the key things that separate a superficial level of practice from a powerful and transformative one…
Since 2013, I’ve taught over 3000 people how to meditate and develop the skill of mindfulness.
In this article, I’ve distilled my 23 years of meditation experience into 7 Essential Elements that will help you take your practice to the next level.
Here they are…
- Meditate Every Day
- Set Appropriate Goals for your practice
- Apply Balanced Effort during your practice
- Cultivate Awareness of Thoughts to overcome the tendency to get lost in thought during meditation and learn how to work with an unruly mind
- Increase your level of Alertness and learn how to maintain it for the duration of the meditation session
- Develop Receptivity and Equanimity
- Practice Mindfulness in Daily Life
As you scanned down that list, you may have thought to yourself, “No surprises here. That looks pretty obvious. What’s the big deal?”
But the devil is in the details…
And one of the things I’ve appreciated most in my own teachers has been their willingness to reveal those sometimes subtle, but critical, details. To give it to me straight, without all the fluff and obfuscation that tends to surround this stuff.
And that’s what I’m going to do for you in this post.
But before we get into it, I need to make sure we’re on the same page about what “mindfulness” actually means…
Is there more to it than paying careful attention to the present moment?
As you may have guessed, the answer is “Yes”.
There’s actually four components to mindfulness, and each of them are important.
Let me explain…
What Mindfulness Is, And What It Isn’t
It seems like almost every day there’s a new book about mindfulness popping up on Amazon.
And everyone seems to have their own definition — it can get really confusing!
Before you get started on your journey, it helps to have a clear understanding of what mindfulness actually is.
Because how you define that word can make an enormous difference to your practice.
In the video below, I walk you through the four components of mindfulness:
Watch this short video where I explain in more detail what these components mean and why they’re so important…
There are many ways to develop this kind of alert, receptive, equanimous observation, but one of the most effective ways is meditation.
Because meditation allows you to isolate and train the components of mindfulness in a safe environment, so you can develop your skill to a level that can be usefully applied in your daily life (which, after all, is the whole point!).
And one of my favourite meditation techniques for doing this, because it’s so incredibly effective, is called “Noting Practice”.
Noting practice strengthens your skill in all the components of mindfulness: alertness, receptivity, equanimity and observation.
If you’ve participated in one of my groups or taken one of my courses, you’re already familiar with this technique and can probably skip ahead to Element #1.
But, if you aren’t familiar with Noting Practice, or you’d like a refresher, then watch the video below which will show you how to do it.
Below the video, you’ll also find a link to a 15 minute guided meditation mp3 file you can download.
Use it to help you get quickly up to speed with the noting technique.
Guided Meditation for Beginners
This guided meditation is for people who are new to meditation, as well as those who have prior meditation experience but have never used the ‘noting’ technique. You should try out this guided meditation after watching the video above.Guided Meditation for Beginners (15min) (right click and choose "Save Link As...")
Ok, now that we’re on the same page about what the word “mindfulness” means, and you’ve been introduced to an effective meditation technique for developing it, let’s take at look at the 7 Essential Elements for a transformative practice.
Starting with the first element...
Element #1: Meditate Every Day
This one’s pretty obvious, but it’s also the place where most meditators get stuck.
For years, I experienced the frustration of being a chronic on-again, off-again meditator.
Tasting enough of the fruits of this practice to really understand just how valuable it was, only to stop doing it, fall back, and lose it.
Again and again and again...
It was incredibly frustrating!
I had all these lofty aspirations, but somehow I just wasn’t able to consistently follow through.
It took me a while, but eventually I managed to overcome the obstacles that made it so hard for me to be consistent with my practice.
And that was a major turning point.
Once you make daily meditation a habit, everything becomes possible in the practice
Your sessions will begin to build on each other.
You’ll start to develop momentum.
If you’ve ever had a stretch of a few months or longer, where you rarely missed a meditation session, you know what I’m talking about.
It's almost like the meditation itself is carrying you along.
it’s hugely motivating!
Although it’s a very mundane process, developing the habit of meditating every day is what gives you access to the incredible transformative potential of mindfulness in your life.
But until you do this, you’ll be on a roller coaster ride.
Making some progress, then slipping back.
Then starting up again, catching up to where you used to be...
Then slipping back again.
On and on and on...
It's tough to make progress when it's like this.
So, if you’re at all serious about getting real results from your meditation efforts, then one of your first goals should be to turn your daily practice into a rock-solid habit.
It’s only with consistent practice that the other 6 elements I’m going to show you will be effective.
If you've been meditating on and off for a while, that's ok!
Please don't get down on yourself about it -- I know how tricky this can be.
I said it took me a while to develop consistency, but that’s a bit of an understatement...
It actually took me almost 17 years to finally figure out a sustainable way to turn my daily meditation practice into an effortless habit.
These days, I never miss a session, no matter how busy I am or how messed up my usual routine is (which happens a lot, with three young kids in the house ;-) ).
If you’d like to find out what finally worked for me and works really well for my students, (and won’t take you 17 years to implement or require an iron will), I put all the details into a short little free ebook with step-by-step instructions.
I hope it saves you some of the frustration I went through!
Element #2: Set Appropriate Goals for Your Practice
If you want to really maximize the effectiveness of your limited practice time, you need to treat those minutes as precious.
Meditation isn’t the time to work on your todo list, or plan your kid’s birthday party :-)
You worked hard to make the time to practice, so use it wisely.
To help you do that, I highly recommend you begin your session by resolving to practice diligently.
That means that you commit to following the meditation instructions to the best of your ability, for the entire session, regardless of how its going.
Hold the intention to give the sit everything you’ve got for however long you’ve decided to meditate.
And then set an appropriate goal for your meditation session.
Hold on a sec...
Did I just use the words “goal” and “meditation” in the same sentence?
Yes. It almost sounds sacrilegious, doesn’t it! :-)
Meditation is supposed to be this goal-less and effortless activity, where you’re not supposed to strive towards achieving anything in particular, right?
You’re supposed to just sit, without expectations, without any attachment to the results.
I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of stuff before.
So, if meditation is supposed to be the antithesis of striving and goal-oriented behaviour, how are you supposed to motivate yourself enough to make the time in your busy schedule and sit down, day after day, and do something with absolutely no expectation of any result?
Well, here’s the secret...
At least, not at first ;-)
As with a lot of this stuff, it’s not quite so simple and black and white as it’s usually presented.
At advanced stages of the practice, it’s true, you really do need to abandon even the most subtle forms of wanting to get somewhere.
But until you get there (and believe me, you’ll know if that’s where you are in your practice), setting the right kinds of goals is one of the most important things you can do to take your practice to the next level.
But it can’t be the usual sort of goal setting, where you pick an outcome to shoot for, like...
My goal is to get enlightened by 10:32 pm on Monday, May 25th
That kind of goal just sets you up for misery in meditation!
Instead, you need to use “process-oriented” goals.
These are goals that focus on the process of meditation -- the application and development of the skills involved in the practice.
The idea behind setting a goal or intention for your practice is to get clear on exactly what you’ll be working on during your meditation session, so that you can maximize the effectiveness of it.
So try not to make your goal for your practice something like:
- to get to where I was in my last session
- to attain some particular state or experience
Doing this is bound to lead to frustration and disappointment and usually results in a very unproductive, strained form of practice.
Instead, focus on skill development.
Focus on developing your ability to apply skillful effort and remain alert, receptive and equanimous (more about the last two in a bit...)
Here’s a few examples:
My focus for this meditation session is to notice the very beginning of the very first physical sensation in my abdominal area at the start of each inhale
During this meditation, my goal is to observe, with as much clarity and equanimity as I can, every physical sensation that arises in association with the breath
My intention is to notice the different layers of conceptual processing that are overlaid on, or follow immediately after, each physical sensation
Notice how these example goals say nothing about the outcome?
These goals are focused on the execution of the skills that cultivate mindfulness.
If you remain focused on learning and applying skills, it not only helps you to develop mindfulness more effectively, it also helps you to avoid the common obsession with outcomes and “getting somewhere”.
The result is that you maximize the effectiveness of your limited practice time.
And your practice is more relaxed because you’re not constantly evaluating your progress against some unrealistic expectations you may have.
Without striving for a particular outcome, you’ll nevertheless experience a progression in your practice and be able to enjoy the fruits of your efforts.
And speaking of effort...
Element #3: Apply the Right Amount of Effort
Meditating effectively is a delicate balancing act.
It requires maintaining the right balance between two kinds of effort:
- proactive effort - making stuff happen
- receptive effort - allowing stuff to happen
Proactive effort involves things like directing and sustaining attention on your chosen meditation object, so that you can see it clearly.
You’re expending energy to generate and maintain a high level of alertness and precision.
Receptive effort, on the other hand, is where you ease up on the doing and instead allow things to unfold before you.
But it’s still vigilant -- there's effort involved.
Your perception still needs to be keen and alert.
If you imagine meditation as like driving a car up a hill, proactive effort is like stepping on the gas pedal to help accelerate the car enough so that it can get to the top of the hill.
If you don’t push enough on the gas, the car won’t make it up the hill, so proactive effort is essential.
Once you get to the top of the hill, however, you need to ease up on the pedal, or you’ll end up going too fast.
That’s where receptive effort comes in.
It’s like allowing the momentum of the car to carry you forward.
You’ll find that proactive effort is especially important at the start of your meditation session.
It’s what gets the ball rolling and helps to build a kind of “mental momentum”.
It’s also very useful when you notice that your level of alertness is decreasing and you’re starting to feel dull or sleepy (more on that later…).
It’s a great antidote for that.
At some point in your meditation session, however, you may start to feel kind of tight or mentally wound-up or even like you’re straining.
You may notice that this kind of mental ‘pressure' is associated with greater difficultly sustaining your attention on your meditation object, or allowing your attention to freely move from object to object to track the various changing sensations of the breath.
Excessive proactive effort creates a kind of “mental turbulence”.
When you notice that, it’s your clue to ease up on the proactive effort and be more receptive.
Allow your moment-by-moment experience to unfold before you, instead of going after it.
The tension will subside and it can feel like you’re suddenly delicately balanced.
Kind of like that moment of near weightlessness in an elevator when it gets close to your floor.
Or like surfing :-)
In this state of balanced effort, you’ll be able to clearly perceive your meditation object, while also being nice and relaxed.
It’ll be easier to notice subtle details and the meditation can feel like it’s riding along on it’s own momentum.
But you need to remain vigilant, because if you’re not careful to occasionally apply a bit of proactive effort here and there to keep things going, you can become slack and dull and lose your alertness.
The important thing to understand about effort in meditation is that it’s a balance.
Too much proactive effort, and you create mental turbulence.
Too much receptive effort, on the other hand, and it’s easy to space out, forget about your meditation object and get lost in thought.
When you find the sweet spot between these two, you’ll be alert, easily able to focus on your meditation object and discern it’s more subtle details, while staying relatively relaxed.
Over the course of your meditation session, you’ll need to adjust this balance many times, adding some more proactivity here, and then a few moments later, easing up a bit and being more receptive.
This means that you need to keep monitoring...
- your level of alertness
- how clearly you perceive your meditation object
- your state of tension or relaxation
...and so on, and keep fine tuning as you go.
A final thing about effort, and this is really important...
My experience has been that most people are way too lax about their meditation.
They sit down and mostly drift around in a kind of feel-good haze.
That may be nice and relaxing, which is great, but that kind of practice won’t help you develop much mindfulness.
When meditating, you’re learning new skills, skills that require you to train your nervous system in a new way.
The only way to do that effectively is to put in consistent effort.
Remember the car driving up a hill analogy?
For quite a while in the beginning stages of meditation practice, it’s a big, long, bumpy hill.
And it takes sustained proactive effort to get up that hill.
That’s not to say that there won’t be many moments in your practice where it’s necessary to relax more and be more receptive.
That definitely happens.
But most meditators underestimate just how much consistent, carefully balanced effort it actually takes to get to the place where the skills become more automatic and the meditation starts to happen by itself.
So, the advice I give to my students is to exert more effort that they think they need to.
Put in a lot of proactive effort to cultivate a bright, keen, alert observation that can catch all the quick little sensations that make up your moment-by-moment experience.
If the meditation object appears hazy, or dull, or out of focus, then you need more proactive effort to perceive it more clearly and precisely.
But don't strain.
That's really important!
Straining produces that mental turbulence I talked about earlier.
There's an art to this -- bringing your meditation object into sharp relief, with just the right application of mental energy.
It takes practice.
In the worst case, you’ll overshoot, and then you can correct for it with more receptive effort.
And when you're learning how to strike the right balance, this will happen a lot.
It's not a problem.
Just keep practicing -- it will get easier.
I think it’s far better to overdo the proactive effort as you get up the hill, than stay stuck near the bottom forever.
With some experience, you’ll learn how to dial in just the right balance.
Element #4: Cultivate Awareness of Thoughts
Sooner or later in your meditation practice, you’re going to hit a wall...
The siren call of thoughts.
To go beyond a superficial level of mindfulness practice, you need to get to a place where the majority of your meditation session is actually spent meditating, rather than crafting to-do lists, rehashing memories, planning for the future, etc.
In other words, you need to learn how to skillfully work with thoughts.
One of the things that tends to frustrate many meditators is the apparent difficulty of keeping their attention on the meditation object.
Typically, when you’re just starting out, and possibly for quite a long time after, you spend most of your time during your meditation actually completely enthralled by the content of your thoughts.
Most people try to deal with this situation by using brute force.
They try to suppress or push the thoughts away and forcefully glue their attention to their meditation object.
As I’m sure you know if you’ve tried this approach, it doesn’t work for very long...
And it sets up the conditions for a very strained, frustrating and unproductive form of practice.
Fortunately, there’s a much more effective and elegant way to work with thoughts in meditation, a way that uses finesse rather than brute force.
I teach this method to my students using a 3 stage progression:
- Stage 1: Cultivate Spontaneous Moments of Mindfulness
- Stage 2: Develop Your Early Warning System
- Stage 3: Take Your Foot Off the Brake
The key to working with this progression is to understand that there are two different ways of knowing your conscious experience...
Here’s a video from one of my courses (Meditating with the Unruly Mind) that explains what I mean by this.
(NOTE: Meditating with the Unruly Mind is a short mini-course that teaches you how to bring mindfulness to the process of thinking. It shows you how to skillfully work with your thoughts, so you can have really satisfying and productive meditation sessions, regardless of how busy your mind is. Find out more by Clicking Here.)
Now that you understand the difference between attention and awareness, here’s how the progression works...
Stage 1: Cultivate Spontaneous Moments of Mindfulness
When your attention is engrossed in the content of a thought process, at some point you'll spontaneously realize what’s going on and snap out of it.
This “remembering” is what I call a Spontaneous Moment of Mindfulness.
What’s great is that you can train your awareness to produce these spontaneous moments more frequently, and sooner.
But because awareness isn’t under you conscious control, you need to do this training indirectly.
And the simplest way to do this is to be really happy when one of these spontaneous moments of mindfulness occurs.
This is exactly the opposite of what most people do.
Although it’s natural to feel discouraged and frustrated when you keep drifting off into La La Land, bring irritated will only make it more difficult to notice when this happens in the future.
Instead, you want to be really grateful that your awareness snapped your attention back to what you had intended to be doing: paying attention to your meditation object.
If you do this consistently, you’ll provide the positive reinforcement that trains your awareness so that your periods of being lost in thought are very brief and you spend most of your meditation session actually meditating.
At that point, it’s time to move on to Stage 2...
Stage 2: Develop Your Early Warning System
In this stage, you train your awareness to monitor the quality of your attention.
As you pay attention to your meditation object, you simultaneously evaluate what your attention is doing and how well it’s doing it...
- Is it clearly and accurately observing the sensations you intend it to?
- Is your meditation object sharp and in focus, or is it kind of hazy and indistinct?
As you get better at this, you’ll be able to notice the tell-tale signs that the strength of your attention is beginning to wane and that your attention is about to wander away from your object, before it actually happens.
This is your mindful early warning system that will allow you to re-energize your attention and refocus it on your object, before you completely lose it, which makes it much easier to avoid getting lost in thought.
Once this process becomes automatic, you can move on to Stage 3 and begin the process of trusting and letting go...
Stage 3: Take Your Foot Off The Brake
If you recall, back in the video where I introduced the distinction between attention and awareness, I showed you how awareness tends to expand and take in more information when you’re relaxed.
That’s what happens when you can 'let go' and 'trust the process'.
You’ll be able to notice the more subtle things that previously you were unaware of.
The other thing that happens is that all the sensations and mental activity you're observing will seem to speed up.
You’ll notice things arising and passing away more quickly.
That’s because, by letting go of the need to be in control, you’ve “taken your foot off the brake” so to speak.
The more you can let go, relax and surrender, while maintaining alertness (see the next element) and not get lost in thought, the more you’ll notice these faster and more subtle processes that make up your conscious experience.
And when you do this, your meditation practice will take off like a rocket.
This is the stage where you begin to have insights into the true nature of your moment by moment subjective experience. Insights that can radically transform both how you perceive and how you relate to that experience.
This is the domain of using mindfulness for spiritual development.
But, before you get there, there’s another roadblock you’ll probably run into that you'll need to address first ...
Element #5: Increasing and Maintaining Alertness
It’s really common to experience drowsiness or sleepiness during meditation.
The problem is, meditating in a kind of spaced-out stupor doesn’t do much for developing mindfulness!
When you sit down to meditate, and you close your eyes, you dramatically reduce the amount of sensory input that your brain receives.
As a result, the energy level of the mind naturally decreases, and you start to get kind of spacey and sleepy.
Although this is completely normal, and often feels quite pleasant, it’s not a good situation if you want to develop mindfulness, because it’s basically the opposite of being alert.
And alertness is a key component of mindfulness.
There are two strategies to use in order to prevent this kind of drowsiness during meditation, a short-term strategy and a long-term strategy.
In the short-term, you basically do whatever it takes to wake up and be more alert!
My personal experience, and the experience of many of my students, is that it’s often easier to stay alert in a sitting posture, rather than a lying down posture.
Try to sit with your back upright and not leaning against anything.
Does this mean that you shouldn’t meditate while lying down, or that you’ve been doing it all wrong if you have been?
Not at all!
In fact, with some practice, you’ll be able to stay alert and meditate successfully in any posture.
Sitting, standing, lying down, running, riding a bike - it doesn’t matter. :-)
What it does mean is that, if you’re able to use a sitting posture, you’ll probably find it easier to maintain a higher level of alertness during your session.
However, if you can’t use a sitting posture because of physical issues, pain, and so on (I’ve been there, so I understand what it’s like), not to worry!
There’s lots of other ways to help yourself achieve an excellent level of alertness during your practice, and I’m going to cover a bunch of them for you here.
Now, whether you use a sitting posture, a lying down posture, or something else, if you find yourself getting dull or sleepy at any point during your meditation session, you can apply one or more of the following remedies to help you regain your alertness.
I’ll describe them in order from the most gentle to the most forceful.
You want to apply the gentlest remedy that gets you alert and keeps you alert for at least several minutes after you use the remedy.
If you find that after applying a remedy, you get drowsy again in a minute or less, then you should probably try a stronger remedy, otherwise, your practice won’t be very productive.
GENTLE WAYS TO INCREASE ALERTNESS DURING MEDITATION
Here are some relatively gentle ways to increase (and maintain) your level of alertness during a meditation session...
1 - Have The Conscious Intention To Be More Alert
Periodically hold the intention to 'wake up' and be more alert.
This usually only works well for the more subtle kinds of drowsiness or spaciness
2 - Engage More Fully With The Meditation Object
What that means is that you want to notice your meditation object more clearly, precisely and with more detail.
For example, if you’re meditating on the physical sensations of breathing, you want to see if you can notice, with equal clarity, the sensations at the beginning and end of each inhale and exhale, and also the gap in between the inhale and exhale.
This gives the mind a problem to work on and helps to wake it up.
3 - Adjust The Position Of Your Eyes
I find that I tend to get sleepier when I allow my eyes to be downcast, so keeping your eyes at about mid-level or even a little above mid-level may be helpful.
Try it out and see if it works for you, too.
4 - Periodically Correct Your Posture
If you find you’re starting to slouch, adjust your posture slowly to be more upright.
5 - Meditate With Your Eyes Slightly Open
If you currently meditate with your eyes closed, doing it with your eyes slightly open and unfocused can help you stay more alert.
There are various schools of thought on this one and different meditation traditions tend to emphasize eyes closed, while others emphasize eyes open.
My take on it is: use whatever works for you.
Personally, I usually meditate with my eyes closed.
But, if I’m feeling particularly drowsy, and the gentler remedies in this list aren’t doing the job, then I’ll meditate for a few minutes with eyes open to regain my alertness.
Feel free to experiment with the difference between eyes open and eyes closed – there’s no one right way :-)
If you've tried the above remedies, but the drowsiness returns pretty quickly, then you need to take more drastic action!
Such as one of the following...
MORE AGRESSIVE WAYS TO INCREASE ALERTNESS DURING MEDITATION
6 - Expend Physical Effort
Try periodically raising both your arms above your head and meditate like that for 20 to 30 seconds.
7 - Do Some Forceful Breathing
After the inhale, hold your breath and contract as many muscles as you can.
Holding that position for a few seconds, then exhale through pursed lips.
Make the exhale silent, but forceful and drawn out.
8 - Stand Up
Switch to meditating using a standing posture (if you’re physically able to).
9 - Cold Water
Stop meditating for a minute, go splash cold water on your face and neck, and then sit down and try again.
The idea with the short term strategy is to apply the minimal remedy that does the job.
What you don’t want to do is keep meditating in a spaced-out stupor.
Not only will that be pretty useless for developing mindfulness, but if you do it enough, you’ll just feed the habit of getting sleepy when you sit down to do your practice.
A Longer-Term Strategy for Dealing with Sleepiness
The longer-term strategy involves training your awareness to alert you whenever you detect a subtle haziness to your attention.
When you start to space out, you may notice that the meditation object starts to become slightly less distinct -- less clear than it normally is.
You may also notice that you have less peripheral awareness.
When you detect these changes, hold the intention to be more alert and consciously engage your attention more with the meditation object in order to raise the level of energy of the mind.
It’s very similar to the process I described in Element #4, where you train your awareness to alert you when thoughts are competing for your attention, so you can take corrective action.
But in this case, you train your awareness to alert you when you're starting to get drowsy.
Whether you use the short-term remedies or the longer-term strategy, your goal with all of this is to get to the place where you consistently feel more awake and alert at the end of the meditation session than you did when you started.
That’s the litmus test.
That’s how you know you’ve been alert.
Ok, so your meditation practice is going pretty well now.
You’re diligently practicing every day, with a clear goal or intention for your meditation session.
You constantly adjust your level and type of effort to stay in the sweet spot, use finesse and awareness to avoid getting lost in thought and are able to stay nice and alert.
Now it’s time to really get down to business...
Element #6: Develop Receptivity and Equanimity
Receptivity and equanimity are fundamentally important for developing mindfulness.
In fact, you can’t really be mindful without them.
The first video in this blog post showed you that receptive observation means that you don’t suppress or repress anything.
To develop mindfulness, you need to allow whatever is arising in the moment to be known in conscious awareness, irrespective of whether you happen to like it or not, or whether you want it to be there or not.
And this receptivity, naturally leads into another key aspect of mindfulness, which is equanimity.
If you recall, equanimity has two parts:
- you take an equal interest in, and are genuinely curious about, everything in your conscious awareness
- you stop turning the experience of observing into a sense that there’s a me “in here” that’s observing and interacting with a world “out there”
For those of you who are interested in spiritual development, well developed equanimity is what allows you to pierce the illusion of duality -- which is why mindfulness is such a powerful and essential tool on the spiritual path.
But this stuff isn't just important for spiritual seekers.
Receptivity and Equanimity are the dynamic duo that allow you to be calm in the presence of strong emotional states such as stress, anger, fear and anxiety.
They allow you to watch a stream of negative thought patterns with a detatched curiosity, rather than buying into them and getting sucked into the dark whirlpool of depression.
Developing receptivity and equanimity during your meditation practice is one of the most important things you can do to build the skill of mindfulness.
And here’s a really simple way to begin to do that...
Stop messing around with the breath during your meditation session!
During meditation, there can be a strong impulse to try to make the breath be a certain way.
Make it like you imagine the breath is “supposed” to be like.
But if you do that, you’re not being equanimous, and you’re not developing mindfulness.
Instead, practice observing the breath with a curious, non-reactive attitude, however it happens to be in the moment.
Whether it’s smooth or rough, deep or shallow, it doesn’t matter.
Just observe it.
And do your best to not alter it.
After some practice, you’ll develop enough equanimity to then move on to observing more subtle things, such as any underlying desire you may have for the breath to be different than it is.
During meditation, the breath often changes all by itself.
One minute, it might be nice and smooth, and then the next minute, it turns all choppy or raspy, and you think, “hey, what happened! I want my breath to stay nice and smooth!” because you think that’s what the breath is supposed to be like if you’re a good meditator.
When this happens, see if you can notice any desire you have for the breath to be different than it is, right now in this moment.
Is there “wanting the breath to be smoother” or “wanting the breath to be more natural” or “wanting the breath to be … less choppy, deeper, shallower, slower, faster” or whatever?
Try to notice any resistance you might have to allowing the breath to be just as it is.
The actual presentation of the breath during meditation isn’t what’s important.
What is important, is to be aware of the desire to manipulate it, to change it so that it more closely approximates some ideal we have about what the breath is supposed to be like while meditating.
This resistance to how things are, which is traditionally called “craving" comes in two flavours:
- attachment - the craving for something that isn’t present, or the craving for something you're already experiencing to last longer
- aversion - the craving for something you're currently experiencing to go away
To take your mindfulness practice to the next level, you want to learn to notice craving.
You want to be as fully and clearly aware of it as you can, but do nothing to act on, or react to it.
That’s super important!
Just observe with curiosity.
Get to know what craving is like.
What physical sensations are associated with it?
What thoughts and other mental activity arise in conjunction with it?
How long does the craving last?
Spend the time to get to know craving really, really well, but don’t do anything to suppress or act on it.
Meditation is where we have the opportunity to notice this kind of resistance to our present moment experience, and where we learn to practice with it.
That’s how we develop enough skill so that we can apply it in daily life and make some fundamental and dramatic changes.
And speaking of daily life...
Element #7: Bring Mindfulness Into Your Daily Life
This one’s a biggie.
And although I’ve waited until the end to talk about it, you should start bringing mindfulness into your daily life as early in your practice as possible.
When you sit down and do your daily meditation practice, you’re working on developing the skill of mindfulness.
Then you can apply that skill in your daily life.
But it works the other way around, too.
The more you apply mindfulness in your daily life, the better you’ll get at applying it in your meditation practice, too.
“Formal” meditation practice and “informal” daily life practice work together to create a positive feedback loop that can really accelerate your skill development and the effectiveness of your practice, both on and off the cushion.
Here’s an easy way to start bring mindfulness to your daily life that I recommend to my students:
Choose something that you do every day that is already part of your normal routine. You want it to be mostly a physical activity that you usually do by yourself, silently.
In other words, you want an activity where you’re not usually talking with someone or needing to listen to someone while doing it.
Examples of suitable activities include things like...
- Brushing your teeth
- Having a shower
- Taking out the garbage
- Washing the dishes
Now, while you’re doing your chosen activity, there are lots of different things you can focus your attention on.
Physical sensations, visual input, thoughts, emotions, sounds, smells...
It’s usually too much to try to take all that in right from the beginning, so you’ll probably want to simplify things to start with.
To keep it simple, I recommend you chose a defined, limited scope for your attention and use physical sensations for your object.
Observe these sensations exactly as you would if you were meditating.
You can even note them using mental labels if you like.
If you're brushing your teeth, for example, you can choose the physical sensations in your mouth while brushing.
That’s what you focus your attention on.
As you do this, you also want to maintain a broader peripheral awareness, such as an awareness of other physical sensations.
So for example, that would include the sensations in your hand and arm, your face, your feet, legs and so on.
And do your best to stay relaxed while you’re doing this!
Be particularly attentive to any pleasant sensations.
Really take the time to notice if any are present.
Because we’re so often engaged in thinking while doing these kinds of mundane activities, we miss out on the little pleasures of the present moment.
This is your chance to become aware of some of the little moments of joy and happiness that are hiding in even the most mundane activities of daily life.
So that’s just a quick overview of a simple informal mindfulness practice of some easy daily life activity.
Once you’ve made this a habit, you can add another activity to be mindful of during the day, and then another.
By working up slowly in this way, adding a new activity every few weeks, you’ll gradually, in an easy, non-straining way, build up your daily mindfulness practice, which will spill over into your daily sitting meditation practice, creating that positive feedback loop.
HERE'S AN EXTRA TIP FOR YOU...
If you want an extra boost to your “formal" meditation practice, choose a daily life activity that happens right before you normally do your sitting meditation.
For example, if you meditate in the morning, right after brushing your teeth, then choose brushing as your daily life practice.
If you drink your morning coffee before you meditate, then use that.
This will give your sitting practice an extra boost because you’ll be exercising mindfulness before you even begin your meditation practice, which should reduce the amount of time you need to spend “getting into it” during your meditation session, making your practice more efficient.
If you can’t easily arrange things in this way, don’t worry about it. This is just a tip to give you a little extra edge, it’s not something that will make or break your practice.
So now you’re ready… You’ve got everything you need to develop a deep and powerful mindfulness.
Start incorporating these elements today and you’ll soon see what a difference they make to your practice.
And be sure to meditate every day.
That’s how to get full benefit from these instructions -- it’s the foundation for everything else.
(NOTE: If you need help with that, you can Download my Free Guide to Effortless Daily Practice.
It will help you kickstart your daily practice and show you how to keep it going without resorting to the counterproductive straightjacket of uber-discipline and willpower).