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Starting a Meditation Practice

If you’ve ever been curious about meditation or tried it yourself and were unsure how to do it, you’ve experienced something many others have. The following information is for anyone who has wanted to meditate but didn’t quite know what to expect or how to do it effectively.

I’m writing this with the intention of introducing you to a realistic and accessible way of how you can incorporate meditation into your life. I don’t really have a great story of how I started with meditation. I did it a couple times by myself and was usually confused if I was doing it right, and felt defeated when I wasn’t experiencing a deep awakening or sudden transformation. What really helped me to get into it was meditating with other people who were important to me. We did a 10-minute meditation together and I felt incredible after.

As you may already be familiar, meditation is effective in numerous ways. Some key benefits include lower depression, better sleep, reduced anger, less anxiety (especially social anxiety), better sexual performance, improved physical health, and higher focus and concentration.

How Can Meditation Benefit You?

If you are interested in starting (or re-starting) meditation, it’s important to understand why you are doing this. Do you want to reduce something, such as stress, anxiety and depression; or do you want to gain something, such as awareness, understanding, and calm? Most people are interested in both of those areas, but you should take inventory of your own life and decide what pertains to you specifically.  This way, you’ll know whether or not your meditation practice is effective.

Turning Your Mind On

In my therapy practice, I talk with my clients a lot about the benefits of meditation. I’m never surprised when I hear a client talk about meditation with expectations like, “I can’t really turn my mind off,” or, “I’ve tried meditating but I couldn’t do the blank mind thing,” or “I’m not good at meditation because I can’t get my mind to shut up.” Whenever I hear clients say this kind of thing, I try to point out that it’s not very realistic to “turn your mind off,” and if you can, you’ve likely been practicing meditation for a long time.

Instead of perceiving meditation as a way of turning your mind off, I encourage people to think of it as turning your mind on. You are raising your focus and awareness to your thoughts, instead of allowing your mind to just think random things every couple seconds.

Walking A Dog

Have you ever walked a dog? What happens on the walk? The dog is probably very curious and wants to stop and sniff every five or ten feet, relieve itself, greet other dogs, receive scratches and adoration by people, etc.  You’ve given your dog a task, which is to follow along as you walk together. You as the dog walker have the job of bringing the dog back to the walk when it’s time to do so. You give your dog time to do dog things, and when it’s time to keep going, you tug on the leash and resume the walk. At some point your dog stops again, and you go through the same steps.

Meditation has a similar process. You are giving your mind a simple task, which is to pay attention to present moment experience.  I often suggest to my clients they concentrate on their breathing, their body, and the sounds going on around them. When this happens, you’ll quickly notice your mind gets distracted, doing mind things like dogs do dog things. As the one who is meditating, your role is to notice when this happens, and shift your focus back to your breathing, your body, and the sounds around you. And prepare yourself for the next time your mind wanders off.

Default Mind Behaviors

Don’t get down on yourself when your mind wanders off – it’s been trained to do just that. Our minds are programmed to gather information to both keep us safe, to find sources of entertainment, and help us realize our potential as humans by solving problems we encounter in life. Think of these as operations our minds are constantly going through, so much that it is part of what neuroscientists are now calling our Default Mind Network. Such behaviors might include:

  • Thinking about your to-do list
  • Remembering things that happened at any point in the past
  • Planning (or worrying about) things that will happen at some point in the future – later today, tomorrow, next week, next year
  • Making some kind of commentary about what’s going on right now – during a meditation, it might be thoughts like, “nothing is happening,” “I want to change positions,” “there’s an annoying sound coming from the kitchen,” basically anything that takes you away from focusing on being content with the present moment
  • Coming up with a narrative, or story, about experiences and themes in your life

Whenever you do a workout, you are working with some kind of resistance in order to get stronger, and the same approach is important with meditation. It’s actually important that your mind gets distracted, because every time this happens, that is an opportunity to bring your mind back to present moment awareness. I often tell my clients that this can include awareness to your breathing, your body, and the space around you.

What Should I Focus On?

If focusing on your breathing, your body, and the space around you is too vague, consider the following as points to pay attention to while you are meditating.

  • The feel of air passing through your nostrils as you breathe in and out
  • The air traveling down your throat and into your belly, then your chest
  • The position of your tongue as it rests in your mouth
  • Your posture – try sitting with an upright posture: shoulders back, chest up, back straight but not too stiff
  • Points of contact with the chair, meditation cushion, floor, and hands wherever they are resting
  • The feel of the air in the room, or in the outdoor space you are in
  • The sounds you are hearing around you

Remember that once you bring your focus and concentration back to one of these points, it will be only a matter of seconds until your focus and concentration goes back into some narrative of your life.

Going From “Someday” to Day 1

It’s not uncommon that people have a desired habit in mind for a period of time before actually starting it. You may have a thought for yourself that says “Someday I’m going to start meditating,” just as someone might have the same approach for dieting, exercising, changing jobs, etc.

If you’re currently in this “Someday” period, know that this is normal and the change to put your new meditation practice into action is actually very simple. Try meditating for just one minute today, using the steps and tips discussed above to focus your attention and concentration. Expect your mind to wander, and when it does, refocus your attention on what is happening in the present.

Notice What Happens Between Meditations

This is when you’ll know if your meditation practice is effective. The time between meditation sessions is your active, waking life. If you are practicing meditation often and for a long enough period of time, you should experience benefits in your normal, everyday routines.

If you’re not experiencing any improvements, you may try adding more time to each session, and practice more often. If you are experiencing thoughts that are too challenging during meditation, you may consider reaching out to me or another mental health professional to discover how you can navigate through those thoughts.

I hope you have found this helpful and are willing to begin a practice of meditation. If you have any questions or comments on any of this, please feel free to reach out to me. Thank you.

— Matt Wagner is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Decatur, GA. For more information, visit his page here or http://mattwagnerlpc.com/.