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Six Steps to Get Your Meditation Practice "in Gear"

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So you've been to a meditation class or a series of them. You've been doing some reading. You are just beginning to get a sense of relaxation and a little bit of practice in meditating. You've tried on your own but you have mostly relied on going to class to anchor your wandering mind and provide structure for your practice. So what are some tips for "flying solo" in your very own practice?

Setting aside uninterrupted time:
There are no hard and fast rules here though some teachers have them and will offer specific time frames for you. I suggest that you look at your calendar and block off 15 minutes each day to start. It is often better to ease into a longer time of sitting than to spend a long time sitting and struggling. What we are looking for here is a little positive reinforcement. I think early in the day, lunch time, before dinner or just before bedtime are good places to start, but your schedule is what counts. Turn off the phones.

Finding a place:
Obviously, a suitable place varies for each meditator. For some it is a favorite place on the porch or deck, a sunny corner of the living room or bedroom, a quiet nook or even closet. Two special things to look for: privacy, and how the energy of the space feels to you. Sitting among piles of clutter in your office may actually increase your agitation and distraction. If you are not sure, then try this little exercise. Close your eyes and ask yourself internally to see the best place for you to meditate. Usually a picture pops into your mind. Don't second guess it -- even though this is a favorite pastime of Western minds. Just go with what your intuition just told you.

Try a prop or two:
Next consider using a couple of Pavlovian tricks. While unnecessary to meditation practice and even sometimes a distraction to really facing ourselves as we sit, these "props" can go a long way towards signaling and reinforcing the brain that this is "time out". Incense, lighting candles, playing music, a small water fountain, or some visual cues such as flowers, a photo, a religious object placed where you see it as you sit are all potential helpers. Some meditators use guided meditation CDs. There are plenty on the market including the more scientifically oriented "brain entrainment" systems. (More about music and meditation another time.) You have now given thought and devotion to creating a "sacred space" just for you. Each time you smell the incense or light a candle or hear the music, your internal circuitry will recognize and begin the process of shifting its state and awareness.

Getting physically comfortable:
While many practices don't place much emphasis on physical comfort, I like to encourage my students to find a seat, cushion, back support or sitting position that allows for comfort and good posture. This helps relax the body and open the energy channels. A good idea for our not-so-limber bodies is placing a firm cushion under the buttocks so that your hips are a bit higher than your knees. This takes a lot of pressure off the knees and helps align the spine. I also encourage people to move and adjust themselves as necessary to stay comfortable and avoid leaden limbs and stiff joints. Those will definitely not reinforce the meditation habit.

Pick one form of focus and stick to it
There are many methods and techniques for helping us focus our left brains so that we can produce the "relaxation response" and increase our broader awareness. But at a single sitting or in a series, try just one thing. If your mind fails to calm or "let go" it is better to recognize that and go back to your focus. If you find you are "struggling", then stop the meditation and start over. Notice what thought or feeling preceded your drifting away from the focus.

Set the clear intention to meditate:
To be with your self is a critical step. As energy follows thought, then our thought must first be on our commitment to do the practice. It is a practice after all -- no perfection required or expected. But neither can we meet the challenges inherent in practice without the full and conscious choice to do so. Half-hearted tries are just that. You are committing to yourself -- for whatever period you have chosen. There are many daily deterrents to a calm centered self so you have to really be clear that you are worth the time and effort. It takes a bit of faith -- a leap in fact.

Kay Goldstein, MA teaches meditation and writes poetry, fiction and articles addressing the challenges and joys of daily living and spiritual practice.

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