THE BLOG

Practice, Practice: How To Hone Your Meditation Skills

09/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

To meditate means to examine. It doesn't mean you have to sit in a lotus position in silence (although you can). It means you are attending to what's going on within you - perhaps with your breath and senses, your internal thoughts and feelings, or the space in between these objects of attention. This investigation of mind becomes somewhat habitual the more you practice.

Most of us are so busy in our daily lives that we rarely stop at all, let alone to investigate our inner world. Often people tell me they 'can't meditate' because the idea of stopping their treadmill of thought seems impossible. Everyone can meditate; it is merely a matter of trying and adjusting expectations (e.g. it is not about 'stopping thought' but learning how to observe the arising and departure of thoughts).

You wouldn't expect to play Mozart's concerto without first learning the scales; you wouldn't expect to speak Chinese without learning the vocabulary; you won't learn to be proficient in the 'investigation of mind' without committing to practicing the process. Science has shown that learning a skill varies as a function of the task. Learning to play the harmonica takes about 40 hours while violin takes 1250 hours. Learning how to investigate the mind, to observe the inner workings, to explore the spaces in between likely won't happen overnight. It usually requires patience and persistence in the face of numerous obstacles. Funny how everything and anything can get in the way of learning about oneself.

Meditation can become a way of life transferred from periods of silence to a stance of attention throughout the day. Practicing a little everyday helps make it a habitual way of life, to be open to discovery. When practicing in optimal settings (a quiet space), the skill may be made more habitual so that it is more easily transferred to daily activities.

In the process of investigating the mind you can learn to detect thoughts and feelings and body sensations at points of smaller and smaller arising. There is a Taoist saying in the Te Ching,

"Lay plans for the accomplishment of the difficult while it is still easy; make something big by starting with it when small. The most difficult in the world must of necessity have its beginnings in the easy; the big in the world must of necessity have its beginnings in the small."
To me this emphasizes the importance of attending to thoughts and feelings when they are small or easy before you act upon them.

As I write this post, I realize that a small amount of 'pride' has arisen as I think I've reached some expertise in investigating my own mind. There is an emerging sense of 'I'm better at this than ....". It is a perfect example of an arising of an emotion that, left unchecked, could turn into to something larger and, if acted upon it, would likely lead to difficulties. I am reminded of the Te Ching passage, "One who is in the habit of considering things easy will find himself beset with difficulties."

For a concert pianist, practice is a way of life. For an Olympic athlete, practice is at its height. For me - a person committed to investigating my mind - practice is more crucial now than even at the beginning.