The following is an exceprt from the first chapter of my book “Wyspa spokoju – how mindfulness helps deal with difficulty”, published in Polish in 2021.
Mindfulness mediations train you to have control over your attention and teach you to use it on yourself so that you can be fully engaged and present whatever you want or need to be. The unique advantages of focus, clarity and conscious response are taught across industries. Jon Kabat-Zinn guides meditations for economic decision makers at the Davos Economic Forum, and programs exist to support this learning in the military, during prisoner rehabilitation programs, in professional sports and elementary schools, business leadership programs and hospitals. If professionals in all these fields can and do practice mindfulness so they can better handle themselves at both work and in their daily lives, why shouldn’t you?
TIME – WHEN TO MEDITATE
So when is the best time to meditate? The answer depends on when you are free, what your biorhythm is, and also on when you need a break or a recharge. However, it must be said that many a night owl has sworn up and down to me that meditating right before bed will surely work for them, and so far it very rarely has.
The reason is simple – most beginning mediators struggle with sleepiness. No matter what time you try your first meditation, if it lasts longer than ten minutes you are likely to find yourself nodding off. And that’s absolutely normal. After all, it’s what we’ve been trained to do.
When you aren’t moving and your eyes are closed, the instructions we always heard as kids was “go to sleep.”
This habit is strong enough to persist for a while. I struggled to stay awake during a meditation typically done lying down even during my teacher’s training, so it always makes me smile when loud snoring kicks up during the first meditation sessions of a new group. Not once in all the years I’ve been teaching has this failed to happen. That’s why meditating at the end of a long day, right before going to bed which your body and mind likely long to do, is pretty much doomed to end in a snooze.
For many, mornings are easier, though that also depends on the time. I tried this for about two years when my kids were small and needed waking up for school. I got up before six, sleep walked through coffee and then plopped down to meditate before anyone else got up. After a while though, I noticed that the quality of those meditations was uneven. Where I live in Warsaw, Poland, we get as little as seven and a half hours of sunlight during a winter day, which means the sun gets up late and goes down fast. Consequently, meditating in the morning before the kids were up for school often meant doing it in the dark. As fabulous of our espresso maker is, it was not wholly capable of jolting me into consciousness enough so that I could really ‘fall awake’ during those meditations, as Jon Kabat Zinn instructs. Those were half meditations at best, so I switched to later hrs of the morning.
What that leaves are all the moments that come between very early and really late. Once you’ve trimmed off those extremes, basically any time will work. And don’t worry if you find yourself zoning into a nap even at you most alert time of day. This will pass as your brain slowly figures out that there is more than one possible reaction appropriate for when you stop doing things and simply stay still for a while.
PLACE – WHERE TO MEDITATE
Most guided mindfulness meditations begin with simple instructions – find a time and place where no one will interfere with your practice. At the beginning of your exploration of meditation, this might mean something different then it does later, when you are more comfortable doing it.
At first, most people find it best to meditate in a quiet place with no one else around to look at you, ask you questions, or show you funny animal memes. This is often your own bedroom when no one else is at home, or your office at a time when people don’t usually come in for meetings or drop bys.
Noise level plays a part here because most people’s ability to focus is very weak when they start off. After years of toggling between browser tabs and apps and family and work and kindle and our smart watches and email and podcasts and endlessly more objects of interest, our minds become trained to jump around. We are driven by a fear of missing out and encouraged by an overabundance of new entertainment and products constantly falling over themselves to grab our attention. This has made minds restless, excitable and easily distracted.
So, when we first sit down to meditate, every step the upstairs neighbor takes in her high heels across her hardwood floor is going to attract our attention away from meditation. Every meow of your cat or muffled conversation outside your room will seem like a spectacular, irresistible fireworks extravaganza compared to the calm, single focus of mindfulness meditation. So to help yourself start off right, look for peace and quiet.
As you grow in your practice, your ability to work with distraction will get stronger. In fact, at one point you may even welcome distractions as an opportunity to observe your mind and body’s reactions to them and to train your capacity to stay focused despite them. Many people with a more established meditation practice enjoy doing it in public transport, parks or even parking lots.
Ok, I haven’t actually seen anyone practicing mindfulness meditation in a parking lot, but for years it was where I would do it. As a mother of two with a full time job in a newsroom, it was hard to find a good time and place for meditation. At home, I was always wearing my “Mom Hat.’ That meant a never ending to-do list underscored with a breathless urgency. Oh no, Felek’s dentist appointment is tomorrow! Are we out of cat food? Flora needs her uniform cleaned. When was the last time I changed the sheets? What did I promise to do at the parent teacher’s meeting last night? Have we paid for summer camps yet? I really need to get that dryer fixed. And so on. Trying to meditate in that head space was a real struggle. It wasn’t any better at work, where I would walk in, take off my coat and put on my ‘Editor Hat’ which meant sprinting through correspondence, managing my team, as well as writing, editing, and promoting copy until, low and behold, it was time to rush back home to family duty.
So the solution I found was to inhabit the time in between home and work, when I wasn’t wearing any hats. No, I don’t mean meditating while driving to work. You can drive mindfully, by bringing full awareness to the activity of driving as well as your surroundings, but that is not the same as meditation. So that was out. The parking lot, however, was perfect. Think about it. You are alone in your car where no one will bother you. When the windows are shut the noise level is muted. Despite the creepy crawly sensation you might feel just from thinking about it, passersby don’t usually peer into strangers cars when they walk by so no one will be staring at you. If you turn off you phone, you are free of duties, distractions and obligations in the car. You’ve taken off ‘home hat’ and not put ‘work hat’ on yet. It’s not the longest stretch of time or the most romantic setting, but it worked very well for me.
To find your best setting, experiment.
Perhaps you imagine that the best place will be your study but find that there’s something about meditating there that doesn’t quite feel right. You might end up on a bean bag in your kids room when they are at school (been there), on your living room couch, in your garage or even in your bathtub (done that), in your bed, in an empty conference room, on the roof of your office building during lunch (also real) or who knows where. The key is to keep looking and trying things until you find a place that works for you. And no, it does not have to be instagrame’able.
Finding the right place to meditate is in itself an exercise in mindfulness awareness. It requires exploring how you feel and observing the effect of different spaces on your ability to focus. So take your time and try things out.
Once you’ve found your spot, however, don’t get too attached to it. Enjoy it, but also note, that after the initial incubation phase when you need to meditate in a relatively distraction free space, a whole world of potential places to practice will open up. As you become more tolerant of noise and movement during meditation, your practice will become mobile and ready to support you in all kinds of settings.
Maybe in an office as you are waiting to be called in for an important job interview. Perhaps in the dentist’s chair as he reaches in to give you a root canal. Or in a speed boat ramming against rocky waters as it races towards a Thai island. You may find yourself reaching for meditation while behind the curtain of conference stage that you are about to step onto. Or maybe in the seat of a tiny airplane during massive turbulence, or in an elevator taking you to the top floor of an office building where you will have one chance to pitch your greatest idea to investors. You may find meditation helpful in the emergency room waiting area where you are expecting news about a loved one being treated inside, or on the day you meet your only child’s love interest after finding out that his career goal is touring with a rock band. Once your practice is established, place won’t matter so much. Meditation can become your own temporary autonomous zone, a place you can drop into to find equilibrium whenever you need it.
POSITION FOR MEDITATING
What about those folded legs, then? Is there a right position to meditate in? The answer is yes and no. A common guideline is to sit in a position expressing dignity. What this inherently means is keeping your back straight and not leaned back on anything, your shoulders relaxed and your head held high, face forward. The reason this is worth paying attention to is because the body and brain are in contact and take cues from each other. Our position signals to the brain how active it should be.
A great illustration of how this works is called postural feedback, or power posing. Discovered by social psychologist Amy Cuddy and then wildly popularized by her epic Ted Talk in 2012, power posing is a way to use your body to effect the way you feel. By assuming postures expressing power – like standing with your hands on your hips or above your head in a victory “V” for two minutes – you can increase your self confidence. Cuddy also showed that power posing may boost levels of testosterone while depressing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. These results, however, have not been replicated, so this remains a theory. However, in terms of what we feel, her findings have been confirmed – the way you position your body makes a decided difference.
There’s a reason teachers ask their students to sit up straight at their desks and kids are raised to sit properly at the dinner table. These postures don’t just express attentiveness, they also realistically contribute to your ability to focus. In meditation the same is true. If you sit upright in a position expressing alertness, your mind will be more likely to assume this attitude too.
It may be, however, that the back straight, head high, shoulders relaxed position of dignity will cause you discomfort at first. The act of sitting without leaning back on a chair is new to most of us. If this happens to you, feel free to notice the discomfort and take a two or three breaths pause, before making the conscious decision to lean against the chair to lessen the tension.
You may even find that sitting for the entire duration of a meditation is hard, back supported or not. The body has many ways of expressing itself during meditation and the mind, at first, is desperate for a distraction. It can even be alarming. The sudden awareness of what the body is feeling that mindfulness brings into focus, can cause tensions or pains that go unnoticed for most of an action packed day to suddenly burst into view. And there is nothing more consuming than physical discomfort. Pain is like a tractor beam for the attention.
If this happens to you, don’t worry. When you first start meditating the most important foundational skill you need to work on is developing focus, or the ability to work with distraction and return attention on a single object of observation. Posture is secondary.
I have seen many people nest and arrange intricate seating arrangements for themselves to ensure that their bodies do not interfere with meditation. My students have meditated lying down, half reclining, standing in the shower or even floating in a warm and salty sea.
The key is not to aggressively force your body or your attention to comply with a new condition, but to gently invite both to explore, and build strength over time. So do make yourself comfortable, but also remember that the goal is a dignified, upright position. Work your way towards this, allowing for this to be a work in progress and enjoying the little steps that get you there.
An interesting note on being comfortable, is that there is such a thing as too much of a comfy thing. Just as too early or too late in the day can be a challenge for mediation, so can the extremes of comfort. If your position causes you pain, your attention will be distracted, but if you are too cosy and snug, your capacity to focus will be just as hampered, because your body and mind will pull you in the direction of sleep. Here again, the in between middle ground of a neutral position is usually the most supportive.
KEY INSIGHTS: HOW TO SET UP A MEDITATION PRACTICE
- Pick a time that is not too early in the day or too close to bedtime.
- Find a place that is quiet and relatively free of distractions. Sit on a chair, a cushion, on the floor or the bed.
- Start out with your back straight and unsupported, but if you experience pain during meditation, pause for two breaths, then change your position to a more comfortable one.
- Use set up as a mindfulness exercise to explore when, where and in what position you feel the most alert.
The above is an exceprt from the first chapter of my book “Wyspa spokoju – how mindfulness helps deal with difficulty”, published in Polish in 2021. All rights reserved.