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Tips for New Mindfulness Meditators

Start the new year with more control over your stress and life.

Used by permission. StockFreeImages
Source: Used by permission. StockFreeImages

Most of the conversation and even most of the scientific studies on the many benefits of mindfulness meditation seem to suggest that about 20 minutes is the sweet spot for the length of time “on the cushion.” Longer certainly can’t hurt and shorter has just the same benefits for better focus, awareness of the current moment, breath control, improved sleep, and overall life stress management.

For people just starting out with their meditation practice, 20 minutes can seem like a long time to just sit and breathe. New practicers are told they might try sitting for 10 minutes per day, twice a day.

Maybe this works best for you if you’re a morning person and go to bed fairly early, as a good way to start and end your day. If you’re more of a night person, perhaps you can do your first session at lunch and the second as you drift off to sleep. As a 30-year meditator, I pick my times and my spots, knowing that it will not always be “perfect” and if I miss a day or two I don’t beat myself up about it, I just start again the next day.

Even if a person can only calm his or her “monkey mind” for as little as a few minutes, it’s all good. Like physical exercise, the more you do and the better your health and stamina improve, the longer you want to do it. With exercise, the benefits tend to peak between 30 and 45 minutes – much shorter and your heart rate won’t sustain a decent cardio interval, much longer and you can start to get injured, bored, burned out, or overtrained. "All things in moderation" works for diet, exercise, and mindfulness meditation.

New meditators can put too much pressure on themselves by asking a lot of self-doubt questions: “Am I sitting right? Am I breathing slowly enough? Am I in the right place? How do I stop all these intrusive thoughts? Am I supposed to feel different at the end? Am I even doing this right?” The short answer to all these are: yes; yes; yes; don’t worry about your thoughts as they come and go; not really; and of course.

Mindfulness meditation is a lifelong, life-affirming habit to be practiced, not some item to be checked off your daily to-do list. You should see it as a mini-vacation during your day, where you get to follow the advice of every IT wizard you know, who says, “When in doubt, reboot.” Turn off your buzzing brain for several luxurious minutes and come back to reality and full concentration feeling refreshed and re-energized.

If you’re new to meditation, it’s easy and common to get caught up in the "how" to do it and instead of the "why" to do it. Let’s tackle a few of the most common myths and anxiety-creators.

  • You don’t have to sit on the floor. If you have a bad back or don’t like the sitting posture, there is no need to sit like an Indian yogi, no need to cross your legs, or kneel. Sit in a chair or with your back up against the wall on a cushion if that’s more comfortable. This is supposed to be a relaxing daily habit, not an exercise in acquired misery. As master meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein so wisely puts it, the key is to “sit and to know that you are sitting.”
  • It’s okay to scratch and itch, shift your posture, or cough. Don’t suppress your body. You’re not in a library; do what you need to do.
  • You can sit in your car, in a quiet location at your worksite, or even a noisy area with your headphones on. I often mediate at the airport gate or at a coffee shop, with my noise-canceling headphones on. I have sat in my heated or air-conditioned car for 20 minutes (safe place, doors locked).
  • You might fall asleep. That’s okay too, as long as that doesn’t become your habit. Meditation is not a nap with deep breathing attached to it. Nodding off during a mediation session is a sign you’re not getting enough good sleep at night or you’re meditating in an area that’s too hot and stuffy. If you start to get sleepy, raise the intensity of your focus and breathe in a more energizing way.
  • You don’t have to wrestle with thoughts; just let them come and go. Joseph Goldstein calls the method of watching the arrival and presence of thoughts — intrusive or otherwise — as “noting” them. You let them enter and subsequently leave your consciousness without judging them or yourself. Back during those days where Microsoft suggested you use a moving screensaver to protect your monitor from burn out, I used their top-down video view of a stream filled with leaves as my choice. It was perfect for meditation because you could actually set the number of leaves in the stream and how fast they flowed by. It’s a useful visual as you start your meditation practice. With your eyes closed, visualize the leaves (whatever thoughts, ideas, emotions that pop into your head) dropping into the stream and gently drifting away. They haven’t disappeared, they have just left your focus for the time being. The gently flowing stream is the delivery method for the permission you need to give yourself time to consider them later.
  • You don’t have to alter your breathing in any way. New mediators can create unnecessary anxiety by trying to slow down their breathing or following some inhale/exhale mantra they heard about that has them counting a prescribed number of breaths. If you feel like breathing slowly, do that. If you feel like breathing a little faster, do that. No need to try and lower your pulse rate. Don’t judge your breath; let your body find its own homeostatic rhythm with your respirations.
  • You don’t have to feel “enlightened” at the end. Every session is not always going to be perfect. Some days it will feel like a bit of a struggle, on other days it seems like a breeze. That's why we call it meditation practice. The key is consistency not necessarily effort. Sit, breathe, note, stay in the moment, repeat, do it again tomorrow.