To begin, let’s take a meditative posture sitting comfortably in a chair, feet flat on the floor, hands resting on the thighs or the knees, shoulders relaxed and back, spine straight and unsupported, head balanced in a natural relaxed way on the neck, eyes closed. And then bringing attention to the touch of the breath at the nose and just forming that gentle intention to remain there and observe the flow of sensations at the nostrils. And when the attention wanders, which it will, just noticing that that’s happened and then gently escorting the attention back to the breath of the nose, and beginning again, just reforming that gentle intention to observe the flow of sensations of the nostrils. Letting the body breathe however it wants to breathe. So now we’ll sit together from bell to bell.
Don’t be surprised when the attention wanders because it definitely will. That is just what the mind does, and that’s OK because practice is not about stopping the attention from wandering. It’s much more about coming to notice what’s going on in the mind, becoming more aware of that tendency to wander, and then when you do notice, just gently escorting the attention back to the breath, to the present moment. So when the attention wanders, a mistake has not occurred; nothing has gone wrong. It’s just an opportunity to practice that noticing that’s really at the core of this meditation technique.
Remember that meditation is not about emptying the mind or getting rid of all your thoughts; that’s not possible anyway, and it’s not necessary. There are going to be all sorts of things happening inside and outside the mind, sounds in the background, sensations in the body, and thoughts coming and going in the mind. You don’t need to block or suppress any of that or try and create some sort of artificial mental silence. Instead, just let that whole rich landscape of sounds, sensations, and thoughts continue to unfold in the background and just rest your attention on the breath in the midst of all that.
When the bell rings, switch your attention over to the sound of the bell and take that as your anchor. See if you can follow that sound all the way down, and try and spot the last moment that you’re able to hear it before it becomes too quiet to perceive.
I recommend meditating first thing in the morning to start the day from a place of calm, clarity, and alertness. Even if you just laughed out loud at the idea of a calm morning, stay with me for a sec. We all know that mornings can be rough—and sometimes rough is an improvement on chaotic. I’ve been there. Luckily, over the years I’ve found a few strategies that help me shake off my morning haze so that I’m mentally fresh and ready to meditate, or at least not totally averse to the idea of giving it a go. These strategies aren’t complicated. Give them a try:
- Bring in morning light, even if you’re still feeling like a troll. You don’t have to be cheerful about it, but throw those curtains open anyway and look at the sky for about a minute to wake yourself up. Not so sure about this? Fair, but there’s actually some cool science here. When it’s time to sleep, your endocrine system releases a hormone called melatonin that makes you drowsy. Bright light suppresses melatonin production and makes you more alert, studies show. So if you bring your melatonin levels down, you should bring your energy levels up. And that means you might get that meditation session in after all. (Tip: This works the same way at night too. When you’re getting ready to go to sleep, avoid bright lights and electronic screens for at least an hour before bed so they don’t trick your brain into thinking it’s time to be awake.)
- Splash cold water on your face. I know, it’s a system shock, but that’s kind of the point. The Buddha himself used to recommend exactly this to his students who struggled with drowsiness during meditation. (Hopefully, he didn’t do the splashing himself.)
- Do 20 jumping jacks. On one meditation retreat I attended, wake-up time was at 4 a.m. Woof. I needed some way to zap myself awake. Quick, vigorous exercise (along with cold water on my face) did the trick.
- Give yourself a break…kind of. If you’re still dragging a little after doing all of the above, sit down and meditate, but shorten your session so it feels like less of a commitment. A two-minute meditation still counts. And who knows? You might just want to do a little more once you get started.
Rahman, S. A., Flynn-Evans, E. E., Aeschbach, D., Brainard, G. C., et al. (2014). Diurnal spectral sensitivity of the acute alerting effects of light. Sleep, 37(2), 271–281.