By now you have probably been meditating a bit … if not, see the answers below about forgetting and traveling, which seem to be the two biggest obstacles to meditating each day.
If you’ve been meditating, you probably have some questions. Below, I answer as many of the questions you guys submitted as I can. I’m sorry I couldn’t get to all of them.
Q1. I keep forgetting to meditate — how can I remember?
Leo: You can set calendar or phone reminders, but even better are physical reminders. If you use a meditation cushion, put it somewhere you won’t possibly be able to ignore it — on top of your toothbrush, perhaps, or in the middle of your bedroom doorway. Wearing a bracelet that reminds you to meditate might also help. One of my favorite ways of remembering are paper notes, such as sticky notes, put in places you’ll definitely see them. Write “meditate today” and put it on your bathroom mirror, coffeemaker, laptop and breakfast table, for example. Use a combination of electronic, physical and paper reminders if necessary.
Q2. I haven’t meditated because I’m traveling (or have another kind of disruption in my routine).
Leo: You can meditate anywhere, even when traveling. I know that traveling makes you busy and it’s hard to create new habits while on the road. However, meditating happens to be one of the best habits for travel. Just sit up in your bed (wherever you are) and meditate for 2 minutes. Or do it on the couch of the hotel or house where you’re staying. See the suggestions above for remembering.
Q3. I have difficulty focusing on breathing — does that come with practice?
Leo: Yes. This is one of the points of meditation — you get better at focusing your attention/awareness with practice. What you learn in the beginning is that you aren’t very good at it, and this can be frustrating. But we’re never good at anything when we start out. Just practice. You’ll get better.
Q4. Is 10 minutes each day enough, or would you eventually need to extend the time to half an hour etc?
Leo: Yes, it’s enough. It’s practice. More practice eventually would be better, but any practice is good. Imagine practicing piano every day — if you practice for 10 minutes a day, that’s a good thing, but 20 minutes is even better. If you practiced for hours a day, you’d be a master, but most people don’t have that kind of time. But if you practiced for zero minutes a day, you’d get worse at it over time. Practice at least a little.
Q5. I have such a hard time pushing away the neverending stream of thoughts while meditating. I know this will always be a challenge to some degree, but when can I expect it to become a little easier?
Leo: Don’t worry about pushing away your thoughts. They just arise, just like sounds happen around you. They’re just phenomena. What you get better at is not pushing them away, but noticing them, and not necessarily engaging them. Just see them as things that are happening, and be an observer, not a participant. Then return your focus to your breath or body.
Q6. I’m actually nearing the end of my second week of meditating — far enough in that the easy benefits have waned but not far enough in that I feel like I know what I’m doing. I think I could just use some sense of what I should be noticing at this point — what’s to be expected, how to deepen a new practice, etc.
Leo: At this point, you should be better at noticing when your mind wanders. When it does, smile at yourself, and return to your breath. Notice your resistance to being in the present moment, and watch your urges to go do something else. Accept the present moment. Make it your entire universe. Be OK with not being able to control it, and just be in the moment without that control. These are some of the things you can notice and practice.
Q7. I’d like to know more about the choice between guided meditation and silent sitting meditation. Does it matter which I choose to do when? I’ve been following my whims or intuition which to do at any given time, but wonder if one is more effective than the other and whether some structure would be better.
Leo: Guided meditation is good for those who need structure. Sometimes when going through a strange land, it’s good to have an experienced guide. Neither is better, though I think after you’ve meditated for awhile you won’t need the guidance. You can try it on your own. I recommend this for the long term.
Q8. I’ve been using 5 second inhales and exhales so about 6 cycles per minute so 12 complete breaths = 2 minutes. Is this too rigid?
Leo: It’s not necessary. Allow yourself to breathe normally, without needing to control the breath. You don’t need to breathe slower than normally, but instead focus your attention on the sensation of the breath.
Q9. Should I be trying to meditate longer that 2 or 3 minutes or is that sufficient for now? When can I start meditating for 20 to 30 minutes?
Leo: Two or three minutes is good enough for the entire month, though if you get through 2-3 minutes and want to keep going, feel free to do so. The point isn’t to go for a long time, but to start forming the habit.
If you want to meditate for 20 minutes, feel free to do so. But if it becomes difficult and you find yourself not wanting to commit to 20 minutes, come back to 5 minutes, or even 2. Length is not important right now.
Q10. How do you keep your mind from wandering?
Leo: You can’t. It will wander. What you want to do is notice when that happens. This is why counting the breaths can be a useful tool as you’re starting out (you don’t need to do it forever, just use it to help you focus). When your mind wanders, make a note of it. Smile at yourself. Come back to the breath. This will happen repeatedly. That’s perfectly OK. It’s practice — you repeat things a lot.
Q11. I’ve never meditated with my eyes open before. Can you give any pointers on how to approach it? Should I focus on something visually or if I focus too much should I look elsewhere? I’m nearsighted and will meditate without my glasses so it will all be a little fuzzy!
Leo: Don’t focus on anything visually. Allow your gaze to turn soft, not grasping. Meditate without glasses, that’s fine, as long as you’re comfortable. Instead of turning your attention on what you see, turn it inward, to the breath and body.
Q12. While doing the meditation exercise, I tend to think about the exercise itself. For example, if I’m counting the number of times I breathe in and out without losing focus… is counting itself losing focus? I also tend to think about how I’m going to report what I’m feeling to the team. So the question is: is thinking about the exercise itself, and the learning process, deviating one’s thoughts from the meditation?
Leo: This is perfectly normal. I do it all the time. Thinking about meditation is just like thinking about anything else — it’s your mind wandering from the breath. Just notice that you’re doing it, and gently come back to the breath. It will happen repeatedly, but just keep noticing, and keep coming back.
Q13. I have real trouble keeping my eyes from closing — any suggestions?
Leo: Two suggestions — try both of these: 1) Focus your attention on your eyelids, and let this be your meditation, keeping your attention on your eyelids and keeping them open as long as you can; or 2) allow your eyes to close. Keeping them open isn’t vitally important — it’s just one way to meditate.
Q14. Could you elaborate on focusing thought? I am trying to focus on my breathing, counting odd numbers for inhalations and even numbers for exhalations, up to 10 and then I restart. Obviously my mind tends to wander away from breath focus and counting. How do you handle this?
Leo: First, the mind wandering is absolutely normal. We all do it. Second, what meditation shows us is that this is happening — our minds always wander, whether when we’re working or talking to someone or taking a walk, but we aren’t usually aware of it. Meditation allows us to learn the patterns of the mind by seeing this wandering, and noticing what distracts us, where we tend to go, what we tend to go away from. So seeing the mind wandering is a good thing.
How do you handle it? First, by simply noticing that it’s happening. This is important. Second, by watching it happen, but being an observer, not a participant. Simply say, “Ah, my mind is wandering — interesting. I thought about the groceries I have to get later.” Third, by smiling at yourself. Say, “There I go again!” It’s not a bad thing to have your mind wander. Just smile at your thought patterns, and then gently return to your breath. Come back to the breath, over and over again. This is the practice, and it’s an amazing skill to learn.
Q15. Is it okay to meditate with instrumental music that is relaxing or should I concentrate on my breathing?
Leo: It’s OK to meditate however you like. There’s no right way to meditate. If the music makes it more likely that you’ll meditate, go for it. However, if you’d like my recommendation — go without the music if you don’t need it. Meditation isn’t necessarily a time for relaxation, but a time for practicing watching and focusing your attention (among other things to practice).
Q16. I’m doing meditation before sleep. Is that ok?
Leo: Yes, absolutely. Find the meditation time that works best for you.
Q17. It seems my mind goes blank during meditation. Sometimes I even keep counting to 12 or 14 instead of 10. Do I need to concentrate on numbers deliberately? Do I need to visualize these numbers?
Leo: Numbers are just a tool to help keep you focused. If they get in the way, drop them. There is no need to visualize them. The mind going blank is not a problem (neither is it the goal). If you notice your mind going blank, return to the breath, without judgment or harshness. It’s all part of the learning process!
Q18. Ideally how long should we meditate and how many times a day?
Leo: Start with 2 minutes a day, once a day. After you do that for a month, increase it to 5-10 minutes. Then 15, then 20. Ideally, you’re meditating all day. Not sitting meditation all day, but practicing mindfulness throughout your day. We’ll discuss this more later.
Q19. I like it OK, but I am curious as to when I will see the effects of it?
Leo: Imagine practicing piano — at first, you’re practicing scales and very simple note combinations. Only once you get good at those should you play anything difficult. Meditation is similar practice — you’re mastering the basic skills of mindfulness. Once you get good at that, you can use those skills in other parts of your life. It’s a gradual thing — you get better at mindfulness, then use it at work a little, but as you get even better, you can use it more often. The benefits get better and better the more you practice.
Q20. Have you got any thoughts on whether setting a timer for your meditation session is a good thing?
Leo: It’s not necessary, though if you’re constantly wondering how long you’ve been meditating, or worried that you’re doing it for the wrong amount of time, setting a timer might help. It’s totally fine to set a timer. The thing is to not get caught up in worrying about the length of the meditation.
Q21. I want to change the way I look at the world and detach myself from the egoic mind.
Leo: The place to start is with sitting meditation. Once you’ve practiced meditation for a little while, you can start to see things your mind does, because you’ll be more aware of your thoughts. One of the things the mind does is put you (the ego) at the center of everything. Noticing this allows you to change your perspective, and eventually change the habits of the mind.
Q22. I’m not an early riser usually. If the mind is not quite fully awake when I attempt meditation, I find it difficult to sustain focus on the breath. should I continue to meditate immediately after I wake up? Any suggestions for waking up quickly that doesn’t involve taking a cold shower?
Leo: Try meditating later in the day if you are having trouble earlier. Taking a couple minutes during your lunch break, or after work, are good ideas. One of the beautiful things about starting with two minutes is that you can fit it in anytime — sometimes I meditate while on a train, or waiting for a bus.
Q23. What are your favorite iPhone apps? I’ve been using Calm and like that on, especially when I’m traveling
Q24. Why are we meditating facing the white wall?
Leo: You don’t have to face the wall. I do, but I also meditate just sitting on a couch. It doesn’t matter what you face — the only thing that matters is practicing focusing your attention.
Q25. Is repeating mantras more helpful to focus than counting?
Leo: No, either is fine. The practice, at this point, is attention training, so the object of your meditation doesn’t matter. Later, when you’ve done meditation for awhile, you can try object-less meditation, which is “just sitting” meditation in Zen. But for now, just practice focusing your attention.