By Leo Babauta

You guys were generous enough to submit some awesome questions about mindfulness and meditation recently, and I’ve posted my answers below.

Just remember that I’m not an expert on all of this, but am only trying to share my understanding and suggestions as I learn on the path along with you!

Question 1: Coping Mechanisms

Q: I cope with the stress in my daily life with a lot of coffee and alcohol once a week. Do you think meditating more frequently or for a longer duration (as I progress) would help me replace the other coping mechanisms?

Leo: Yes, absolutely! As we continue to meditate, no matter the length or frequency, we learn to deal with the stress in a direct way, without using other coping mechanisms as a crutch or a way to avoid the anxiety/stress. See my recent post on this for a way to work with the stress in meditation and outside of it.

I do agree that the more we meditate (in duration and frequency), the more we’ll see these benefits, but we shouldn’t stress about the numbers or what progress we’re making. Just commit to practicing at whatever capacity you can!

Question 2: Untying Emotional Knots

Q: Any suggestions for untying emotional knots in / using meditation?

Leo: Yes, as you meditate, if you see yourself getting caught up in an emotional knot, notice first that you’re caught up in a story that’s causing the emotions. It’s playing out in your head, and causing the anxiety or dissatisfaction. Make note of it, but don’t get caught up about getting caught up. Just note the thinking, and try to return to the immediacy of the moment.

As you return to the present moment, notice the physical feelings of the emotions that are coming up. This can be difficult if you haven’t practiced it much, and takes courage, but try it at least for a short while. Stay with the emotion, in your body, and notice how it feels. The longer you stay, the better. Find a feeling of friendliness towards the feeling, instead of wishing it weren’t there. Find curiosity about it.

Eventually, you’ll be able to stay, and you’ll see that it’s not the end of the world. The emotion isn’t that bad, as a physical feeling, and will even go away if you don’t get caught up in the story.

Question 3: Forgetting to Be Mindful

Q: For me it is so easy to go to distractions and forget to be mindful. How to get more discipline on that?

Leo: Keep practicing! You’ll get better and better at it. Put visual reminders around your house and work place. Find others in your life who want to get better too, and remind each other. Meditate regularly, and you’ll start to see your mind in action at other times. You’ll get more used to checking in with your breath and body. Find a practice group in your area, if you can, and sit with them regularly. You’ll see progress, I promise. But most importantly, don’t be harsh on yourself as you forget to be mindful. Be friendly toward yourself, reflect on how you’re doing, and just return to practicing.

Question 4: Mindful Speech

Q: Any tips on being more mindful about our talking?

Leo: Make a vow to refrain from harmful speech for a week. When you’re about to say something to someone, catch yourself if it’s out of frustration or a desire to control. Ask yourself if it’s coming from a place of love and kindness. If not, refrain from speaking, but instead, stay with the feeling and meditate on it (don’t just repress it or run away from it). It’s a great practice.

Question 5: Can’t Stop the Thoughts, Anxiety

Q: I have started the mindfulness course, over and over, because I can’t seem to stop the thoughts in my mind and concentrate in my breath or anything else than the current situations I’m in right now. What you suggest in this cases of extreme anxiety, when we’re dealing with a lot at the same time?

Leo: You can see that the meditation is very necessary, when you have extreme anxiety. But it’s overwhelming. So do it in small doses, and find a therapist to help guide you if necessary. If you can do it on your own, just do it for a minute, letting yourself drop from the story in your head about your situation, and just staying with the physical feeling in your body. When your mind goes back to the story (it will), just label it “thinking” and return to the feeling in your body. Keep returning, for the full minute. See if you can do this a couple times during the day.

Eventually, you’ll be able to open up to the physical feeling a little more, and do two mintues, or three, or five. You’ll develop trust that you can come back, that you can face it, that it’s not that bad. You’ll get better at coming back, at staying. Don’t worry if you’re not “doing well” or if you can’t stop. Just keep coming back, and develop a friendly attitude toward yourself about how you’re doing.

Question 6: Books on Mindfulness, Other Recommendations

Q: Can you recommend your top 3 books on mindfulness or top 3 books you recommend on habit change, if you have some favorite books like this? To go even further. Or other things you recommend like a Meditation Retreat?

Leo: Some great books on mindfulness: When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck, and Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. On habit change, I recommend my own book: The Habit Guide.

For a meditation retreat, I recommend a vipassana retreat (take an intro class first). Also, I have a mindfulness retreat in April (with reduced prices)!

Question 7: Alcohol & Mindfulness

Q: How even a little amount of alcohol affects mindful person?

Leo: It’s good to be mindful of the effects of alcohol on our minds and bodies! For me, I’m able to have a glass of wine without getting intoxicated, but if I have three glasses I get tipsy and am not at all mindful. That said, I find that even one drink does have an effect on me, and lessens my ability to stay present or stick to my vows. So I’m considering drinking less. I think it’s something we should all pay attention to and figure out what works for each one of us individually.