Advice on Meditation

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Is meditation your newest and shiniest toy? Go to Advice for Beginners and I'll give you my version of the straight scoop.

Random Notes...

... that will eventually get cleaned up and made into something coherent TODO: make this into something coherent

A key thing to remember is non-judgement. Judging your results or perceived lack of results will just get in your way. When you sit you don't judge the thoughts or yourself for having them, you just go back the breath. Same thing with meditation in general. Don't judge whether there are "results", just go back to the cushion.

To me there's an element of faith there. Not faith in any supernatural entities but faith in the countless people that have already walked down this path and said that it improved their lives. If it was a good path for them then I can have faith that it will be a good path for me too, eventually. Eventually because each person walks their own path and it may be longer or shorter or easier or harder for an individual.

Speaking of individual, find a sangha if you can. A community. I think we kind of try to be that here but it's an online forum and talking to real people would be better.

Reaching the next level was easy breazy. It only took 3 years of meditation and 52 years of life to get me to a really good place. :)

I think each person's path is different. We can all hang out here and cheer each other on. We can try to point out the "best" path through the woods but really we're just pointing at the one that worked for us. When someone gets lost we can stand at the edge of the woods and call out in the hope that our voice will guide them through. But ultimately each person has to find their own path.

Get an app, Headspace is my recommendation* but they're all good. Start small and work your way up. Don't let yourself get discouraged. There is no right or wrong, just sit. Your mind WILL wander and that's okay. Everyone's mind wanders. The important part is when you notice and you go back to the breath. You don't have to use your breath as a focus. That annoying noise? Stop resisting it and use it as your focus, or use that itch in your foot. (But mostly use your breath because it's right there all the time and it's convenient to bring along when you travel.)

If you're like me, hopefully not, it may take a year before you begin to notice changes. I think early on I probably came out of each session feeling more relaxed so it's not like there was no benefit at all. I just think I ran on faith for quite a while before I started to see places outside meditation where my mind would start down a path and I'd catch it and point it in a more useful direction.

Create a meditation space. A cushion or a chair that is your primary meditation place.

Read, listen to podcasts. Learn some of the background and philosophy behind meditation. Robert Wright's "Why Buddhism is True" is excellent, though a bit dense.

Welcome aboard and good luck. You may never understand how lucky you are to start the trip at 17 instead of 50+.

* I recommend Headspace primarily because there's only one guide (teacher? narrator?). The advantage being that each session has the same basic structure:

* Intro chat/lesson
* Beginning - deep breaths, contact with the seat/floor, body scan, breath
* Middle section is longest, generally focused on breath but if there's a visualization or any other exercise it will be here
* End - release focus and let the mind wander a bit, come back to the body, open eyes when ready
* Sometimes there's an end chat/lesson
I think this consistency is useful for a beginner. Sometimes he says "begin in the usual way" and I was very encouraging for me that I had a usual way.

I just passed the three year mark and have only noticed real changes in the last few months.  I'm sure there must have been something in those three years that kept me going but I couldn't tell you what it was.  I'm not saying it'll take you three years, only that it did me.  Hang in there.

A couple of things I believe would have moved me along faster:
- Sitting for longer periods.  I was only doing 10-15 minutes for the great majority of that time and now that I'm doing 30+ minutes I have definitely noticed that it takes 5-10 minutes for my mind to settle. So for those three years I was getting up just before the good part.  Of course, the "good part" might only be there because I've got three years of experience sitting through the noise.
- A 7-10 day retreat.  I've never been on a retreat but I'm saying 7-10 days because I've heard/read repeatedly that the first 3-4 days are tough. You're not used to sitting so long, you miss your phone and your interwebs and maybe your spouse or kids. Around day 3-4 the end is still not in sight and apparently that's the point where your brain gives up and says "okay, fine, we'll do this", and it's after that point that people report big gains.  Note again that I have not been on a retreat but I've heard variations on the above several times as explanations for why people recommend 7-10 day retreats over shorter ones.

A couple of comments on things you said:
I still get distracted by thought every few seconds while meditating
You and everyone else. The important thing is that you notice you're distracted. Over time you focus a little longer but mostly you notice the distractions faster.  You might also notice that rather than disappearing your thoughts fade into the background. The voice of your thoughts becomes like a TV that's on in another room.  That's fine. You're watching the breath, the thoughts are flowing through but you're not engaging.  Because you're not engaging there's no need to even note or go "back to the breath" because you never left.
I find it relaxing sometimes and almost painful others.
Those are both fine.  Don't judge. Good and bad are thoughts in your head and you're learning to only engage those thoughts on your terms. Know that this is a long term project, not a quick fix. If you sit and you feel like it was great then be happy about that but know that it won't be like that everyday. If you sit and you struggle and you feel it was crap then the only thing that's wrong is you judging it. You sat, that's a win, take it and be proud of it and do it again tomorrow.

Don't judge. Good and bad are ideas that live in your brain. In that vein, don't worry about progress. You will worry about progress, just don't get hung up on it.

Watch your breath, notice you're distracted, watch your breath. That's the whole thing. But you have to do it 10,000+ times before it really makes a difference.

If it's any help I did 10-15 minutes most days for about three years and the only difference was that I felt a little calmer and relaxed. Then last month it was like things just started clicking. Meditation is 30-60 minutes now (mostly 30) and I feel much calmer, more balanced and relaxed. Things that used to make me nuts don't bother me for more than a few minutes. I'm really hopeful that it lasts but I'm aware of impermanence. At some point ahead of me there's some rocks for me to stumble over but those are in the future and that's not here yet.

> I like to believe that I’m making progress but I also don’t want to fool myself.

I'm super sympathetic here as I'm the same way. The human mind is a pattern-matching story machine. If it can find a pattern it will make a story about it. Doesn't matter if the story is true, it just needs a story. If it can't find a pattern it will invent one and then make a story about it. I'm very wary of telling myself untrue stories, especially about my own progress or lack thereof. The best answer I've found is back at the beginning of this post: don't judge. Just sit and have faith that there will be progress. At the very least you've had 10 minutes of quiet time.

Assuming you have a mobile phone there are a number of apps that offer free trials.

Headspace, 10% Happier, Calm and Insight Timer are the ones I see most often. First two are $80/year if you subscribe, don't know about Calm and Insight Timer is $60/year (I think).

I started meditating with Headspace in February 2016 (which I only know because I looked at "My Journey" yesterday). I had tried meditation a few times in the past and always failed with "I can't stop thinking so I can't do this". What hooked me was him saying in the free pack, you will think, and that's okay, just acknowledge it, let it go, and return to watching your breath. There was also a very nonjudgemental attitude there. You'll think, everyone gets lost in thought while meditating, it's okay, begin again.

I've tried the trials (or at least part of them) in the various apps and they're all pretty similar. The major difference is that Headspace has a single teacher so everything feels a bit more cohesive. The others are platforms for teachers to use so you get a lot of different voices, techniques, etc. I could see this as good or bad.

Here's an overly long comment talking mostly about Headspace (because it's the one I've used most).

Key things:

You'll think, it's okay, begin again.

There's no right way to do it. There are things that will work better for you. As long as it helps you then it's right.

That said, people have been doing this for a long time and there are some things that work better for more/most people and some things that can lead you astray. Find a teacher or at least check out books, podcasts, etc for additional info.

Note that all of the above applies to mindfulness meditation, there are other types but mindfulness is very popular in the US at the moment.

The overly long comment mentioned above.
I've used Headspace for over a year and gotten part way through the intro sessions of Insight Timer, and 10% Happier. I've looked at Calm but don't think I've ever used it.

Headspace is what finally got me into a regular practice. In one of sessions in the first 10 (free) he says something to the effect of "when you find yourself thinking, and you will, over and over again, just return to the breath". Since then I've heard that repeatedly from every source of info on mindfulness meditation. You will find yourself thinking, and that's fine and perfectly normal, just go back to watching your breath. That is the key lesson of any of these apps. Beyond that just use whichever one suits you.

Headspace has a very no-nonsense approach. There's no woo here, no magic or chi or "energy", it's just you training your brain. They have lessons, typically 10 or 30 day, on many topics, including three 10-day Foundation packs and six 10-day Pro packs. I've been through the Basic/Foundation set two or three times and Pro twice. Despite all that I still think I suck at meditation but I don't think that's his fault, I think I need to do longer sessions (actually did my first 1 hour today). I also very much like Everyday Headspace, where he'll talk for two or three minutes on a topic and then do a meditation that you can set from 3 to 20 minutes. The talk/lesson will be related to meditation in some way, although sometimes it's more about how we relate to the world. Lessons similar to the Buddhist idea that we suffer largely because we think we're supposed to. I'm sure Buddhism influences the lessons but he's never said "Buddha taught ... " or anything vaguely like that. Again, there's no woo here. AFAICT the Everyday Headspace meditations are pretty much the same, not varying much by topic. The other meditations are generally a few deep breaths, body scan, basic mindfulness but there is variation in the topic packs. For instance in the Focus pack he has you move your attention between various points on your body. In other packs he'll include visualizations, a beam of "liquid sunlight" being the most common one I've encountered.

So that's my braindump on Headspace. I would very much recommend it if you're not interested in magic woo energy and you like the guide to just talk normally. His tone is conversational during the intro/lesson and then a bit softer during the meditation, kind of like you'd talk in a library. I also like that he sometimes gives homework, generally something like "everytime you stand up or sit down today, notice that change in posture". I am horrible at these but if I think they're brilliant. I think I'm done for reelz now.

10% Happier has a lot of different guides. The one in the free Basics course is Joseph Goldstein. I'm on session 6 of 8 there and those have been okay but I don't know if it's enough to get a real feel for the app. I've read the 10% Happier book and it's interesting seeing so many names from the book listed as meditation teachers here. There's no woo in the Basics course but they have lots of teachers so can't say anything about the overall woo level other than author/founder Dan Harris seems very anti-woo so they probably avoid that. Tone wise I can only speak to the into and Goldstein is very similar in tone to Headspace, conversational at first then a bit softer in the meditation but without that breathy thing that the woo folks do.

Insight Timer also has a lot different teachers. I've done four days of the Learn How to Meditate in Seven Days course and don't care for the teacher. Very soft spoken, with a lot of breathy pauses, and uses the same voice in the lesson and in the meditation. This is a big annoyance for me. There's no woo (so far) in the course but based on the titles of other courses there's definitely a plenty of woo and chakra alignment to be had.

Insight Timer also has a timer that is free and fantastic, although the interface is confusing at first. The fantastic part is the ability to play a lovely bell tone at intervals of your choice. It's very configurable once you figure out the interface. Even if you don't use the guided meditations keep the timer handy. One off-label use I've found for it is naps. I'll set it for 10 minutes with a bell every one minute. The bells keep you from getting too deep in sleep but also aren't jarring so you end up with something close to those perfect naps where you feel like you're drifting right on the edge of waking up and you wake up really refreshed. It's not quite the same but it's the closest I've gotten intentionally.

Calm I've checked out but looking at it again I don't really remember anything about it.

As I wrote the above I figured out for the first time that the big advantage of Headspace may be that it's got a single voice, literally and figuratively. It's always Andy's voice and the lessons feel cohesive as he takes you day to day. Even when you move between courses the voice is the same and the techniques are similar so there's a comfort level for the student.

It was not my intention to write a Headspace ad, it's just the one I know best. You definitely want Insight Timer, even if you just use the timer.

The Mind Illuminated takes you through the whole journey and can be read in parts or used as reference.

The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa
How to Sit by Thich Nhat Hanh
Get Some Headspace by Andy Puddicombe
Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright
Waking Up by Sam Harris
10% Happier and Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris

Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself by Mark Epstein
Breathing through the Whole Body by Will Johnson
The Dharma of Modern Mindfulness by Beth Mulligan
On Having No Head by Douglas Edison Harding

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki

Okay, you're totally judgmental now. Maybe tomorrow will be different, but only if you do something to change it. Human brains are amazing. We can actually rewire them over time. We can unlearn bad habits and learn better ones. You can unlearn bad habits and learn better ones.

Sit, breath. When you notice you're judging just smile at the silly cute monkey and go back to your breath. Do that over and over and boom, new habit.

What do you mean by smile? Like literlally?

Generally yeah, an actual smile. Just a little turn up at the corners as i find my brain amusing sometimes. I don't do it all the time I've become surprised at how often I do. I think it started before I read this but not sure.

As you sit, consider smiling lightly. This is should be a natural smile, not a grimace or a forced smile. You smile relaxes all your facial muscles. When you smile to your whole body, it is as if you are bathed in a fresh, cool stream of water.

-- Thich Nhat Hanh in How to Sit

I would actually recommend that. Just a tiny turn up at the corners helps very much to take yourself a little more lightly.