Practising meditation sounds like it should be so simple. But there's a reason they call it 'practice'. It took me several years before I had a solid, daily practice of sitting meditation. That's not to say that I didn't get huge benefits from practising mindfulness informally, in my life - I did. Mindful approaches got me through some tough times way before I was doing as much meditation as I do now. But I also find it's true that the benefits of mindfulness increase with regular sitting practice.
When you're first starting out, it's like nothing you've ever learned before, so of course it takes a bit of trial and error to get into the swing of meditating. There are quite a few common pitfalls that many of us encounter along the way. I should know, I've fallen into most of them personally!
Here's a little guidance on how to make your meditation practice easier on yourself.
1. Don't expect anything in particular to happen
We live in a very outcome-driven culture. So it's no surprise that we approach meditation wanting to get it 'right', and to know straight away that it's working for us. Unfortunately, mindfulness doesn't quite happen like that. We have to try it out for ourselves, and let it unfold over time. Reading books about it can be helpful, and I find it very inspiring too. But if you catch yourself saying 'I'll just read this next book to make sure I'll be doing it right, then I'll start', there's a chance you might never actually start. This was definitely me. But what I discovered is that you can only really learn to meditate by doing it. When you first begin, give yourself plenty of permission for nothing in particular to happen, and if you're not sure if you're doing it right - that may well mean that you're developing the crucial mindfulness trait of 'Don't Know Mind'. It's also well worth making the switch from reading about it to using guided meditation recordings, so you can tell yourself that all you have to do is listen.
2. When you start to feel like it's 'working' - don't stop!
Let's say you've been practising for a while, and you're feeling some sort of benefit. You feel a bit better for it, so you think maybe it's done the trick and you can stop now. But mindfulness isn't like taking a painkiller, it's more like taking a daily vitamin. If you stop, so will the benefits. Unfortunately we're used to trying to fix things, so we expect the same from meditation. Mindfulness works by practising regularly, without an end date based on a particular outcome. I can personally say that as the years go by, I come to rely on my practice more and more. It also seems to constantly make more things possible for me that I'd never have imagined - from overcoming fears, to ever-deepening contentment. A regular practice safeguards wellbeing, boosts resilience to difficulty and increases enjoyment of the good times. So if you're tempted to stop once it's 'working', try flipping your mindset to see your practice as an insurance policy, rather than an emergency fix.
3. Meditate whatever frame of mind you're in
Before I found mindfulness, I thought I'd never be the sort of person who was calm enough to meditate. But if I'd waited until I felt all 'zen' to get on the meditation cushion, I'd never have started! Happily, I can report that my practice has made me much calmer. But that has only come about as a result of practising 'whatever the weather'. In mindfulness, we often say that what goes on in our thoughts and feelings are like weather patterns passing through. Some sessions I feel scattered, sometimes I'm sleepy, sometimes I'm antsy, it's all part of being human. And it's all part of what we're getting to understand better when we meditate and bring awareness to it. So you may even find it's useful to practice when you don't feel in the 'right' frame of mind. Some of my most significant learnings have come about in this way. I'm not advocating pushing yourself if you're feeling something very strong - that might be when you need appropriate support rather than meditation. But don't feel you have to wait until you feel perfectly serene to practice: every session counts. I usually suggest that beginners give themselves permission not to feel relaxed during meditation. Then if relaxation arises, it's a bonus, and if it doesn't, that doesn't mean you're not cut out for meditation. Stay real about what it is to be human, and bring that to your practice.
4. If you're pushed for time, just find a few minutes
It's a well-known truism that when we are too busy or stressed to meditate is when we need it most. It can be tempting to think 'I don't have 20 or 30 minutes to spare, so there's no point doing anything'. But research has shown significant benefits from meditating for just 10 minutes per day. Even doing a few minutes per day will help build up the habit and keep you committed to your practice - a small anchor in your day to steady you. Little and often will benefit you much more than doing say, one 30-minute session once per week. Learning how to incorporate meditation into your usual (ie busy) routine can provide a powerful ally in hectic times. To strengthen this anchor, find a recorded 3-Minute Breathing Space (or learn it from a book), and tell yourself you'll just do three minutes. Then you might see if once you're sitting there, you feel like sitting on for a minute or two. And so on. This is how I built up my practice to a length of 40 minutes plus: I started with only 10 minutes and extended bit by bit. Usually, once I'd actually stopped and sat down, I realised I could take a little bit longer out of my day than I thought. So start small, just get yourself 'on the cushion', and see what happens.
I hope that these suggestions may help if you're trying to get into meditation, or experiencing a lapse. Life can be hard enough without making our meditation practice hard too!
If you've discovered other things that have helped, do come and share them with me on Twitter @sheilabayliss