One of the most striking things that I’ve noticed in teaching beginners to meditate is how common the very earnest belief shows up of “I am doing this wrong and I am the only person in the world who is totally incapable of meditating.” Time and again I’m told, “I can never do this, because every time I try to meditate my mind wanders.”
1) Know that your mind will wander during meditation, and that does not mean you are doing it wrong.
Our minds think. It’s their job and just what they do. My beloved teacher Jack Kornfield always says it like this, “the mind is like a puppy, it will jump around and play.” When you notice that you are thinking during meditation, the noticing itself is the mindfulness at work.
2) Thank yourself for noticing when you are caught up in your thoughts.
When we meditate we are simply doing two things, focusing our attention on something (the breath, sound, sensations in the body), or catching our mind wandering and bringing it back to the object of our focus. Our mindfulness is like a muscle that we are training. Every time we catch ourselves lost in thought, we are doing the equivalent of lifting weights, strengthening our mindfulness muscle. Sometimes we’ll notice our mind has wandered after only a few seconds, sometimes we might be lost in thought for five minutes before we catch ourselves. We can think of that moment of catching ourselves as the key, and be grateful for our strength in noticing.
3) You can focus on things other than your breath during meditation.
Often beginner meditators will tell me that they find it too difficult to focus on their breath for a prolonged period. For some, there is a feeling of anxiety that comes from paying attention to the breath, and for some the feeling of restlessness is too great. When we practice meditation, we are bringing our whole attention and awareness to the present moment. This can be done using a walking meditation, mindful movement, focusing on sounds, focusing on scanning through parts of the body, mindfully eating, or many other variations of practice. The breath is not your only option.
4) It’s ok to start small.
Long meditations can be intimidating when we’re first starting out. It’s ok to start with a five-minute meditation most days of the week, or you can even experiment with a one-minute meditation. It’s true that some of the gifts of meditation increase as you expand your ability to be still for longer periods, but I’ve seen students notice tremendous benefits in their lives with starting with a practice of only five to ten minutes a day. Don’t let the guilt of not practicing long enough prevent you from not trying at all. Maybe today your meditation is just one slow breath of kindness for yourself.
5) Use a guided meditation.
When you’re first starting out, it’s easier for a lot of people to start with a guided meditation. There are a lot of free resources and apps available. Some of the more popular ones that students of mine use are apps like Insight Timer, Headspace, or Calm, or the podcast meditations of some of my favorite teachers: Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg or Jack Kornfield. I have a number of recordings of free meditations on my website as well.
Best of luck out there happy meditators! You got this.