In the past year I have gotten into meditation and have experimented with a number of techniques. While there is great value in going deep with one method, I have also found value in becoming comfortable with many, having many tools in the toolbox, so to speak. Over time it becomes natural to switch among them, to mix and match, even in the course of a single sit. Here is the list of boiled down techniques and tips that I wish I would have had from the beginning.
1. Just settling down, being present, abiding in awareness
1. Just settling down, being present, abiding in awareness
- Just sit there and don't try to accomplish anything.
- If you get distracted or lost in thought, don't worry, because you are not trying to accomplish anything.
- Enjoy the space that you are giving yourself to just be as you are. To abide in reality as it is. If you aren't enjoying it, don't worry, because you are not trying to accomplish anything.
- There is nowhere to go, there is nothing to do, you are already here.
- Whenever it occurs to you, notice the sensations of the breath
- If you get distracted for a moment or for a long time, don't worry about it, just come back to noticing the breath
- Don't try to hard, don't strain, don't beat yourself up. Whenever it occurs to you, just nudge your attention gently towards the breath.
- Instead of straining, just try to generate interest. Isn't it interesting that such a simple thing, this expansion and contraction, has always been with us, keeps us alive?
3. Concentrating on an object
- Pick something, anything, that seems relatively stable or predictable and keep your attention on it.
- If your notice that your attention has wandered, gently bring it back to the object of concentration
- When you notice that your attention has wandered, you are already back, getting frustrated or angry with yourself is not helpful.
- It doesn't matter how many times you wander or how long you wander. Each time you come back to the object of concentration, you are building concentration muscle. Think of it as weight training, it takes many reps.
- Popular objects of concentration include: the breath (see #2); an external object (flower, rock, candle flame); a constant or repetitive sound, a mantra (internally repeat a 1-3 syllable sound over and over again); the feeling of attention or presence; the feeling of being a witness; a positive feeling such as calm, joy, love, tenderness, or peace. In this last case, it might help to start by remembering a situation that evoked this feeling.
4. Metta/Loving Kindness
- Start by remembering or visualizing a situation or person that evokes positive feelings such as calm, joy, love, tenderness, peace, compassion, etc.
- Allow yourself to soak in this feeling for a while, allow it to expand and envelop your whole being.
- Now apply this feeling to yourself. Wish yourself happiness, contentment, joy, and loving kindness. If you are self critical have compassion and forgiveness for yourself.
- Now apply this feeling to the people in your life that you love. Wish them the same things that you wished yourself
- Now apply this feeling to people in your life that you don't particularly care for, or even those that you might actively dislike. Finally, apply this feeling to all of humankind.
5. Choiceless noting
- Either out loud or using a mental label, simply note the most immediate sensation in your awareness.
- By noting objects in consciousness, you are objectifying and dis-embedding from them. This can be incredibly liberating.
- Here is an example of a sequence of labels one might use: feeling, feeling, itching, anxious, feeling, thinking, thinking, calming, hearing, hearing, dryness, itching, self awareness, thinking, planning, planning, itching, anxious, warmth, pleasant...
- Don't worry about finding the "correct" label. Also don't worry about diversity, if the same label keeps coming up again and again, that's fine.
- If trying to find the correct label is tripping you up, over time it might be useful to develop a vocabulary for common or subtle sensations when you are not meditating.
- If you find yourself getting distracted by thoughts or difficult emotions, just note them: thinking, distracted, angry, restlessness, craving...etc. Think of every distraction as fuel for mindfulness.
- Go at a speed that feels natural. For some people this will be 1 note every 2-5 seconds, and for others it will be 1-3 notes per second. With practice you might pick up speed, but this will happen naturally, no need to force it or attain a certain speed
- If you start noticing faster than you can label, than switch down to mono-syllables to tag experience. For example: dat, dat, dat..... or hm, hm, hm......
- If even mono-syllable labeling starts to seem cumbersome, slow, or to be a needless filter on experience, than it has finished serving its purpose. Feel free to drop it and switch to choice-less noticing (see #7).
6. Structured noting
- Similar to #3, but decide beforehand on the noting framework to use. There are countless ways to do this. Here are some examples.
- Just note the general senses: feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting. You might also add thinking as the "6th sense".
- Shinzen Young's schema: "feel in" for any emotion, "feel out" for any non-emotional physical body sensation, "see in" for mental images, "see out" for external sights, "hear in" for internal dialogue, "hear out" for external sounds, "...rest" if you notice the absence of feeling, hearing, or seeing, and "gone" if notice the the disappearance of a sensation.
- Noting the "Three Characteristics": In Therevada Buddhism the meditator tries to notice that all sensations are 1) impermanent, 2) unsatisfactory, and 3) impersonal (or not self). One can note aspects of these. For 1) notes can include "arising", "passing", and "gone". For 2) notes can include "clinging", "craving", and "aversion". For 3) notes can include "empty" and "not me".
- Simple Noting. For example, one can just note "thinking" every time they catch themselves thinking. Or they can just note whether the current sensation is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
7. Choice-less noticing/open awareness
- This requires some degree of prior concentration. If you feel distracted or you are getting lost in thought (which is different than noticing thoughts), try one of the previous methods first.
- Become receptive to the whole field of awareness. Pay attention to whatever seems to take precedence in any given moment.
- Try to break larger sensations and feelings (aggregates) down to their energetic components. Notice that all sensations are impermanent and impersonal. They are just empty energy blips flickering in and out.
- When you do this, distinctions of inside/outside, me/not me, pleasant/unpleasant etc. will start to fade away. Let them fade.
- If you get distracted, instead of switching to another method, you can also try just tapping into the insight that "you" are not actually in control of anything. Thoughts arise on their own, sensations arise on their own, even intentions arise due to prior conditions.
- Pay attention to the sensations in the body
- It is easiest to start with one body area at a time, taking a few minutes with each. For example, start by feeling the hands, than the arms, than the feet, than the legs, then the lower core, than the upper core, than the head, than the whole body at once.
- Don't try to manipulate or amplify the sensations. Just allow yourself to feel what you in fact feel. If you don't feel something strongly or at all, that's fine, just keep your attention there anyway.
- If you find yourself getting distracted, note the distraction (e.g. "thinking") than return to scanning.
9. Experimenting with boundaries
- In #7 I mentioned that certain dualities in your experience might start to fall away. This can also be cultivated directly. The point is to recognize that consciousness is one, there is only the unified field. Here are some techniques for doing this:
- Look out at the world (or close your eyes and listen out) and notice that it is outside of yourself. Now imagine that it is actually inside.
- Close your eyes and contemplate the feeling of time. Investigate: How do you know that time is passing? What sensations are associated with the passing of time, what internal images or memories or emotions contribute to this feeling?
- Close your eyes and imagine a scene from your childhood, remember how it felt. Remember the sense of being alive, remember the sense of being present at that moment. Now image a scene within the past few years and do the same. Now open your eyes and notice the feeling of being present now. Investigate: Isn't it always the present?
- Try to find your mind. Where is it in the field of experience? A thought arises, is that your mind? If yes, how can something that arises and vanishes be your mind? Notice that, as a matter of experience, there is no mind, it is empty, their are only objects in consciousness.
- Open your eyes and imagine that your don't have a head. It shouldn't be very hard because you can't see your head (just part of your nose and maybe eyebrow, and without hands you cannot feel your head (you can only feel sensations). It might help to try pointing your finger and looking at various objects. Finally, point your finger back at your head. What is it pointing to? As a matter of experience, you can only see the finger pointing, not the thing it is pointing to.
10. Self Inquiry
- This is similar to #9, but the boundary is the sense of self.
- Ask yourself, "who am I?". Notice the thoughts and sensations that arise. Ask yourself, "to whom do these thoughts/sensations arise?". If the answer is "to me?", ask yourself again, "But who am I?".
- There are countless variants to this. Other questions include: "where am I?", "who is hearing this sound?", "who is seeing?", "who is feeling anxious"...in fact, whenever you notice any feeling at all, you can turn it around and inquire to who/what/where/why the feeler is. This can be done at any point during the day when your attention isn't immediately occupied.
- If you inquire and nothing comes up, that is good, just abide in the emptiness/oneness. Don't try generating thoughts/sensations that don't arise spontaneously
- You can also use affirmations and negations. An example of an affirmation is: "I am" or "I am not separate from the universe". An example of a negation is: "I am not my body, I am not the sensations that arise, I am not my thoughts".
Free online resources that I have found immensely valuable:
In depth interviews with "enlightened" people. Although some of them just appear crazy.