I’ve been meditating regularly now for about six weeks. That means I’m an expert, and I’m here to tell you exactly how to change everything that’s wrong in your life with meditation. Just kidding, I still have no idea what I’m doing.
As with many things in life, if you have no idea what you’re doing, it can be useful to follow the road-map of people who are experts. As I’ve mentioned, my meditation road-map is a book called The Mind Illuminated. I like it because it’s instructive, clear and devoid of excess woo-woo.
The Mind Illuminated sets out steps to take before you begin to meditate. I think of these as my “preparing for meditation” checklist. I’ve incorporated these steps (slightly modified) into my own meditation practice and I have found them profoundly useful.
While I meditate I sit on a cushion on the floor in my bedroom, facing my bedside table. My eyes are closed and, although I occasionally fidget or have the dreaded super-tingly-leg, I try to just sit still.
Before that, I’m just getting my meditation game face on. My eyes are open, I’m not trying to be still, sometimes I stand up and pace as I work to prepare for the “real” meditation time.
About the pre-mediation checklist. It’s literally a piece of paper with these steps written out so I don’t miss one. I’m not speaking in analogy, in other words. This is not some sort of mystical process or metaphysical checklist.
Here are the 8 things I do to prepare for meditation.
1. Set up my meditation space
This isn’t from the The Mind Illuminated’s original suggestions for preparing for meditation, it’s just the first thing I do. I clear anything off my bedside table – piles of books or seed catalogs or old coffee mugs – to make sure the surface I’ll be facing as I meditate isn’t distracting.
My bedside table is a small, Chinese-style cabinet. It has a little drawer hidden behind two cabinet doors. In this drawer I store my meditation checklist, some matches, and an old empty Altoids tin that I use for storing burnt out matches.
After I clear the bedside table surface of clutter, I take out my pre-mediation checklist and some matches, and light two candles. The slightly sulfurous smell of the matches has become a sensory cue that I’m going to mediate. I adjust the light on my salt lamp so that there is a nice, low glow in my mediation space, and begin working through the steps on my meditation checklist.
2: Review my motivation
I say, out loud, why I am meditating in a global sense. In my case, I am meditating to make room for more spontaneous joy in my life. So I say that: “I’m meditating to make room for more spontaneous joy in my life.”
Other motivations might be to find peace of mind, to feel better, to improve focus, to calm anxiety, to make room for creativity, to develop spiritually, or a zillion other things. Everyone’s motivation for meditation is personal and unique.
3: Set an intention
Here The Mind Illuminated instructs the meditation student to set a goal, but in the writing there’s almost an unspoken apology that the word goal is even necessary. I’ve chosen to use the word intention, because if I commit to a goal, some very Type-A achievement-driven stuff comes along for the ride that isn’t helpful to meditation practice.
In setting my intention, I say out loud what I’m trying to accomplish for this specific meditation session. Because I am very new to this, it’s usually a little baby thing like a specific time – 20 or 25 minutes – where I will try to just focus on my breath. Other intentions might be patience with yourself when your mind wanders, or a certain feeling like dullness or connection that you’ve experienced in pass meditation sessions.
4: Resolve not to judge
The Mind Illuminated calls this step “Setting Aside Expectations” and pairs it with Goal Setting (the step above). The explanation is “try to have a goal, but hold that goal very, very lightly.”
It is hard for me to wrap my head around that combo. I mean, if you have a goal, by definition you don’t hold it lightly – you track that sumbitch like it owes you money until your goal is fully and truly realized. Never give up! Never surrender! (You see why I need meditation?)
This step is really about making sure that you are gentle with yourself, regardless of how the actual meditation practice goes. If you’re worried about your meditation as you’re meditating then you can’t really get into the meditation. Meditation is tricky like that.
For my own clarity I think of this step as not judging the meditation session. I find it useful to say – again, out loud – “I won’t judge this meditation session.”
5: Review distractions
This step takes me the longest, typically. My brain does not like to turn off. I always have 97 things swirling around in there. Some are practical to do type things, some are regrets about past events, some are ruminations about future potentials, some are frustrations with myself or with other people, many are completely totally random – spontaneous ideas for art or writing or garden design or a homeschool project.
Often one or two key things are gnawing at me, and usually they are negative things. I rarely have trouble pausing ebullient thoughts – it’s always the dark shadows telling me all the ways I’m fucking up that won’t pipe down.
I try to take an inventory of these things. This sounds like a very brief therapy session. Out loud I say stuff like, “I’m feeling really frustrated by ABC person because XYZ behavior was hurtful.” Or, “I’m worried about how to meet expectations for XYZ commitment and still do ABC and I’m feeling a little overwhelmed.”
I try to acknowledge these thoughts and clearly define them but not allow myself to “spool up” about them. Then I try to be very, very gentle with myself, as if the part of me having these thoughts was a little kid having a nightmare. I tell myself it’s okay. I try to soothe fearful, anxious thoughts rather than shout them down. And then I resolve to set all that stuff aside, just for the duration of the meditation.
6: Commit to diligence
Committing to diligence is a reminder that the meditation session is for quieting the mind and being in the moment and that’s all it’s for. It’s a rally to “be here now.” In my very limited experience, you spend a lot of time in meditation being jolted into the realization that your brain totally wandered off into distraction-land, and bringing your focus back to the breath (or whatever you’re focusing on).
That’s ok. That’s kinda the point, actually. You’re training the mind to let those distractions go and return to your point of focus. But you have to be diligent about going back to the breath instead of indulging the distractions during a meditation session. This is easier said than done. The distractions can often feel urgent or titillating or more interesting than the quiet alternative.
I say, “I will be diligent about maintaining my focus in this meditation session” and then try to stick to that.
The Mind Illuminated puts the “Commiting to Diligence” step before the “Reviewing Distractions” step, but it works better for me swap the order. I’ve found performing a full inventory of the things that have me on edge, resolving to set those things aside, and then committing to diligence in the meditation session flows very naturally.
7: Review my posture
At this point, if I haven’t yet, I sit down on a pillow on the floor in front of my bedside table with the little candles and salt lamp. I don’t have a fancy meditation position, but I find what’s called half-lotus comfortable and easy to maintain for the length of time I meditate. I do a quick body scan to make sure my spine is comfortably straight and I’m not hunching over.
I just rest my hands naturally on my knees, not in any fancy hand positions. I make sure I’m feeling balanced left to right and front to back.
I try to meditate with my eyes closed, but raised slightly upward behind my eyelids. The Mind Illuminated recommends letting your jaw relax so your teeth are slightly apart, and setting your tongue against the back of your teeth. That works well for me, so that’s what I do.
8: Turn on the meditation timer
The last thing I do before closing my eyes to meditate is to put my meditation checklist back in the drawer and start a countdown timer on the meditation app I use, Calm. Sometimes I have 10 minutes to meditate, sometimes I have 45. Twenty-five minutes seems to be a nice length for where I am in my practice.
How long does preparing for meditation take?
From start to finish, working through these 8 steps usually takes about 5 or 10 minutes. When I first started meditating it took longer, because I had to really think through my motivation and intentions. Now, unless something changes, I have those pretty well figured out.
If my bedside table is extra messy there’s an extra two minutes where I run mugs down to the sink. If I’m working through a lot of frustration, feelings of betrayal or hurt, or a sense of overwhelm, the review of distractions can take longer – sometimes quite a bit longer.
If I’m having to drag myself into the day’s meditation session, I can procrastinate by drawing out the time I spend on the checklist. If I’m tight for time but eager to get to the meditation practice I might rush a bit.
But typically, it’s about 5 to 10 minutes and the ritual of the lead in to meditation really seems to help the quality of my meditation sessions.