Meditation n00b, difficulty in remaining in the zone
January 29, 2013 8:55 AM   Subscribe

So, I'm starting out on meditation, but finding it near impossible to stay focused for more than a few seconds. Any tips for not thinking about cheese et al for a while?

Context; may be irrelevant. Trying this for:

- Physical health reasons. On two meds which is keeping high blood pressure normal, but pulse rate is persistently high. Mid forties, and this is becoming a major issue.
- Mental health reasons. Long-term (decades) deep stresses through family reasons.
- Inability to focus. The mind operates in one of two negative ways:
1. Thinks in 'hypertext'; can get distracted by something in mid-sentence, goes down 'thought rabbit holes'
2. Flips between (pointless) future planning, hopes and fears for the future, and memories, ruminating on the past. In other words, rarely stays focused on the 'here and now'
- Quiet mind-space. It would be so good to have just a few minutes every day where my head is not endlessly invaded with thoughts of work, health, family, emigration, missing my fiancee and so forth.

After reading around, rather than stuffing yet more meds inside me, would rather work, adopt and persist with non-chemical techniques such as these. I don't have a problem with sitting still for meditation (useful previous AskMe thread), nor getting into the mind-calm zone (another useful AskMe thread). The problem is staying there i.e. my mind not wandering off onto an aforementioned thought path after 10 or 15 seconds.

Been trying this daily for around three weeks now, and the "quiet head time" duration isn't getting better. Am I being too hasty in expecting to go from hyper-mind to zen-mind, or are there useful tips or tricks to get there?
posted by Wordshore to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
It just takes time. Keep at it and your mind will wander less and less as you train it.
posted by amro at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone's mind wanders off, even the most experienced meditators. Don't think about the fact that you mind wandered other than to note that it happened and then start back into thinking about your breathing etc.
posted by caddis at 9:12 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: So this is going to depend a lot on the kind of meditation you're doing. But in some traditions (e.g. mindfulness meditation) the goal is not to keep your mind perfectly calm and empty and free from weird-ass distracto crud. It's rather to notice, acknowledge and be aware of all the weird-ass distracto crud as it floats by.

You catch yourself thinking about cheese; you tell yourself "huh, I'm thinking about cheese"; and you go back to following your breath. Thirty seconds later you catch yourself thinking about cheese again and you do the same thing.

That noticing-and-recentering thing isn't "correcting a mistake." It isn't a failure to meditate properly. It is the meditation.

But again, YMMV depending on the tradition you're in.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:19 AM on January 29, 2013 [34 favorites]

Practice, practice, practice.

Now there's comments above are very good.
posted by humboldt32 at 9:20 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There really aren't any tricks. Sorry! I've been doing meditation, sometimes very intensively, for many years and well, this is just how it is sometimes. There isn't much you can do to fix it. Your experiences will likely change over time but you can't "skip" this frustrating stuff because seeing this frustrating stuff is the point! I know that may seem annoying, but bear with me.
1. It is not possible to will yourself to stop thinking. I promise.
2. Thinking is not a problem and thoughts are not bad. Believe me, I know it's annoying, but look closely- why is that? Thoughts on their own are just little blips in the mind with very little substance. The misery comes in when we try to force them to stop, struggling like someone trying to keep water out of a leaking submarine, or we feel that they are painfully true, wounding us nonstop without any way to protect ourselves.

One way to practice is to note whatever you were distracted by with a simple word ("thinking", "planning", "worrying") and then check out how your body feels. 9 times out of 10 a charged emotional thought comes with body sensations. Notice them.

Whatever you notice, have compassion. If you were distracted by a painful worry, when you notice yourself distracted and tense, come back and see of you can find a bit of compassion for the suffering you experienced. It really is suffering.

Thinking while meditating does not mean you are doing it wrong. It does not mean you are getting less benefit. It does not mean you are a bad meditator. It is actually the point: getting quiet enough so you can see the painful habits and compulsions we all act out. You are clearly doing that correctly and if you stick with it the same old patterns will start to die off.

All this said, sometimes using appropriate focusing tools helps. Have you tried counting breaths? Also, have you tried a wider field of awareness such as the whole body sitting or the experience of listening? Can give a bit more of a spacious feel.

Message me if you want to talk about this.
posted by Cygnet at 9:21 AM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Some things that have helped me get/stay 'in the zone,' so to speak...

- Gaze softly into the middle distance. Don't close your eyes; keep them half-open, not focusing on anything in particular. Let your eyes zone out and relax inside your head. In my sangha, there is a meditation instructor who describes this as feeling a little bit like you are retracting your eyeballs into your skull.

- Count your breaths: both inhalations and exhalations up to 10, then only exhalations up to 20, then start over (or start over at any point at which you lose count). It may seem antithetical to have to focus on something during practice, at least initially, but this type of focus is on something that is not distracting, distressing, or ruminatory.

- Focus on the tip of your nose and how it feels when you breathe in and out. Don't worry about whether you're breathing too fast or too slow or not rhythmically enough, just observe the breath, your body simply doing its thing automatically, moment by moment. Pretty beautiful, huh?

- Meditation is a lifetime practice. It took me over a year of practice before I could reliably get my mind properly situated before the sangha's closing bell rung. Even if you practice for decades, you will never really "get there," or plant your flag at the top of Zen Mountain to remain there in perpetuity. Love it or hate it, but that's kind of the point. The destination is the journey, enjoy the ride!

- In the meantime, this (PDF, hard copy available here) may help you.
So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.
The same way works for you yourself as well. If you want to obtain perfect calmness in your zazen, you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come, and let them go. Then they will be under control. But this policy is not so easy. It sounds easy, but it requires some special effort. How to make this kind of effort is the secret of practice.
posted by divined by radio at 9:21 AM on January 29, 2013 [10 favorites]

Also, guided meditations can be helpful for keeping your focus on the meditation. There are lots of free resources for these, podcasts, Apple University etc. Jon Kabbot Zinn's talk at Google is a classic and up on youtube etc. It contains a small guided meditation portion and also some info on distraction etc.
posted by caddis at 9:21 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Susan Piver has a really helpful blog and twitter feed that might be helpful.
posted by jbickers at 9:39 AM on January 29, 2013

The problem is staying there i.e. my mind not wandering off onto an aforementioned thought path after 10 or 15 seconds.

There's actually also been an Askme about this as well. My advice in that other one should also work for you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:43 AM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: Some good suggestions above – I am terrible at keeping up with it, but I find guided meditations very helpful. I also sometimes just think “breathing in, breathing out” along with my breaths.

I briefly took a class in mindfulness meditation and one thing that was emphasized in the first class is that the mind wandering isn’t “bad” or you “doing it wrong.” It is the opportunity for you to practice. You don’t jump into any other activity and expect to be perfect right away; if meditation was basketball then your mind wandering is just you missing a basket. You just pick up the ball and try again.
posted by Sabby at 9:44 AM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: Be patient with yourself. It takes practice to get to a point where your mind can relax, you are unlikely to get there the first few (or even the first dozen) times. For me it took a couple of weeks of daily meditation before it stopped being a huge battle just to sit still and keep my eyes closed.

Make it easy on yourself. Be forgiving. Find somewhere comfortable to sit, or lie down if you prefer -- somewhere where you won't have too much interference from your body, but where you won't fall asleep either. Create a calming environment -- dim the lights, maybe find some meditation music on YouTube if that's your thing, make sure you are somewhere where you feel safe and where you don't have to worry about being interrupted.

Be patient and don't berate yourself when you can't manage your preconceived ideal of what meditation should be like/feel like. Meditation is hard! Sitting still and being quiet in yourself is hard. Consider that if your mind is running down rabbit holes, it may be because there are things in your life that you aren't fully processing during the rest of your day. Let your mind wander, even if at first it is thinking about things that you'd rather not be thinking about. After a while -- maybe after a few minutes, maybe after a few days -- it will calm down a bit as the wild tangents eventually run themselves out.

For now, just focus on letting your mind relax and do its own thing, and just take ownership of whatever feelings and thoughts and emotions you experience. The thoughts and sensations that you experience during meditation are not always pleasant -- sometimes you will be working through unpleasant things that you are deferring the rest of the time, and that is a valid and healthy part of the meditation process.

A couple more tips: when your mind is going crazy, you might try focusing on relaxing your body. For me I find that when I have a lot of stress, I carry a surprising amount of it in my facial and shoulder muscles, without realizing -- sometimes it helps me to do some progressive muscle relaxation in those areas. I also find that my meditation is more productive if I don't just try to throw myself straight into a meditative state from whatever keyed-up state I happen to be in -- it helps to do some general relaxation and calming before actually starting to sit meditation, usually by taking a few minutes to stretch and rub my feet and get comfortable.

I am hardly a meditation expert, but these are some of the lessons that I have learned in my own practice so far. I hope they can be helpful to you.
posted by Scientist at 9:52 AM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I came to reccomend the book divined mentioned, it's really the only book I ever bother mentioning when it comes to meditation. Even just reading the words seems to calm my mind, slow my breathing, and make the monkeys of the mind take a break.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:09 AM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: There is already great advice here, but I'll chime in with something I don't think has been mentioned yet. When you find your thoughts drifting off, perhaps try to bring them back to focus by doing a body scan meditation. It can be as quick or long as you like. As you work through each part of your body, you'll feel encouraged by your sense of focus and this will help you relax and feel more comfortable. Some yoga teachers will guide students through body scan during shavasana, so if you have ever taken a yoga class, you may have already experienced body scan. But if not, there are plenty of guided scans available online. Doing a quick search, I found these: 10 min (scrub to 1:35) male voice, 30 min (stream or download) female voice (I quite like her intonation), and basic body scan script. There are many, many more out there; if the body scan appeals to you, it's worth digging around until you find the one that resonates best with you.

Practice, practice, practice and allow your mind to wander, compassionately.
posted by mayurasana at 10:17 AM on January 29, 2013

Are you just sitting and trying to meditate on your own? Or listening to a recording? If you're trying to dive into this headfirst without any guidance, I would recommend trying to find a "guided" recording (CD, MP3, podcast, YouTube vid, etc) that you like. You might want to start out with breathing/relaxation exercises.
posted by radioamy at 10:22 AM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: I am, right now, reading The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation. you will want to read this book.

essentially, the entire book is on the topic of exactly what you are asking about. breaking through that clutter to clear the mind is the subject of entire religions and practices. Zen, yoga, buddhism, etc. all give you structure of some sort in order to follow a path.

"The practice of meditation could be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream. It refreshes because we do not have to do anythng or expect anything. But there must be some sense of discipline if we are to try to get beyond the frivolity of trying to replace boredom. That is why we work with the breath as our practice of meditation."

"We begin meditation practice by dealing with thoughts, the fringe of ego. The practice of meditation is an undoing process."

sit, breathe, repeat. be compassionate and loving. meditation is about breaking down the barriers between your 'self' as it is and your thoughts and projections of what you want yourself to be. it is about seeing through the illusions of the world and finding things as they are.

In Buddhism, we express our willingness to be realistic through the practice of meditation. Meditation is not a matter of trying to achieve ecstasy, spiritual bliss, or tranquility, nor is it attempting to become a better person. It is simply the creation of a space in which we are able to expose and undo our neurotic games, our self-deceptions, our hidden fears and hopes. We provide space through the simple discipline of doing nothing. Actually, doing nothing is very difficult. At first, we must begin by approximating doing nothing, and gradually our practice will develop. So meditation is a way of churning out the neuroses of mind and using them as part of our practice.
posted by ninjew at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some very good suggestions here. I've been meditating for some years now.

One thing that works very nicely for me is writing down everything that's bouncing around in my head before I sit. I'm not a journal-y kind of person, so I was reluctant to do it, but when I do, I meditate better.

So, when I have time, I write for about 20 minutes before I meditate. It helps empty my brain so I can attend to meditating.
posted by metarkest at 11:30 AM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: Really, the point is to acknowledge that you're having all those thoughts, especially in the beginning stages. When you start thinking, say to yourself, "There is thinking... There is thinking... There is thinking." It's really what meditation is. You're not doing it wrong. You can guide yourself to re-focus on your breath afterwards. You may find that your thoughts slow down as you do it more. When I am trying to get back into a groove, I begin meditating in five minute blocks and kick it up as I start to feel capable of more.

It sounds like perhaps you're actually doing it right, because you know that you are engaging in future planning, etc. That's what it is to be mindful of your thinking. The actual content of the thoughts frequently loosen their grip with time.

A lot of Buddhist types talk about "wise effort," which is finding the balance between striving too little and striving too much. If you are sitting there on your pillow and not getting up and it's your sincere intention to meditate, you're meditating! :-)
posted by mermily at 12:29 PM on January 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've felt that the point of meditating is to become more aware of my thoughts, not to stop having them entirely.

Realizing that your mind drifted and bringing your focus back to your breath - or the candle flame, or whatever - is always a win, because you are exercising that muscle.
posted by bunderful at 1:39 PM on January 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many good tips above. In case you would like some external validation, Kosho Uchiyama, a student of Kodo Sawaki (arguably the greatest 20th century zen master), writes about zazen meditation as 'opening the hand of thought'. We tend to overdevelop the mental muscles that grip onto thoughts, and underdevelop our complementary letting-go muscles. You are not a rock, says Uchiyama: your brain is like a gland that naturally secretes thoughts. The trick is letting go of them.

The more times per session you let go of cheese --> the more repetitions you give your hand-of-thought muscles --> the more intense your workout.
posted by feral_goldfish at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I second the guided-body-scan suggestion. Mindful awareness of your body is relaxing, centering and peaceful in itself. It directly accomplishes some of the good stuff you're describing. But it also flows naturally into mindful awareness of sight, smell, hearing, and ultimately of your internal state of mind.

I also second the idea to think of this as exercising a muscle. I think of it like weightlifting -- every time I notice that I've become distracted and recenter myself, it's like doing another rep. If I get distracted every 10-15 seconds, hey, I get to do a lot of reps.

Remember also that we are using words to describe a non-verbal process, so don't get too attached to any of our words -- or any of your conclusions about your own progress. If you can get a little benefit out of a "weightlifting" metaphor or a "hand opening" or "breaking down barriers" or "basketball practice" or "climbing Zen Mountain," that's great. But the same mind that finds all these words useful is also going to whisper to you that you have a "problem," that you're having "difficulty," that you aren't "getting better" or conversely are being "too hasty." See it cranking along there, comparing, analyzing, critiquing, predicting, measuring? That's what it's good at. It's also good at picturing a weightlifting basketball player bursting through a barrier at the top of Zen Mountain. Next it'll be criticizing you because you aren't a good enough weightlifter. This is all part of the terrain in your head. But the "problem" you have is no more real than the basketball player you're picturing.

In other words ... don't buy too much into your self-judgment. You don't get to that calm place by winning the argument with your verbal mind and achieving silence. You get there by accepting everything with welcoming compassion at this moment, as it is -- including your distractable, annoying, judgy mind. Hello, judgy mind, old friend. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
posted by jhc at 2:28 PM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: Don't try and not think. If you mind jumps to cheese, hold it on cheese until the thought evaporates. Not cheese sandwich, I'm hungry, good meditators don't get hungry, maybe they do, what was that picture I saw of the monk with the soup bowl, I wonder if he was hungry.

Just cheese.

Hold the thought in your head, don't think about it, just hold it there.

Then do the same when the next tangent comes along.

Essentially you're treating your mind like the fractious puppy it is.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:49 PM on January 29, 2013

Best answer: As others have said acknowledging those distractions is part of the meditation process, nevertheless I think there are some basic widely agreed upon guidelines for keeping the concentration solid:

- Sit in the morning when you will not be distracted by other people

- Sit in a well ventilated room

- Wear comfortable, loose clothes

- Make the place where you sit very clean and tidy

- Sit against a blank wall if possible

- You say you don't have difficulties sitting still, but "still" by meditation norms is different than everyday "still", that's why cross-legged positions are advocated, even small movements of the body can provoke distractions in the mind. It might be useful to try to train to sit cross-legged or experiment with cushion settings, try sitting on a bench etc.

There is a very nice video going through the basics of the posture, I find it useful to review it from time to time:
posted by jarekr at 2:32 AM on January 30, 2013

Response by poster: That's a lot of great answers here; thank you. Working slowly through them.
posted by Wordshore at 10:44 PM on January 30, 2013

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