The pros and cons of 7 common meditation instructions.
Meditation instructions are paradoxical. When we’re used to “getting sh*t done”, “smashing it out” – then being rewarded for it – the thought of “doing nothing” in meditation feels absolutely pointless.
So we take the instructions; the techniques, and we try to smash those out, too.
And because we’ve spent months (years!) “hustling” with the techniques, instead of being boss, we become their servant.
The tools become rules.
But it’s not the tools’ fault! For the techniques were merely designed to help us. We just need to step back, reframe the meditation instructions as suggestions rather than commandments, and get back to being curious about what happens to us in meditation.
Here are 7 common meditation instructions, how they help, when they hinder and how to tell when the tools have become rules.
- Sit Up Straight
- Follow the Breath
- Meditate for 20 Minutes, Twice a Day
- Don’t Move
- Choose an Anchor
- Close Your Eyes
- Be Grateful
Tool (Not Rule) #1: Sit Up Straight
Sitting with a free and straight back is the advised posture by many meditation traditions. It helps to promote alertness and focus and ward off sleepiness. With the back in a relaxed, upright position, the neck and head come into alignment which helps the breath flow easily. It’s also the physical representation of an intention to bring dignity and confidence into our practice. These are noble intentions!
The typical seated meditation position is the one in which I learned to meditate. I’ve had some amazingly still, centred, and comfortable meditations where I quite literally looked like a statue of the Buddha. This position is a wonderful tool and I recommend people give it a go, practice it enough to build up some “fitness” in sitting unsupported, and see what they notice.
But sitting upright isn’t the only position in which to practice mindfulness. The Buddha himself taught the Four Postures.
You can meditate standing up, on a walk, laying down, or my new morning favourite: slumped back into the sofa.
For many years after mastering the meditation instruction “free and straight back”, I realised that it had become a rule.
I was limiting my practice only to the times where it was convenient to get on the floor, cross my legs and sit upright. This meant, when I was dog-tired, I didn’t meditate. When I was restless beyond belief, I didn’t meditate. When I was away travelling, I didn’t meditate.
Now that I’m not bound by this rule, I’ve finally become a morning meditator. I can get up while the rest of the house is still asleep (and I’m still sleepy), make my way to the loungeroom, snuggle back into my comfy couch with a blanket, and start my practice off from that position. No barrier. No rigidity. Just an inviting space luring me out of bed to watch the sun and hear the birds come up out of their slumber.
Tool (Not Rule) #2: Follow the Breath
As far as meditation subjects go, the breath may be like the Swiss army knife of techniques. It has its own natural rhythm that when followed is conducive to calm. We can layer other meditation instructions like counting, phrases/affirmations and visualisations around it – which leads to experiences of concentration, stillness and clarity. We can use it deliberately in breathwork practices like box breathing or the 3 big sighs to affect our parasympathetic nervous system and relieve anxiety.
The breath teaches us about impermanence – every breath arises, is here and then is gone – just like our pleasures; just like our pain; just like our lives. It’s universal and accessible by us all and highlights over and over again what all living organisms on the planet having in common – we breathe.
The breath is like a beautiful, non-judgemental, trusted friend that sits with us in each and every moment.
But what happens when we’re sick? What happens when focusing on the breath exacerbates our anxiety? What if we really just don’t gel with the breath? No problem! While the breath has a lot going for it, there are countless other experiences you could “follow” with your attention. Using any of the 6 sense doors – hearing, sight, taste, touch, smell, and the mind itself – your sensory experience is a smorgasbord of meditation subjects waiting to be explored.
Here are some suggestions for alternate meditation subjects to get you started:
- Sounds – external sounds arising naturally in your environment (eg. birds, traffic, rain), meditative music, or meditation chimes (use Insight Timer’s free app and set interval bells for say every 2 minutes.) A mantra such as ah-hum works as an internal sound (and you’ve got control over it.)
- Touch – the touch of your hands, the touch of your feet.
- Sight – the flicker of a candle flame, or gazing downward at something non-descript like the carpet.
- Smell – the aromas of your environment, especially if you’re in nature like in a forest or at the beach.
- Taste – eat something slowly and deliberately like a raisin, a piece of dark chocolate, or sip on a cup of tea. Amaze at how differently eating is experienced like this!
- Mind – thoughts themselves. Keep a journal nearby as it helps to note what thoughts you had, either at intervals during the meditation or to recall whatever you remember afterwards.
Tool (Not Rule) #3: Meditate for 20 Minutes, Twice a Day
Having a predetermined duration and frequency for our meditation practice, especially when starting out, is excellent. It takes the decision making around when and how long to meditate out of the equation. Halleluja! One less thing to think about.
Meditating for 20 minutes once in the morning and once in the afternoon or evening is the common instruction of Vedic or Transcendental Meditation. Twenty minutes is relatively short and seems quite manageable. Yet, it’s long enough for the body and mind to sink beneath its activated state.
Repeating the practice twice a day helps build consistency (and therefore, more benefits). Many teachers agree that frequency and consistency in meditation are better than long but sporadic periods.
Conversely, this meditation instruction just doesn’t work for all people. Twenty minutes may seem like a year, or it may feel far too short. And what if you miss a session, or you really can’t fit two sessions into your day?
Cue the guilt.
And guilt is not what we need in meditation.
What we need is for meditation to feel good so that we’ll be drawn to it out of excitement and authentic yearning, rather than shame. And sticking to a rule out of shame does not feel good.
So instead, try this on: experiment with times, days and durations and work out for yourself which one YOU LIKE. (Yes, you’re allowed to like it – you’re allowed to choose the thing that feels good rather than the one that feels bad out of obedience or wanting to “smash it”.)
You can start with 20 minutes, twice per day. But you can move on from there, too.
- If getting up and enjoying a mindful cuppa before the house wakes up; listening to the birds and taking time for yourself is what you’re drawn to, then you’ve found your thing.
- If sitting in your car for an extra 5 minutes before you head into work is all the time you can commit to right now, then you’ve found your thing.
- If sitting up (or laying down) in bed before you go to sleep is the only time the kids won’t interrupt you, then you’ve found your thing.
Your thing won’t be your thing forever. It will change as you change. And that’s exactly how it’s meant to be.
Tool (Not Rule) #4: Don’t Move
We live in a distracted world where we’re bombarded with messages, notifications, and sensory input most of the time. Our bodies respond by being activated and on alert and ready for action. So when we come to meditation and sit still for the first time in years, it feels completely foreign! We want to wriggle, we want to scratch, we feel compelled to check the clock every 60 seconds.
Training ourselves to not give in to each and every impulse that our overworked minds and bodies present us is an incredible skill. It builds resilience, patience, and what’s known as equanimity – a level-headedness or ability to go with the flow. To not get so triggered by unimportant things (lousy drivers, messy kids, bad umpires.)
Mindfully resisting the urge to scratch, move, and check the time in meditation (or get up completely and raid the pantry) – unless you’re in real pain or you’ve been sitting there for hours – is a way to cultivate these worthy qualities.
But what if the rule here wasn’t “thou shall not move” in meditation – but “thou shall notice the desire to move and be kind to yourself if you do.” In this sense, you have the option to practice restraint or not – and it doesn’t matter because what’s important is the awareness of and the friendliness towards that which you have noticed.
As a beginner, I followed these rules. I set a timer and I fought with myself not to check the minutes going by. I got into my cross-legged position and straightened my spine and I fought with myself to remain that way for the duration of the sitting. I noticed itches that came out of nowhere and I fought with myself not to scratch them.
Meditation shouldn’t be a battle. Nowadays, I wriggle, I scratch, I check my phone. And my meditation practice has never been more enjoyable, more consistent, and more rewarding.
And it’s through the enjoyment of a regular, pleasurable meditation practice that I’m building resilience, non-reactivity and equanimity off the cushion.
Tool (Not Rule) #5: Choose an Anchor
A common meditation instruction is when you’ve noticed you’re lost in thoughts, return to the breath. (Or your mantra, or whatever you decided to meditate on at the start.)
Having a pre-determined meditation “anchor” like the breath is a way to keep meditation, particularly for beginners, simple. There’s nothing fancy or complicated. Just a simple request to find the breath (or other object) whenever you’ve awoken from a juicy train of thought.
Using your anchor to return over and over and over again to this one aspect of experience.
Like the suggestion not to move, the suggestion to keep returning helps to build focus, patience, and stillness. And certainly, in those early days of trying mindfulness on for size, like learning a musical instrument for the first time, it’s nice to practise just one note.
But as simple as the instruction is, returning over and over to your object of meditation at the first hint of a “distraction” can feel constricting, even suffocating. We can feel like a failure from the get-go.
What would happen if instead, you decided to do the opposite of this instruction? To let go into “doing nothing” whereby every single experience is a part of the meditation – including allowing the mind to drift in and out of “being present” (even, go crazy if it wants to!) – until it’s had enough and settles on its own.
Do you think it’s possible?
Former Buddhist monk Jason Siff writes about his approach “Recollective Awareness” in his book Unlearning Meditation. Where, rather than attempting to be perfectly mindful during your meditation, you journal what you recall of the meditation afterwards and use that practice as the means to better understand your mind and yourself.
Novel, huh? Give it a go, see what happens.
Tool (Not Rule) #6: Close Your Eyes
As a beginner, I recall feeling completely self-conscious sitting down on my meditation cushion for the first time. I had to close my eyes. I was like a small child covering their eyes and thinking they’d turned invisible. No one can see me!
I’m unsure how common that experience is with new meditators, but personal quirks aside, closing your eyes in mediation helps you to turn inward, to draw the blinds on outside stimuli and bring the other senses into the fore.
And how many Buddha statues have you seen with his eyes open? (Come to think of it, I wonder if anyone knows what colour Buddha’s eyes even were?)
But as I’ve discovered more recently, if you’ve made closing your eyes a rule in meditation, then you’re missing out!
Eyes-open meditation is incredible and can be just as powerful and deep as having your eyes closed. (I’ve had some intensely beautiful meditations whilst driving, and thankfully, I had my eyes open at the time.)
Using the sense of sight opens up your practice to a rich world of colours, shapes and vistas. It has led me quite naturally into feelings of gratitude for the things that lay before me.
There’s a feeling of awe and (quite literally) wide-eyed wonder at being present with eyes open.
Practising meditation with your eyes open also creates more opportunities outside of formal meditation to get in those meditative moments. Queuing at the supermarket, going for a walk in nature, or cooking the family dinner can all be turned into vibrant mindfulness meditations on the go.
Tool (Not Rule) #7: Be Grateful
Cultivating gratitude is a wonderful tool that helps us see the bigger picture. Helps us zoom out on the problems of me, myself and I, and reminds us how many amazing things we have.
Gratitude feels good. It produces serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin chemicals in the brain, flooding the body with mood-lifting feelings similar to “runner’s high.”
And thankfully, we don’t have to go searching far to find things to be, erm, thankful for.
When we’re strugging to find gratitude, we can look for it in the imagined lack of the very things right in front of us. I always find something there. In the very least, that I am alive to write these words, is a freakin’ miracle.
However. You’ll know when being grateful has become a rule when you notice ungrateful thoughts, angry thoughts, hateful thoughts, jealous thoughts, sad thoughts – and you push them down, swat them away and tell yourself – I shouldn’t be having these thoughts.
I should be grateful. I should be grateful, because that’s what being spiritual is about, and I want to be spiritual so that I can be less human.
Being grateful does not mean denying our suffering. We can be compassionate towards ourselves by honouring the truth of what we’re feeling without trying to find a silver lining, a lesson or an “at least”, particularly when we’re right in the thick of a challenging time. These positives may come later but in the moment, we can let things be as they are.
There are plenty of ways to be authentically grateful without repressing or transforming our suffering.
So, if you’re inclined to turn meditation instructions into rules, I’ll leave you with two.
1. Replace ‘should’ with ‘can’.
You’ll know when the tools have become rules when you tell yourself you ‘should’ be doing this and you ‘should’ be doing that.
If you do become aware of internal finger wagging – try replacing ‘should’ with ‘can’.
- I can sit up a little straighter – if I’m feeling a bit sluggish
- I can do some rounds of breath counting – if I’m feeling I need structure
- I can cultivate gratitude – because I’m needing some perspective right now
2. Be gentle with yourself.
There’s enough material in the world for our inner bully to feed on and make us feel bad about ourselves – like news, social media and advertising. Let’s not make our meditation practice one of them.
Meditation is a time to come home to yourself with open arms in whatever state you’ve arrived. Treat yourself with compassion and ease and watch your meditation practice thrive.