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How To Make Meditation Ten Times Easier

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Meditation has reached an interesting place in Western culture. It’s popular, well-reviewed by clinicians and scientists, and most people seem to have tried it.

Yet for all the acclaim meditation receives, it’s not very common to actually meditate regularly.

As hobbies go, meditation isn’t known for being beginner-friendly. Its learning curve can seem nearly wall-like at the beginning, mainly because its central task – focusing indefinitely on one thing – is essentially impossible if you haven’t already meditated for years.

You know this if you’ve tried it. Staying with a breath or two is no problem. But just beyond that, at some always-unseen moment, your intention to focus dissolves into dreamlike images, mental chatter, and bits of Taylor Swift songs.

The typical advice for losing focus is not very consoling: do your best, fail repeatedly, and progress will creep up on you.

I imagine this party line works well enough for the monks it was developed for. It might suffice for us too, if our lifestyles involved mandatory sittings in meditation halls, in an environment of maximal peer pressure and few diversions.

Way too many years into my meditation career, I learned that there’s a way to circumvent the wall. You can go around the side, to a somewhat gentler slope with abundant handholds.

It’s a simple adjustment in the way we learn to focus.

Instead of trying to focus on your object for as long as possible, as is usually taught, you focus on it for a very short periods – two to five seconds.

A few seconds of focusing is always doable, even for a beginner. It’s a small, but highly repeatable success.

When your assigned task is so small –- feeling a single breath through the nose, or listening mindfully for three seconds – you’ll most likely stay focused throughout it. In other words, you’ll actually complete your meditation task, for once.

And as soon as you complete this little task, you’re free to do it again, because it didn’t take very long, and didn’t end in distraction.

That’s the key. Rather than running yourself into dreamland every time, you’re keeping things doable.

Let’s say your meditation object is the sensation of your foot touching the floor. You focus on this sensation, noticing how it feels, opening completely to it, for just a three-count or so. Then you stop.

Success again. You focused from start to finish.

Then you can take a little break from focusing. Let yourself just sit for a moment.

When you’re ready, do it again. Three more seconds of intently feeling the sensation.

As you continue to focus in these short stretches, you need much less of a break between them to get ready to focus again. Each micro-session is quite easy by itself. As momentum builds, you settle into groove of focusing briefly, then focusing again, and so on.

It doesn’t take too long before you’re achieving a few seconds of focused mindfulness just about every few seconds.

Now we’re approaching something resembling nearly-continuous focus, and it’s sustainable. Once you’ve got a taste for this sort of concentration, you can find the groove more easily next time.

There will still be gaps in your focusing, and you do still get distracted. But there’s much less distraction, and far less frustration.

So if you’re at a stalemate with meditation, this method is one way around the wall. It gave me traction like nothing had before, and I think it would for most people.  

Working this way, meditation becomes an experience of repeatedly succeeding rather than repeatedly failing, and that changes everything.

***

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***

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{ 25 Comments }

Celia December 20, 2019 at 3:58 am

Really interesting—I will give it a go.
I learned mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a key part of that is the *attitude* you bring to paying attention. Mindfulness practice is much more effective with an attitude of acceptance/ non-judging. Your technique is a different way to that end (“repeatedly succeeding rather than repeatedly failing “). In MBSR we might invite people to give themselves a mental pat on the back each time they notice the wandering mind. We normalise mind wandering (“If you have a mind, it WILL wander.”) We might emphasise that it is the noticing and refocusing of the wandering mind that IS the practice, so you don’t beat yourself up over a wandering mind—you acknowledge the success of your practice in noticing when that happens.

But actually, there are quite a few people who have a hard time with the concept of self-acceptance. Some are so used to self-criticism and disparagement they can’t stop kicking themselves. Some think acceptance / “being with what is” is weak or lazy or soft. Your technique avoids those mental traps and just makes it a straightforward exercise like high intensity physical exercise that you only do for a few seconds. It’s sort of an integral calculus version of meditation. Cheers, David!

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:11 am

I agree with all of this, and I teach the same things — the importance of attitude, normalizing mind wandering. In my effort to keep this post very short I only focused on the mechanics of focusing and the difference between two ways of doing that. This isn’t meant to be a complete set of meditation instructions.

The word failure is a very heavy one, and if I wrote this post again I might avoid using it. I always emphasize that distraction is not a failure to meditate. But if you put yourself in the shoes of a beginner, who is being told to focus continuously, and repeatedly finds that they cannot do this, it’s hard not to feel like you’re failing to do what you’re trying to do, regardless of how many assurances you’ve been given that it’s all part of the plan.

Focusing in segments is just a different way to develop concentration. It’s a small adjustment to one aspect of practice. It’s doesn’t remove “being with what is” from the equation at all — that’s intrinsic to mindfulness. It doesn’t remove the need to develop self-acceptance. But I believe it can help people more quickly get to a place where they don’t feel completely at a loss, regardless of their view of themselves, and I think that means more people will stick with it.

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Rocky December 20, 2019 at 4:03 am

Howdy David…. I have been meditating for well over ten years.
When I began, I had no idea what I was doing, so I just sort of made it up as I went along. When I became aware of your writings , your advice that
“ There is no wrong way to do it” was quite a relief. I recently completed Camp Calm Relax. I found it to be a very “Right” way to do it. It has taken my practice to a whole new level. The clarity and simplicity are great for beginners. For someone like myself, who has been at it awhile, it provides a much need boost. I can not recommend it highly enough!
Many Thanks!

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:16 am

Hi Rocky. Glad you are finally finding some traction with it. I’m not sure if it was me who said there’s no wrong way… I do think it makes quite a difference how a person practices. I designed Camp Calm Relax around a technique that I think is quite beginner friendly, so it’s good to hear it feels like the right way for you.

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Catrina December 20, 2019 at 5:47 am

I have given up in frustration for all the reasons you mention. But these bite-sized micro-sessions might just be the thing I need. I’ll try it, thank you!

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:17 am

Great. There are different ways to approach it. I am a big fan of Shinzen Young’s noting and labeling techniques, which make use of this principle.

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Deb December 20, 2019 at 6:38 am

I really want to meditate regularly but I have developed such an aversion to it that I have completely stopped. I think my dislike for the practice has come from the frustration of constantly failing, although I didn’t really realize that until I read your piece. I will give this a try and hopefully I can get back into a regular practice. I know that it will benefit me tremendously if I can. Thanks for sharing this. It was perfectly timed for me.

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:35 am

The approach makes a huge difference, in my experience. Different people click with different things. The standard approach to focusing does work, but I think the meditation community underestimates how many people it will stump for good, because the “experienced meditator establishment” is composed of people who found that it _was_ surmountable. Anyway, I found that segmenting focus like this was tremendously helpful.

There are different approaches that make use of the same principle. I make use of it in Camp Calm Relax, but I learned this from Shinzen Young’s work. He uses a noting practice that makes great use of this way of focusing.

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JoLynn December 20, 2019 at 8:17 am

When I was first taught to meditate over 40 years ago, the essential and hardest lesson was that having distracting thoughts is NOT failure! The untrained human mind is incapable of focusing on a single thought or sensation for more than a few seconds at a time. Think of the mind’s activity as a still pond. Normally we exist on the surface of the pond. Meditation is a technique for diving to the quiet depths. The growth we gain from regular meditation derives from the diving and surfacing, not just being at the bottom for extended times. Thoughts are part of meditation. Put your relaxed attention on your subject of focus (I use a mantra) and when you notice other thoughts, you have not failed, you have merely surfaced. Simply return to your subject to start another cycle.

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:41 am

Agreed — the inability to focus in a sustained manner is not a failure to meditate.

However, when a beginner is told to just focus on the object, and they find they cannot do this, it’s hard to interpret it as anything but a failure to do what you’re supposed to do.

Even if you assure them continually that this is okay that they’re doing it right, they’re not going to stay at it for very long. People have to get a sense that they’re getting somewhere or they won’t continue. When you focus in segments, you see _immediately_ that you can already stay with an experience. You already have what it takes to meditate — it’s not something you will develop after attempting a seemingly impossible task a thousand times. And that’s a very powerful incentive to keep going, which I think a lot of new meditators need if they’re going to continue.

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Peggy Wilson December 20, 2019 at 8:29 am

I am a meditation beginner, and get distracted easily. Using a similar method, I use a singing bowl. When I play the singing bowl I incorporate yoga breathing. When the bowl stops, I can start again, or stop.

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:44 am

Yes. This is the same principle. When you’re trying to stay aware of something endless, it always ends in distraction. Distraction isn’t bad in itself, but a pattern of having every attempt to be aware end in distraction is really discouraging. I’m glad the singing bowl is a helpful aid.

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Lorraine Allen December 20, 2019 at 8:57 am

This reminds me of something an instructor said during a meditation retreat that completely changed and relaxed my approach. After he had guided us into our posture, etc, he said, ‘Your job is to start repeating the mantra. What happens after that is none of your business’.

Of course, we all laughed in recognition, but from that moment on my perspective shifted. Of course, we were also instructed to return to the mantra as soon as we noticed our mind had veered off, but no more self-judging. That’s crucial, as you said!

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:48 am

Yes! One advantage to mantra is that it is already made into segments. You can stay with one iteration of the mantra, almost always, and that’s all you need to do.

The breath can work the same, since it is organized into inbreaths and outbreaths, but I think it really has to be emphasized that you only need to worry about staying with this one half-breath. When you reach its end, the job is the same — stay with this one half-breath. But when we just say “stay with the breath” the job becomes infinitely large and essentially impossible.

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Bern Callahan December 20, 2019 at 9:39 am

I love this article. I’m a meditator with over 40 years experience – including completing a 3-year Tibetan meditation retreat. I smile every time I see something this well written on how to practice. Keep em’ coming.

You can develop a steady meditation practice with some effort.
It isn’t effortless but neither is it difficult or impossible.
We all have the ability to stay focused. We can focus on Netflix, or stay focused on enjoying time with friends, or even stay focused while driving our cars. Meditation simply uses this same ability and trains it.

You might enjoy some simple and plain language meditation instructions in two books I’ve published. The first is called “Don’t Wake Up: It Will Ruin Everything” The second, recently published book has instructions for five different mindfulness practices, from beginner to expert. That book is called “Touching The Earth: 21st Century Buddhism”

Both books are available in print and e-format.

Keep up the great blog.

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David Cain December 20, 2019 at 9:54 am

Thanks Bern. That’s the real tipping point… when you start to practice off the cushion, because that’s where most of life happens. All the more reason to practice focusing on experience in short spans, because each day is made of nothing but thousands of tiny experiences coming and going.

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Linda Lesperance December 20, 2019 at 2:24 pm

Thanks David. That’s a great tip. Very helpful.

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Mary Green December 20, 2019 at 3:53 pm

I keep forgetting how good I feel when I meditate or I should say – after I meditate. Life can get pretty messy and the next you know you are all frenzied and anxious. Meditation helps one to sort out and then slow things down and make everything so much more doable. At least that is how it works for me. I have really had no problem with emptying my mind and doing nothing for 15 minutes – that seems to be all I need – sometimes twice a day and sometimes only once a day. I get so calm and nothing upsets me at all as I go about my day ‘IF’ I can remember to just stop and empty my mind. Doing short bursts like your suggestion is super – I like it – especially for someone starting out.

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Carlos Llamas December 21, 2019 at 10:38 am

Meditation for 5,10,20 years?
Meditation is a medicine. When you known what you really are, the meditation just vanish. You are free of the medicine.
If you are meditation along 5,10, 20 years you still don’t know nothing.

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Glenn December 22, 2019 at 8:46 pm

It’s like Pomodoros for meditating! I like it. Excellent advice.

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David Cain December 23, 2019 at 3:16 pm

Yes, definitely similar. Although there is a difference in that the goal is to move towards continuity. But as with pomodoros, you quickly start to see that you are capable of quite a lot.

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KRISHNA SARIN MS December 24, 2019 at 6:39 am

Hi David, Thanks for this great write up.
I am myself a beginner, and i wanted to share one technique, very similar, and will be easy to practise for someone ‘who is stuck’.

This may be called ‘maintaining a loose attention on the breath’, instead of a constant focus. As always, you start off attending to the breath, but you don’t try hard to focus. Your attention will waver, it will wander, but you remember to include your breath in the span of your attention at the moment. Thinking about the weather? Think weather and this breath. That Email to be sent? That Email and this breath. Dishes to be washed? Dishes, and this ongoing breath.

This way you don’t go back and forth between focus and nonfocus, which can be sometimes tiring. Instead, you are much more permissive, accomodative. Anything in your mind, and the current inbreath.

Would love to hear what you think.

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Sarah January 10, 2020 at 9:02 am

I sent this to a friend who finds meditation a bit frustrating. For me, I’ve become comfortable with pulling myself back from the distractions without berating myself. It took a bit of
work though.
I now try to meditate on my ride into work on the subway. It’s 30-40 minutes and I find it makes my day less frustrating even when it’s a bad focus day. I am much less annoyed so that is great all around.

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دفاع شخصی December 26, 2019 at 5:21 am

Thank you David
That’s a great tip and Very useful.

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Catherine February 17, 2020 at 5:39 am

Great tips! I am also kind of a beginner in meditation and distraction can be frustrating at times. When I first started I would quit meditation as I was getting way too distracted. Now I usually just get back on the track much faster. I think important part is not to be stressed out just because you got distracted. That is one of the points of meditating, to learn how to focus on the present moment and that is not easy at ll.

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