When you’re away on a retreat, all the worries and temptations of modern-day life are far, far, away.
There’s no internet, so work and Whatsapp are long forgotten.
There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go, so you don’t have to make yourself busy and navigate the rush hour traffic.
There’s no kids or pets to feed and look after. No doughnuts or secret stash of chocolate to engorge yourself on.
You don’t even have to think about what clothes you’re going to wear — how about this shade of white today? — or what you’re going to have for breakfast.
Rice, again. Nice.
Everything is taken care of. Of course it is. Monasteries and retreat centers are designed to be the perfect places to meditate and to spend some time with your attention directed inward.
In other words, they’re made to free you from the “relative” conditions of the everyday world — survival, jobs, being a person — and to get you more in touch with the “absolute” nature of the world — that which underpins all experience and connects everything.
Fulfillment, oneness, bliss, the divine, God, peace of mind — whatever you wanna call it.
In the midst of daily modern life, we’re often so tired and stressed out that all we can do is merely focus on getting through the day in one piece. Our minds are overflowing, our senses are bombarded with stimuli, and our bodies are depleted and neglected.
It’s no surprise, then, that if you do manage to get the time and headspace to sit down and meditate, you don’t end up meditating at all. Instead, you end up doing the shopping list, catching up on some sleep, and working out all the little forgotten issues in your life like how to fix the fridge in between trying to solve the grand problems like “who the heck am I!?”
It’s not that retreats are better and you should only meditate when you’re in some mountain monastery in Thailand. The point is some places are slow and simple and therefore conducive to calming the mind. Others, not so much.
For most people reading this, daily life is fast and complicated. And so, if you want to actually get down to meditate in such an environment, you have to accommodate for this fact and make some — albeit minor — adjustments to your practice.
Thankfully, John Yates, a neuroscientist turned meditation master, has thought about this a lot (probably while he was meant to be meditating).
He knows the biggest challenge of meditation is making it a daily habit that fits into our complex modern world. In his book, The Mind Illuminated, he lays out a preparation method that can boost your meditation practice and help you combat everything from distraction and fatigue to impatience and lack of motivation.
The method is called the six-point preparation, and, unsurprisingly, it involves six steps.
I’ve been following the method more or less to a tee every day for about a year. Safe to say, it has taken my practice to a whole new level that wouldn’t have been possible without moving to a hut in the Himilayas and changing my diet to solely tea and a lot of rice.
On the days I forget to do the six-point prep, I quickly fall into old habits and unhelpful patterns of thinking. Things like pushing my crap to the side and pretending that I’m calm so I can meditate. Or even using meditation as a means of putting off or avoiding stuff in my life that I should really be attending to.
Making the six-point preparation a regular part of your practice—by slipping it into the start or making a little extra time before—will help you steer clear of such common and hard-to-notice pitfalls. You can start by picking just a few of the points from the list below, but I’d recommend incorporating the whole lot as they’re complementary and work best together.
With all that prep out the way, let’s get into it.
1. Fire up Your Motivation
A fundamental part of Buddha’s philosophy is that as humans, we’re pretty damn good at forgetting the bigger picture. It’s why we need to practice: to remember.
Don’t assume sitting down on the cushion in your jim-jams is enough to get you fired up for meditation. You need to remind yourself again and again why you’re taking the time out of our day to sit and do nothing, including why you decided to start meditating in the first place.
Ask yourself at the start of every meditation session:
“Why have I chosen to meditate? Why am I not choosing to spend the time asleep or binging on Netflix instead?”
It could be to find some peace in your life or freedom from suffering. To improve your focus or to awaken as a Buddha. The clearer your motivation, the better it will be at dispelling inevitable obstacles like restlessness and other forms of resistance.
Your motivations don’t need to be anything grand or noble. It could simply be that you’ll feel bad if you don’t meditate. Or that you promised your spouse or doctor you’ll give it a try. Or if you do it you can have an extra piece of chocolate.
There’s no right or wrong or good or bad reason for meditating.
Arguably, every reason to meditate is a good reason — as long as you’re dedicated and are putting in the time, then good things are happening. Acknowledge and accept your motivations as they are: as the reason you’ve managed to get your butt on the cushion today. As your practice develops, they’ll no doubt change anyway.
2. Clarify Your Goals
It’s not against much, but mindfulness is pretty opposed to goal setting. The act of constantly chasing future goals is what it teaches as a principal cause of our dissatisfaction with life and why we’re always treating ourselves and others as mere means to an end.
When you practice mindfulness, you do so with the goal of not getting caught up in lofty goals and getting more in touch with what’s happening right here, right now. To do this, it’s all about setting an intention.
An intention gives your practice direction without limiting or narrowing it to a specific destination. Similar to motivation, it reminds you of the initial reasons you’re practicing in the first place, but it also orientates you toward what you would like to accomplish in the particular session in front of you.
In setting an intention, it can bring light to recent issues you’ve been having or potential pitfalls you’ve fallen into. For instance, maybe in the last few sessions you were overcome by drowsiness and lost in daydreaming. Your intention today could thus be to be more aware of when and why this happens, as well as to practice attitudes like patience and curiosity to discover more about their underlying sensations.
As we’ll see in the next point, it’s important that your intention is not so ambitious and specific so that it’s unrealistic: I.e. “I’m not going to get lost in thought once this whole session.” Setting an intention is not about striving to make anything happen or make your experience anything other than how it is. It’s a way to become more and more aware of what is already happening.
3. Manage Your Expectations
Overly ambitious goals or intentions are what lead us to get swept away in expectations about where we should or could be.
Instead of firing you up, such expectations ensure you stay trapped in a comparison game with your past and other people, so that, in turn, you’ll continually be disappointed. So is life.
For this reason, it’s best to have a clear intention, but to also hold that intention lightly — as if it’s not some daunting target way ahead of you, but a subtle backdrop and set of attitudes that are everpresent and guiding your way.
Such an approach is key to maintaining a consistent meditation practice. Unlike many things in life, meditation is not a nonlinear but a circular activity. Some days it will be easy to focus and find peace and calm, others it’ll feel like it’s near impossible.
Feeling like you’ve started to go backward doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It’s perfectly normal to experience periods where meditation is just the worst and your mind is super busy, periods of plateaus where nothing much happens, and periods where it’s your favorite thing in the whole world.
The important thing to remember throughout all of the ups and downs of meditation is to be aware they are happening, to be willing to feel them all fully, and to know that everything will pass. When you’re aware and accepting of your experience, whatever it may be, you’re meditating. You can also better adjust your practice to suit the conditions in your life, as well as find enjoyment in even the most turbulent times.
When we become aware of and manage our expectations, there can be no such thing as a bad meditation.
4. Practice Diligence
It’s incredibly easy to sit down in a comfortable position in a warm room and check out— doing everything from solving past problems and planning future projects to indulging in fantasies and taking part in imaginary conversations.
Instead of being whisked away by such mental processes—which will happen if you let it—practicing diligence is what helps you get the most out of your time on the cushion and ensure you engage wholeheartedly in the practice.
It’s too tempting to think about things when you have nothing to do but watch your breath. Even if everything was calm a few moments before, when you sit still, a million thoughts and ideas can come rushing in — all claiming to be much more interesting or important than whatever that measly thing is you’re trying to do.
When you practice diligence, you recognize that the mind will wander — thoughts and images and memories will arise — and you commit to not using your time to indulging and getting lost in its tendencies.
You’re not setting expectations or trying to judge your practice in any way. Judging yourself, for example, when you’ve been lost for a few minutes in thought, only leads to discouragement and doubt, which leads to more thinking, procrastinating, and resisting.
Whenever judgment or resistance arises, recognize it not as a failure, but as an opportunity to practice diligence. In this way, your reaction to your experience becomes more fodder to practice with.
The aim is, as John Yates says, to relate to anything that arises in your experience by “letting it come, letting it be, and letting it go.”
5. Reduce Distractions
Meditation is an act of gaining greater self-knowledge. But that being said, it can also be used as a way to shut off from your feelings and escape from what’s happening in your life.
This is why it’s essential to know your state of mind and environment before you meditate. A lot of the time I used to just sit down and start following the breath, only to get frustrated when my mind would start remembering all the stuff I’d forgotten to do and the dog next door would start yapping away.
This was a mix of denying the fact that my urban flat was not the oasis of calm I thought it should be plus a lack of awareness of my current state of mind.
Every time I sit down to meditate now, I always perform a quick inventory of all the things in my life that could have my attention or that may pop up and take my attention away.
First, I note anything immediate — hunger, worry that someone might come in or that the parcel might be delivered, the crazy dog next door. Then I move to broader categories that are sure to harbor a lot of mental activity — work, relationships, money, the city environment, body pain, general fatigue, doubts about if I’m meditating right.
Often we don’t know or simply forget where our attention is. There’s a subtle level of anxiety in the background and we can’t for the life of us pin it down to one thing.
A good way to free up some of this attention is to do a sweep of the past and future. Look to the future to see if you’re worried about anything in near or distant time. It could be anything from wondering what you’ll have for breakfast to working out what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.
Then look to the past to see if you’re holding onto any regrets or are ruminating to try and change something that has long gone. It could be an email you sent to your ex three years ago or the thought that you shouldn’t have had that extra glass of red last night.
Whatever it is, it’s a part of your experience and therefore is to simply be acknowledged—without adding anything to it. Meditation is about being more aware of where your attention is and how your mind behaves, so the idea isn’t to notice something about your past relationship and to start strategically trying to work it out.
You may want to do the latter, and because most of us spend very little time reviewing the contents of our mind, it may be that important insights come up that you don’t want to forget. Keep a pen and paper by your side and simply note them down so you can explore them later.
Or, if you really believe it can’t wait, forget the meditation and run to your ex.
Normally, the simple act of dumping thoughts or ideas or shopping lists onto a page before meditating is enough to change the whole session. Remember, you’re not trying to change how things are, but simply notice them as they are. Maybe you have something big on your mind that won’t go away — that’s perfectly fine, no thoughts and emotions should be suppressed or excluded, just acknowledge them as part of your experience, let them be without reacting to them, and they’ll soon pass on their own.
6. Review Your Posture
Usually, the first and last thing many meditation teachers ask you to check before meditation is your posture. But posture is the sixth and ultimate step in our six-point preparation.
Chances are you already have a good idea of the ideal posture for meditation. But arguably, the more used to it you get, the more likely you are to fall into unwanted habits or patterns without noticing.
For this reason, it’s essential to do a quick and conscious review of your posture each time you sit down to meditate. Here’s a quick posture checklist you can use, slightly adapted from John Yate’s and including some basic mindfulness meditation instructions:
- Adjust your cushion and any supports you use to make sure you’re sitting comfortably.
- Position your head, neck, and back in a straight but not rigid line. Bend a little to each side and lean forward and backward to find a neutral, balanced position.
- Drop and align your shoulders. Relax and balance your hands either on your knees or in your lap. Use a cushion or support under your hands to ensure your arms aren’t pulling your shoulders down and forward.
- Relax your jaw, close your lips, and keep your teeth slightly apart. Allow the tip of your tongue to rest gently against the roof of your mouth, just behind your teeth.
- Drop your eyes and rest your gaze, as if you were looking at a book on the floor in front of you. Your eyes will move during meditation—if you notice it, simply move them back.
- Begin to turn your attention inward and tune into the sensations of the body. Breath through your nose in a natural way, without forcing or controlling it.
- Scan your body for any tension and let it go. All the activity of meditation is in the mind, so deliberately soften the body as if it is a lump of clay — solid and stable, but pliant. This helps keep distractions to a minimum.
- Direct your attention to the breath either at the tip of the nose or a point two inches below your navel. Whenever you hear, focus on “the breath”, it means the sensations produced by breathing. You’re not trying to follow the air as it moves in and out the body or a visualization/idea of how you think the breath should be. You are directly observing the sensations — movement, pressure, tingling, touch — of the air passing over the spot where you’re focusing your attention.
- With the breath as your anchor, keep a broad awareness that isn’t pushing away or excluding anything from your experience. If a sensation or thought pulls your attention away from the breath, don’t fight it but instead try putting into practice the saying: “let it come, let it be, let it go.”
- Relax and enjoy yourself.
By the time you have finished the six-point preparation, your mind will be well settled. It doesn’t matter how long you spend on it: It’s often more worthwhile if you spend your whole meditation session simply preparing to meditate — remembering your intentions, managing expectations, taking stock of where your attention is — as opposed to half-heartedly sitting there and drifting off and waiting for the timer to ring.
There’s nothing to do in meditation. Meditation is a practice of being.
But because being is so contrary to much of our daily activities, it helps hugely to have a system in place before your meditation that’s specifically built for doing less and being more.
If you had six hours a day to meditate and you lived in a spa, then maybe you wouldn’t need to. But most of us don’t.
Try adding the six-point preparation into your meditation today. Heck, even make it your meditation. Gradually over time, you’ll only have to spend a few minutes on it in each session. But I can guarantee it won’t be long until you start seeing its results.