zen habits : breathe

Meditation Frequently Asked Questions

By Leo Babauta

Some questions submitted by readers about creating the habit of meditation, with my answers:

Q: How do I start?
A: The best way to start is simply, and very small. Most of us get too caught up in doing things perfectly, in all the little details, and so we complicate things so much that we never get started. The most important detail is starting. So start very small: just 2 minutes a day, every day, in a fairly quiet space, first thing in the morning.

Q: What is the best hour to meditate (early in the morning, evening or any time)?
A: This is really an individual thing, as people’s schedules and preferences will vary widely. However, I love the morning, and highly recommend it for a few reasons. First, that’s often best because later in the day we get busy and things like exercise and meditation often get pushed back. Second, morning tends to be quieter for many people, and more ideal. Third, it’s an amazing way to start your day. That said, it can be done at any time. The evening, when things might also be quiet, could be great — and a nice way to unwind after a tough day.

Q: How do you create the time when your day is already so busy?
A: Again, start very small. Just 2 minutes. If you don’t have 2 minutes, do 1. You should be able to find 1-2 minutes a day. Do it in the morning, before you get busy. If you still can’t find the time, cut back on one commitment this month to make space for it — email someone and say you can’t do the project/commitment because you’re too busy. And trust me, if you can’t find 1-2 minutes each day for meditation, you’re too busy.

Q: I have trouble with finding a set time and place every day.
A: I highly recommend that you pick one time and place each day — that’s the best way to create a habit. Pick a trigger in your morning or evening routine — something that’s already in your daily routine. That might be things like waking, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, using the bathroom, eating dinner, arriving home, watching TV before bedtime, reading the newspaper, checking email, etc. Pick one of these things, and do the meditation habit for 5 minutes right after, without fail.

Q: Length of time — how much time is the minimum for effective meditation? How often should I do it?
A: Start with 2 minutes. Starting small is highly recommended for any new habit. As you gain traction, you can increase it little by little. This takes patience, but it’s very effective. I also recommend a daily habit, as opposed to twice a week, or just on weekdays.

Q: How do you find the right space within what you have? What conditions should the environment have?
A: Any space will do — clear some space on your floor, do it on your bed, or on your couch, in the middle of your kitchen. I prefer doing it when there aren’t others around, so try to find a place & time where that will work. It might be that you do it in the bathroom if necessary. If you can’t find that in your home, find a park or beach, but make sure it’s close by so you have no excuse for not doing it.

Q: How do you start creating the habit?
A: Start small, just 2 minutes a day. Pick a trigger that’s in your daily routine, and do it immediately after. Do it every day for a month. Enjoy the habit, and focus on how much you love it. Commit publicly. Use the accountability teams in the forum to motivate yourself.

Q: Do you need your eyes shut for it?
A: You can close your eyes. I recommend that your eyes be open, with your lids about half closed, with a soft focus on the ground a few feet in front of you. This, however, is a detail that is not incredibly important.

Q: How to start focusing — I just can’t grasp “sitting for X minutes/hrs”.
A: You get better with practice. Just start for 2 minutes, and increase each week if you’re successful that week. Pay attention to your breath, as it comes in and goes out. Don’t worry so much about “focusing” … you’ll get better at it. See next question. Also, don’t worry so much about the time — just start, and don’t worry about how long it will take. The length is not as important as doing it.

Q: How does one stop the mind from wandering?
A: Don’t worry about stopping the mind from wandering. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. You can count breaths, one in and two out, three in and four out, to help you focus. Observe your thoughts as they wander — and they will. Don’t be bothered by this wandering — it’s natural. Just notice it, and gently return to the breath. You’ll get better with practice.

Q: About space, which place is better when you’re in a tight space with more people?
A: On your bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen or living room when everyone is asleep. Or go outside to a park or beach that’s nearby. Not too far.

Q: How can I do meditation on the go?
A: I’d recommend starting with sitting meditation, at home or near your home, but eventually practice doing it on the go. On a train is great. In the car, it’s best to focus on your driving and the surroundings, which can be a form of meditation. Go for walks, and pay attention to your breathing, your thoughts, your steps, the ground in front of you.

Q: How do you set reasonable expectations for what the experience of meditation will be like?
A: Don’t have any expectations. Just go in with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. Experience the meditation, and pay attention to it, but don’t ask it to meet your expectations.

Q: My meditation problem is: I can’t do it with the kids around but after they’re in bed or if I get up early, I often fall asleep.
A: That’s OK. Get up just 10-20 minutes early, and just get started. If you’re sitting up (as opposed to lying down), it’ll be easier to stay awake. Keep your eyes open but with soft focus. If you fall asleep, just do it again the next day. You’ll get used to it.

Q: How do I keep the habit of meditation up?
A: Starting small (5 minutes a day) is a great way to get started, but it’s also a great way to keep things going. It’s hard to do a 30- or 60-minute habit for a month, but it’s much easier to do 5 minutes a day for an entire month. Committing publicly (announce it on Facebook, Twitter, blog, G+), and doing it with a group helps keep the motivation going.

Q: How to approach it from a non-religious point of view?
A: Meditation is simply mindfulness practice — you’re learning to live presently, mindfully. It can be a spiritual practice, but as we’re doing it here on Zen Habits, it’s simply sitting and being mindful.

Q: How critical is the sitting posture (i.e. hands, feet, etc)?
A: It’s not that important. Zen meditation has certain forms that are recommended, but I don’t ask you to follow these exactly. Just sit, and pay attention to your breath. You can sit wherever is comfortable, in whatever form is comfortable. For example, I am very inflexible, so I sit with my back against the wall and in a not-very-cross-legged style. That works for me.

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