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How to Prepare for Mindfulness Meditation

Practising mindfulness meditation effectively isn't easy - it's both a science and an art. Preparation is key. Here, by preparation I mean the opening phase of the meditation, once you're in your meditation posture. Sometimes this preparation turns into the whole practice, for me at least. Of course there isn't just one way to prepare - in this article I explain what I do personally, in the hope that it will be helpful and instructive to others.

First I need to say something about what constitutes effective practice. This might be somewhat contentious. My thinking starts with the notion that mindfulness meditation has a purpose - in broad terms this is to develop certain qualities of mind, such as stillness, clarity, concentration or one-pointedness, vivid alertness, emotional positivity, a sense of freedom and autonomy, or a sense of unity. (Essentially you can insert your own quality.)

Effective practice then, is when you succeed in developing these qualities. Of course it's a matter of degree - the work never finishes and you start again next day (sometimes it feels like from scratch).

Some people aren't entirely comfortable with the idea of mindfulness having a purpose - it sounds a bit too goal-focused. I'm not going to say much in response here, except to say that it's important to distinguish between your purpose and your intent. Hopefully the rest of the article will make things clearer.

Preparation for Mindfulness

OK, here's what I do: I work through a series of elements of mindfulness meditation, usually in this sequence.

1. Presence

As soon as I settle into the practice, I focus on having a sense of presence. This means being right here, right now, aware of my sensory experience - how my body feels but also what I can see and hear.

I try to make this presence, or this awareness, intense and vivid - as though something important and memorable were about to happen. Sometimes I imagine my brain has a vividness dial that I crank up.

At this point I'll probably get an initial sense of how I am, how my mind is, what's going on. Or rather, how my mind has been in the few minutes preceding (because often at the moment of presence there's not a lot going on in my mind).

2. Purpose

I remind myself what my purpose is - what qualities I'm aiming to develop. It could be stillness or brightness or kindness - on different days particular qualities will appeal (as being what I'm most in need of).

3. Intent

Following on from purpose is intent. Basically my intent doesn't really vary that much - it's simply to engage with the practice, to apply myself to it. It's something important. But in a way the intent grows out of my purpose. At the same time I don't get too caught up in the outcome - whether or not I achieve my purpose. Which leads into the next thing ...

4. Acceptance, or letting go.

Acceptance is the counter-balance to purpose and intent. There's a kind of paradox at the heart of mindfulness - you have a purpose, but in practice you attach no importance to the outcome - you just keep returning to the object of focus. You might or you might not experience the desired qualities of mind, but you carry on the same, regardless.

Reflecting on purpose carries a risk of taking you out of the moment - it can be too wilful, too goal-focused. So the counter-balance is to let go of the goal, the outcome.

I use three mantra-like reflections.

i) There's nothing to do.

This is in the sense of, there's no effort to make. Things will happen naturally, out of a mindset of open playfulness, not willpower.

ii) There's no-one to be.

This counters my ego tendency to need a story about who I am and what I'm doing. Ego can even appropriate meditation - it wants to be a "good" meditator, etc.

iii) This moment is enough.

This is the antidote to my propensity for dissatisfaction, for feeling like things aren't quite right, or wanting some other experience, or feeling it would be better if things were different in some way.

The most basic form of letting go is physical letting go - i.e. letting muscles go soft and loose. This brings up the topic of posture.

An Aside on Posture

Posture is something to continually check in on. There's a lot that could be said about it, but I'll try to keep it brief. The key to posture I think is to balance being upright (which helps alertness, awakeness) with being relaxed. I like to imagine my bones are like a coat hanger, which is suspended by a delicate thread. My muscles are like clothing draped around the hanger. I focus on letting my muscles be soft and loose while my body keeps the frame (my bones, especially my spine) upright. This "thread" that holds me up is not an act of willpower but some mysterious energy in my body (imagination is important in mindfulness meditation).

5. How I Feel

At this point I'm ready for a fuller experience of how my mind is, how it has been over the last few minutes. This somehow seems to emerge from acceptance. Especially if I'm ten minutes in and have spent over nine in distraction.

6. Wellness

I look for a sense that I'm ok, physically and emotionally. I let whatever is ok in my experience, come to the fore, and savour that. Even if there are negative or unwanted feelings there are the same time. I try not to push the negative away, but I do dwell on the positive.

Another word could be energy, or vitality. Often I do feel well (actually I try to set myself up for it by drinking a cup of bulletproof coffee before I meditate, but that's another subject).

Putting this after acceptance means I'm less inclined to grasp after experience. Sometimes I feel flat and tired but if I can be accepting of that, then perversely I can still feel well anyway.

7. Kindliness

The wellness I was referring to in 6 above is more of a physical wellness than an emotional wellness - but it seems for me, physical wellness is a good foundation for emotional wellness to emerge from.

If I feel well, I'm kind of glad of it, and this amounts to a sort of attitude of self-care, or is the foundation of self-care. (Obviously I don't want to spin it into a sort of ego trip of what a great person I am - but in practice I usually manage to stay away from that.)

Similarly, if I feel well, it's easy to feel kind of well-disposed towards others. This is the beginning of kindness, or a kindly attitude, or again the basis for kindness. That said, the real thing about kindness is not the feeling of it, but the volition - you wish others well. Kindness does generally feel good, but that's not the point of kindness. That said, there's no need to feel guilty about feeling good or turn away from it. Kindliness is a huge topic and I'll say more about my take on it in a future blog article.

The Rest Of The Practice

At this point I might be ready to move to the object of focus, usually the breath in my case. Sometimes I spend pretty much the whole of the practice session looping through these elements of preparation - or I get distracted and go back to the preparation. In a sense the preparation is the meditation.

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