Six Point Preparation for Meditation

I recommend the following six-point preparation to new students. You should prepare for meditation just as you would for other activities, by thinking and planning beforehand. Memorize these six points and go through them as soon as you sit down. You can even review them in your head while on the way to your meditation spot. They are: motivation, goals, expectations, diligence, distractions, and posture.

1. Fire up your motivation
After you sit down, the first thing to do is to remind yourself why you’ve chosen to meditate. Perhaps it’s to have a little more peace of mind and improve your mental skills, or it could be to achieve awakening. Or maybe it’s just because you know you’ll feel better for the rest of the day if you meditate than if you don’t. Don’t judge your reasons as being good or bad, just acknowledge and accept them as they are. Having a clear sense of purpose will fire up your motivation and help you deal with any feelings of restlessness or resistance.

2. Set reasonable goals
Goals give direction, and it’s important they be realistic so you’re not disappointed. Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish in this particular session. Think about the problems you’ve been working on in recent sits, and decide how you can best apply yourself to the practice today. Then choose a goal for this sit that’s reasonable given your recent progress. At first, your goals can be simple, such as not giving up and daydreaming, or remaining patient when your mind wanders or you get drowsy. 

3. Beware of expectations 
You should set goals and practice diligently to achieve them, but be careful of ambitious expectations about where you “should be.” You can easily set yourself up for disappointment. Resolve to hold the goals you’ve set very lightly, to find enjoyment in every meditation no matter what happens, and to savor any achievement. Simply sitting down to practice is an accomplishment.

There will be sessions where it’s easy to focus. This is the fruit of your previous practice. But don’t expect to notice obvious progress each time you sit. There will be plateaus where nothing seems to change for days or weeks. Today, you may have less stability of attention or mindfulness than you did weeks or even months ago. That’s normal, so stay relaxed. Make your effort diligent, yet joyful. Don’t get caught up in expectations. And always remember, there is no such thing as a “bad” meditation.

4Commit to diligence 
Diligence means engaging wholeheartedly in the practice rather than spending your time on the cushion planning or daydreaming. You will be tempted to think about things that are more interesting or “important” than the meditation object-problems to be solved, projects to plan, and fantasies to entertain. So commit not to indulge in these tempting distractions. Also, judging the quality of your practice can lead to doubt, giving rise to procrastination and resistance. Remind yourself that, whenever resistance arises, the best way to overcome it is by simply continuing to practice. Resolve to practice diligently for the entire session, regardless of how your meditation goes.

5. Review potential distractions 
It’s important to know your state of mind before you begin to meditate. Perform a quick inventory of the things in your life that could come up as distractions, such as a problem at work or an argument with a friend. Check to see if your mind is occupied by any worries about the future, regrets about the past, doubts, or other annoyances. Acknowledge these thoughts and emotions, whatever they are, and resolve to set them aside if they arise. You may not be wholly successful, but just setting the intention will make them easier to handle.

6. Adjust your posture  
Before you begin, review your posture and get comfortable. Here’s a checklist:

  • Adjust any supports you use to help you sit comfortably.
  • Your head, neck, and back should be aligned, leaning neither forward nor backward, nor to the side. Your shoulders should be even and your hands level with each other so your muscles are balanced.
  • Your lips should be closed, your teeth slightly apart, and your tongue against the roof of your mouth, with the tip against the back of your upper teeth.
  • Start with your eyes closed and angled slightly downward, as though you were reading a book. This creates the least tension in your forehead and face. If you prefer, leave your eyes slightly open, with your gaze directed at the floor in front of you. Your eyes will move during meditation, but when you notice they’ve shifted, return them to where they were.
  • With your lips closed, breathe through your nose in a natural way. It shouldn’t feel controlled or forced.
  • Relax and enjoy yourself. Scan your body for any tension and let it go. All the activity of meditation is in the mind, so the body should be like a lump of soft clay-solid and stable, but completely pliant. This helps keep physical distractions to a minimum. 

From The Mind Illuminated: A Complete Meditation Guide Integrating Buddhist Wisdom and Brain Science, Culadasa (John Yates, PhD), and Matthew Immergut, PhD with Jeremy Graves. Dharma Treasure Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission from the publisher. 

Learn more from Culadasa and Immergut in their Dharma Talk, Meditation Illuminated 

[This story was first published in 2016]