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OK, so here’s my meditation advice, and yeah, other people and traditions will give different, perhaps opposite advice:

  1. pick a focus. I like posture as a generic go to but sometimes I instead use a pain, an itch, an upsetting emotion or thought, or a distracting sound, like a neighbors dog. For beginners, I recommend counting breaths (counting to ten and then back again … 9, 10, 9, 8, … 2, 1, 2 …) but only when you’re first starting out and want to develop your concentration. Rattling numbers is not a habit I’d wanna get stuck with. So not past the first few months or so.

  2. When your thoughts fall from the focus, bring them back to the focus. That is not failure — discovering that it has happened, and bringing it back, is the success. That is the way.

    It could happen seldomly because you’re not noticing that you’ve fallen from the focus or because you’re not falling from the focus. Either way—when you catch yourself, and bring yourself back, that’s when you are doing the work.

  3. Our myriad thoughts, impulses, emotions and sensations could be categorized a thousand ways but one way (roughly) is that most of them fit mostly in either primary sensation (this floor, this temperature, this breath), simulated experience (my work day tomorrow, that thing that girl on the bus said yesterday, how often laundry day comes around), or reflexive awareness. Observing our own thoughts.

    With this style of meditation, the idea is that reflexive awareness will become strengthened. It might sound weird to focus on primary sensation to strengthen reflexive awareness, but, the mechanism is the whole “catching yourself and bringing yourself back” thing.

    That is why meditation, while the hardest thing in the world, is where there is no “screwing up”. Falling off and bringing yourself back? Then you’re doing it right. Not falling off and keeping the focus? Also doing it right. Polish that cloudy mirror♥

  4. That said, focusing on purported gains or rewards to be had from meditation can be the wrong way to go. When I was starting out I was told that meditation was “worthless”. It doesn’t make you strong, wise, kind. A lot of people in the West end up being less kind after meditation practice, at least initially. So that’s another area of your life that you might also need to work on. Meditation does not solve all things.

I also have the following advice that goes directly counter both to pretty much every tradition both ancient and contemporary. But, with that caveat, I’ll present it anyway. When you are first starting out, and if you are alone, keep paper and pencil in front of you and when something from your life bugs you, write it down. Then afterwards you can go through those items, throwing some in the waste bin but others on the todo list or calendar, with a mind towards a simple structured life.

Life and work in the monastery is scheduled 24/365. Life in the modern city is a mess of appointments, anxieties, obligations, and unsolved problems.

It’s generally waaaaay easier to meditate with someone than alone, but if you are alone, the upshot is that you can use this writing-down technique without bugging anyone else. I haven’t done it personally in many years now because there’s generally nothing that pops up that’s more important than the meditation practice itself, that it’s not just better to let go in that moment and return if it wants to.