Hello sinners! While I’m working on part 2 of my meditation…with a bit of Satan series, I thought I’d share with you my own meditation practice. Over the years I’ve tried various practices, but these are the ones that I come back to time and time again. Spoiler – they’re not really very sinful!
Scandalous Statue Meditation
This is the practice I’ve been doing longest. I learned this from ‘The Mind Illuminated’ and Buddhist nuns in the Thai Forest Tradition. The concept of statue meditation is that you commit to sitting for a period of time without moving. Then, depending on your goals for that session, you do a series of mental exercises.
If you like the sound of statue meditation then I highly recommend reading The Mind Illuminated. It describes the exercises in huge detail. It also goes into the types of practices to do at each level of expertise (the simple exercises need to be mastered before more advanced ones are possible).
Preparation for meditation is helpful. It can be a ritual in itself. If I’m pressed for time, I’ll go straight into the sit, but I like to prepare if possible.
I clean my teeth and wash my face.
I choose a location and posture. This is usually either a meditation block, a kneeling chair or the sofa if I’m feeling tired. Sometimes I sit, sometimes I lie. It needs to be somewhere I can comfortably remain for the duration of my practice.
I take off my glasses, my watch and set up my phone with a timer. I place them all neatly beside me. During this set up I make a conscious effort to move gently, lovingly and mindfully. All these steps help prepare my mind, allowing me to focus more quickly, easily and joyfully.
The 6 steps of scandalous set up
I then go through 6 points in my mind. This helps focus me on what I’m doing and why. It also helps prevent some problems with distraction, boredom and expectation.
- Motivation: what is my motivation for this specific session? Often it’s the desire to have a clearer, more focussed mind. This helps provide drive if I start to feel bored or restless.
- Goals: what goals will help me today? (example: ‘I want to work on maintaining awareness while focussing on my breath’).
- Expectations: What expectations do I have and can I let go of them? If I can’t let go of them, then it still helps to remain aware.
- Diligence: I commit to diligently practicing for the duration of the meditation. This part reminds me of Neil Gaiman’s Lucifer. This Lucifer is a being of pure will, intent on meeting his goals. Meditation can be difficult, but the mental gains are immense. Combining will with motivation in this way feels very Luciferian to me.
- Distractions: I review potential distractions (e.g. pain, mental activity, noises, hunger etc). Note – I don’t try to remove distractions, just be aware that they exist.
- Posture: I make sure I’m as comfortable as possible and unlikely to get pins and needles. Some practitioners will tell you to sit through pins and needles. I’m dubious about this – it feels very unsafe to me. I try and get as comfy as possible, then if I need to move in the middle of my meditation I do. I’ve seen people literally leave meditation retreats because it was too hard for them to sit. This feels like such a tragedy to me. I don’t think beginner meditators should ever worry about doing a meditation ‘wrong’. Meditation is self-improvement – as long as you’re helping yourself, you’re doing great!
When I first started meditating, I took it very seriously, paying particular attention to focus and attention. This was helpful up to a point, but eventually my practice plateaued. I discovered that I was missing was self-love and joy. Now, I pay much more attention to those things when I practice.
- First, I relax all the muscles in my face. I pay particular focus to my eyes, forehead and cheeks. I breathe, relaxing my face until it’s in a gentle smile.
- Then I do a body scan, focusing on each part of my body individually, noticing what it feels like and seeing if I can relax it.
After I’ve done the ‘self-care’ process of relaxation I start working on focus.
My 4 step process to bring my focus to my breath.
- Step 1: Coming to the present. I don’t worry about what I’m focusing on at first, as long as it’s the current moment (so not memory, worry, planning, imagination etc). Usually my mind will flit between sensory awareness and mental activity.
- Step 2: Limit my focus to the sensations related to my body. At this point anything I hear would count as a ‘distraction’. If I notice my attention moving to it, I gently refocus on my body.
- Step 3: I move my focus to just sensations related to my breath.
- Step 4: I focus on my breath in a particular part of my body (usually either my nose or abdomen).
My exercises depend on my goals for that session and the state my mind is in. Sometimes clarity is easy, sometimes it’s tough. If my mind is active then I’ll do simpler exercises that day. It’s also worth noting that for some meditations, getting to this point would take almost the entire time. For others I have an extended period of time focusing on the breath.
Here are some common exercises I do:
- Counting my breaths. I focus my attention on the whole cycle of breath and then count up to 10 breaths (I don’t go any higher than 10. If I can do 10, then I either repeat the exercise, requiring sharper focus of myself, or I move onto something else). If I lose focus on the breath then I begin again.
- Noticing all the sensations related to breath at the nose (e.g. temperature change between the air coming in and air going out, any tightness, other sensations located around the nose etc) and comparing them to each other. I may also compare them to my state of mind (e.g. if I notice strong emotion is there also tightness in my breath? Are my breaths long or short, deep or shallow? How does that relate to my mind?).
- Working on maintaining good posture whilst focusing on the breath. I often find I notice a tightness at the back of my nose and throat when I start to slouch, which acts as an alert for me.
- Working on maintaining awareness of my senses (usually hearing because I have my eyes closed) whilst also focussing on the breath.
- Working on maintaining awareness of my mind whilst focusing on the breath (introspective awareness).
- Noticing what different mental activity feels like. What does planning feel like? Memory? Imagination? Narrative voice? Drowsiness? What am I feeling? Are there emotions present? What do they feel like?
- Working on bringing myself out of drowsiness and ‘dullness’ (that pleasant, warm, sleepy feeling).
Sometimes I get distracted by a child who absolutely needs me to find Optimus Prime’s arm. Or I worry that I didn’t start my timer and will be left in this statue position for eternity. When this happens I’m usually frustrated, but I work on letting go of the frustration and going back to meditation. I count this as part of my practice. I usually do a quick version of the 4 step process to return to the breath.
The practice ends when my chime goes (on my meditation timer). I open my eyes slowly and gently. I try and maintain the mindfulness and calm for as long as I can as I go about my day. When I first started meditating, mindfulness didn’t last long after the end of a session. Now, I’m finding it lasts a little longer and is also easier to return to during the day.
Resources for statue meditation and presence
The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, PhD – complete meditation guide
Stop Missing Your Life by Cory Muscara – a lovely book which describes how to be truly present and happy. The author spent 6 months in silence, living as a Monk in Myanmar.
Relaxing the face
This is the same exercise that I described in the statue meditation. I focus on relaxing every muscle in my face. It’s an exercise that I learned from the zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I do it several times a day.
I love this exercise because it’s an act of self-care. Sometimes as I do it, I use it as an opportunity to be grateful for my eyes and the work they do allowing me to see. It’s a useful grounding exercise and I find it dramatically improves my mood.
Corrupt consumption (a.k.a. ‘mindful eating’)
In Thailand I spent time with Buddhist nuns, living in the Thai jungle. We followed their daily routine – doing what they would do on a normal day.
Nuns eat twice a day – at 8am and 11.30 (they’re forbidden to eat after noon). When we ate with them we would take our bowls to the food, collect what we wanted and then come and sit back on our mats. After chanting and expressing gratitude for the food, we would eat.
Meals were taken in silence, so all attention could be focussed on eating. To eat mindfully, we would pick up our spoon, take a mouthful and then set the spoon back down. We’d chew slowly, focusing on the taste and experience of eating. We wouldn’t pick up our spoon again until there was no food in our mouth. The idea was that you shouldn’t be thinking about the next mouthful until you’ve finished the first.
After the meal, we would quietly leave the eating area, wash our bowls and spoons, and leave them out to dry. It was pleasant to only have these two items to deal with and to have a routine of washing them as soon as we’d finished. For nuns, those bowls and spoons are the only things they own outside their clothes. Looking at a sink full of washing up, the idea of going back to a single bowl and spoon seems pretty enticing.
I don’t always eat like this (it’s slow and I get impatient!). But it’s a useful exercise. Sometimes I do it for something simple, like eating a piece of fruit. I also find it useful as a way of slowing down during a stressful day.
If you’d like to try it, set your fork down between mouthfuls. Notice what it feels like to chew and swallow all your food before moving onto the next mouthful. Does your food taste different? Are you getting impatient? Are you enjoying it?
There’s a Buddhist meditation practice called ‘meditating on the Dhamma’. It involves taking a piece of scripture or a concept in Buddhist philosophy and focussing on it during your meditation. I like to do this whilst swimming.
I decide on my object of focus before I start and make sure I’ve learned it well enough that I won’t need to go back to it. Then I swim back and forth, making my exercise as regular and rhythmic as possible.
I start by grounding myself and noticing the sensations I feel in my body. I notice my muscles, and how the water feels on my skin. Then, when I’m mentally calm, I focus on my subject.
I don’t time the swimming meditations in the same way as the statue ones. I do try to be diligent about it, though, otherwise I’ll lose myself to the sensation of swimming. I make sure I focus on pushing my mind and looking at the concept from all angles before I stop. If I get distracted, I bring my mind gently back to the topic (in the same way I would refocus on the breath during a statue meditation). I try to evoke a mindset of ‘curiosity and care’ whilst contemplating my subject, as if I’m a small child and it’s something new and exciting. This keeps my mind open and flexible.
Courageous compassion (The “Loving kindness” meditation)
This is the only guided meditation I do regularly. It involves first directing love to yourself, then to your loved ones, casual friends, people you don’t know and finally people you don’t like (although not all versions of this practice do the last step).
This can be a really tough meditation; I ended up in tears the first time I tried and ended the meditation after only a few minutes. There are many aspects that people find difficult initially, but it’s been shown to improve overall levels of happiness in those who practice regularly.
Personally, I’ve found it’s helped me be more open to accepting love for myself. I’ve also found it’s improved my empathy and compassion for others, even those who’ve harmed me. That last one’s taken quite a lot of practice to get to though!
Loving kindness meditation from the University of California Berkeley Institute
Those are my main practices. I hope it’s been useful to you to read about them. If you’re beginning your own mindfulness practice then remember – there’s no wrong way to do it. Mindfulness is about you and your goals. Decide what you want to achieve and find a practice that will help you do that.