Stage 1: Developing regular meditation practice


It all starts here, where a human piques interest in the practice of meditation and sets himself up for success and good karma in the future. Stage 1 of meditation is all about developing a habit of doing daily meditation. Just sitting down for 5-10 minutes on a daily basis is enough to get started, but the intention to apply will in face of obstacles is what is important during this stage. 

If we look at the picture above, in Stage 1, the practitioner (monk) is chasing the mind (elephant) which is running after the scattered attention (monkey). And this is all-natural, so no need to feel upset if you think you are having a difficult time remaining still. Think of this as a baseline, not an indication of what you are potential for. Like any other skill, meditation also requires time and in the beginning, it is always easy to let go because of self-doubt. Think of when you first started riding a bike, remember how hard it was to balance without the supporting wheels? But because you stuck to practice and continued to do it again and again, your body started to learn to remain resilient to the shakes, and thus the muscles and nerves were trained to perform the activity of riding a bike! The obstacles in the path are the very things that train us to remain resilient and calm during difficult situations. But since all our lives, our brains have learned to avoid difficult situations, when we first start to meditate, our brain signals us to avoid this practice because it brings negative thoughts to mind. But it is in these tight moments when you apply will and remind yourself that I will practice meditation regardless of what excuses my mind presents. Soon, this intention to remain diligent is what carries you across the rest of the path. 

We live our lives impulsively, and the first time to break this impulse is always the hardest time, but if we stick through this, we can guarantee ourselves that we are maturing in our practice and training the mind. For this, a person needs the right posture and a meditation object. The nature of the mind is to hold onto things, and if we don't have a meditation object for the mind, then the mind will choose its own thoughts and feelings to grasp. This is why people may experience trauma or negative experiences the first time they meditate. It is because they do not have a meditation object to keep them safe from the mind's tendency to grasp negative objects. Evolutionarily, it makes sense that the mind dwells on negative thoughts when it is calm because it wants to keep us safe in the future and make sure those negative events don't happen again. But this is where we train the mind to remain in the present moment and remind ourselves that we are safe and thinking will not solve anything in the future. 

Culdasa gives us 6 points for preparing ourselves to meditate. They are Motivation, Goals, Expectations, Diligence, Distractions, and Posture. The chart above gives a good explanation of each so I won't go in-depth about each one of them, but I will present how these connect to improve our strong intention to meditate daily. 

If an activity is perceived as useless or one that doesn't reward us, our brain sends us conscious signals to inhibit it. This is the basis of behaviorism and operant conditioning. If a behavior is rewarded, it is likely to be learned faster and acted upon more frequently. And if behavior is punished, it is likely to be inhibited in the future. But reinforcement can be either positive or negative, and in our case of meditation, negative reinforcement can be dangerous in our long-term process. So for example, if a person mediates because he or she thinks that not meditating is a sign of inadequacy and failure, then that person is using negative reinforcement to motivate themselves. But classical psychology suggests positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement. So in this case, we would reward the mind whenever it meditated, rather than condemn it whenever it didn't. In a way, meditation has inbuilt positive reinforcement, because each time you focus on the meditation object you feel relaxed and relieved from past stress and future worries. You release positive neurotransmitters indicating the brain, this behavior of meditation is important and I should do it again when I feel stressed. The bottom line is if you want to motivate yourself to meditate more often, you should reward yourself each time you meditate. For example, give yourself a treat after you finish your meditation routine every day, or each time you redirect yourself back to the breath, induce a sense of confidence in your ability to take control of your mind. Small things like these train the mind to enjoy meditation rather than do it for the sake of our inadequacies and psychological problems. 

As you meditate more and more, you will start to encounter expectations and distractions. And the best way to handle them is to focus back on the meditation object. You will soon realize that throughout all the stages, the main antidote to distractions during meditation is to: Let it come, Let it be, and Let it go. Having an open mind to all sensations and feelings without trying to change them is a wonderful way of accepting life as it is in the present moment. We have this misconception that if I solve my problems, I will be fine, but that never happens because problems never end in our lives until our mind starts to view problems in a positive light. The outside world is in constant flux, but we can change our mind through meditation so that it remains poised during this chaotic life. Expectations of meditative practice are one of the most important barriers to keep an eye out for. 

Expectations can be positive or negative, but they are always related to the future moment, not the present. When we expect things to occur in a way during meditation, we cling to our mental concepts of reality and then become disappointed when that reality ends up being different. Expectations of our progress as well can be deceiving. Our mind tends to be overconfident in the beginning and makes us feel grandiose or it tends to be timid and dubious making us feel disappointed. But as these expectations come: remind yourself that during this meditation session, all you are worried about is the meditation object, nothing more and nothing less. All expectations and distractions can wait until you are done. Diligence is key to success. Let it come, let it be, and let it go. Just hold the meditation object, and watch the distractions come and go. 

So what are some good meditation objects that you can use to put away these distractions and expectations? Your breath is always available to you, and it directly impacts psychophysiological markers that help reward our body with nice chemical neurotransmitters. In other words, deep breathing makes us feel well and reinforces the act of staying in the present moment. Another object can be a bell or mantra bead beads, which keep the mind engaged in the present. The common factor in all the objects is that it keeps you grounded to the present, and trains the mind to concentrate on one thing, rather than multiple thoughts all at once. This is extremely useful once you get to higher stages where mental unification is the cornerstone of the practice. For now though, following the breath as a meditation object is the best way to get started. 

Usually, it is hard to transition to the breath easily without facing various types of distractions. A good technique Culdasa suggests is to do a body scan, breath scan, and then mental scan. So you start with the gross and then gradually arrive at the subtle states of sensation. For example, if you are seated, you would be aware of your crossed legs, then your torso, and then your arms rested, and then your neck, and finally your head. In this way, you relax each muscle in your body and start to condition yourself to get ready for the real mental scan later. After the body scan, you focus more closely on the respiratory system and the breath. You focus on the sensations on each nostril and follow the breath as it goes down the windpipe, through the throat into the lungs, and then back out. Each inhalation and exhalation is noted, and if at any point you are lost due to distractions, you just go back and try again. You keep trying until your mind gives in and lets go of the distractions. Finally, after the body and breath scan, you start to deal with the mind and the thoughts. It is hard to remain nonjudgmental towards thoughts that may pose threat to the ego. For example, when you think of someone insulting you or a time when you made a mistake, it is natural for the mind to get upset. But here, we pay attention, not to the content of the thought, but the feeling that arises after it. Since the body and the breath are already taken care of, we start to realize that this thought isn't as bad as we initially thought it was. It was just the feeling that came after it that made me feel so miserable. So the more we focus on the feelings, the more we start to befriend our negative thoughts and in turn improve our mind-body connection. Soon we get so good at this that any negative thought that comes into mind gradually dissolves itself without creating a strong feeling in our mind. This is all done through physiological and psychological conditioning in the process of meditation. To sum it up: follow the body, then the breath, and then the mind. 

Posture is very important as you get along with your meditation practice. The picture above is the typical way in which most meditators and monks do meditation. The crossed legs and thumbs touching each other are just ways to condition your body and remind it that whenever we are in this posture, it is time to reduce the mental activity and focus on the breath. Don't hold a posture that gives pain, as that wouldn't motivate you to meditate on a daily basis. If a mat or a chair helps to reduce the pain, start with that because our training is more related to the mind, and not the body. If you need to get in shape to sit down, I recommend doing more exercise or Yoga so that your body is flexible. In the long run, it is important to sit down with crossed legs, so if this is something you cannot do at the moment, don't worry but be prepared to do it later on. 

This is the end of Stage 1. You are ready to move on to Stage 2 if you are able to do meditation on a daily basis and have started to get a good grasp at the concept of let it come, let it be, let it go. Finally, if you have a good system of motivation that clears self-doubt and reinforces your ability to continue meditating, then you are already on a great start. Remember it is the feeling that arises that creates tension, not the thought itself. So welcome everything, and feel nothing.