Meditation can be seen as a way to keep the mind fresh and healthy in the same way that we wash regularly to keep the body fresh and healthy. Washing in the morning, we repeat the same actions every day. Similarly, with meditation we repeat the same practice, or one of the same few practices, every day.
At least, that is what I did when I first took up meditation several decades ago, as did others around me. In 2022, the culture has changed. Nowadays there are a plethora of different guided meditations available online at the click of a button. Choice and novelty have become such an integral part of our lives that we expect to be presented with variety and innovation. We may be easily dissatisfied if that does not happen.
Mindfulness apps are a case in point. It is clear that many people find them helpful and I am confident that the people behind the big names know their stuff. However, perhaps to encourage people to keep up their subscription, they provide a large selection of different meditation practices, with regular new material.
Such a degree of choice has contributed to a cultural change in mindfulness practice, potentially obscuring one of its core principles: the need for repetition. This comes down to the way that the brain works.
Meditation is a skill and is no different to learning any other skill. Whether we wish to play the piano or train as a plumber, the only way to learn is by regular practice, whereby we lay down new pathways in the brain until the action becomes natural to us. Traditionally, mindfulness practitioners learned just a few meditation practices and, well, practised them every day.
We know how it feels when we don’t wash in the morning. The benefits of washing are clear; maybe one or even two days we can manage, but soon we really start to notice the discomfort - and perhaps the smell! Meditation, or any skill, is the same; we keep practising to remain fresh. Even the most accomplished musician continues to practise throughout their life.
When learning a skill, we are training the mind to keep attending to a particular aspect of that skill until we can see that we have got it right. Playing arpeggios on the piano or soldering a pipe, for example. With meditation, the particular aspect is ‘attending’ itself. We are training the mind to hold our attention on an object of choice. At least, this is the beginning. Once we have learned to reduce the wandering of the mind so that we can hold our attention more steadily, we can apply this focus to different aspects of our experience. This can have many benefits, especially in noticing our response to difficulties in our lives.
In mindfulness meditation the primary objects of focus include sensations of the breathing body, feelings and thoughts. We work with these objects through practices such as the mindfulness of breathing, which is helpful for training attention as well as calming the mind and body. The body scan also helps us to pay close attention to the wide variety of sensations arising in the body, becoming more connected with ourselves in the process.
When we wash in the morning, we usually follow a routine; face, neck, under the arms, etc. The routine may not change from day to day but the experience is never the same: different days, different seasons, different moods, different thoughts about our lives; everything shifts and changes. It is the same with meditation: same practice, different experience.
The difference can be profound. One day we may have a particularly engaged and interesting practice, the next day we try to repeat that experience - but it never happens quite the same way again! There will be other times when it is harder to engage. We may feel uncomfortable, bored or resistant. Here, the guidance is to notice our responses, let them be, keep going.
In fact, ‘difficult’ meditations give us useful information about our habitual states of mind. Mental habits that show up in meditation almost certainly happen at other times, when we are less likely to notice them. When we hear about other peoples’ experiences, we discover that none of this is as personal as we may have thought: it is simply a human mind at work.
Meditation has been shown in many studies to change not just the habits of mind but the structure of the brain itself. But this only happens through repetition. Consider how easily we develop unhelpful habits through repeated thoughts: “Why me”, “It’s unfair”, “I wish they wouldn’t”. Developing helpful habits through meditation is really just as easy.
Meditating every day at the same time is a good way to make the helpful habits stick.
Having a particular room or quiet corner where you go to meditate can also be helpful. Find a picture you find beautiful or inspiring. Some people like to use an essential oil burner or incense to help create a pleasing, evocative atmosphere. Do whatever helps to inspire you. Be curious about your experience. Keep going! The rewards are worth it.