(Author of Practical Mindfulness) Greg Sazima MD explains how setting some structure can really help sustain a practice.
Source: Pixabay, altered with Photomania
In launching a meditation practice, whether it’s your own or you’re helping a patient or student with theirs, it’s sensible to set up some good habits for each sitting, right out of the gate. Sprinters wiggle their feet in the starting blocks; hikers plan their trail path and gather enough water. Even for the “interior trip” of meditation, famous for its “just sit there and watch” lack of structure, some routine-building is a key to rolling a sustained practice, just as with sticking to a nutrition plan or an exercise regimen. While the basic instructions of meditating are by nature pretty spare, some structure at the outset can set us up to reduce frustration, distraction, and early exit.
For both meditation newbies and grizzled veterans, I think there are three main potholes that can intrude on a smooth beginning to any individual practice session. Anyone can sit down, set the timer, and then…uh oh. Three common troubles:
- Not really settling into place, time, and meditative “landscape.”
- Feeling a bit lonely and lost, especially if meditating solo.
- Really not setting any basic intention for the session, which could be as basic as breath observation, or a more complex sequence of planned targets for observation.
Any of these can be setups for failure. While not getting too directive, I’ve found that a quick 3-step routine helps start every meditation sitting with a familiar set of reminders, each of which attends to these three common complications of starting practice: beginning without being settled in place, feeling lonely and disconnected, and working without some basic intention.
At the risk of legal trouble with a certain brewing company, I call it HWG , which is shorthand for Here… We… Go. I take an intentional, deliberate belly breath with each, creating some calm. The three prompts can be said out loud, thought about quietly, mimed, whatever works.
- H is for “Here”: With the first breath, we settle into looking at our experience as an open field. “Here” roots us in the present place and moment, an “I’m right here, right now” settling.
- W is for “We”: With the second breath, note that even sitting by ourselves, we are not alone. It’s a good bet that somewhere on the planet, somebody is even practicing formally, just like you are — a global network of folks in parallel observation. Pulling back to a bigger picture, all of us are in our own ways working on reducing our suffering and finding fulfillment. Imagine that as you quietly register “we.” Not alone; welcome, fellow mindful-nauts, wherever you are.
- G is for “Go”: With a third big ol’ breath, set a specific intention and plan for the session. For beginners, that’s usually watching the in-and-out of the breath. Later on, as our practices develop, at least in PM’s sequences it’s…still working with the breath first to shake the rust off. We may then intend to move to observing other phenomena: whole or other physical targets or whole-body sense, emotional tone, thought, attention, and even back to a meta perch of observing the whole landscape, of “anything that arises.” We don’t have to be beholden to that opening “go” intention, but it’s good to have one to start off with.
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So H… W… G. Then, get meditating. Let go of the belly breathing, and instead let the breath settle to its own state, without controlling it. We’re in observation mode now.
One other practical use for HWG is worth mentioning. Remember that “losing attention is inevitable” part? When lost in the weeds, whether via a trip to monkey-mind island or into a zoned-out tunnel, when that sweet recognition of “got lost” pops, you can use “HWG” to resettle and restart. It’s a familiar, comforting kind of a home base, in that way.
(There you go.)
A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners
Training exercises that work. Practical Mindfulness approaches mindfulness and meditation from a hands-on, how-to, irreverent perspective–appealing directly to smart readers curious about meditation. By applying Dr. Sazima’s training routines, learn to spend more time in real engagement with the world. Cultivate a deeper appreciation of experiences, from the everyday to the extraordinary, and live your life more fully, wisely, and joyfully.