Some of our most frequently asked questions

The belly breathing felt relaxing, but I had a really hard time staying awake.

Students often find that they fall asleep when they practice belly breathing and start feeling relaxed. Part of the problem is that you guys are all sleep-deprived, and as soon as you slow down for a minute, it's natural that you fall asleep. You probably really need some sleep. That's something to be aware of and consider: if finding ways to get more regular sleep would help you to feel better in general.

So, there's really nothing wrong with falling asleep, and as a matter of fact, doing some belly breathing is a great way to clear your mind and relax your body at night to help you get to sleep.

But it's true that sleeping isn't meditating, so there are a few tricks for working with sleepiness. First, it's important not to judge yourself for feeling sleepy. It's just sleepiness! No big deal. Second, see if you can get a little bit curious about what it feels like to be sleepy. How do you know you're sleepy? What are the sensations in your body and mind that tell you you're sleepy? Sometimes just being curious about the sleepiness can make you feel more alert. You can also try opening your eyes while you continue to practice the breathing. Some people recommend standing up or gently pinching your earlobes when you begin to feel sleepy. One other trick is to try taking a deep breath and holding it as long as you can. Try this for several breaths in a row until you are feeling more alert.

If these tricks don't help, it may be best to try a more energizing meditation, such as dynamic breathing or walking meditation.

What's the best time of day to practice?

Anytime that you can get yourself to do it is the best time! It doesn't really matter when; just do it! What matters is that you practice regularly, so you have a chance to develop your skills and to see if the practice helps you experience positive change in your life. Many students find if they don't do it in the morning, they never find time the rest of the day. Some students like to do it right before bedtime because it helps them quiet their minds as they prepare for sleep. Still others find a break in the middle of the day works best. Be willing to experiment a little. Pick a time to do your ten minutes of mindfulness practice, and if after a few days you find that's not working well for you, then see if there's another time that would work better. Keep at it, until you develop a regular, daily routine.

I'm already so busy. I don't see how I can make time to meditate. I'm feeling more stressed just thinking about adding something else to my schedule.

I know. You guys are so busy that it can be hard to come up with ten minutes. But see if there's not some time in your day, maybe when you need a break at the library, or after you turn your computer off for the night, or before you go to class, when you can just set aside ten minutes to practice your skills. Most students find that if they pick a specific time, and plan to do it at that time every day, they do a better job of sticking with it. Sometimes it's helpful to have a timer or set your cell phone as a reminder.

I'm still not clear about what the goal is supposed to be when I'm trying to meditate.

One of the fun but confusing things about learning mindfulness is getting comfortable with all the paradoxes. One thing we learn is that in this practice the harder we strive towards a particular outcome, the less likely it is to occur. For example, if you sit down to meditate determined to create a particular state of relaxation, and you get all wound up and determined to MAKE it happen, it's not likely to happen. The paradox is this: the more you are willing to open to the moment and accept things as they are without being too attached to the idea of relaxing, the more likely it is you will experience the benefits of feeling focused and relaxed. It's the willingness to let go of thoughts and stay focused in the moment that allows your body and mind to relax. So you can get what you want, but only if you don't try to get what you want. Confusing, huh?

The problem is though, that most people are not going to go to the trouble to meditate if they don't have some goal they are trying to accomplish like the ones you guys mentioned last week: trying to decrease stress, improve sleep and improve concentration. That's why you are all here learning this new practice. One helpful way to think about it, is to keep your goals in mind as you are making the time and preparing to practice. However, as soon as you begin your period of meditation, try to let go of the goals, and just practice staying present, accepting whatever arises in each moment.

What arises for me it lots of thoughts. It's so frustrating that I can't get my thoughts to stop.

Remember, we're not trying to get our thoughts to stop. Our thoughts never stop. Brains produce thoughts. That's just the way it is.

It can be useful to think of your mind as a rushing, rushing river. There are always thoughts rushing along in a torrent. With mindfulness practice, we're not trying to stop the river, we're just trying to climb out of the river; we're trying to settle in on the bank for a moment so we can watch the thoughts go by. You'll see as you start to work with staying present and becoming aware of your thoughts, that it feels very different to be in the river carried away by the thoughts vs. sitting on the bank watching them go. So with our meditations and skills we're teaching, we're just trying to help you learn to climb out of the river. Of course, you fall back in almost immediately. That's how it works: climb out, fall in, climb out, fall in. But after a while you'll notice you can stay on the bank for longer periods of time. And eventually you'll notice that the river sometimes slows down quite a bit, but of course only if you're not trying to make it slow down!

I started the week really well, doing my meditation every day. But then I was bad and didn't do it the last few days. I just got busy and kind of forgot about it.

First, notice the judgment. Were you really "bad" because you forgot to meditate? Probably not. See if you can notice when you have those kinds of judging thoughts about yourself or others.

Now as far as trying to get your meditation practice more regular, it may be helpful to designate a specific time each day for it. It's tricky for students, because your schedules tend to be different every day. You'll get up for an early class one day, then sleep in until your afternoon class the next. That kind of irregularity makes it hard, but not impossible, to consistently work meditation into your day. Try setting your phone to go off at a certain time each day to remind you. Or put a sticky note on your computer to remind you to spend ten minutes watching your breath when you open it up. Or put your meditation log by your bed to remind you to do it before you go to sleep or when you wake up in the morning. If you just count on remembering and working it in at different times each day, you are much less likely to consistently get your practice in.

I notice lots of judging thoughts. It's really frustrating to me and I don't know what to do about it.

Surprisingly, you don't need to do anything about the judging thoughts. Just notice you're having them. As you begin to notice them without fighting them, your relationship to those thoughts will change. And that's when they start to go away. If you try to order your mind to stop judging, it will just judge more. If you just pay attention and "see" the judgments, they will begin to melt away.

Developing the willingness to let thoughts and feelings be what they are is critical to the practice of mindfulness. If you're judging, you're judging. No big deal. Letting go of an agenda and not striving all the time to make things different. Cultivating feelings of patience and kindness. All of these attitudes will contribute to your sense of well-being as you increasingly keep your attention focused on the present moment. Seeing things as they are and being willing to accept each moment as it is, does not mean living a life of passive resignation. It is only through clearly seeing each moment as it is that we develop balance and wisdom, which then leads to effective actions that can result in positive change.

This week it was hard for me to think of a gratitude because I was kind of down. I could think of things to be grateful about, but I didn't feel grateful, so I didn't fill in the log. I didn't think I should just fake it. What do you think about that?

We would just encourage you to go ahead and take note of the things that are pretty good in your life, even if in the moment you don't actually feel a sense of gratitude. The point of the exercise is to bring your awareness to some of the good things in your life, regardless of how much gratitude you feel at that particular time. It's okay if it's just a cognitive exercise, without a lot of emotional impact. Sometimes you may notice nice, warm, fuzzy feelings of thankfulness. Other times, you may feel grumpy and unhappy despite identifying several things in your life that you could feel grateful for. As with all our mindfulness practices, we're not trying to force any particular feeling. We just want you to bring awareness to some of the positive aspects of your life. Be willing to observe and accept whatever response arises.

I'm still having a lot of trouble staying regular with my practice. I've been really bad this week. Procrastination is just a huge problem for me with everything I do, including this meditation stuff. I'm feeling really frustrated.

Have you been REALLY BAD? What would it look like if you were really good? Maybe if you meditated an hour every day? How about an hour twice a day? Then you'd be REALLY GOOD! Is there any gray space in between? It's so hard to avoid making these kinds of judgments. I find that the standards we hold ourselves to for being "good" are usually absurdly high. For example, I think that signing up for this class and coming to the sessions is extremely good. Most people wouldn't even move that far in the direction of personal growth and greater awareness. A less judgmental way of thinking about this is to notice it felt hard to get started with meditation and be curious about what strategies you can employ to get through that.

Which brings us to the whole issue of procrastination, which is a huge issue for many students. Procrastination often arises because the thought of getting started with our task is too unpleasant and aversive, maybe because the task seems too hard or maybe because it doesn't seem very interesting or maybe just because we don't know where to start. Often the thoughts that go along with this have to do with thinking about how long it will take to finish or how hard it will be to get it perfect. What are the thoughts you have when you notice you are procrastinating on getting started on meditation? Are they similar to the thoughts you have when you are procrastinating on some other task?

Usually I'm thinking that I'll do it as soon as I do something else. Or I'm thinking that I don't know what I'm doing or just thinking I don't want to do it. I just dread getting started.

"Dread" is a good word to describe the feeling many people have when they are trying to get started doing something that is aversive for them. Can you just sit with the feeling, try not to judge it, and then shift your attention to the sensations in your body as you move ahead with your task?

For example, if you remember you need to do your meditation practice but just don't feel like getting started, notice the feeling of "not wanting to" and then move your attention to your body as you sit or stand in that moment. If you are standing, take a seat and notice how that feels in your body. Notice any thoughts you have about not wanting to do it or not knowing how to do it or liking it or not liking it. Anything at all can come up. As soon as you start becoming aware of these physical sensations and your thoughts and feelings, you ARE MEDITATING. You've already started. Perhaps then you can carry on for a few minutes and see what happens.

But I hate that feeling of dread I get when I have a big paper to write or a test to study for. I want it to be easier!

Of course you do! We all want our bad feelings to be gone and life to be easier. Once again, we find you are perfectly normal! The truth is, though, that sometimes we have uncomfortable feelings. The more we fight and struggle against them, the worse things get for us. It's OK to feel dread about getting started writing. It's OK to not like feeling dread. It may help to understand that the task is not to make the dread go away; the task is to recognize that the bad feeling is impermanent and you can get on with things in spite of it. This is where acceptance and present-moment awareness come in and can be really useful.

When you start to pay attention to your present- moment experience, you'll see that the feeling of dread will go away and it will come back sometimes and it will go away again. That's what feelings do. They come and they go. This is true of wonderful, joyous feelings as well as uncomfortable feelings. Because we are wonderfully human and our lives are complex, our feelings are coming and going and shifting all the time. We have difficulty when we believe our behaviors must always be determined by our feelings. In reality, we feel what we feel. These feelings certainly influence our behavior but they don't have to determine it completely.

In this example, the feelings of dread have nothing to do with whether you actually complete the task at hand. You can get started writing your paper in spite of the bad feeling. If you notice you feel dread, just feel dread. I'm not saying it's easy, but then you've done lots of things in your life that weren't easy. We don't just wait around for things to get easy, do we? Notice the uncomfortable emotion, then turn your attention to physical sensations as you sit in front of your computer or open your book and begin working. Notice the feeling of your fingers on the keyboard or the feel of the pages of your book in your hand. Keep your awareness in just that moment. When you notice thoughts such as "I hate this...I'll never get done...I don't want to do this" just observe them and bring your attention back to the work. They are just thoughts. You can even label them, "dreading," which may help you let them go. Labeling is a skill will learn in our third class. Labeling helps us shift our perspective from being in the river to being back on the bank again. Fully focus on the words you are reading or the concepts you are working with, letting go of the distracting thoughts about how the work is going or how you feel about the work. Although you don't need the bad feeling to go away before you start working, it is likely it will go away when you are focused on the moment-to-moment experience of writing a paper or solving math problems. The paradox of mindfulness is at work again; when you no longer fight against your dread and get on with your business, the feeling of dread goes away on its own.

The eating meditation was really interesting. I've never enjoyed a grape so much in my life! But I don't get how I'd really eat a meal mindfully. It would take forever.

Eating an entire meal mindfully does indeed take a long time, but it is a great meditation practice and worth trying. Having a mindful cup of tea can be a really powerful mindfulness exercise to bring you into the present, letting go of worries and doubts. In general though, eating mindfully doesn't have to involve an entire meal; even small amounts of mindful eating can be beneficial. Try eating just the first bite of every meal mindfully. It's a great way to start a meal, and will generally set you up to be more aware of the rest of the meal, even if you aren't doing a very slow meditative eating of the whole meal. Anything that slows your eating down a little can add to your mindfulness; we suggest putting your fork down between each bite and noticing what happens. You are likely to find that you pay more attention and get more satisfaction from your meal just by making this one little change. Of course, just making an effort to turn off the computer or TV while you eat will help you slow down, pay more attention to your food and have a better idea when you are full.

I've been working with trying to label my thoughts. Can you say more about how that works? I sometimes find it helpful, but at other times I find I'm just thinking about labels!

Remember the metaphor about the river? We talked about our mind being a racing river, with a torrent of thoughts traveling along it almost constantly. Mindfulness is the skill that allows us to sit on the bank, at peace, watching the river rush by. Without mindfulness, we are in the river being washed away. Labeling thoughts works like a rope that you can use to pull yourself back onto the bank. Each time we label a thought, we get just a little distance on it, a little perspective. This slight change in your relationship to your thinking allows you to drop right into the present moment. Right now I'm thinking. Right now I'm planning. Right now I'm wanting. Can you say more about your experience working with labels?

Well, I did find I could bring myself back using labels. But sometimes I'd just be completely checked out for a long time before I noticed. Once I noticed, I'd want to label but then I'd begin thinking about what I'd been thinking about! Like I was trying to figure out what to label and ended up just spending more time thinking.

You do have to watch out for the trap of thinking too much about the labels. That's why the generic "thinking" can be so useful. For me personally, I've discovered that the vast majority of my thoughts can be labeled "planning": planning what I'll say to whom or when I'll do what. It's quite funny really. I can even sometimes catch myself planning what label to use. Then I really laugh at myself. Anytime I find myself in those kinds of circular thought patterns, I just go back to using "thinking" because it helps me get back into observing mind. If you begin to notice a pattern of always wanting to find the perfect label, you might find that there are other times that your thoughts are about wanting things to be just right or a certain way. It can be very interesting to notice the pattern of "wanting" and to use that as your label. But the main thing is to not let yourself get too caught up in picking a label or you'll just find you've been washed away by the river yet again. And remember, the very moment you notice you are checked out, you are no longer checked out; you are back in the present.

I feel like I've made a lot of progress. I'm feeling less stressed and that's cool. But I'm still having a hard time with the acceptance bit. I mean, I don't know how to decide to accept things.

You may be getting hung up on the idea that you have to "decide" about acceptance. Acceptance is not a cognitive exercise. It's not about thinking and deciding to accept something. Acceptance is simply just becoming aware, because when you become aware, you see things as they are. In that moment you let go of the need for anything to be different because you are just seeing things as they are. No judgment. No struggle. So if you are in a situation you really don't like, you don't have to decide to accept it. You certainly don't have to decide to like it. All you have to do is become aware of how you are feeling and thinking in this moment. The moment you bring your awareness to your present moment experience, you are experiencing acceptance. Deciding to accept a situation is just more thinking; noticing how this moment feels is the act of acceptance.

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