How to Get the Most Out of Your Meditations
Why Curiosity is the #1 Attitude You Need for Building a Meditation Practice
It’s been a long day and you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders. Between the expectations of society, family, and personal pressure, your plate is overflowing and you just don’t have the bandwidth to handle it all.
You want to do something about this overwhelming and scattered feeling that keeps you from good sleep and feeling healthy, focused, and capable.
You’ve been hearing good things about meditation, so you decide it’s time to take it seriously as a viable solution.
So there you are, scrolling YouTube for a guided meditation. You randomly choose one, press play and close your eyes.
You fidget 28 times until you finally settle into a somewhat comfortable posture. You try really hard to relax and focus. You use all the will and force you can muster to stay focused and not think. But the more you try, the louder your mind gets.
It’s almost like you walked into a dark, crowded party complete with a fog machine causing mass confusion.
There’s a song looping through your mind, loud chatter about your to-do list, arguments about what you should’ve said to that person yesterday, and images of your car’s flashing change oil light providing a strobe light effect.
The random thoughts, songs and images keep coming, and you get foggier, disoriented, more uncomfortable, and ultimately, you feel the opposite of relaxed.
You progressively get more disappointed in yourself and feel like everyone who talks about meditation being great is full of it.
“It doesn’t work for me. My mind is too busy.” You say to yourself.
“I can’t meditate. I don’t have the willpower. I can’t focus.”
“Meditation only works for (insert adjective) people. I’m too (insert opposite adjective).
None of this is true though.
What is true is that you were expecting a certain experience, and that’s not what happened.
What did happen was a non-stop thought stream of judgment.
You judged yourself,
You judged your thoughts,
You judged your emotions,
You judged the teacher,
You judged the YouTube mosquito spray commercial that interrupted the meditation just when you were getting into it,
You judged the Dalai lama and his peaceful smile,
You judged your brain chemistry,
And, of course, you judged your mom, your ex and your stupid, uncomfortable couch.
Judgment. Judgment. Judgment.
It’s no wonder you’ve felt discouraged with some of the meditations you’ve been doing.
It’s no wonder it hasn’t become a habit for you yet.
If something similar to what I described in this introduction has ever happened to you after trying meditation,
congratulations! You have a brain—-you have a fully functioning mind!
And with having a mind comes some built in features, like having judgments and expectations.
These are automatic habits of mind, nothing to judge yourself for, but they are something that we can learn to be more aware of and curious about.
What’s important when starting out with a meditation practice is that you begin noticing how judgmental the mind can really be, and realize that many times, although this is an automatic response, it’s not necessarily the truth.
You have plenty of space to learn and grow when you don’t let automatic judgments and expectations be the end of your meditation story.
How do you do that? Well, you remember these three E’s:
Expectations & Judgment get in the way of learning and discovery
Experiment - View your meditation journey through the eyes of a scientist: your experience is the experiment.
Everything is your teacher
In other words, the most important thing you need as you set out on your meditation journey is a backpack full of curiosity!
“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.”
What is curiosity, exactly?
It’s a strong desire to know or learn something. But a definition I like even more is:
It’s an eager wish to know or learn about something.
An eager wish.
An eager wish to explore, discover, question, investigate, delve, and (“E” number two)...Experiment.
Curiosity is the elusive wish that keeps giving. It’s the wish for more wishes.
With the mindset of curiosity at the beginning of your meditation journey, you’ll have what any one who’s ever rubbed a magic lamp has wanted.
Never-ending wishes. Never-ending learning.
In some ways meditation is an unlearning.
In other ways it’s the most intense education you’ll ever experience.
Being open to it all is not only how to benefit the most from it, but how you’ll stay committed.
Expectations + Judgment Get in the Way of Learning and Discovery
Before you embark on your meditation journey, take time to journal and reflect on these questions:
Why do I want to meditate?
Why do I really want to meditate?
What is my deepest reason for wanting to meditate?
One you have your answers, imagine that you are in your bedroom.
Visualize yourself walking over to your closet, opening the door, and searching the top shelf for a box.
Find one, open it, and store your reasons here.
Close the box, put your reasons on the shelf, and close your closet door.
It’s important to have these reasons to get you going, but it’s equally important to let them go as you begin your journey, because they really can just get in the way.
At the end of, let's say, 8 weeks, come back and revisit your goals, and reflect on what you have learned and experienced.
Nine times out of ten, if you’ve kept an open mind, you will have grown and expanded in ways related to your goals, and also in many ways that you weren’t even anticipating. Ways that are often just as, if not more helpful, than what you initially set out to do.
If you’re afraid you’ll forget your motivations, you can also do this before your daily practice:
Look at your reasons for meditating. Choose one. For example, “I want to feel more at ease”
Let that inspire you to sit down and get started.
“I’m meditating today so that I can feel more at ease”
Once you sit, let go of the goal. Let the practice take you where it may. Be open to the discovery.
Think of entering meditation like going to a Science Museum.
The goal to see the exhibit is what gets you there, but you can’t really know or anticipate all the cool things you’re going to learn, experience and walk out with.
You may be eager to learn more about T-rex, but come out of the museum profoundly moved by the plight of the Pterodactyl.
And when you investigate how inspired you feel, you realize that’s coming from your heart, not your mind.
And so you follow that curiosity to your next big discovery.
And that discovery to the next.
Let the energy and truth of your experience and experiments be the force that keeps you coming back to your meditation cushion daily.
When I first started meditating, I attended a one-day meditation retreat.
We had to arrive at 6am for gentle yoga outside.
Our mats were set up by a still body of water. In Miami. In the summer.
So, for every Yogi present, there were 3,000 mosquitoes.
It was brutal.
A total nightmare. I am already more prone to mosquito bites than the average person and this morning was no exception.
As they tore into my flesh and I was supposed to be peacefully doing yoga (on a retreat for heaven’s sake!) I found myself seething in venomous hatred for the instructor and her thoughtlessness.
My internal dialogue went a little something like this:
How could she not anticipate this? Does she not see how we’re all suffering? Why wouldn’t she invite us to practice inside? What kind of retreat is this? This is so stupid. How are we supposed to relax? This is not helping me reduce stress at all. I’m getting angry, aggravated and rageful. I’m about to go inside. This is so ridiculous. Why am I still out here?
I would occasionally catch a little of what the teacher was saying between my screaming thoughts but nothing really brought them to a pause.
She raised her voice, and reminded us to be curious observer’s of our own experience, like scientists exploring whatever was going on for us.
Finally I woke up. I snapped out of my trance of judgment and realized all this noise in my mind was judgment, stories I was telling myself, meaning and value that I was giving to the situation.
Becoming really curious, I saw how creative and dramatic my mind could really get in a matter of a few minutes. I could see the escalation of the soap opera/true crime series I just put myself through as pretty funny. I saw that instead of focusing on the itch and irritation of the mosquitoes I could choose to focus on my breathing.
I saw that curiosity gave me space and choice.
I saw that I had a choice in how I responded to what was going on. I started playing around with redirecting my focus and asking myself different questions - and before I knew it I was at peace with the situation and at ease in my body and mind.
Suddenly, I tasted freedom, I got it.
I realized truly, deeply within my bones that it's’ not what happens to you, but how open and curious your mind is in exploring your choice of options in response.
I continued with this curious attitude until it was over. It was one of the most memorable moments I’ve ever had in meditation.
That insight hit like a bolt of lightning, and was immediately applicable to everyday life.
Consciously shifting from judgment to curiosity is what got me there.
Curiosity is an invaluable tool for diffusing judgment.
It’s an attitude of wonder that inspires you to observe your experience from a different perspective, from a fresh perspective.
Everything Is Your Teacher
Beginner’s Mind is a Zen concept that means to maintain your child-like mental state of not knowing, of curiosity…of wonder. To enter into each moment as if you’ve never experienced it before because truthfully, you haven’t!
When you are open to experience in this way, you learn much more.
This is what Beginner’s Mind looks like:
Zen master Shunryo Suzuki famously said,
In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.
We tend to think we are experts and that we know the best way for things to happen.
At the retreat I mentioned, I was an expert on the fact that mosquitoes were not going to be good for my meditation practice.
In my expert mind, there were no possibilities outside of them being evil and my retreat being a disaster.
However, with Beginner’s Mind, I can see that they were teachers and there were many things I learned. I developed valuable lessons and skills that a perfectly peaceful day under the sun would not have offered me.
Among many things, I truly came to appreciate an African proverb quoted by the Dalai Lama.
If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven't spent the night with a mosquito.
Beginner’s Mind taught me that instead of expecting meditation to be a peaceful oasis, a blissful cloud of peace and perfection at all times, to enter each practice with the attitude of:
I wonder what this meditation will be like!
So how do you bring more curiosity and wonder...Beginner’s mind to your practice?
You can practice curiosity in real-time when you catch yourself stuck in judgment during meditation.
A useful phrase/question for this is...
“Isn’t that interesting?”
For example, in my mosquito situation, continually posing that question to myself helped me glean a lot of clarity about how I respond to stress.
Isn’t it interesting that I want to go inside? That I want to give up?
Isn’t it interesting that when I get angry I feel heat all over my body?
Isn’t it interesting that I’m ready to go home?
Isn’t it interesting that I want to get up and fight everyone here? That I feel like I’m gonna explode from all the anger and itching?
Isn't it interesting how my mind can create its own tropical storm?
Isn’t it interesting that if I focus on my breathing, everything gradually quiets down?
This inquiry made me realize that my automatic response to stress is to immediately want to run away from the situation, find the person to blame and potentially fight them.
Having this knowledge about myself, I know that when I’m triggered in life outside of meditation, I can pause, breathe and choose not to go down this automatic, habituated stress response.
By having the awareness to choose new responses, new thoughts and new actions, I create new neural pathways. New ways of being in the world.
This conscious choice, done again and again, is what is going to give you the stress reduction and ease you’re wanting in life.
This awareness, learned in meditation and applied in daily life, is what’s going to bring you all the results (and more) that you’re looking to gain from your meditation practice.
You can also cultivate curiosity when you look back on your experience in meditation after your practice is finished.
A journal is a great thing to have near you when you meditate so you can explore what you noticed, ideas that came up, insights, and new questions that you have.
Remember the 3 E’s of a Curious Mind
Expectations & Judgment get in the way
Judging your experience gets in the way of everything meditation has to offer.
And expectations about how a meditation is supposed to go or feel are also a problem.
It’s important to understand the reasons you want to meditate in the first place. These reasons can be used to get you going, but it’s equally important to let them go as you begin your journey, because they really can just get in the way.
Many times the meditations that you don’t initially like are the practices where you’ll learn the most. This is because when you explore and become curious about everything you don’t like, you find out a lot more about how your mind and heart work.
Also, you give yourself the chance, you open yourself up, to the benefit of that particular practice that you’d otherwise hold yourself back from experiencing.
Everything is your teacher
Start each meditation with a Beginner’s mind, as if you have never meditated before.
Be free of expectation and needing this meditation to be anything like any meditations you’ve had in the past.
Be open to learn and explore, enter into practice with as much wonder as possible each time.
Enter your mind and heart with vigor for learning,
with an eager wish,
and let the results of practice surprise you.
Oftentimes the surprises tend to offer you more of what you actually need.
Author - Linnie Vassallo
Linnie is a meditation coach. She was among the very first coaches brought on by Calm Scholar, and has recently taken a step back from private coaching to focus on sharing her experience through writing and mixed media. You can learn more about Linnie in our podcast episode here.
Calm Scholar makes finding a meditation coach easy. We offer a diverse team of guides and will help you find the guide right for you. All of our sessions are virtual and one-on-one with the guide of your choice.
Your personal guide will take the time to get to know you and why you are looking to meditate in the first place. Whether it is unaddressed trauma, grief, or a sense of disconnection that is causing you to look towards meditation, your guide will use meditation and mindfulness to bring healing and acceptance to the areas you need it most.