Dear Ani: Students Ask, A Dharma Teacher Answers

Beth Adelson teaches Theravada and Mahayana forms of Buddhist meditation along with Vedic breath practices. In this column, she offers answers and suggests practices for meditation questions frequently asked by students and practitioners of all levels of experience. Explore why and how to see meditation as an experiment.
Beth Adelson is a dharma teacher, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Computer Sciences at Rutgers University and founder of the 24th St. Sangha.
meditation questions
Beth Adelson is a dharma teacher, Professor Emerita of Psychology and Computer Sciences at Rutgers University and founder of the 24th St. Sangha.

This column addresses some of the meditation questions which practitioners with all levels of experience frequently ask when working with me. They say the answers help make practice easier. The answers, which draw on traditional Buddhist texts and practice instructions, also help them to practice more regularly with more experience of contentment.

Beth Adelson can be contacted at adelson@rutgers.edu or 215.219.5296 for group or private lessons in person and by Skype or FaceTime.

4 Frequently Asked Meditation Questions

Question 1

I want to meditate, but I’m not very good at it. My mind is busy and my body is restless.

A busy mind or a restless body can be very helpful in meditation. I’m glad when people ask about this, rather than just walking away. Meditation does bring concentration and contentment. One reason is that it has us work with our natural states which include restless minds and bodies. So, confusion and restlessness are not problems, rather they are the ground for practice. We work with these naturally arising states until we can be at ease with their presence.

Practice Experiment:

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and put your attention on your breath. If your breath is not comfortable just use any other sensation that’s easier to be with, feet, hand, seat — your choice.  
  2. Let all your thoughts and body sensations come to you.  Let any feeling of restlessness come to you. 
  3. Give yourself permission to notice and allow this.
  4. Now, just feel the energy, not the content of your experience. To do this, notice the content, then turn your attention away from the specifics and onto the accompanying physical sensations.
  5. Let all the energy of the experience come to you.  Let yourself rest as you feel the energy.
  6. When you are ready, open your eyes and let yourself take in your experience. Repeat this as you find useful.

To continue to see how to rest with a busy mind and a restless body, look at the next question.

Discover our free “Learn to meditate in 7 days” course that introduces and guides you through the basics of meditation.

Question 2

How can a busy mind and a restless body be “helpful”? I still don’t get it.

I can understand why this isn’t quickly intuitive. We see statues and paintings of enlightened beings sitting in calm repose; we may have heard that to meditate we have to clear our mind of thoughts. Often students come to me feeling that it would be a good thing to be able to count ten breaths, to “hold their thoughts at bay”. That’s not only hard but thankfully unnecessary. If you are curious about the possibility that your mind and body, as they are, might be helpful, rather than an obstacle try the following experiments.

Practice Experiment 1:

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and put your attention on your breath. 
  2. Let all these background beliefs from what you have seen and heard come to you; let your thoughts and your body sensations come to you.
  3. Now, for just a moment, allow all these strong experiences to be suggestions, rather than calls to action.
  4. Let resting be the action you are choosing. Don’t hold yourself here any longer than you want to. When you are ready, open your eyes and let yourself take in your experience. Repeat this as you find useful.

Practice Experiment 2:

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and put your attention on your breath. Let all these background beliefs from what you have seen and heard come to you; let your thoughts & your body sensations come to you.  
  2. Now, just feel the energy, not the content. Let all the energy of the experience come to you.
  3. Let yourself rest as you feel the energy.
  4. When you are ready, open your eyes and let yourself take in your experience. Repeat this as you find useful.

Question 3

Why did you suggest putting my attention on my breath?

Meditation practice is designed to help us feel less confused; and to ease anger, fear and difficult longings. If we start by attending to our breath, we are attending to a first-hand experience which is simple, comfortable and easily accessible. People find this focus of attention results in feeling more ease.

Learning to rest while we pay attention to properties of the breath is a step toward learning to rest as we live our lives. Over time, we learn to rest as the experiences which we both did wish for and did not wish for, but can’t change, present themselves.  

You can rest your attention on your breath if that’s comfortable, but any simple, pleasant, first-hand experience will do. Just below we look at other places to rest the attention.

When we meditate, we practice resting while paying attention to what is going on. And this really is practice, so there are a few things that are true here, as with any practice:

  • It’s a good idea to set yourself up for success so that you get the experience you are looking for, and you feel encouraged. Here it means you can pick something easy and restful to attend to. This is like starting with the right weight at the gym so that you want to come back the next day.
  • Practice takes time but what you practice becomes a habit.  This lets you off the hook. -Just breathe, attend, and rest. Your attention will get stronger and your rest will get deeper; that’s the nature of the practice. If you are having a hard time, attend to something else that is prominent and pleasant.

Practice Experiment 1:

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and put your attention on your breath.
  2. Whatever comes up see if you can greet it with a feeling of rest.  
  3. Open your eyes when you are ready.
  4. Now notice if the feeling of rest has eased any feelings of fear, worry or anger.

It’s an experiment; any result is fine. Contentment will come in its own time.

Practice Experiment 2:

This is especially helpful if your breath is not comfortable.  

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and briefly put your attention on your breath. Notice and allow your experience.
  2.  When you are ready, choose to move your attention to your feet. Notice and allow your experience.
  3. When you are ready, choose to move your attention to your hands. Notice and allow your experience.
  4. Now choose to move your attention to your seat. Notice and allow your experience.
  5. See if you can greet each experience with a feeling of rest.
  6. Open your eyes when you are ready. Then notice if the feeling of rest has eased any feelings of fear, worry or anger.

It’s an experiment; any result is fine. Contentment will come in its own time.

Practice Experiment 3:

  1. Close your eyes, sit comfortably and put your attention on your choice of “object”, breath or hands or feet or seat — your choice. Focus on whatever is prominent and comfortable.
  2. When your attention is on your object, gently notice if it’s changing in any way. The breath comes in and goes out. Temperature and texture change.
  3. When you are ready, open your eyes. Take in any changes you noticed while resting.
  4. Repeat this activity of noticing change or “impermanence” as often as like.
  5. See if you start to take in the changing nature of your object as you rest your attention on it. Eventually, this helps us rest in the cascade of life.

Again, it’s an experiment; any result is fine. Contentment will come in its own time.

Question 4

How long should I practice? And how often?

Practice for the length of time which is comfortable right now. Practice as often as is comfortable right now.  Eventually, when you can practice for between 20 and 24 minutes, changes will start to set in and last. This is because there are underlying physical changes which start to occur in your body if you do an activity for 20 to 24 minutes.  

When you practice for a shorter doable time you are accomplishing something equally important; you are making longer times both possible and pleasant. As you gradually come to practice every day it will also help you feel the changes.

Here are some principles for the length of your practice:

  • There is no need to hurry.  Start with an amount of time and a frequency which is comfortably doable. When that is pretty reliably comfortable, increase it by an amount, small enough to remain comfortable. Then stay with this amount until it is consistently comfortable. Some days will be easier than others; that’s ok.
  • See any increase in time or frequency as an experimentnot as a goal.  Work this way for several reasons: You want to build a practice which you look forward to. You want to be a kind and, therefore, an attractive teacher. Conversely, powering through by quickly increasing your time, or sitting more frequently but with less ease isn’t helpful.  Eventually, it can keep you from practicing. Also, pushing is contrary to what you are trying to establish, a sensibility of ease, not of stress.
  • One thing that helps us build a daily practice is remaining open to the possibility of change. See if you can notice what you currently feel is the realistic duration and frequency of your practice. Then, see if you can consider that this is both true now and that it could change.
  • Every time you practice, for however long, noticing what you feel and resting as best you can become increasingly strong habits. It’s mutually exclusive to distraction, fear, worry, and anger; it replaces them.

Read more: Explore the best time to meditate for you that doesn’t feel forced. Also, discover how to meditate properly to experience the many benefits of meditation.

Practice experiment:  

  1. Create a place where it is easy to sit.  For example, move a favorite chair to a place you like.  
  2. Choose a time to sit and amount of minutes for each sit.  
  3. When you are done sitting take in the possibility that the length and frequency might change. No need to hurry, just consider the possibility.

For this practice, you can use the most popular and free meditation timer.

See Meditation As An Experiment

It is helpful to use meditation as an experiment in becoming comfortable with your responses to life’s events. The way we become comfortable is by building calm hearts and minds. We do this is by resting with whatever comes up.  Eventually, we become very strong, while remaining at ease.

Now, after reading these meditation questions and their answers, try the following experiment over the next week whenever you think of it:

  1. Whatever is your state of mind and body, whatever events come your way, attend to them as best you can 
  2. In response, rest as best you can.
  3. See what happens.

Start your practice now with these guided meditations by Beth Adelson:

  1. Breathing & Brahma Viharas for Life's Difficulties Beth Adelson 34:40
  2. Dispelling Pain Beth Adelson 37:00

The author:

Beth Adelson mostly teaches Buddhist meditation along with Vedic breath practices. She starts from her experience that these practices make people more content and effective in everyday life. In 2018, Beth Adelson received the Harvard centennial medal for her meditation teaching, which draws in several fields: Theravadan, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. Her research on the effects of Brahma Vihara practice was endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

Her teaching draws on her training in several fields: Theravadan, Tibetan and Zen Buddhism. She trained as a cognitive scientist at Harvard University (Ph.D., 83). Her research on the effects of Brahma Vihara practice was endorsed by the Dalai Lama.

Her current daily meditation practice focuses on Vipassana, Jhana and the Four Immeasurables: kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. 

Meditation. Free.
Always.