The Secret to Successful Meditation: Developing Your “Mindfulness Muscle”

Almost a year ago I went on a six-week solo trip.

During that time, I spent seven days as a Buddhist nun in a temple outside of Bangkok.

It has taken me a while to process those seven days. Yet it was a short experience which has fundamentally shaped how I live.

I can now say that there was a Ginger before that week, and there was a different Ginger after that week.

Besides being able to simplify life down to the basics – no technology, not caring about how I look or what I’m wearing, learning how freaking AMAZING food tastes after fasting for 20 hours – I also learned the secret to successful meditation.

I’d like to share this experience with you so that you can learn this secret too. So here it is: how to develop your mindfulness muscle…

~~~

June 2011: I was having a seriously hard time not thinking about stuff. All the time. My mind was running full-speed filling every spare second I had with plans, ideas, thoughts.

(Confession: I still have a tough time with this – that’s what has pushed me to explore healthy ways of getting my mind to relax.)

It was getting too tiring, leaving me drained at the end of every day, and keeping me from sleeping well. I knew it needed to change.

While this was going on, I had just earned myself a trip to Cambodia and Thailand by translating a website – that’s a story for another post – and I was brainstorming what I could do to make the trip as epic as possible.

My mind jumped to meditation and Buddhism, even though I’ve never seriously practiced either before. I had this super strong feeling that if I didn’t do something drastic, I would never learn how to meditate or how to stop thinking so much.

I decided I wanted to live in a temple somewhere, to see what I could learn. No touristy frills, just a legitimate Buddhist temple willing to teach anyone and everyone about meditation.

I googled “meditation Thailand” and the first result was the International Meditation Center in a temple located an hour outside of Bangkok.

After a little research, I found out it was a temple that accepts international visitors as guests. A world-renowned Buddhism and meditation teacher , Brigitte Schrottenbacher, offered workshops and teachings in German, English and Thai, and the daily schedule sounded hardcore:

20 hours of daily fasting. 7 hours of daily meditation & chanting with monks. AWESOME.

There was no way I wasn’t going to do it – I emailed Brigitte to reserve a week in one of the huts where rent is simply whatever you can donate. She confirmed my stay, and it was set.

A week as a Buddhist nun

Three months after I learned about Wat Prayong, Brigitte greeted me upon arrival at the temple. Then she told me I would technically be a lay Buddhist nun for the next seven days…

My first thought was “oh shit, am I gonna have to shave my head?!” Luckily, that was not the case. ☺

I exchanged my clothing for pajama-like white pants and a matching shirt.  Then I signed a written commitment to follow these 8 Precepts:

1. I try to avoid killing living beings.
2. I try to avoid stealing or taking things without asking.
3. I try to avoid having sexual contact.
4. I try to avoid telling lies or having harsh speech.
5. I try to avoid drinking alcohol or taking substances which lead to carelessness.
6. I try to avoid taking solid food after 12 o’clock midday until sunrise.
7. I try to avoid listening to music, seeing entertainment, wearing garlands, adornments, using cosmetics, perfumes.
8. I try to avoid sleeping on a high and luxurious bed.

I dove into the experience: fasting, meditating, chanting in ancient Pali and waking up at 4:30 every morning. There were days which passed so slowly, I thought the week would never end.

Other days flew by, as I filled the hours in between meditations with yoga and stretching, reading about theory and techniques of vipassana meditation, and visiting with the few other international guests and the monks in the temple.

I’ll be honest. Although the fasting definitely got easier, improving my meditation was much more challenging.

And my ability to “control my mind” didn’t improve at all. Not one bit.

What did change was something more subtle.

Mindfulness

Much of Brigitte’s teachings focused on this concept of mindfulness. You could call it awareness, too.

The other guests at the temple and I spent hours focusing on our awareness of our bodies, minds, and emotions. I learned to ask myself, “Where is my mind?” If it was far away, not in the present, then I was wasting my time and energy.

The trick was to observe your thoughts as you were meditating, to let them surface – because thoughts are perfectly natural things to have – and then make a note of them: “I’m thinking; these are thoughts.” Once you were consciously mindful of the thoughts, you could let them move on…

We learned we could do this with emotions too, which, although trickier, was even more useful. If I noticed I was growing frustrated because I couldn’t concentrate, all I had to do was make a mental note, be aware of the feeling, and it would immediately start to fade.

Some days I wanted to “get better at meditating”. So I tried to calm my mind and develop awareness – and then I became aware that I was trying and had to laugh at myself.

The days when meditation worked best were when I simply went with the flow and observed my own reactions to the meditation process.

Bringing mindfulness into the equation helped me start to separate my “head” from my “self”. Surprise: you can’t control your head – or your thoughts, for that matter – even if you’ve been a solitary monk for years!

You can, however, be mindful of the difference between what is really ‘you’ and what is simply a bunch of inner noise bubbling up to distract you.

Developing your “mindfulness muscle”

It takes practice to develop awareness of yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions. A good trick is to check in with yourself at certain points in the day, 3-4 times at least.

Pick certain times, maybe even set an alarm, and check to see what you’re thinking/feeling at those certain moments.

Then take an internal step back: make a mental note of the emotion or the thought by saying to yourself, “I’m thinking, this is a thought” or “I’m feeling ____, this is a feeling.”

This helps you start to separate your underlying self from the thoughts and emotions which lie on top. Practicing mindfulness is a powerful tool which is both the key to sustained, successful meditation and also extremely useful in making decisions with clarity and confidence.

If you can start to consciously catch your thoughts and feelings, you’ll be surprised how quickly and comprehensively your mindfulness muscle will develop. Try it, and watch how easy it becomes to let go of distractions. It will also help develop your ability to choose your response to all situations that life throws at you. Your mind will be more calm, you’ll be mentally steadier and more grounded.

Personally, I’m not a meditation master yet, but as I’ve been improving my mindfulness muscle it’s getting a lot easier to concentrate and let go of thoughts and distractions while I meditate.

I guess the only thing left to do is actually shave my head now… ;)

Cheers,
Ginger

PS: To download free guided mediations (sitting, standing, walking, and metta) led by Brigitte Schrottenbacher, visit Wat Prayong’s International Mediation Center website. The mp3s are available in English and German. 

About the Author

GingerGinger is a Peak Potentials Coach and the Feel Good Team’s resident nomad. Through her coaching, she helps you navigate major transitions, whether to new locations, new jobs or to new phases in life. Ginger also coordinates with writers for The Feel Good Lifestyle so that you have fresh, inspiring content.

Twitter: @ginger_kern

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Posted on : 4, Sep 2012

12 Comments

  • This is exactly what I do in my spiritual practice……..Eating only twice a day, full fasting for 1 entire day every 15 days, 2hours mantra meditation everyday, waking up at 4.30am…………. Im not always able to follow everything properly, but I try my best and It has helped me deal with life much more easily.

    • Hey Biswashree, I’d be really interested to hear if you are able to maintain this practice during “everyday life” — are you working fulltime, for example? I’ve been wondering if it’s possible to reconcile western lifestyle with this sort of practice… In any case, it’s great to hear that it’s fulfilling for you, and that it keeps you a healthier person! Keep doing it if it works for you :)
      -Ginger

      • I’m a sophomore in college. I follow these things in my every day life. My parents also follow it, so I have my support system in place.
        1. The eating twice a day (8am, 3.30pm) started this year when my family decided to try it out for 30 days.In only 15 days, it has made us more energetic, happier and I feel lighter; so we have decided to continue it.
        2. As for meditating for 2hours, I have been doing it for a few years now. A lot of time was freed up when we got rid of our television, then I used that time to meditate. I have a pair of rosary like beads, I speak a mantra and focus my attention on hearing the sound. I actually increase my meditation during times of stress and anxiety.

        • First of all, that’s really cool that you are all doing it together – it must make it easier to stick to! Kind of awesome that you’re feeling the great effects after such a short time, too :) I’ve experimented with only eating twice a day, and if I’m not exercising every single day it seems to be more than enough, though I usually have a mini-dinner if I’m dancing in the evenings.
          And yeah, I don’t have a television either…it definitely frees up time :) Thanks for sharing!

  • Very good to hear about your experiences. In February of this year my girlfriend went to a 10-day silent vipassana retreat for her birthday. The mere thought of my own participation in a retreat like this scared me to death. Since that time, I’ve been slowly itching closer to being able to take the jump and go do my own retreat. I think October is going to be that time. It’s an exhilarating feeling to have, but like you said, there was a Ginger before that week and a new one after. Retreats like these can only do one thing: change your life forever.

    Thank you for the rest of your tips. I need to start practicing much more to prepare for my journey.

    • Hey Cam, very cool to hear that your girlfriend did a silent retreat. I’ve heard those are even more intense than what I did; apparently you can center yourself a lot faster and get to deeper levels of concentration once you’ve removed a lot of extra auditory stimuli. (I’d like to do one of those soon!)
      As for you: if you’re feeling like you’re getting ready to take the plunge, just do it! I will bet you’ll be exhilarated and rejuvenated when you do. Good luck!
      -Ginger

  • What a fantastic story. Thanks for sharing! Very inspiring… >I am the silent presence that is witnessing thoughts and emotions come and go…. jeremy

    • Hey Jeremy, thanks for all your support – hope you’ll continue to visit the site :) Enjoy the rest of the summer days in Madison! -Ginger

  • I thought it was interesting how you mentioned when you were trying to hard that it doesn’t work. It’s like the effort needs to be in letting it all go and not trying to muscle your way into it. It’s such an interesting concept and opposite of most things we do in life to find success. As a Christian I believe a similar concept of Walking in the Spirit because my own efforts and strength just get me going the wrong way.

    • Hey John,
      It’s easy to find those parallels in the major world religions – I’m actually not Buddhist, though most of my guidelines naturally align well with Buddhism. If you find an interesting concept (like this “less effort is more” approach), roll with it and see if it works for you. It sounds like you’ve found what fits you well, so keep up the good work :)
      -Ginger
      P.S. I’m totally sharing your blog with my lil brother, who’s currently at the USMMA – he’ll appreciate it :)

      • Ginger, thanks for sharing with your bro. Also thanks for following on Twitter. I noticed it says you’re in Frankfurt, GE. I spent 2 years there with the Army 7 years ago. Best site I saw was the Cathedral in Koln!

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