How to design a program to train your mind
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5-7 years into my meditation practice, I felt like my progress had stalled. I would sit everyday and go on retreats a couple times per year, but it often felt like my daily practice was disconnected from the rest of my life.
Then, a few years ago, I found a framework for deepening my meditation practice that came from an unlikely place–exercise science–which makes a conceptual distinction between exercise and training.
Exercise refers to workouts that help you break a sweat, but that aren’t structured in any particular way. Training, on the other hand, is a structured approach to fitness where workouts are designed to compound progress toward a specific goal.
While exercise offers some health benefits, training allows you to make tremendous performance gains in a relatively short period of time—like going from zero to a marathon in six months.
As I learned about this framework, I realized I had been approaching meditation like exercise when, instead, I needed to treat it like training. I call this approach Tactical Mindfulness.
Tactical Mindfulness allows me to pick out attributes that I want to develop in my life—like focus, equanimity, or compassion—and intentionally build my meditation practice around them. This helps me move through my life more effectively and compound progress over time.
In this piece, we’ll explore the three key components of training used in Tactical Mindfulness (goals, progressions, and periodization), and look at how to utilize them to deepen your meditation practice.
Whether you are new to meditation or are a seasoned practitioner, I hope this piece gives you some novel ideas about how to strengthen your practice in ways that are relevant to your day-to-day life.
Let’s dive in with the first component of training: goal-setting.
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In training, workouts are all designed around a specific goal. Training isn’t training if it isn’t building toward something.
In fitness, goals typically come from the sport in which an athlete competes. In meditation, goals are about the thoughts, feelings, and situations in life that you’d like to relate to more skillfully.
Since mindfulness is about being present to each moment as it is, it may feel weird to attach future-oriented goals to your meditation practice. We’ll explore this paradox more below, but for now, you can think of “goals” in meditation as loosely held intentions that are meant to give some structure and shape to one’s practice.
When I reflected on my own intentions, I came up with a few areas in my life where I thought mindfulness might be helpful:
- Pausing and de-escalating when in conflict with my partner
- Working with emotions that come up around money, status, and power in my work
- Practicing self-kindness and self-compassion in my life more generally
- Increasing awareness of mortality to inform my day-to-day decision-making
In deciding for yourself where to focus, here are a few questions you can ask to help discern how meditation might support your life:
- Where in my life do I tend to get distracted?
- Where might I be able to savor more of the love, joy, and connection that’s already present?
- What thoughts, feelings, self-stories, or physical sensations do I tend to get hooked on?
- Where and with whom am I most reactive?
- Are there any qualities of mind and heart that I feel called to develop further? (concentration, compassion, forgiveness, etc.)
Ultimately, there are no right or wrong intentions, and your goals can change over time as you practice more and get a sense for what meditation can do in your life. Even if all you have is a rough idea of where meditation might be supportive, that’s all you need to get started.
Now that we’ve set some goals for meditation, let’s look at how to build a meditation practice that moves us in our desired direction.
The basic unit in an athletic training program is a progression – a series of workouts that build on each other, where early workouts develop the capacity needed for more challenging workouts later on.
An example of a meditation progression is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an 8-week introductory mindfulness program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the early 1980s at the University of Massachusetts.
Because it emerged in an academic environment, MBSR is perhaps the most studied of all mindfulness interventions, and has been shown to have positive impacts on everything from anxiety and depression to asthma and chronic pain.
MBSR takes participants through a different practice each week, starting with single-point concentration practices and then moving toward open awareness and silent practices:
- Body scan - systematically moving your attention through different parts of the body
- Breathing meditation - focusing the attention on the breath
- Mindful movement - practicing bringing your attention to bodily sensations with the eyes open while moving through a gentle yoga practice
- Mindfulness of thoughts & emotions - holding your awareness open to thoughts and feelings, meeting them with full attention as they arise
- Choiceless awareness – holding your awareness open to any physical sensation, sound, thought or emotion – bringing full attention to whatever arises in the moment
- Silent / unguided meditation - meditating without any guidance or prompts, working skillfully with whatever arises
MBSR also requires longer and longer sits throughout the 8 weeks, culminating in 40+ minutes of daily practice in addition to a day-long silent retreat toward the end of the program.
The MBSR example above points towards three key variables you can utilize when creating your own progressions:
The first step in building a progression is to determine what practices might support the intentions you have around meditation.
MBSR is meant to be an introductory meditation course, and thus focuses on building a foundation of concentration that will support whatever practices a person pursues next.
This is similar to the idea of base-building in physical fitness, where athletes will first build a foundation of endurance or strength before beginning sports-specific training.
In addition to the concentration practices listed above, there are a number of other practices you could build progressions around:
- Self-Compassion - cultivating a state of kindness toward one’s inner experience
- Loving-kindness - cultivating a state of non-attached love toward expanding circles of beings
- Exposure - intentionally bringing to mind difficult thoughts and feelings so we can learn to relate to them in new, more skillful ways
- Observer Self - bringing awareness to who we are beyond our conceptualized self, focusing on awareness itself as the anchor for practice
- Future Self - visualizing one’s future self and asking questions or seeking guidance and compassion from that future self
- Discernment - bringing questions into meditation practice, asking the same question over and over again and seeing what arises (i.e. “What do I want?”)
- Five Invitations - bringing awareness to death and aging through a series of visualizations (used as a memento mori)
- Informal Mindfulness - bringing mindfulness into our lives in less formal ways, such as taking 20 mindful breaths before each meal
If you’re new to meditation and this all feels like a lot, don’t worry! You don’t need to learn all of these practices at once; each will be more or less relevant at a different time in your life.
If you’re unsure of where to start, feel free to pick 1-2 practices that you feel curious about and just try them out! You could even do a 4-8 week grab bag progression, focusing on a different practice each week to get a sense for which ones you want to explore more deeply.
Again, there is no right or wrong choice; everything we do is an experiment. The goal is not to pick the “right,” perfectly optimized practice for your life, but to learn over time how your mind responds to different practices so you can begin to structure your practice in a way that it supports what’s most important to you.
After choosing practices for your progression, the next key variable is duration – how much time you’ll be spending each day in formal or informal practice.
Increasing practice duration
Just like adding more weight to one’s squat is a way to build muscle, spending more time in formal meditation is a tried and true way to deepen one’s practice.
If you currently sit for 10 minutes a day, you could lengthen your practice to 15, 20, or even 30 minutes per day over the course of a progression. If you currently sit 30 minutes daily, you could aim for 45 or 60 minutes, or add another period of formal meditation into your day.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t matter where you start; studies have shown that even 10 minutes per day of practice can have meaningful benefits. If all you have time for is a few minutes everyday at the beginning, do that, and then focus on informal practice–bringing your full attention to life outside of sitting practice (cooking, cleaning, reading this piece, etc.).
On the other hand, if you already have a consistent meditation practice, you might consider seeing what it’s like to significantly increase the amount of time you spend each day in formal practice.
Dipa Ma, an Indian teacher who taught people like Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield, used to encourage students who had jobs and families to practice for four hours each day! She would tell them to wake up at 4am and practice for two hours before their family woke up, and then practice for another two hours at day’s end when everyone else was asleep.
While this may be a bit excessive, it certainly puts into perspective what it could mean to make practice a central part of one’s life.
(For the record my practice is nowhere near four hours per day…)
Now that we’ve explored how to think about practice duration when building a progression, the last variable to consider is whether or not to include some form of retreat.
Retreats are periods of extended practice that help us go beyond the level of practice that is possible in day-to-day life. In a progression, this typically looks like carving out time for a half-day, day-long, or multi-day retreat.
Why include a retreat in your progression? While it doesn’t make sense for most of us to quit our jobs, become monks, and meditate all day, retreats allow us to access some of the benefits of extended practice within the structure of our everyday lives.
On retreat, people typically alternate between 30-45 minute periods of sitting and walking meditation. Retreats are powerful in part because over a day (or several days), you can build up much stronger levels of concentration than you can in daily practice.
As concentration deepens, you may be able to process a challenging emotion or come to an insight about your life that wouldn’t have been possible without that heightened level of awareness. On retreat, “formal” and “informal” practice also begin to merge, allowing you to practice moving through the entire day in a continual state of present-moment awareness.
After a retreat, the heightened concentration fades, but there is often a lasting impact on one’s psyche and one’s practice. For me personally, retreats have led to job changes, the integration of difficult experiences from my past, ideas for new companies and creative projects, and insights around how I might show up more skillfully in my romantic relationship.
MBSR includes a day-long retreat in their 8-week progression, but you could do a half-day retreat if that feels more accessible, or you could commit to doing a multi-day silent retreat at one of the many retreat centers around the globe.
Again, there is no wrong answer–if all you have time for is a half-day of practice, take it! Even a half-day retreat can go a long way toward bringing energy and vitality to your day-to-day practice during a period where life gets busy.
Now that we’ve covered the building blocks of progressions, let’s explore what it looks like to create a progression around a specific goal.
Building A Progression
As a focus for our example progression, let’s take one of the goals I wrote about above:
Working with emotions that come up around money, status, and power in my work
This is an important goal for me, because while money, status, and power each play an important role in bringing new projects to life, it’s also easy for them to become ends in and of themselves.
One intention I have around mindfulness is to become more aware of when I’m lost chasing one of these forms of capital, rather than using them to further a creative vision.
There are two types of practices that might be helpful in this context:
- Basic mindfulness practices - to increase the likelihood of me noticing I’m caught up in chasing a smaller vision that’s all about accumulating capital
- Exposure practices - to help me work specifically with the thoughts, feelings, memories, and urges that come up around money, status, and power
Thus, a simple 6-week progression could look something like:
- Daily - basic mindfulness practice with a focus on the breath, starting at 20 minutes per day and increasing by 5 minutes every 2 weeks
- 3x / week - 10-20 minute exposure meditation, bringing to mind a situation that has an emotional charge around money, status, or power, and practicing bringing non-reactive awareness to the thoughts and feelings that come up
So, putting it all together might look like:
- Weeks 1-2: 20 minutes daily sit, 10 minute exposure - 3x / week
- Weeks 3-4: 25 minutes daily sit, 15 minute exposure - 3x / week
- Weeks 5-6: 30 minutes daily sit, 15 minute exposure - 3x / week
And there you have it! A very simple mindfulness progression.
While the above is just an example, it should give you a sense of how you might be able to create a progression for yourself based on your goals.
You can vary the duration or include different practices, but generally it’s best not to include more than 2-3 different practices in any one cycle.
Now that we’ve covered how to build a progression for a single goal, the question becomes, how to balance multiple goals over time?
Which brings us to…
Much like there are various physical attributes you can train for with exercise (strength, endurance, mobility, etc.), there are various mental attributes that can be developed through meditation, such as:
- Body awareness
- Connection to values
- Awareness of mortality
When developing physical attributes, you can’t focus on everything at once; you need to prioritize based on your goals. Athletes do this using a concept called periodization.
As an example, if speed and strength and stamina are all important, an athlete will get the best outcomes by developing these serially rather than in parallel–optimizing one attribute at a time while maintaining gains in other areas, rather than trying to improve everything at once.
It’s the same with meditation; if you try to develop many mental attributes at the same time, you won’t make much progress.
Athletic training programs are typically structured around 4-12 week progressions, and I’ve found this to be a useful pattern for structuring my meditation practice as well.
For example, a 6.5-month training program in mindfulness might look like:
- 3 weeks concentration (focus on body)
- 3 weeks concentration (focus on breath)
- 8 weeks self-compassion (RAIN practice)
- 8 weeks awareness of mortality (5 invitations practice)
- 4 weeks concentration (alternating focus on body and breath)
It’s important to note that when approaching periodization, you don’t have to plan everything out in advance.
I typically pick one set of practices to focus on, pursue that for 6-12 weeks, and then re-evaluate. The program outlined above is thus what you’d see when looking back at your practice, not something you need to spec out on day one.
In general, it’s good to start with concentration as one’s first progression as it provides an attentional foundation for all other forms of practice. It can also be helpful to revisit concentration for a cycle every 6-12 months to help keep your practice steady.
Now that we’ve covered the basics of building a training-oriented meditation practice, let’s return to the goal-setting paradox we mentioned earlier in the piece.
If you’re an experienced meditator, you might be having a negative reaction to the idea of attaching goals to a meditation practice.
Mindfulness is often taught at its core as a practice of non-striving. As a result, any sense of meditation as a means to get somewhere can feel contradictory to the spirit of the practice.
However, if you look at introductory courses on meditation or silent retreats for experienced practitioners, they are often structured as a progression that focuses on building up concentration first before branching out into other, more open meditation techniques.
It seems that while our ultimate north star in meditation is to stop battling our inner experience and to simply be with whatever is happening in the moment, our ability to do this increases when we first develop the mind using certain kinds of practices.
Indeed, research has shown that an 8-week mindfulness progression physiologically changes the brain. Much like how muscle develops during a marathon training program allowing someone to run longer and longer distances, the brain physically adapts to certain kinds of meditation practices that prepare it for other, more difficult practices.
Thus, we encounter one of the great paradoxes of meditation: how to balance non-striving and acceptance on the one hand, and the positive impacts of structured, intentional practice on the other.
I like to think of this through the lens offered by meditation teacher Tara Brach, who talks about enlightenment as not being about reaching perfection, but about “no longer having anxiety about imperfection.”
From this perspective, goals only become a problem when they lead to feeling like something right now isn’t okay. Non-striving and acceptance are the foundation from which to move toward goals without fighting or resisting life as it currently is.
If you notice yourself feeling like your goals are about changing something in your life that you’re not okay with, it can be helpful to let go of goals completely and to come back to simply paying attention, non-judgmentally to the present moment as your core practice.
We can return to non-striving and acceptance again and again if we find ourselves getting lost in striving. After we’ve found some peace with our inner and outer life, from that place we can begin to explore a more structured approach again.
That’s it! You should have everything you need now to create a training plan for your meditation practice in your own life.
If you do choose to incorporate these frameworks, I’d love to hear how it goes. Feel free to drop me a line with questions or to share your experience.
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Casey Rosengren is a founder, coach, and writer living in New York City. If you'd like to learn more about him and his coaching practice you can visit his website.