When I sit (or walk) I usually go through a period of time where I tell myself what to do. This may take several forms: “pay attention to the … (breath, sounds, sensations, …),” “label thoughts,” “ask, ‘What is this?’” and so on.
Essentially I have set up ‘rules’ for my practice. This inevitably leads me into territory that is familiar to many meditators.
For example, if I don’t give myself instructions right away, and I let several minutes pass before I check in with my practice rules, I feel frustrated because I wasted some of my precious meditation time. I also find myself checking in to see how well I am obeying the rules. I even worry periodically about whether one set of rules might be better than another.
Such thoughts are natural and common. If an instruction says, “follow your breath,” or “don’t follow your thoughts,” you cannot help but judge how good a job you’ve been doing. In fact you will do this even if though other instructions say, “don’t judge yourself, be gentle and compassionate with yourself.” We naturally turn instructions into rules, even the nice instructions: “I’ve been judging myself. Gotta stop that! I need to be more gentle with myself. Be gentle! GENTLE!!!!”
Jason Siff, founder of the Skillful Meditation Project, has written a great deal about the problems caused by meditation rules. When it comes to putting rules in their proper place, he says,
“I suggest you become aware of the rules in your meditation practice, and not just try to stop them, for that would just be creating a rule not to have rules. You will have rules in your meditation practice, but they need to be ones that serve you rather than oppress you.” (Tricycle, Fall 2009, “The Problem with Meditation Instructions”)
Additional links to Jason Siff and Skillful Meditation Project resources: