The meditation game is something along the lines of mastering a combination of attention and relaxation. Simple enough, in theory. But as the song* goes, "with a back beat narrow and hard to master."
The mainstream advice seems to be mostly about merely having an intention to be mindful, but not much is said on exactly how to accomplish this experience of mindfulness. It's not that they don't provide any hints, but rather that they speak in general terms and seem to eschew reliance on any kind of direct technique to accomplish the task. It's as if it were somehow rude to suggest that one indulge in something so crass as a technique, or probably even moreso a technique that is not (god forbid) specifically mentioned in the Pali Canon. Other, of course, than following the breath, which seems eminently allowable because Buddha specifically used awareness of the breath as an example of how to be mindful.
I once knew a particular guy that was very into meditation and Buddhism. He had practiced daily for years, read all the books, listened to all the dharma talks, been to all the retreats, and had even taught meditation for a while at an established center. I'm not sure exactly where he was on the path, but I do know that I turned him on to noting style, and afterwards he said that he had never been that aware in meditation before.
Okay, so maybe that last line went by kind of quickly. Pause and consider the unbelievable magnitude of that last statement. Let's go through it again: daily practice for a couple of decades or more, bookshelves full of dharma books, always listening to dharma talks, been to all kind of retreats, and, critically, taught lots of other people how to meditate, and yet HE HAD NEVER BEEN THAT AWARE IN MEDITATION. What does that say about the success of the mainstream meditation community? I mean, not that there isn't more to it than meditation, but seriously folks, c'mon.
And let me say that noting style may not be the be all and end all for everyone, but circling back to the point, this is a concrete example of how a simple technique changed one person's game, even if just for a moment.
Noting style is a kind of paint-by-numbers version of mindfulness, forcing one to do exactly what mindful people do. Name what you are aware of, at a rate of about one "note" per second or so. Repeat 3600 times per hour. When first exposed to it, people often comment about the unusual degree of awareness, much like the experienced practitioner I mentioned.
But, like many things, people habituate. They slack off. They succumb to the learned desire to think about this or that. Time to up your game. You can always work on intention, attempt to increase your earnestness, your engagement, your resolve. And that is an important factor, but generally it is not enough.
So what I'm recommending is coming up with techniques to overcome this problem. You don't have to do it "on your own" without technique. You don't have to just "wing it". You can figure out a technology to get it done.
In noting practice, the first thing to recommend is noting out loud. Most people will avoid this important step. Noting out loud ups the ante. Do it. The hardest-core version I have recommended is to note out loud while writing down each brief note on paper. I don't believe a single person I have recommended this to has actually done the practice, but trust me, I didn't recommend it without test driving it, and I can tell you it works really well. But it seems to be something along the lines of "too much trouble".
There are any number of techniques, I have outlined a bunch of the usual suspects (and more) in Basic Meditation Styles. But like the writing down noting technique I came up with, you can invent what works for you. There are apps that you can use to vibrate your phone every so often, like once a minute. For years I used an old beeper device (Motivaider) that would do that, and held it loosely in my hand while I meditated. By doing that, it was difficult to space out for more than a few seconds. That's the idea.
Say you're lying down on the couch watching TV. Great time to practice, few will attempt it, fewer will succeed. Do what you have to do. Maybe prop up your arm and slowly wave it in front of you, obscuring your view of the TV every second or so. Use it to remind yourself to be here now, feel the body, open your awareness to the room. You can invent a way to stay present.
All of this may be seem a bit silly or hardcore for armchair meditators who are maybe just looking for a bit of relaxing and de-stressing. I very much advocate relaxing and de-stressing, but I find that awareness has to take precedence. Once you are present, you will actually be able to relax. You will actually be aware of what is tense, and you can see if you can let go of some of that. That's what it takes to really relax. And it does take some work to undo decades of conditioning, the prejudice of the mind towards concepts.
The reason I am concerned about this can also be seen in a recent Tricycle article where the writer said:
You may read that meditation enables you to tame your mind and bring it to a state of stability and peace. Despite meditating as a Buddhist for more than 40 years, I have not achieved even a glimpse of this, nor have I ever seen anyone else achieve it. Admittedly, I am not much of a practitioner ...The article, though nice in its own way, is essentially apologetics for slacking off. It saddens me that he's put in so much time, enough to get far more than a glimpse of stability and peace, but in some way the mainstream practices failed him.
I'm not one for Buddhist dogma, but I'm willing to bring up a couple of quotes such as Buddha's last words, to "strive diligently". Or when describing the removal of distracting thoughts, "with teeth clenched ... he should beat down, constrain, and crush mind with mind". That's one intense dude.
This kind of effort must eventually be let go of like everything else, but for most people that will be a few years down the road. For example, musically, you have to learn your scales and modes and arpeggios and chords and songs and solos and fingerings, and get to the point where all the movements are second nature, before you can really lay back and improvise at a high level. It takes time and hard practice, and imagining that is going to happen without real effort is insanity.
I have indeed seen one clear example of an advanced practitioner who got there with a very technique based effort, who was at a point where he really needed to let go and just be. But in my experience, he was the exception. In stark contrast, the overwhelming number of people I run into have the opposite problem.
If you want to "get it done", it can be done. Figure out a technique that will get you, and keep you, aware, relaxed, and open, and do that for an hour a day.
*Doors: Texas Radio and The Big Beat