You wouldn't expect to run a marathon without training for it first. You also wouldn't expect to be able to manage reactivity without training your mind. The form of mind training most relevant for managing reactivity is called concentration practice. This is the practice that builds the power to direct your attention, mental energy, where and how it is most useful.
Your life will always have ups and downs, and while concentration practice may sometimes seem a bit irrelevant when everything is going well, you will need it when you encounter difficulty. Being able to hold your mind steady as you go through difficulty drastically reduces your experience of suffering and the suffering you might inadvertently create for others.
Like learning any subtle skill, concentration training is difficult for most. It seems that it goes against our survival brain which is scanning the environment for for threats or sources of nourishment. If you have attempted concentration practice, you know that the mind is wiggly and wants to run about. Given this difficulty it's important to start your practice in a way that most supports your progress. Let's look at four specific ways to set yourself up for success with concentration practice: 1) Work with a teacher & group 2) Choosing the object, 3) Setting the time, and 4) loving kindness
Work with a Teacher & Group
Because concentration practice is working against your hardwired survival brain it requires immense support to stay with it. In addition, because concentration is a subtle skill, there is much to learn. Without a teacher you are easily tricked by your own mind. With a teacher you can progress on this path with efficiency and clarity. A teacher can help you to catch the tricks of your own mind and support you in your practice. A teacher also reveals the universality of the difficulty of practice giving you a sense of acceptance.
To your rational mind it can seem silly to leave your house and go someplace else just to sit quietly with other people doing the same. You might hear yourself say, "I don't need some special place to sit quietly. I can just do that at home. But home is filled with distractions. It's all too easy to reach out for your phone, a snack, house chores, etc. Sitting with others provides tremendous support as well as minimizing distraction. It's much more difficult to get up in the middle of sitting and grab your phone when twenty other people are sitting still around you.
In addition, when you see others sitting, the value of this practice is confirmed. It helps to calm your doubts and excuses and gives you energy to practice.
Choosing the Object of Concentration
You can set yourself up for success by starting your practice with a concentration object that is concrete and pleasant. You might start with sound, particularly pleasant sound such as birds singing, waterfalls, rain, or visual objects such as a candle flame, leaves blowing in a tree, and the sky on the horizon can also be useful. At this stage these objects are moving just a little bit. A candle flame moves the sound changes; and this movement makes it easier for you to engage your attention and also easier to notice when your attention has drifted away. When your mind can settle on these pleasant objects even for a few seconds at a time you will be naturally rewarded with the richness of that experience and this will inspire your practice.
As you gain some power of concentration, the object you choose can become more subtle. These objects of concentration might include a body scan*, movement in the abdomen when you breath, the sensation of pressure on your sit bones, the sensation of warmth or coolness on your hands or face, the sensation of a breeze on your face. These are still very obvious objects of concentration but they don't move as much as the external objects so it is more difficult to engage them.
Once you can consistently engage these objects with your attention such that in a half hour meditation you can engage them at least half the time. you may be ready to choose the next level of subtle objects for concentration. these objects include following the path of the breath through your body, noticing your whole body at once, naming feelings weather, and naming thoughts. This is often called naming practice. For example as thoughts arise giving each one a category name: thought about work, thought about my sister, thought about work, thought about home project, etc.
As your concentration practice gains momentum you can move on to very subtle objects of concentration such as the sensation of the breath at the tip of your nose, settling attention on a single spot in the abdomen, settling a soft gaze on a single spot in front of you and watching for thoughts to arise and refocusing before they become fully formed.
When you gain momentum with these subtle practices meaning you can rely on yourself to maintain your attention on them throughout a half hour period. You can move on to advanced practices that require access concentration. I won't describe these here as they are irrelevant until you reach this stage.
Setting the Time
It's important to begin your practice with short intervals at the same time each day. For example, you might practice two minutes of concentration before work each morning. You might add one minute a week for a month or two months. Use your own wisdom and that of your teacher to add minutes to your practice when you are sitting at home. If you are sitting with a group, you will be able to sit longer. Most meditation groups sit for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, take a small break, and perhaps sit the same interval again. If this seems daunting then you might begin your practice at home with two minutes and working your way up to sitting 15 minutes at a time. If you can sit 15 minutes at a time at home, sitting 20 to 30 minutes with a group will be easy enough.
The absence of loving-kindness in your practice is already a reactive state. Aversion and craving are so deeply habitual that it is necessary to actively do something in order to interrupt them. Loving-kindness practice can also serve as an object of concentration. There are many forms of this practice. You can search them on the internet using the term metta. Essentially these practices are helping you to wake up the network that is already present in you. It includes warmth, expansiveness, relaxation of muscles, and a kind and gentle attitude towards yourself. Each time you find yourself distracted in concentration practice and you return your attention to the object, it is essential to do so with a kind and gentle attitude towards yourself. In this way the mind stays calm and you cultivate loving-kindness.
This practice of building the power of your mind through concentration will serve you in all you do and allow you to access the intense vibrancy of life that is always there.
Set a timer on your phone for two minutes and start right now wherever you are and whatever you might be doing. Choose something to focus such as sounds or sights in nature and rest your attention there for the whole two minutes.