In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describes the act of starting your meditation session with intention. He says it is, "like putting a rock on a leaf." It's really helpful for me to conjure this image whenever I'm starting my sitting meditation practice. It is firm and gentle at the same time, the way you would tell a child not to pull a dog's tail. This is exactly the type of mindset one needs to cultivate in meditation.
Making sure that your practice starts out right from the first few seconds of a sitting session has a strong effect on the rest of your meditation. Lately, I've paired the image of the rock on a leaf with several steps to make sure the rock is firmly on the leaf. It helps ensure that my mind isn't blown away by thoughts, at least not right at the beginning of a session (that can happen!).
1. Check your intention/motivation
It is always good to remind yourself why you are meditating. We all hope the practice of sitting on a cushion is not a waste of time, and thousands of years of exploring the practice of meditation suggests that it is one of the most profound activities you can engage in on a daily basis.
When you first sit down, mentally flash on your inspiration. You don't need to take more than a few seconds to do this, but it is always helpful to remember what your motivation is. It could be better communication with people, an open heart, an open mind, greater relaxation, better concentration, experiencing things directly, noticing the senses, enlightenment, or whatever motivates you. It may change from day to day. You may even choose to dedicate your meditation session to someone or something you care about, recognizing that by practicing being present, you will be more skilled and more available for this person or activity.
2. Check your state of mind
We always come to the meditation cushion within the context of our lives. In a diagram in Turning the Mind into an Ally, Rinpoche illustrates our meditation practice like an onion, with the outer layer being the context of our lives. When we first sit down to meditate we should consider what is going on in our lives that occupies our minds.
Once we have considered the context we are in, we could consider where we are a little more deeply. We could quickly check in on our emotional state.
Don't spend too much time checking in though. If you get too wrapped up in the context or your emotions, you'll end up at a thought party.
3. Locate the breath
Pay attention to your body breathing and locate the place in your body where you feel the breath. This might always be the same place for you. I like to experiment with the breath and I find that I often notice the breath in different places. Noticing the breath in different parts of my body helps keep this practice fresh for me, so that I'm never jumping into meditation with the assumption that I'm going to feel the breath the way I did last time.
4. Bring your attention to the breathing technique
At this stage you actually begin practicing the breathing technique(s) that you have been taught. If you have been taught several techniques, I find it helpful to begin with a technique that emphasizes precision and that gives a little less room for the mind to wander at the beginning.