How do you know someone is a meditator? Don’t worry they’ll tell you. OK, that was not the original joke but you get the idea.
If you know me you probably know that I really enjoy meditation. Because of this people end up asking me advice on how to get started and how to build a practice.
Usually the questions are some variation of:
- What suggestions do you have to start meditating?
- How did you build a regular practice?
- What resources can you share?
I’m far from an expert. I consider myself a lay practitioner, I have indeed been meditating on and off for the last ~12 years and after a long struggle I have been maintaining a daily practice for the last 2 or so.
What I will share below is my experience, I realise that some of my suggestions are not in line with mainstream advice. Everyone’s journey is different. As usual I hope this will be helpful.
When I turned to meditation my goal was to reduce suffering, I was in emotional pain and I wanted it to stop. Later, to establish a regular practice I found understanding my deeper motivation to be the key (I talked a bit about this already in my previous post 100 days of meditation).
This is also at the center of one of the resources I’ll talk more about below called “The Mind Illuminated” (in short TMI) where reviewing your motivation is suggested as the first step of every session.
One of my favourite reflections on importance of motivation is this article from my colleague Craig Weller.
Your motivation doesn’t have to be deep (i.e I want to awaken), simply being clear about what brings you to the practice will allow you to go through the inevitable moments of resistance and discomfort.
I have never meditated before, what can I do?
I know this Path is hard. I know this Path is hard. But there’s something harder than this Path. What’s harder than this Path is not having a Path!
- Lisa Wahpepah
If you are quite new to meditation it can be daunting to start. There are so many schools, techniques, apps, courses, opinions, philosophies to pick from.
The “standard” approach
My journey started with something called “concentration practice”. The goal is to focus the mind on an object and let distractions fall in the background of your awareness. I’ve mostly focused on the breath but sounds and sights can work as well.
The steps are quite simple (to describe at least):
- sit in a comfortable position
- close your eyes
- breathe in through the nose
- focus on the movement of the abdomen as the breath goes in and out
It’s not required, but I’ve found guided meditations very helpful at the beginning. The guidance helps you recognise that you are distracted and brings your attention back to the meditation object.
Every major app has introductory guided meditations to get you started and most of them use the breath as the base.
See Hear Feel
A couple of years ago I started studying the teachings of Shinzen Young (more below) and learned his approach based on “noting practice”. I won’t be able to explain it in detail here but the claim (and apparently also the result of Shinzen’s research) is that this particular flavor of noting practice can be a great starting point for new meditators.
I got to this practice later so I can’t vouch for that but I can say that I find Shinzen’s flavor of mindfulness freeing and easy to bring into my day to day activities compared to sitting with the breath.
The tiny version of noting is:
- Acknowledge that you are having an experience (visual, auditory, in the body)
- Focus on what you just acknowledge
Another practice that can be a great starting point is Loving Kindness meditation (also known as “Metta”).
This type of meditation has been recognised as beneficial both by spiritual traditions and modern neuroscience. It develops compassion, reduces stress (among other things) and it might be easier for newcomers. Focusing on the pleasant can give faster access to enjoyment and create a positive feedback loop that will help reinforce your practice.
There are many variations of Metta, what I usually do is repeating the following in my mind:
- May you be safe and healthy.
- May you be free from ill will.
- May you be filled with loving kindness.
- May you be truly happy
I target specific people as I do this. Starting from myself, my loved ones, acquaintances, people I’m having difficulties with and finally all life.
The Mind Illuminated also has a chapter dedicated to this practice.
I want to build a daily practice, what can I do?
The Mind Illuminated puts daily practice as the first stage of the meditator’s path. And I would agree, the shift between “I meditate every once in a while” to “I meditate daily” has been quite marked for me.
I want to stress that if you are just starting, It’s OK to not have a daily practice (it took me 10 years to build one!), and it’s OK and important to explore different techniques and traditions. You don’t have to commit and go all in immediately. In fact, if you are new to this, I would not even recommend it. Start slow and explore. Focus on finding what you enjoy.
Block off time
They say that your calendar shows your priorities. Decide that meditating is going to be a priority for you, set time aside on your calendar every day. Be ready to make the changes you have to make to accommodate this in your life.
Doing it first thing in the morning has worked very well for me, if you do it in the morning then it’s done, and you don’t need to think about it again. Plus, it will likely improve your day!
Meditating in groups, meditating alone
You don’t need a community to practice and in fact I know a lot of people that do meditations mostly alone. For me though, finding a community has made a big difference.
I started meditating back in Italy 2-3 times a week with a teacher that was giving community classes. That allowed me to deepen my practice, ask questions and learn from other’s experiences.
Thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic (weird words I realize) a lot of groups went online and it’s now possible to find meditation groups as well as meditation retreats.
Since 2020 I’ve been meditating most days of the week with an online Zen Buddhist group called Hollow Bones Zen in their Virtual Zendo and I credit this for a lot of my success with establishing a daily practice.
How long to meditate
Common advice is that 5-10 minutes a day is enough to start. I did not find this to be the case. I hit a threshold when I started to meditate consistently at least 25-30 minutes a day.
Something shifted and I the impact of the practice started to manifest outside the cushion. I and the people around me noticed the difference.
Most importantly I started to deeply enjoy the practice.
To do stillness meditation you do not need to sit on the floor on a cushion. A chair or even standing or laying down are perfectly valid positions.
The goal is to find a pose the allows your body to enter a state of deep rest while maintaining alertness.
If you can though, I would encourage you to try using a cushion as that’s been the most successful position for me.
Sitting even only for 30 minutes can be painful if you don’t have good posture so it’s worth researching a bit how to sit. Stephanie Nash has a wonderful pdf with detailed instructions that I recommend.
I have 4 groups of teachings that I refer to most often.
The Mind Illuminated - Culadasa
The Mind Illuminated is a very comprehensive manual. It will guide you through all the steps, from how to sit to very advanced concentration and awareness stages.
You can sit (quite literally) with this book for years and it might be all you need.
If you like structure and are committed to establishing a daily practice I would definitely give this a go. You don’t have to read the full thing either (I myself have yet to go beyond stage 4 of 9), the first few chapters will give you a pretty solid foundation and an idea of the suggested path.
Shinzen’s Unified Mindfullness system takes a comprehensive approach and organizes a whole spectrum of meditation traditions and techniques.
Starting from “See Hear Feel” that I mentioned above it also covers many other practices.
If this sounds appealing to you I would suggest to start from:
- See Hear Feel Introduction -> Great for getting started with See Hear Feel noting.
- The ULTRA grid -> The mapping of all meditations techniques in the Unified Mindfulness system.
- Five ways to know yourself -> The big manual, it covers all techniques.
Shinzen also runs monthly online retreats that I highly recommend, there are 5 sessions spread across one weekend. You can attend any number of them for a very modest price.
You can find them here Home Practice Program.
I mentioned Alan Wallace in my previous post 100 days of meditation. His book Genuine Happiness offers a good overview of different techniques in the tibetan tradition as well as a path that can be cultivated over several months.
In particular the explanations around the concentration practice (shamata) is worth reading if you are getting started as well as the chapters on Metta and Bodhicitta.
Zen does not give a lot of meditation instructions and there is almost no guidance provided during sitting periods. That said I got a lot of value out of Zen teachings. In particular An Introduction to Zen Training has some great pointers on how to sit and focus on the breath. I personally found the lack of guidance to be somewhat liberating. It helped me avoid getting stuck in thinking technique is better than another one or that I have to find the perfect one.
The founder of the Zen group I sit with defined Zen practice beautifully:
Sit down, concentrate, realize the true depth of your mind, celebrate
Compared to 12 years ago there are now a LOT of meditation apps, and that’s great. I got value out of them at different points in my life and they helped people close to me.
The main risk that I see with apps is the “gym membership effect”, if you want to start meditating you don’t need to buy an app, you need to meditate!
Classic meditation apps
With that caveat out of the way here’s a few I would suggest:
- BrightMind -> This is an app that uses Shinzen’s teachings and the Unified Mindfulness system. I bought a lifetime subscription a while ago and have been very happy with it.
- Headspace -> I subscribed for years and even though I never really used it that much (see “gym membership effect” above) I do think it’s very well done and has content of all kinds.
- Waking Up -> I’ve never used it but I have people close to me that have been very happy with it.
- 10 Percent Happier -> As above, strongly recommended by people close to me.
There are also more experimental things that I’ve tried over the years that I wanna mention. I am a nerd after all and I like trying new things:
- Muse -> It’s a portable ECG that attempts to provide real time feedback using sound and can help you understand if you are focused or distracted. I had mixed success with it, partially because I meditate with my eyes open I think, but I have to admit that it has been helpful a times.
- SoundSelf -> I love SoundSelf! It’s not a substitute for regular sitting practice for me but I have a ton of fun with it. Be warned though, people passing by will find it weird to listen to you!
- SoundWorks -> I like meditating with sounds and I like electronic music. Best of both worlds!
Relax, Look for the joy, Observe, Let it come - Let it be - Let it go
It’s hard to grasp at first but even in concentration practice effort does not help. Ultimately the goal is to enjoy yourself.
This does not mean to be happy or in bliss the whole time, most sessions in fact you will spend thinking about stuff. And you can still enjoy it!
Some of the best advice I got was to celebrate every time I realize I’m distracted.
As I said above, it took me 10+ years to get here, and I know I’m just getting started, and I OK with that, I also hope this won’t discourage you from starting. My practice was helpful and beneficial from the first day, it’s just more so now!
Please reach out and let me know if this was useful, I enjoy talking about all this and I would love to hear your story!
Deep gratitude to all the teachers, mentors and friends that I met on the way. This continues to be one of the most rewarding parts of my life. Thanks also to @rcyeske for his feedback on this post.