Meditation & Getting Started: A Short Guide to Understanding and Practicing Meditation
A Guide to Formal Meditation & Getting Started
Understanding and practicing meditation is a confusing topic, but the on-ramp to training the mind is surprisingly accessible for everyone. What follows is a guide for those interested in learning more about meditation and how they can get started.
The Three Step Guide to Getting Started with Meditation:
- Step One: Understanding Meditation
- Step Two: Choosing Your Meditation Technique
- Step Three: Practicing that Technique
STEP ONE: Understanding Meditation
Meditation cultivates specific qualities of the mind like equanimity, mindfulness, and compassion. Developing these qualities help to reduce unnecessary self-imposed suffering in your life.
What’s the difference between meditation and a formal mediation practice?
A formal meditation practice is a designated time where you sit in silence and do nothing but work with a meditation technique. The technique is a task given to the mind whereby the outcome is to cultivate certain qualities of the mind.
Broadly defined, meditation is technically always happening in the moment-to-moment unfolding of life, because meditation is what’s on your mind, where your attention’s at, and how you are choosing to condition the mind to your experience.
Why have a formal meditation practice?
The mind is easiest to work with in stillness. Sitting allows for a controlled, simplified environment and a deeper training.
Why do I have to “choose” a technique; can’t I make up my own meditation practice?
The benefit of choosing a popular meditation technique is the same benefit as walking an established trail — each has defined beginnings and ends. You know where you’re starting from and where you’re going, so it’s difficult to get lost along the way. If you have questions, you’re able to seek counsel from established practitioners. Finally, there is a growing body of scientific literature supporting the benefits of popular techniques, so we know these techniques actually cultivate certain qualities of the mind and are not just supported by anecdotal evidence or hopeful wishes. In short, choosing an existing technique will likely have advantages over making up your own, but even riskier perhaps is not having a mental discipline at all.
I’m impatient. What’s the fastest way to begin?
For the minimalists out there, I’d recommend beginning with awareness of breath. Close your eyes and mouth, sit up straight and relaxed, be still, and focus your attention on your breath as it comes in and out of your nostrils. If the mind wanders, no big deal. Simply come back to the breath over and over again. There is no destination. You can’t meditate “well” or “poorly”. You can practice this whenever you need to.
STEP TWO: Choosing Your Meditation Technique
The key to choosing which technique is best for you is either to figure out your intention with meditation and align yourself to the technique that best suites that intention, or simply sample them and find what you like best.
Vipassana is a Pali word which means “to see things as they really are”. Students of vipassana learn mastery of the mind, wisdom, and morality. Vipassana goes beyond a meditation technique by providing a moral code, hence its moniker: “the art of living.”
New students learn vipassana in 10-day silent retreats. The admission for a 10-day course is entirely donation-based and the centers run completely on volunteer work from past students. One can only donate and volunteer after experiencing a 10-day course. When a business is able to thrive on donations and volunteers alone, it’s remarkable, but not surprising. Rather, it’s a testament to the technique.
The fundamental teaching of vipassana is awareness of bodily sensations and non-reactivity to those sensations. The technique is a body scan meditation; meditators move their attention within the framework of the body, scanning sensations from head to toe, all the while cultivating insight into the nature of reality. If the mind wanders into thought, no big deal. Simply bring your attention back to the body’s sensations.
The goal of the technique aims at enlightenment, i.e. total liberation of the mind; an uprooting of the mind’s habit pattern, which is to react with craving towards pleasant sensations and aversion towards unpleasant sensations.
Enlightenment is a tricky subject. Personally, whether or not I’ll reach such a stage isn’t important. In fact, if you start wanting to attain this goal, you are moving farther away from what the technique is trying to teach you, which is to rid yourself of attachment and aversion. However attainable, my logic is that if one chooses the highest goal, that person will inevitably experience all the other benefits along the way.
The course emphasizes non-sectarianism and the universal appeal of the technique. There is no need to believe anything mystical, spiritual or pseudo-scientific in order to attend a course or benefit from the technique.
Two additional techniques taught at vipassana retreats are anapana and metta. Anapana is an awareness of breath meditation, to cultivate concentration and attention. Metta meditation (loving-kindness) is a wishing well for others which cultivates compassion.
Vipassana is both a meditation technique and an “art of living” addressing the root of human suffering, to re-condition the mind’s habit pattern of reacting with attachment and aversion. Attending a vipassana course costs only what you’re willing to give but requires 10 days of your life (six vacation days) to learn it properly. Admittedly, the courses are also quite intense. Considering that some may not feel like they’re able to give 10 days or pursue such rigorous training, there are always other options.
Mindfulness meditation is essentially the westernized version of vipassana. The technique itself, the body scan, remains the same, but the teaching has no mentions of the Pali language, increasing the universality of the teaching.
The goal of mindfulness is presence, specifically awareness, attentiveness and an observational, objective, non-judgmental attitude to the moment-to-moment unfolding of reality. During formal meditation, you begin by paying close attention to the breath. Eventually, you move your attention to bodily sensations. In informal meditation, you also observe your mind’s behavior, it’s thoughts and even an opening up of awareness to the entire spectrum of external phenomena such as sights, sounds, tastes, etc.
Mindfulness meditation is an insight meditation meant to confront reality “as it is”, meaning there’s no artifice being imposed on your experience (no mantras, no imagination, no verbalization). Rather than a drowning out of reality, you are facing your experience head on.
Mindfulness meditation retreats also teach Metta (loving-kindness) meditation, with the goal of cultivating a compassionate mind.
Mindfulness will be the most realistic option for people to experience meditation due to it’s accessibility, ease of implementation, and universality. The technique is readily available online, on iPhone apps and in public classes. Compared to vipassana, barriers to entry are low.
OTHER NOTABLE TECHNIQUES
Mindfulness techniques are not for everyone. Confronting the nature of reality “as it is” can be quite painful. While sitting for hours, it’s not uncommon for memories of unpleasant experiences to arise. Mindfulness techniques force meditators to face those experiences head on and for those with a history of trauma or veterans with PTSD, it may be wise to move towards safety and not the sharp edges of mindfulness.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is one of those options; MBSR is an umbrella of techniques aimed more specifically at reducing stress. Techniques include awareness of breath, choice-less awareness (the non-judgmental observation of thoughts and sensations), body scanning and yoga. Stress is self-inflicted and a wise-person would do their best to have techniques to battle this enemy. Teachings and retreats incorporate both meditation and yoga exercises plus group sessions and homework tasks.
Another solution could be Transcendental Meditation (TM). In transcendental meditation, you are given a mantra which you repeat over and over silently in your head. If the mind wanders into thought, no big deal, simply bring the mind back to repeating the mantra. This is a much safer technique because instead of confronting reality you are instead drowning out reality. As you repeat this word, the mind becomes easily concentrated. The unfortunate and slightly funny thing about TM is that it’s actually becomes trademarked, so students must pay to receive a “special” mantra, and the cost is upwards of $1.5K. Still, many people benefit from this technique, so it’s worth your consideration.
Summary: Mindfulness is not for everyone. If you have a history of trauma or PTSD, it would be best to lean towards the safety of MBSR or Transcendental Meditation.
STEP THREE: Practice that Technique
Once you find a technique that works for you, it’s recommended that you stick to it. If that technique is helping you, then grow and develop in that one technique. The saying goes something like, “if you try to find water by digging a little here, a little there, you will die of thirst; whereas a man who digs deep in one spot will find water.” It’s a bit of an extreme example, but the reasoning is sound.
Also, it’s recommended that you not mix techniques. If you mix, it will be difficult to attribute which technique is actually doing you the good. Plus, if it’s working for you, why mix? I think this saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fit it.”
SIGN UP FOR RETREATS
Meditation retreats are for those looking for an in-depth teaching of the techniques. Full immersion provides an ideal space for learning and practicing. Here you’re able to communicate with long-time practitioners and teachers and receive proper training. Retreats are typically located just far enough away from the big city to be secluded and just close enough to be convenient.
Sign up for a vipassana retreat.
Sign up for a mindfulness retreat.
Sign up for MBSR retreat.
Sign up for TM retreat.
If you’re looking to get involved online, here and now, here are some tools I recommend.
10% Happier — a meditation app for the iPhone. I downloaded it, listened to a few of the meditations, and I can vouch that this is a great resource for this looking to get involved.
Headspace — a meditation app for the iPhone. Haven’t used it before, but heard good things. People seem to enjoy it.
Insight Timer — a meditation app for the iPhone. I use the ‘timer’ and tracking functionalities, but there are also free guided meditations.
Anapana Meditation Video — a 10 minute meditation by SN Goenka of the vipassana tradition
Metta (Loving-Kindness) Meditation Video — a 48 minute meditation by Joseph Goldstein from the Insight Meditation Society (IMS)
IF you’re looking to learn more about meditation before you get involved, podcasts are a great way to do so. Below are a couple of my favs.
10% Happier with Dan Harris — a self-defined “fidgety skeptic” of meditation, Dan interviews the biggest names in meditation including the Dalai Lama, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, George Mumford & David Gelles. The names go on and on. Practical and in-depth advice from the best.
Buddhist Society of Western Australia — listen to the ones with a guy named Ajahn Brahm(avasmo). He’s great because he takes serious topic and twists them into being light and funny.
All meditation is good meditation. As for which technique to choose, a teacher can only suggest. My suggestions are obviously bias, so I recommend you test them out for yourself. Meditation is not a silver bullet, but if you are “searching for answers”, understand the importance of re-programming the mind and are willing to work hard, then meditation might be what you’re looking for. Like anything in life, you get out what you put in, and investing time and effort into training the mind can yield great benefit that extends to all aspects of living. Meditation the most impactful tool that I’ve found in my two years of searching for answers in this wild, wild west. 🙂 I hope it helps you achieve your aims.
Any other questions out there that I missed? Anything you’re still curious about? Let me know!
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If you haven’t read it yet, check out this post about re-framing the way we think about happiness.