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How to get started with meditation

If you want to start immediately, lie down comfortably and listen to this guided meditation. Keep doing this once a day.

1. Introduction

This guide will help you get started with meditation and clarify common issues that may otherwise create friction in your practice or doubt in your mind. It is structured to help you develop an initial spark of interest into a regular practice.

I got into meditation by listening to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations. Others have found them to be a helpful entry point into meditation as well. Kabat-Zinn uses mindfulness meditation as part of a program called “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR). The goal of that program is to relax, though what relaxation means in this practice is likely to differ from what you may naturally think of.

The steps in this guide have worked for several people, including myself, and do not assume any prior knowledge of meditation.

If you’re curious, I’ve written a brief history of how this guide came about.

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2. Just start

You can find John Kabat-Zinn’s guided meditations on YouTube:

Start by listening to the Body Scans, either the long version (45 minutes) or the short version (30 minutes). They are the same meditation. Listen to whichever you have time for. The long version is easier to follow along with because the pace is slower, so it may be better to start with that.

You don’t need to know anything about meditation to start. The guidance includes everything you need. Just listen and follow along as best you can.

During meditation, if you find the breathing instructions (holding, releasing, etc.) stressful, just ignore them and breathe normally.

The instructions suggest that you practice while lying down. It is easier to meditate if you don’t have to worry about your posture, although there’s always the danger of falling asleep. If you find that you often fall asleep, maybe you need sleep more than you need meditation. That was the case with me when I started. If you’d like a bit of help to stay awake when lying down, try bending your legs so that your knees are up while your feet remain flat on the ground.

Try sitting

There are benefits to practicing in a sitting posture. After you get more familiar with the body scan, you can listen to the guided meditation while sitting, mentally adjusting the instructions so they make sense in your posture. You may also try out the sitting meditation I linked to above, which differs from the body scans.

Finding the right sitting posture or postures for you is not as easy as it seems and can take a long time. Ines Freedman has a good guide on postures for meditation that outlines the various options.

It is easier to sustain a good posture if you have flexibility, good core strength, and so on. But those physical aspects are only part of the picture. Holding a good posture is hard if you are tense or emotionally charged. It took me several years of daily practice before I figured out how to sit without tensing my body in painful ways (and I’m still learning). If you find that you have trouble with your posture, and especially if you find that you become agitated or angry with your inability to sit, then perhaps the posture is not the problem. Don’t worry about it. Keep practicing.

Use whichever posture best supports your practice. If you’re not that flexible, sitting on a chair is fine. You don’t have to look like a Zen monk in a movie.

Build a daily habit

Try to meditate for at least 30 minutes each day and see how you feel after a few weeks.

If you meditate six days a week, Kabat-Zinn suggests you’ll start seeing concrete benefits within eight weeks. Everyone who’s tried it has found this to be true. I can’t imagine my life without my daily meditation practice.

When should you sit? At first, sit whenever you can make the time for it. In the morning, before you look at your phone or interact with people, your mind is at its most serene, so it’s often easier to concentrate. In the evening, after your studies or workday, you may find that meditation helps to wash off some of the physical tension and mental agitation of the day.

If possible, avoid meditating right after eating or just before you go to bed. You’ll likely be drowsy and have a hard time concentrating. If you haven’t meditated that day, sit anyway. Even drowsy meditation is better than nothing.

Eventually, it’s helpful to set a regular time each day when you practice. Having a specific place where you meditate can also support a regular practice.

If you can’t practice for 30 minutes, do less. 20 minutes, 10 minutes, whatever you can. But try to work your way up to 30-45 minutes.

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3. Answers to common questions

  • Am I doing it right?

 As long as you’re doing it, it’s probably fine.

 Try not to fall asleep during meditation. It’s not a big deal if it happens now and then. Otherwise, you probably need to get more sleep. You may also try to change the time when you meditate and to practice sitting instead of lying down.

  • What if I don’t have enough time to meditate?

 Be honest with yourself and do the best you can. 10 or 15 minutes a day are better than no meditation at all, but it’s hard to build a consistent practice if you meditate less than about half-an-hour a day.

 What we spend our time on is a matter of priorities. To make time, you must change your priorities. You may not want or be able to do so right now. Perhaps the time will come later. Do what you can.          Meditating regularly, like exercising and other keystone habits, will quietly transform your life. If you start meditating consistently, a year or two from now your priorities will be different and you’ll be glad you invested the time. I don’t mean to suggest that any of this is easy. I can only assure you that, for those that build the habit, meditation becomes a cornerstone of their life.

  • Why can’t I make it stick?

 If you find that practicing regularly is challenging, it’s worth exploring why that is. Only you can answer this question.

 Here’s a general suggestion: people who are in a funk often have a hard time establishing new habits, such as a meditation practice. If you’re in a funk, make sure you’re getting enough sleep and find support to help you out of it. Support may come in the form of empathetic friends, mental health professionals, or whatever you need.

  • What about meditation apps (or other guided meditations)?

 The adventure of meditation is to explore your moment-by-moment experience. From what I’ve seen, many meditation apps encourage novelty, with a new meditation every week or even every day. Unfortunately, when you’re listen to the guidance, you’re not actually meditating, since you’re not fully in the present. The purpose of a guided meditation is to help you learn a technique that you can then use on your own. You will have a deeper and more insightful meditation if you practice with the same technique repeatedly.

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4. Mindfulness in daily life

In the course of our sometimes stressful days, it’s helpful to get in touch with the centering power of our meditation practice.

A simple, effective practice is to bring your attention to your breath or to any sensations on your body and get a sense of how you are in this moment. You can do this when you’re at taking a break from work or study, waiting in a queue or at a stoplight, when walking, or even when you are listening to someone. It can be helpful to establish specific moments or places — such as when you cross your front door — to remind you to bring awareness to the present moment and to quickly check how you are.

Here are two short guided practices that you may find helpful:

  • The Breathing Space, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is a 3 minute meditation that brings your focus on your breath. When you are feeling overwhelmed, this brief meditation may help you become more calm and centered. (YouTube)   
  • Self-Compassion Break, by Chris Germer, is a practice that combines mindfulness with self-compassion. When you’re having a hard time, receiving kindness can be very supporting. It may surprise you to find out that you can provide this to yourself. (13-minute version, 6-minute version, written instructions).

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5. Leaving behind the guidance

Eventually you may find that you can dispense with the instructions altogether and just practice on your own. It’s okay if you prefer to use the guided meditations until you gain more confidence in your practice. I did so for a long time. There’s no rush.

To move beyond the guidance securely, you need to learn a complete meditation technique that includes practices for concentrating the mind, working with physical sensations, emotions and thoughts, and cultivating compassion and loving-kindness.

When you feel ready to do so, my suggestion, based on my own path, is to look for Vipassana training options. Vipassana, also called Insight Meditation, is a practice that originated in Southeast Asia. My understanding is that it developed in the 19th century as a reformation attempt to get back to the heart of the Buddha’s teaching. It’s the traditional form of what has become known in the West as mindfulness.

Mindfulness training options often shroud the Buddhist origins of the practice, whereas Vipassana/Insight options are more conversant with traditional Buddhism concepts. In both cases, the practices as taught in the west are secular and will not conflict with any religious beliefs you may have.

Take an online class

I have taken, and can recommend, the six-week “Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation” course from the Insight Meditation Center at Redwood, CA.

The course is pre-recorded and includes some weekly homework. You can read about the schedule and time-commitment required before diving in.

If you decide to take this course, you have two options:

  1. Take the course on your own, following along with the material available on the website.
  2. Enrol for a course with teacher support. This course runs once a year and fills up quickly, so it’s best to sign up for their mailing list to get informed when it opens. When you enrol for the course, they will email you all the material for the week as needed, but it’s still the same as option 1. However, the ability to web conference once a week with a teacher is helpful.

Both options are free and donations are encouraged.

Attend a retreat

Look for Vipassana or Insight retreats near you.

  • Vipassana Meditation, as taught by S. N. Goenka, retreats take place all over the world. It’s a rigorous 10-day course that offers a complete practice (including breath, body, and loving-kindness meditation) and is a wonderful, life-changing experience. I’ve attended several of these. These retreats include recorded talks by Goenka, which elaborate on the Buddhist theory underpinning the practices. Goenka retreats are free and donations are encouraged after you complete a course.
  • There’s a list of Insight retreats you may consult, but I have attended none of these, so I can’t make any recommendations.

Find a local group

Many cities have “group sittings” that are peer-led (if there isn’t a teacher around) and can support your practice. If you take my suggestion and go down the path outlined above, then I’d suggest looking for Vipassana or Insight groups first, before looking for more general mindfulness meditation groups. I’d avoid meditation groups whose practices are from a different tradition, such as zazen, Transcendental Meditation, yoga meditation (yoga nidra, kundalini), and so on.

Timers

When you feel comfortable meditating without instructions, it’s useful to have a timer ring when the time is up, so you don’t have to peek at the clock with one eye. You can use your phone’s built-in countdown timer for this, but the following timers are designed specifically for meditation:

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6. Final words

If you have a question not addressed in this guide, you can get in touch with me. I’m happy to steer you based on my experience — though remember I’m just a practitioner, not a teacher.

And a warning: reading or listening to material about meditation can be helpful, but it’s not the same thing as meditating. Keep up the practice itself!