How to Start a Meditation Practice

Text by Amy Gross

My guess is you've tried to meditate, or think you should. You keep hearing it's good for you, and you could use a little calm. But you can't can't do it. you can't stop thinking.

Your mind goes all over the place, and that makes you feel the opposite of calm  -- which is the goal of meditation, isn't it? (Not really, but more on that later.)

I completely sympathize. In fact, my mission here is to assure you, first, that the reason it's so hard for you is that it's hard, period. And second, that it's worth every effort. 

Of all the things you might do for yourself -- exercise, take your vitamins, cut out saturated fat, read Dante's "Inferno" -- this could be the most beneficial. I bet you've heard that meditation is good for your health, that it improves heart function and immune response, lowers blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, reduces pain, and may even increase longevity. 

Did you know, though, that it also rewires your brain?

So, Why Don't We All Meditate?
Scientists in the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience are discovering that meditation has measurable effects on brain functioning. In one study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, an eight-week course in mindfulness meditation was enough to significantly increase activity in the area of the left brain associated with positive feelings and the ability to recover more quickly from stress.

Mindfulness teaches you new habits of response that make you happier. So why doesn't everyone do it? And why is it so hard? 

The most obvious reason: This simple act defies the rules of our society. We believe in rushing and achieving. We're convinced nothing we do is ever enough. Meditation asks us to draw our attention inward and stay seated when a million impulses call us back to the fray. 

Western culture condemns it as navel gazing, and you may have picked up the idea that meditation is "woo-woo," a fad for the softheaded. When practice gets uncomfortable, you're relieved to have an excuse to stop: You're not cut out for this!

And practice is often uncomfortable. The longer you sit, the deeper you go into the dark cave of your mind, where ancient memories, guilt, fears, disappointments, and losses can spring out at you. 

This isn't what you bargained for. You were hoping to find peace, and here's your own custom-made uproar. Besides that, your back is killing you. (Or it's just one boring breath after another, and you're jumping out of your skin. A friend who's newish to meditation says, "The silence is deafening!")

Everyone who meditates is a veteran of these torments. "The habit of self-judgment makes people impatient with the inevitable ups and downs of practice," says Sharon Salzberg, cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, and author of "Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program."

"People need a base of good understanding so they're not unfair to themselves. Maybe you're trying to force thoughts out of your mind, for example. Once you understand that's impossible, meditation gets easier."

Finding a Meditation Teacher
I started out as the worst meditator in history. Actually, I started out not meditating at all, just reading about it. I was in college, an anxious mess, when I stumbled on "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" by Shunryu Suzuki, Alan Watts's "The Way of Zen," and later, Eugen Herrigel's "Zen in the Art of Archery."

These books were like cool water to a person with a fever. I could feel my breath deepen as I turned the pages. I'd be inspired to sit for a few days, then motivation would fizzle. This went on for years. 

Finally, I realized I needed a meditation teacher. A friend suggested a weekend retreat with Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, who brought mindfulness meditation home from India. Also called insight meditation, this is the practice the Buddha discovered that led to his enlightenment. You don't have to become a Buddhist to do it, though. 

The idea is to pay attention each moment to your senses, emotions, and thoughts, without resistance or judgment. We were told to follow our breath, noting "in" and "out" as air moved through our belly or nose. When the mind wandered, we were supposed to return to the breath.

I could find my breath, but keeping my mind on it, with it, near it? I gave up. I tried again. I went into tailspins of despair. I was so taken with Joseph and Sharon, though, and so gratified by the taste of quiet, that I persisted.

"Just get into the position every day," Joseph said at the end of the retreat. "Even if you only sit for five minutes." I set off for my new life as a meditator.

Practicing Mindfulness
That was 15 years ago. I began to go on silent retreats. Ten days of meditating 12 hours a day, no reading or writing, and, except for two brief meetings with a teacher, no talking. Twice I went on three-month retreats. I was serious -- and still it took me 13 years to make sitting a daily habit. 

To be completely honest: an almost daily habit. The urgencies of the day can still be very seductive. (I don't have time to sit; I've got to write an article about sitting!) 

Such allegedly time-saving decisions usually backfire. When I sit, I think more clearly and life flows more easily. I can see now that the stress level of an event depends on my state of mind. In the midst of a downward spiral of anxiety, I'll suddenly recognize that my fears are a fantasy, an old pain pattern. The hysteria drops away. 

It's like one of those nightmares where a towering wave is about to crash down on you -- and then you wake up. There is no wave. Mindfulness taps on the window of your awareness and -- ping! -- brings you back to the present. 

The disasters we imagine in our future torture us more than reality ever can. As Eckhart Tolle teaches, "Right now I'm OK." The more fully you inhabit now, the more OK you are. Now is home base, the best spa, the best medicine. Meditation is training in getting to now.

What makes it powerful is what makes it hard: You're dismantling two of the oldest reflexes in the world. 

The first is: Running away from pain. We spend our lives clamping off negative reactions. Meditation invites these reactions to the surface, where they can get the attention they've wanted from you all these years, and ultimately dissolve. You see you're not destroyed. "Acceptance is the key," Joseph says. "Resistance locks in the feeling."

The second reflex is: Clinging to the pleasant. We want what we want when we want it; when we get it, we hold on tight. That's as futile as trying to hold on to a rushing river. 

Meditation offers infinite opportunities to open our grip. We see that we don't lose anything by letting go -- we've just quit an exercise in futility. Peace, according to the Buddha, is the greatest happiness. And isn't that what you said you wanted?

Gettting Ready to Sit 

Where are you going to sit? 
You don't need an altar or candles -- just a quiet spot where you won't be disturbed. 

When are you going to sit? 
I like to meditate first thing in the morning, when I have the most control over my time. If the morning got away from you, how about now? Could you pay attention to just three breaths, as suggested by meditation teacher and InsightLA founder Trudy Goodman? 

Please give up the notion that you must fold yourself into the lotus position. I sit on a chair or a sofa or kneel on the floor. What's vital is to create a stable base, back upright but not stiff. You want to be relaxed yet alert. 

How long are you going to sit? 
Commit to a period: 10 minutes, or 20, or 45. It might help to set a (quiet) timer.

How to Sit 
Meditation is mind training. You're tethering your attention to an object, as though you were tying a monkey to a pole. The monkey is going to scamper about, but sooner or later it quiets down. 

To tame your monkey mind, close your eyes and sit still, becoming aware of any aches and sensations rather than automatically adjusting your posture to alleviate discomfort. 

Then follow the sensations of breathing: expanding and contracting, rising and falling. The breath is your anchor. If it helps, silently note "in" and "out" as air enters and leaves the body. "Rub your belly with your mind," as Sharon says. 

If you find this boring, consider: If this next breath were your last, would you find it boring? The breath is a continual invitation to be here now, and now, and now.

When Thoughts Come Up 
Your mind is going to create thoughts.That's what minds do. The idea is not to refuse the thoughts or judge yourself. An image that helps me deal with the concoctions of my mind comes from Tibetan Buddhism. 

Visualize "you" as the vast blue sky, and thoughts, emotions, and sensations as passing clouds. They don't stain the sky, the Tibetans say. No matter how permanent they look, they're going to move on. 

When there's judgment, resistance, or self-criticism (I'm hopeless, I can't do this, this is stupid), let them go -- just more clouds -- and return to the breath. You're not trying to empty your mind; you're trying to notice what's going on. Every time you realize "I've been thinking!" that's a moment of clarity.

Meditation gives you a seat in the theater of awareness. Let's say the drama being enacted is anger: Instead of getting angry with yourself for being angry, be curious. The anger is giving you information that could be useful or not (I think X is taking advantage of me). You can weigh that information later. 

Right now, sink your attention into your body. What are the sensations that you recognize as "anger"? Where are they? The mind can't focus on two things at once. Dropping the story cuts the fuel line to the emotion. The feelings fade away. Calm returns.

As Sharon says, this path has its ups and downs. The trick is to have faith in the process. If you sit, you'll get wise to your mind. Your heart will soften. Your love for yourself and others will bloom. It's inevitable. 

Drop the story of how hopeless it is and begin again. Every moment is new. Investigate this newness. Don't miss it!

Read More: Resources to Help Make Meditation a Habit

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