New to Meditation? Start Here
Whether you are overwhelmed, scattered, struggling with negative moods, stuck in your head, disconnected, or just meditation-curious, something has drawn you here. Maybe you’ve tried meditation before and didn’t like it. Maybe you feel like you “should” be meditating. Or maybe you’ve heard it is good for you. Wherever you are on your journey, welcome. I’m happy you’re here. And whatever you have or have not achieved through meditation in the past, let it go. Today is a great day to start fresh. In fact, every day, every breath is a new beginning. Always available to you. Right now.
Mindfulness meditation is at once nothing special and the most important thing. It is a “both/and” sort of practice. Perhaps Tara Brach, one of Western meditation’s greatest gurus, put it best when she said that meditation is “a training of mental attention that awakens us beyond the conditioned mind and habitual thinking, and reveals the nature of reality.” And here-in lies the key: the natural presence (or “buddha nature” as some might call it) that mindfulness meditation helps us access is nothing new or different. It doesn’t require you to change. Even when you are distracted or ruminating or angry, it is always there. It gets obscured by the complexities of life, and as we disconnect from our bodies, we may lose touch with it. But don’t fret. Your own personal buddha nature is alive and well within you.
So, now that you know that you’re already a buddha, where do you actually start? As with many new pursuits, I recommend starting with your intention. What is it, truly, that brought you to explore your inner landscape? If the word “should” crops up, dig a little deeper. Listen closely. Your answer may come in words or as more of a feeling. Whatever you find, let this sincerity drive your practice.
It is key to approach any meditative practice with an attitude of unconditional kindness. When we enter into an experience with kindness, we bring an attitude of acceptance. Yet when we turn inward, we quickly become judgmental and negative. Let go of this. Approach your meditation as you would a meeting with an old friend: openhearted and accepting. Grant permission to your meditation to be whatever it is without striving to change it. There is no right way to meditate.
As you get going, it can be helpful to establish a routine. Many find that the morning is the time that they can carve out a small (5-30 minutes) consistent time to meditate. Find a spot where you can sit quietly and relatively undisturbed. Plan to sit on a chair, cushion, or kneeling bench. Experiment with different positions. Find a balanced posture in which you can be upright but not rigid. Imagine that you are a candle: your spine is the wick, stretching upwards, and your muscles are the wax, melting down as they let go into the open receptivity of your natural presence.
Because our minds are so busy and reactive, it can be helpful to use an object of awareness to quiet the mind and bring us into full awareness. You may choose the breath, sensations in the body, awareness of sounds, or another focused sensory experience to be the skillful means to relax thoughts and physical tension. An object of awareness can also help develop concentration. A word of caution: there is often a striving effort that sneaks in when working with an object of awareness. For example, you may find yourself evaluating your meditation and judging how well you did sticking with the breath. Do not confuse your object of attention with the meditation itself. Objects of attention serve as a skillful means to access your natural awareness, and should be approached with a relaxed and forgiving attitude. As best as you can, let go of the striving and effort to succeed. You’ve already won!
Expect your attention to stray! It is only natural for your mind to generate thoughts. The object of meditation is not to rid your mind of thoughts, but rather to bring awareness to them and the reactivity that they may generate. Approach each time your mind strays as a new opportunity to wake up: an invitation to return to your natural presence. I find it helpful to approach my distracted mind as I would a young child; gently redirecting her back to the present without judgement. As the mind settles, you will start to have moments of simply “being here,” grounded and embodied. This is your natural presence: a non-striving awareness from which you can observe and allow the ever-changing flow of experience.
If mindfulness is a bird, its two wings are awareness and compassion. One cannot exist without the other in a mindfulness meditation practice. For me, a key component of every meditation I do is a practice of lovingkindness, or Mette. This practice uses specific phrases to send loving and kind wishes to yourself, loved ones, neutral people, and even difficult people (not to mention animals, plants, and all beings everywhere). I adopted my phrases from a beloved meditation teacher, Tuere Sala. Here they are:
May I be filled with lovingkindness
May I be well
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
Feel free to use mine or create your own. Spend a few minutes offering these phrases to yourself, taking the time to directly experience the feelings and physical sensations that these phrases invoke. Next, send them to the groups of people listed above. Mette practice is a primary practice for many and can be a powerful way to awaken the heart.
Now that you know some of the basics, let me prepare you for what might get in the way. There are 5 common challenges (called “hindrances” in buddhist texts). They are:
Grasping or attachment: wanting more, clinging
Avoidance or aversion: fear, anger, pushing away
Restlessness: distraction or agitation
Sloth or topper: sleepiness or boredom
Doubt: a mind-trap that tells you “this isn’t helping” or “I’m not good at this”
These five challenges are universal human experiences and are not a problem. When they come up during your meditation, it is helpful to bring awareness to them, label what is happening and bring your full attention to what is arising. As best as you can, notice the physical sensations in the body that accompany the experience of the challenge, and try to allow it to be there until it naturally passes. Once the challenge has dissipated, gently redirect your attention to your object of awareness or rest in natural presence.
Sometimes during a meditation, something comes up that is overwhelming. If this happens, refocus your attention on something that brings you love and a feeling of safety and stability. You may find that it helps to open your eyes, reconnect to you sensory experience of the moment, and relax your body. Call to mind a person who loves you and offer yourself words of lovingkindness.
I’ll leave you with a few pointers to help launch your meditation practice:
Try to sit every day. It doesn’t have to be for long, and you don’t have to like it, but it is called a practice for a reason. It will likely take some trial and error before you fall into a rhythm that suits you. Could you commit to a short daily meditation for a month? At the end of that month, see how you feel.
Even if you are an experienced meditator, approach this practice with a “beginners mind,” meaning try to be open to and curious about what you discover on this path. Often our expectations are wildly different than the reality that we find, and this can be either a gift or a frustration depending on how we relate to it.
Reconnect with your intention frequently. This sincerity will help maintain your practice.
Don’t judge your practice. Accept what unfolds and trust your capacity to awaken into now.
Several times per day, take a few moments to intentionally feel your body. You may find it helpful to use the mini meditation “Two feet, One breath.”
If you miss days, weeks, months, years of practice, simply begin again. Every day is new.
Remember, you are already a buddha! This practice is to help you access your natural presence.
At the beginning it can be helpful to use guided meditations. I will post links to a couple of meditations to get you started, but feel free to find your own that resonate with you.
Tara Brach led 13-minute Opening and Calming meditation:
Jack Kornfield led 13 minute Heart of Compassion meditation:
Sebene Selassie led 13 minute Relaxing into the Body meditation:
Alexis Santos led 13 minute Awareness of Thoughts meditation: