I recently gave a TEDx talk on meditation, and with all the interest growing around meditation in general, we've been getting lots of questions from people who want suggestions for how to get started. I thought I'd collect some ideas here. This list is woefully incomplete, and the field is expanding daily, but hopefully this will give some threads to follow.
Here's how Michelle and I got started:
- Mindfulness in Plain English (Bhante Henepola Gunaratana) - this is probably the most popular primer on the subject. It's very accessible even if you are not interested in Buddhism (as we weren't when we started).
- The Attention Revolution (Wallace) - Alan's exceptional in the way he combines depth of experience, scholarship and ability to communicate with a Western audience. This was the 'instruction manual' in our longer retreat, but the practices work well in an engaged life, too. As with Gunaratana, Alan's a Buddhist, but his writing is accessible no matter your spiritual bent.
I've listed a number of other books below, including from other traditions (secular, Christian, Taoist, etc.).
There are a lot more links to recent articles on meditation on the FB page here of the Community Mindfulness Project (a non-profit four of us in Connecticut founded). For anyone in the Southern CT/Westchester area, we list local sits and events.
Also, here are some tips that have really helped us and others:
- Consistency. These practices rarely have a big impact at first, they're like a drug that builds up its dosage in the bloodstream over time. Studies show that just 10 minutes a day can have a big impact on the body, the brain, and our experience of the world, but the key is to stick with that 10 minutes, day in, day out.
- Don't be hard on yourself. Try to let go of being goal-oriented. Just about everyone feels like they're really "bad" at this when they start. Expectations can be your worst enemy here, try to let go of them when you're on the cushion. You're like a sailor who can't control the winds - sometimes there's smooth sailing, but plenty of times you'll be in the doldrums, or crazy-seeming 100-knot gusts, or a downright storm. It's easy to get waterlogged and decide you're just not cut out for these practices. The key is to show up on deck every day, for at least 10 minutes, and give it your best, whatever the conditions.
- Relaxation is a critical foundation. This is unlike most things we're taught in our culture, where trying harder is key. Improvements in the stability and vividness of attention emerge from a deep, underlying sense of relaxation (Alan Wallace does a great job of expanding on this). Letting go of any perfectionist, high achiever, goal-oriented instincts is, oddly enough, a key to "success." Finding times of day when you can be relaxed is helpful for the practice.
- Lying down is perfectly valid for this - e.g. lying on top of your bed, in a formal position (i.e. Yoga's Savasana position) and emphasizing a deep sense of relaxation, of melting into the bed.
- Don't Expect Just Relaxation. Having said the above, these practices are not just about relaxing. Part of what you're doing is opening up the door to your unconscious, and all kinds of "stuff" can come up: anxiety, frustration, jealousy, greed, lust, feelings of inadequacy, etc. Don't feel like you are "bad" at the practice if the mind is full of agitation during some of your sits. That's part of the process, those agitated sits are where you are doing the real work, airing out some of these pent-up emotions, and learning how to handle them and stay balanced while they blow through.
- Careful - there are risks. If you feel like the practices are sending you in a dangerous direction, and negative mental states are extending well beyond the actual meditation time, please be careful (see the "Dark Night Project" research, below). Be particularly mindful if you feel you are in a vulnerable mental state and/or are extending your practice time beyond 10-20 minutes a day. These practices are powerful medicine, and it's important to seek out professional guidance with as much discernment as picking out your family doctor. Connecting with one of the teachers listed below, or a trained therapist (especially one with some familiarity with meditation, increasingly common) can make all the difference between moving in a positive direction and descending into a dangerous place. As you choose your teacher, please recognize that very very few teachers in our culture combine a high level of direct experience and scholarship, an ability to connect with a Western audience, authentic motivation, and high ethics. It's important to be as discerning in choosing a teacher as you would be the right family doctor (except there's no licensing here, so you have to be a lot more discerning).
- 10 Minutes a Day is a Good Baseline; Retreats Can be Helpful to Get Going. Ten minutes a day is a good minimum - and there's plenty of research showing a big impact on brain, body, how we experience the world. But, again, the key is to do it every day. Not everyone can do a retreat, but if you have the ability to do one, even a weekend retreat, it can be helpful (recs below on retreat centers).
- Balance Attention-Training and Heart-Opening Practices. Practices designed to cultivate a clear, balanced, focused mind (e.g. mindfulness of breathing) can become 'dry,' and result in a personality that is focused, but lacking in empathy, basic decency. Heart-opening practices (e.g. lovingkindness) train these qualities, and are grounded in ethics and an emphasis on a healthy, altruistic motivation. It's helpful to balance these two types of practices. They end up reinforcing each other in remarkable ways. Over time, people sometimes find that they begin to converge in ways that are quite profound.
- Other Practical Tips:
- Different seats work for different folks, but overall, we find that gomden cushions tend to be the most popular (e.g. you can find on Samadhi Cushions website) - very useful for the Westerner not used to sitting cross-legged! Other options include Zafus, Crescent Cushions, kneeling benches. Also, you'll want an 'under cushion' - e.g. a Zabuton.
- Insight Timer app (iPhone, Android) - useful.
- See meditation apps, below.
- Can be helpful to sit with back to wall, with a cushion behind the lower back.
- Earplugs can be useful if silence is hard to come by!
What Practice Is Right for Me?
The best advice we've come across on this question:
- Maintain a balance of attention-oriented practices (e.g. mindfulness of breathing) and heart-opening practices (e.g. lovingkindness). These two families of practices develop distinct qualities and actually reinforce each other in interesting and surprising ways.
- Try out practices from different traditions to get a feel for what clicks for you, then stick with one for a longer period of time to give yourself to move along that particular path.
- With respect to the attention practices, try out a variety of practices (e.g. mindfulness of breathing, mantra-based, settling the mind in its natural state, shamatha without a sign) to get a feel for what works best for you. Then select one or two attention-oriented practices.
- Try to find a practice with the right degree of subtlety or 'coarseness' (not a derogatory word) for where you are at this point in your life. The more active, or agitated the mind, the more likely that a coarser practice is going to be helpful. The calmer, more relaxed and more settled the mind is, the more likely a subtle practice will be helpful. Objects of attention from the external sensory domains (e.g. hearing, touch, sight, touch - sensations related to breathing) tend to be "courser" than mental objects (e.g. thoughts, emotions, or awareness itself). Within the domain of mental objects, different practices have different degrees of subtlety (e.g. 'settling the mind' may be less subtle than 'shamatha without a sign'). Within the several different styles of mindfulness of breathing, there are different levels of subtlety (e.g. the belly is relatively course, the area under the nose more subtle, and the subtle increases over time as your breath grows more subtle). This all may sound a bit confusing, I realize. The key is to try out practices with different subtlety levels to get a feel for what works best for you. Your lifestyle and temperament will click best with a practice that is neither too subtle nor too course for where you are in this moment of time. Modern life is defined by a fast pace and wide range of stimuli competing for your attention (smart phones, Facebook, and endless other forms of quick-hit entertainment), in a way that is unprecedented. As a result, most people have highly agitated minds, at least relative to people from prior eras. My unscientific observation is that mindfulness of breathing or a mantra-based practice are good starting places for most people who lead active, engaged modern lives.
Here are more resources:
More Books to Get Started
It's ideal to start with a good teacher, but that's very hard to find in this country. Assuming that you can't, here are some book ideas to take the first steps, from different perspectives: secular, Buddhist, Christian, science-oriented, etc.
In addition to the various books by the two authors listed at the top, here are a handful of books/resources we know well, or which friends strongly recommend:
- Why Meditate (Matthieu Ricard) - Matthieu Ricard is a remarkable teacher, photographer, writer, social entrepreneur, scientist. He has been at the heart of the movement bringing Buddhist practice together with cognitive science, from its inception. Check out his TED talks, too.
- Wherever You Go, There You Are (Kabat Zinn) - Jon Kabat Zinn pioneered a secular form of meditation in the '70s, which he oriented towards pain management and stress reduction, and brought into the healthcare system. He's a wonderful speaker and this program has helped millions, and MBSR trained teachers can be found around the world (you can contact their center at the University of Massachusetts for recommendations on teachers, here).
- Destructive Emotions (Goleman) - this was the book that first sparked our interest in the idea of training the heart/mind through meditation. If you're interested in the science behind meditation, and some of the cultural issues around translating ancient Eastern practices into a modern context, it's fantastic.
- Into the Silent Land (Laird) - this is a summary of practices from the Christian tradition, and it's a gem of a book. Amazing to see how similar these practices from the West are to the Buddhist practices -- The Attention Revolution and this book are like twins separated at birth. We have discussed this similarity with Allen, and it turns out that they did not collaborate on their work, with each book published the same year (2006), as it happens.
- Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening (Goldstien) - Modern Theravadin perspective. Haven't read but people speak very highly of Joseph Goldstein - he seems to be both popular and well regarded by scholars.
- Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Thich Nhat Hanh) - haven't read, but recommended by friends.
- Transcendental Meditation - We don't practice TM, and don't know a ton about it. We've heard some criticisms of the TM organization, especially around events many years ago, but at the same time, a number of people we know seem to have benefited from their practices, and especially throug the David Lynch Foundation, TM seems to be doing a lot of good with outreach programs. TM has become popular with a number of celebrities. Note: TM entails a different practice and model from what we're used to - seems to be run like a business, and you pay TM for their training.
- Taoist Ways to Transform Stress into Vitality: The Inner Smile - recommended by someone in the Taoist tradition, don't know much about.
Articles to Get Started
- How to Meditate (Even If You’re Really Impatient)
- Lots more on the Community Mindfulness Project Facebook page
Tibetan Buddhist (accessible to non-Buddhists)
- H.H. the Dalai Lama
- Alan Wallace
- Pema Chodron - speaks so beautifully from the heart
- Elizabeth Namgyal
- Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche
- Ven. Tenzin Priyadarshi
- Matthieu Ricard
- Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
- Tsoknyi Rinpoche
- Father David Steindl-Rast
- (see book Into the Silent Land, above)
- Recent NYT article on apps here
- Insight Timer app - great meditation timer
- Various meditation apps. The only one we're familiar with is Headspace, which seems very good. We've heard people like Calm and 10% Happier, too.
Here are some of the better known centers, where we or people we know have gone. They are all affiliated with spiritual traditions, many Buddhist:
- Spirit Rock (CA)
- Insight Meditation Center (MA)
- Upaya Zen Center (NM)
- Tara Mandala (CO)
- Omega Institute (NY)
- Barre Center for Buddhist Studies
- 'Goenka Centers' (lots of places, in the 'modern Vipassana' tradition - how we got started. They can be powerful if you connect with the teachings, although it is worth knowing that they are quite intense - all silent, with the ability to practice 10+ hours per day.)
- Garrison Institute (NY)
- The town of Crestone, CO (where we spent most of our retreat) is full of retreat centers from a variety of traditions: Zen, Hindu, Catholic, Tibetan Buddhist and more. We are not familiar with any of them (we were in a house, in self-retreat), but it's an interesting and unique cluster for sure!
- Plum Village (France)
- Heartwell Institute (Worcester MA)
Science of Meditation:
- The Mind & Life Institute is a hub for meditation research, particularly coming out of the MBSR (secular) tradition or various Buddhist traditions.
- Destructive Emotions is a fantastic book - it's what got us started on this journey
- The Shamatha Project (that we were in). Lots more on this blog.
- Article on The Shamatha Project
- Adeline von Waning's book on The Shamatha Project
In Schools/For Children (can start as early as pre-school):
- Fantastic resource on this website created by Jonathan Crowley
- InnerKids - great, pioneering program by Susan Kaiser Greenland. Her book, The Mindful Child, is also wonderful (programs/books).
- Mindful Schools (program)
- Daniel Rechtschaffen (programs/books)
- Shauna Shapiro (programs/books)
- Dot-B (program/brooks)
- Sitting Still Like a Frog (book)
- Phuket International Academy (school we helped develop in Thailand)
- Tara Redwood School (school)
- Mindfulness for Teachers (book)
- Novak Djokovic
- George Mumford, meditation teacher to Jordan-era Bulls, then Lakers
- His new book, here
- Seattle Seahawks
- Derek Jeter, LeBronJames, others
- Michael Jordan
- Thanyapura (where I used to work)
- MBSR - pioneering, secular program founded over forty years ago, grew up in the healthcare system for pain management and stress management. 60 Minutes segment on MBSR here.
- Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy (Boston area)
Universities Leading the Way:
- Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education
- University of Virginia Contemplative Sciences
- Brown University's Contemplative Studies Program
In Corporate Training:
- Potential Project
- Google's Search Inside Yourself
- Imagine Clarity (my wife has done some volunteer work for them)
- Institute for Mindful Leadership (New Jersey)
- Mindful Work (book by David Gelles)
- Upaya Zen Center Hospice Project
- Being With Dying (program in 2015)
- Being With Dying (book by Joan Halifax)
Research Related to the Pitfalls and Dangers of Meditation: