Saturday, December 10, 2011

How to Start a Meditation Practice: 5 steps

Meditation takes discipline, just like going to the gym or learning to paint. At first, your mind will feel like a perpetual motion machine of random thoughts. Eventually, your mind will start to relax and you'll start to get momentary glimpses of clarity and peace. You'll learn about the contours and features of the mind. You'll find out about things living in the deep dark recesses of the mind, that you never knew were lurking. When you start to figure out how your mind works, you can gain a better connection to others, better concentration, courage, and much more. The benefits might even surprise you!

Here is a list to get you started and help you follow through:

1. Be gentle with yourself

First things first: being kind and gentle to yourself is key. Whether you are coming to meditation just to enhance relaxation or to reach enlightenment, it all starts with giving yourself a break and allowing your thoughts to just "be." This is a really tough one for us to understand if we are always striving to improve. There's no need to play wack-a-mole with your thoughts. Just follow the breath and have a sense of humor.

2. Set realistic goals

I recommend that you don't start off trying to meditate for 30 minutes every day. It is probably better to meditate for some small amount of time every day than to save it all up and just meditate for a long time on the weekend. Meditation will literally change the way your brain is wired, making you more gentle, more mindful, and more aware, among other things. But in order for this process to kick in, you need to meditate consistently.

I've heard lots of teachers recommend 10 minutes a day. If that sounds impossible, try 5 minutes a day. Eventually, this will become comfortable and you will want to ramp it up to 10 minutes later on. Whatever amount of time you choose, make sure to always stick to your commitment for that day. Don't get up as soon as you feel distracted. Also, keep your actions and commitments in sync by not sitting longer than what you committed to.

I like to meditate in the morning, right after I take a shower. My mind is relatively clear at that point. Other people prefer to meditate in the evening or at lunch. It doesn't really matter when you do it. Just pick a time that works for you and stick with it!

Email, internet, video games and television are discipline destroyers for me. I highly recommend avoiding those things around the time when you plan to meditate.

Again, be gentle with yourself. Set a goal that you can achieve. Then progress along the path at a pace that makes sense for you. Once you get into the habit of meditating, it will be like brushing your teeth and you'll start to see the benefits.

3. Pick a spot that attracts you

Take a look around your home and consider which spot attracts you. Good lighting makes a difference. A sense of cleanliness, discipline, harmony and well being also help. Maybe the sunlight hits a corner of your living room at just the time when you want to meditate, and that attracts you, or maybe you have a room that you keep very clean. Whatever spot you choose, make sure it is a spot where you like to hang out.

4. Get something to sit on

If you don't own a meditation cushion, no problem.

Zafu and zabuton
Gomden and zabuton
I usually meditate on a Japanese zafu cushion that is filled with buckweat hulls, but since I travel often, I always have to figure out other ways to sit. You can grab some cushions off the couch or fold up a big blanket or towel. You can even sit in a chair, with your feet planted firmly on the ground. If  you use a chair, just make sure your back is not up against the back of the chair.

If you feel inspired to buy a meditation cushion, you can try a zafu, which is super easy to find online. Gomdens are much more firm and will get you up higher. Gomdens are used at Shambhala Centers and can be found at Samadhi Cushions online. You can also use a kneeling bench, which is common in some Zen centers.

Here are some other places where you can get cushions online:

Four Gates
Pema Design
Yoga Super Store
Gaiam Crafts

5. Use something to keep time

You'll need something to keep time if you want to stick to your goal. You can simply put a clock or a watch in front of you and then glance at it once in a while to see if you have reached the time limit. You could also use a kitchen timer or set an alarm on your alarm clock. Personally, I don't like to keep looking at a clock, because that starts a thinking party in my mind, so I'd go with the alarm.

If you have an iphone or Android phone, there are lots of timers available, and lots of timers specifically for meditation. Most of them have pleasant sounding chimes. Some of them have loads of other features, but all you really need is a timer. I've tried several apps and my favorite meditation timer app by far is called Insight Timer. It is well worth the $2 if you meditate regularly. It even lets you see other people who are meditating at the same time!

Once you've established your meditation practice, it is important to keep the momentum going by maintaining your inspiration. We'll talk about how to do that in the next post.

For more information about meditation, its benefits and how to do it, check out this link from Shambhala, which is just one of many great resources in the West for people to get training in meditation techniques.


  1. This is really helpful and informative, Kipp! I'm sharing it with my wife.

  2. I agree! While I did go an intro to meditation class a while back, it's nice to have this re-laid out for me since I'm hoping to start meditating.