Probably as many people fall off the meditation bandwagon as stay on it. As with all beginnings, a beginner’s meditation practice is often a rocky road. Trust me, I know. I started meditating over 50 years ago. In the 60s, meditation was the big new thing in the West. Sparked by Timothy Leary and LSD, the phenomenon of psychedaelic experiences led many, including me, to wonder if they could attain similar states without drugs.
I remember how stupid I felt the first time I meditated. Our apartment was empty, and I just sat down beneath the doorway between my father’s room and the hallway. I shut my eyes, and had no idea what I was doing or even what I was supposed to do. I just sat quietly. As my mind raced around, I wondered, “What in the world am I doing here?”
I lasted five minutes.
The next day I thought to myself that my negative experience might just be the nature of meditation, and I wasn’t particularly keen to sit again. But, with the thought that if I tried repeatedly things might change, I decided to continue meditating five minutes a day for a few weeks, just to see what happened.
Reflecting now, I think I was right to have chosen such a short amount of time for my meditation period. For weeks, each session was unpleasant, but because it was also short, I was able to endure it and not become discouraged. Over the months and years, I found that I began to actually enjoy meditation, and increased the time I devoted to it.
After five years on my own, I joined a monastery and became a fully ordained monk for 10 years. My meditation periods had increased to an hour, and I sat many times a day. Eventually, I was placed in charge of the meditation hall.
I’ve learned a lot through my own experience and from beautiful teachers over the decades. My hope is to encourage those who, like me, have been discouraged by a rocky beginning to try again so they can discover for themselves the benefit of a regular meditation practice. My hope is to offer some tools to those who may just be considering the idea of meditation for the first time, so that they may find success more readily in their endeavour of exploring the mind through meditation.
Here is some basic guidance that can help assure our seat belts stay fastened along the rocky road of a nascent practice.
A common reason meditation novices struggle to maintain a practice is they set unrealistic goals at the start, fail to maintain them, become discouraged, and quit.
Instead of beginning with an hour a day, begin with 5-10 minutes—but be extremely disciplined about it. Have a fixed time, realistic amount of time (perhaps it will seem like not enough), and never miss a session. If you must, make it up later that day or evening.
Wait until you find yourself looking forward to your meditation period as you would a meal when you are famished. When this time comes, gradually increase your time period.
It is also common for beginners to quit because they say, “Meditation wasn’t right for me, it just increased my thoughts and emotions.”
Meditation is hard work and stirs up many obstacles, latent negativity, and disturbing emotions. It’s like lifting the corner of a carpet and finding a pile of dirt under it. I highly doubt that many people, if any, feel great meditating right from the start.
When we correctly engage in meditation, it increases our awareness, bringing to light things about ourselves we may rather leave beneath the carpet. But it is in our best interest to them sweep out. So stay the course – even when it is uncomfortable.
Know the Mechanics
When we first start meditating, we typically start to categorise things as either being part of the meditation or outside of it. For example, eating a peanut butter sandwich may stand juxtaposed to the mantra we are reciting or a prayer to our guru. We seek to suppress, ignore, or limit the ‘background noise,’ perceiving it as a distraction.
However, growing deeper in the practice reveals that over time, the ‘background noise’ becomes more distinct, not less. Our mantra recitation, for example, seems projected on a screen of thoughts, perhaps about what we will do when our meditation session is completed, an idea for a project we are working on, or a solution to a relationship problem. This background noise can actually balance out and equalise our meditation. We may feel in a state of equilibrium, aware very keenly of what the background noise is, but favoiring, ever so slightly, our meditation.
What we must realise is that the so-called background noise is as essential to correct meditation as the mantra itself, or whatever object of meditation we choose.
If we do not seek to banish it, block it, or focus on it, and instead choose to gently notice and accept it, the noise will not obstruct us in any way, and our meditation practice will actually prosper.
Beginners often emerge from meditation and immediately dive back into their normal routine. Instead, emerge from the meditation with respect for the space you just created. Whenever we rise from a seated meditation session, we are more sensitive than we may realise. Take five minutes to walk around silently and observe what you notice in your environment, the thoughts that come to mind without your bidding, and the way your body feels.
Do not emerge from meditation and go off following the ‘background noise’ mentioned above. If you must have that sandwich or make that call, first give yourself space to move about with no agenda. This is absolutely important, as it grounds your practice.
Meditation by itself can lead to wrong and dangerous viewpoints. Many masters have said, “Don’t trust your own mind.” Meditation practice is really one leg of a stool; the other two are study and reflection. If the three are not balanced out, our training will fail.
Find an excellent, non-new age dharma book and use it as a guide. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is exceptionally approachable in his writings on the mechanics of beginning a meditation practice, as are Dilgo Khyentse, Urgyen Tulku, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Sakyong Mipham.
Don’t Be Fickle
Don’t hop from one practice to the next because you are not going to get anywhere. Once you pick a method that is authentic to you, stick with it. Meditation is self-correcting, and if you are a little off, don’t fret about it—you will naturally align if you continue to practice.
Have faith in yourself and the method you choose, and don’t spend energy wondering if you are ‘doing it right.’
Additionally, don’t seek out the ‘highest’ or ‘quickest meditation method. There is none. What is perfect for one individual’s growth is not so much dependent on the type of meditation we engage in, as to how we approach it. It is up to you!
We meditate to become better, more compassionate people—but there are many ways to interpret what this means. This is what meditation explores. It helps us to discover new ways of looking at what it means to be happy, and that happiness can arise independent of external circumstances solely based on the pleasure of knowing our own mind.
Anyone can meditate, and everyone should meditate—so don’t hesitate to meditate!
Good luck to all who I share the path with. I hope we succeed in achieving our highest aspiration.