Is there a “best way” to learn meditation?
With a plethora of apps, books, sites, and videos offering guidance on meditation, it’s a fair question to ask: what is the best way to learn meditation?
Shall I drop in to a meditation class? Or start with an app? Shall I tune into Deepak Chopra’s voice online or sign up to an 8-week mindfulness course?
For someone starting out, the choices are plenty and therefore can be…a little confusing. The simple answer is that there is no “best way” except to start somewhere, anywhere, and go from there according to your preferences. In this post there are a few suggestions for where to start, and where to go from there.
Why do it?
A good place to start is to consider what brought you to meditation in the first place. You might have heard about it’s stress-reducing benefits…or how it helps us “manage our minds”. You might want to feel happy and someone said this works! Or you may be suffering with physical or mental pain, and have heard that meditation can help.
Meditation does help with all those things, because meditation is an exploration of our inner world – the thoughts, emotions and sensations that inhere in our consciousness, and our relationship to them. By growing our ability to separate the contents of our awareness from awareness itself, meditation enables us to perceive thoughts, emotions and sensations from a distance. Suddenly we’re no longer quite so hostage to their onslaught …or slave to their comforts. We develop a sense of who we are other than the passing phenomena of mental experiences.
All types of meditation develop as a first step, the ability to settle our minds …and bring us to the present moment. They then proceed to other stages, be it noticing the contents of out mind to developing a richer connection with particular feelings, sensations, or simply our sense of awareness.
Depending on your motivation, temperament, and experience with meditation, here are some routes in.
For first timers:
- You can learn the first stage right now by focussing on your breath for a minute or two. For many who are new to meditation, keeping a steady attention on any one thing “on demand” for one minute without getting distracted every few seconds, is a mighty challenge. You don’t need an app or book or teacher to do this. You just do it. Why? Imagine your mind as the surface of a lake rippling with a million thoughts…you can’t see through the water until it comes to some stillness. The breathe is just something to focus on…you can use anything else you like..if you’re in the woods, look at a tree and keep observing it. That’s what I did.
- If you have little time, and just want to dip your toes into meditation to try it out, sign up for an app. Headspace is one of the most popular apps, with Andy Puddicombe guiding you through 10 minutes a day to begin with. As you develop you can subscribe to programmes for specific topics, such as Work, Relationship, Health…although the technique remains the same…mindfulness meditation. Insight Timer is another available app, with many meditations to choose from, albeit the quality does vary. This app comes with a timer which you can set to meditation-friendly-sounds for the alarm.
- If you are finding it difficult to even start, Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week online course Master Your Mind literally hand-holds you through small steps over 35 days, starting with just a few minutes in the first week. He leads you through different types of meditations so you can see what resonates most with you, and he explains some of the theory behind them. You can do it at your own time, and there’s an interactive forum where you can ask him questions as you go along. It is excellent for beginners to really get stuck in and then stick with it. According to Giovanni the course has a 50-50 male/female ratio, and for most of the students, “their goal is to achieve greater control over their minds and emotion. Less anxiety, less stress, less negative self-talk, and more focus and peace.”
So you’re interested…now what?
- Just keep doing it. Every day. However you want to do it…whatever works for you…without worrying about “doing it right”. Notice how you feel over time. There’s no need to do it for hours every day…even 20 minutes, once a day is fine. If you find it difficult at home with distractions, try a sitting in a park or somewhere quiet outside…which may be more difficult in urban hotspots.
- If you’re struggling to practice by yourself, you can drop into a meditation class or session near you…sadly there is currently a dearth of non-religious places to just drop into. Buddhist temples often offer drop-in sessions open to everyone. In London, The Mindfulness Project offers some drop in sessions.
- You may want to develop your understanding of different types of meditation or learn more about a particular type. In this case it’s a good idea to find a related regular group or class near you. Breathing Space in London offers “mindfulness” based courses that are led by very experienced teachers and mix experiential learning with some theory. Or you can find courses in Vipassana, Transcendental Meditation or many others on offer. You may find that “mantra meditation” is your thing or that “compassion meditation” is what you need.
- For specific conditions such as pain-management or depressions, there are a number of mindfulness-based interventions that have been developed, and health institutions such as the National Health Service are increasingly referring patients to them. Mindfulness-Based-Cognitive-Therapy, and 8-week module available to the public, has proven as effective as anti-depressant pills for recurrent depression.
- This is where it gets interesting. As you become more familiar with your inner experience, you will be know how you want to develop your own practice and understanding. You can read books, go to retreats, or simply keep doing it…it’s never the same. As Krishnamurti says, “Truth is a pathless land”.
- This is also the stage when having access to a teacher that you connect with can help deepen your practice. Claire Griffin, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher explains:
A good teacher will be able to guide you and answer any questions you have about your own practice and what you experience during the meditations. They will also be available to discuss any difficulties that come up for you – people sometimes experience very powerful emotions, thoughts and physical sensations when they meditate and a properly trained teacher will be able to create the right safe and supportive environment for this.
There are certain circumstances under which starting an intensive Mindfulness meditation course for the first time is not advised and again a good teacher will be able to advise you whether now is the right time to embark on an intensive course or residential retreat.
Practicing and learning in a group also has very real benefits too – a lot of peer to peer learning can happen in a group Mindfulness course, not just teacher to participant.
So…are there any dangers to be aware of?
As with any practice, if you feel discomfort and don’t know what to do about it, seek out a trusted, knowledgeable guide. http://mindfulnessteachersuk.org.uk/ is a good source to find teachers for this specific type of meditation – however meditation has existed for thousands of years without any qualifications required…use your intuition when you meet someone you think will be a good teacher. Recommendations are usually the best way to go about it.
If you’re going to the gym and doing weights, there is always a danger of injury – a trainer can help you do it without getting hurt. It’s the same if you’re going deep into meditation.
Meditation isn’t about feeling good all the time. It is an exploration that can lead you through places that almost certainly will be uncomfortable at times. Ultimately it leads to a deeper understanding of yourself and others, and to a place from which you choose how to live every moment from a place of authenticity. It is a commitment, it can be hard, and tedious. Eventually you will know why you keep doing it. The benefits of calm, equanimity, focus, well-being, are all side-effects. And as with anything, the more you put in, even if it seems like it’s going nowhere at first, the more you will get out of it.