A No Frills Beginners Guide to Meditation

Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling the way you feel.” — Dan Harris

Recently I received an enquiry from someone who wanted some advice concerning establishing a meditation practice.

They wanted to know what I had found useful on my meditation journey and what pitfalls to be mindful of when embarking on such an adventure.

So bearing this in mind this blog hopes to explain all you need to know how to make meditation a daily habit like brushing your teeth.

I’ll share all I have learnt over the course of 16 years of trial and error trying to make meditation an easy fit into my busy daily schedule.

There’s no one size fits all, however hopefully these insights will help you avoid the many mistakes I made and guide you in the right direction.

The Most Important Thing You Need to Know

To start with there is one important thing all meditation beginners need to know.

Regardless of what method you choose to use meditation comes with a unique challenge: you have to learn it without ever seeing how anyone else does it.  

To put it simply meditation is an inside job. It happens inside people’s heads.

 Unlike other activities in life there’s no way to learn by watching others. From the outside looking in this makes the skill of meditation seem more mysterious than it really is.

The basic skills that make up most meditation techniques are not that difficult in theory.

For example:

  • You direct your attention to something such as your breath.
  • You relax tension in the body.
  • You repeatedly return again and again from distractions without judgement.
  • You notice subtle sensations in the body and mind.
  • You allow experiences to unfold without attachment

So simple you would think! Yet these skills take some practice to master- But why?

Am I Doing this The Right Way?

The problems arise in the beginners mind because there is no way to gauge if you are on the right track.

Unlike other skills we learn through experience, like swimming, playing golf, tennis or cooking, there is no clear feedback loop.

What does a “good” meditation look or feel like?

Any impression you may have of what is a “good” meditation is based on stereotypes.

“ I should feel relaxed? I should feel calm?”

The reality is there is no video guru master class showing what to do or how to feel.

Put simply, it’s a unique learning experience whereby you don’t have the luxury of observing and learning from others.

The Importance of Trusting the Process

All you can do is trust your following of the instructions, as you understand them, is leading you in the right direction. Through that continued ongoing process you will start to notice brief moments of profound calmness and increased awareness.

These subtle moments are markers you know you are on the right track allowing you to build from there.

This is a process all meditators will go through.

It starts the moment you sit down to meditate. It ends the moment you experience clear insight that you are doing starts to feel right. There is a sense of calm, and clarity, which leaves no question that what you’re doing is starting to work.

The only way to cross the Window of Uncertainty is to continue to meditate, even though you aren’t totally sure you’re doing it right.

Meditation Does Not Offer a Feedback Loop.

With other skills, it’s more obvious how close you are to success, even when you’re just beginning. If you are learning to play tennis or golf, no matter how unskilled you are, you at least know if your shots start going in the right direction things are coming along nicely. There’s improvement.

With meditation, you don’t have this immediate feedback loop to base your adjustments on.

Even for experienced meditators, concentration, mental clarity, and other obvious signals of good practice take time to show.  Unlike how mistakes in learning a sport give you instant feedback for needed adjustments meditation does not offer you that quick fix luxury.

It’s all a matter of trust, faith and intent.

Perception of Failure is a Small Win

We’re accustomed to having this immediate feedback while we learn. That’s why most new meditators assume they’re making some kind of mistake unless they start to feel calm and focused.

But here’s the thing -The first thing you’ll probably notice, during your first meditation session, is a lack of what you might define as calm or focus. The absence of this expectation can make it feel like failure. Yet, believe it or not, in reality, this is a small win! -The win is you’re becoming more familiar or aware of your experience.

This uncertainty becomes a unique reference point to embrace rather than push away. It allows you the opportunity to ask questions of the experience in the present moment:

“What am I thinking?”

“What am I feeling?”

Patience and the Need to Stop Striving to Feel a Certain Way

This exploring of the unmapped mind needs to be repetitive. It allows you over time to learn how you mind habitually works.  Sooner or later, you will hit on something amazing.

You might notice tightness, tension or stress. You might notice your breathing is shallow. These become your feedback to how you are feeling in the present moment.

When we are living at 100 miles an hour every day without meditation in our life we don’t get the opportunity to connect to these unique signals our bodies always offers.

So what’s important in the beginning is learning to stop trying to make yourself feel calm and focused, which is the tendency of virtually everyone at first.

Instead, you simply do the practice to the best of your current understanding. You just observe what’s going on and ask questions when you feel you are stuck at a roadblock.

Practice a Method to the Best of Your (current) Understanding

In meditation, because there’s no immediate feedback, beginners tend to assume they’re doing it wrong, which leads to one of two things:

  1. They become so uncomfortable with the idea of they are meditating wrong that they stop doing it.

            2.        They try to force the issue to feel calm and focused.

All that is needed in the beginning is the intent to practice your chosen technique to the best of your understanding right now.

Over time, with more and more practice, your level of understanding will improve through small discoveries along the way :

  • “Ah, it’s much easier to stay with the breath if I focus more gently.”
  • “Ah, that’s what they mean when they say, ‘Allow body sensations to come and go.’”
  • “Ah, I was tensing my jaw the whole time and didn’t realize it. It’s way easier when I relax and smiled.”

Get your Meditation Questions Answered

Like learning any other skill in life, success in meditation isn’t purely a matter of following the instructions. It’s discovering what the instructions are pointing you to.

My best piece of advice on learning meditation might be just that: seek answers to your questions.

As for where to get answers, it depends on the source of the instructions you’re working with.

If you’re working with a teacher, just ask. If you’re working from a book or a course, it might be covered in a troubleshooting section, or you might be able to email the author. Google is also surprisingly effective – most questions have been asked before, and answered online.

My Experience of Learning over 16 Years

When I started over 16 years ago I put my faith into a structured 8 week stress reduction mindfulness program based on eastern philosophy and Buddhism. I found it a great starting point.

I knew at the end of the 8 weeks I wanted more and had many unanswered questions about meditation. That took me on a journey over a number of years to many Buddhist retreats in places such as India, Thailand, Japan and Vietnam.

Whether you need to go to such extremes to strengthen your meditation practice is arguable. On reflection some didn’t live up to my expectations. In the words of Mark Manson I would call those unethical encounters “spiritual tourism”. Meaning enlightenment can come with a dollar figure attached.

Alternatively, you can also ask me questions any time. I’ll do my best to give you a helpful answer, or point you to a place that might have one.

I hope you found this informative.

Meditation is by no means a cure-all for your problems. But I believe that it’s a powerful tool.

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