There are hundreds of styles of meditation and most of them are valuable. What’s important is to pick a style and stay with it for long enough to settle into it (a couple of weeks) before trying to evaluate it. One of the reasons I point out that there are multiple styles is that two sets of basic instructions may contradict each other if they come from different traditions — this doesn’t mean one is wrong, there are simply several approaches that work.
To pick a style, find something where you can connect to the instructions or the instructor or the community around the practice. As long as you don’t dislike it, it will probably do to begin. If the style or instructor is renowned, but you don’t like it or connect with them, find something else.
To evaluate a practice of meditation, you ought to find after practising for a while that your emotional reactivity, in general, is dropping, you are finding yourself becoming more open-hearted towards others and that your ability to remain aware of and responsive to the present moment is increasing. Various other exotic effects, visions and capacities may appear or disappear with different practices but if reactivity, open-heartedness and presentness are not progressing, then find something else.
Any of these three may drop for short periods — you may, in particular, have periods where you get more reactive — but in general, over time, this is the trajectory to look for. If after practising a certain method for a while (months or years) and you feel you’re stagnating, it might be time to pick a different teacher or practice.
I say all this because practice, any practise, done consistently is better than faffing around with half a dozen different practices done intermittently. To benefit from meditation you need to find how to practice daily; the most effective approach is usually to eventually practice morning and evening.
Ideally, find a time in your day at which you can reliably practice. Usually, this is an “elbow time” when you are moving from one phase of the day to the next — after waking, but before starting work; after finishing work, but before travelling home; after arriving at your home train station, but before walking to your house etc.
Some people find it helpful to have a regular place — a spot in the house with a cushion or a certain park under a certain tree.
To establish a regular practice, work first on establishing these regularities, before worrying too much about how long or how intense your practice might be. Five minutes done every day at a stable time for two weeks will set your regularity much better than an hour done randomly. As your regularity stabilises, you can extend the time to ten minutes, then twenty.
For some of us, regularity is a massive struggle. I am one of these people. It may be best, in the beginning, to simply meditate opportunistically — at the train station, in a park on the way to a meeting — but frequently. In my experience, if you keep this up, you will start to become enticed by the effects of meditation and annoyed at your lack of progress, so that you are organically drawn to begin a more consistent and regular practice.
So, then, what to actually practice? This is actually the easiest bit. I would advise searching for “basic meditation” on a search engine or on YouTube and then applying what I’ve written to pick one to get started on.
You can read instructions:
- Basic Meditation Instructions (Forest Way)
- Learn Buddhist Meditation (Aro meditation)
- The Method of Centering Prayer (Christian Peacemaker Teams)
You can watch videos:
- Centering Prayer Guidelines (Father Thomas Keating)
- The Basic Method of Meditation (Ven. Ajahn Brahm)
- Meditation: The Power of the Present Moment (Eckhart Tolle)
- Basic Meditation Guide (Matthieu Ricard)
- Buddhist Meditation (Martine Batchelor)
You can listen to audio guides:
Learning to meditate and practising regularly is a key skill in your ongoing life journey. It aids your personal development, assists your capacity to be present and open to others, provides a stable basis for the difficult work of inner healing and enables the broad quest to be more vividly You.
Get your bum on a cushion!
(originally published on “He’s Just Had Coffee” in 2014)