Here’s brief tips based on my personal experience having now, in the time of writing this, been an active practitioner and student of meditation techniques for little under a year.
I sincerely hope that this writing can offer some humble advice and benefit to you, perhaps, who is trying out meditation the first time or doing an introduction to the topic. =)
These tips are based on the book “How to Meditate” by Kathleen McDonald. The book first appeared in 1984 and now is in its second edition. There have been 17 prints and it has been translated to nine languages. Having studied this best seller myself, I can assert to the fact that it is a valuable source for a beginner. It delivers what it promises: “… a bridge into the art of meditation taught by Buddha and developed in Asia for the last 2500 years.”
To begin, in my opinion, having started to meditate is one of the most rewarding, fascinating, and interesting things I have done so far in my life. For me, at least I feel now so, it has surpassed the experiences of summiting three big mountains, competing a full distance Ironman, and in wisdom aspect to some degree my three master’s degrees. Though, I feel sad I haven’t begun this 20 years ago, nevertheless I fell privileged and lucky to have found these techniques now.
Given this, I will most probably continue with the practice the rest of my life.
Note: Part 1, 2, etc. refer to the “How to Mediate” book chapters.
Very essential: Part 1 – Mind and Meditation
Meditation, in short, is “Subduing the mind and bringing it to the right understanding of reality…”. This is a big thing. Not something that you can glance through from an evening newspaper and then cast off to recycling. This can have real and foundational impact and changes within you.
I addition, the benefits are great. First of all, you become more aware of your thoughts, speech, and behavior. You can then go and monitor and evaluate yourself better. What you like and what you don’t. You begin to control yourself more and better. Adjust and change your negative behavior patterns towards yourself and others.
Though, in all honesty, the practice you can go in waves. Sometimes you feel better than ever. Full of energy, mind clear and bright, and you might not get angry so easily than before. Many small benefits can arise even in the beginning, for sure. But sometimes, you just keep noticing a ton of negativities and things you don’t want in your mind nor in your behavior. You get to see yourself better. What you see, sometimes, is not what you like. But I like to think, it’s good to have the mirror of meditation there. At least I want to see my personal little monsters there so I can work to remove them. It’s a gradual process.
Very essential: Part 2 – Establishing a Meditation Practice
The basics. Get these right! Clear that confusion about the actual practice. It’s not something mysterious where you go and space out to another reality. No, it’s about very practical things. A good comparison is likening the practice to training in sports. If you want to run a marathon, while currently being a TV sofa potato, you cannot just put the sneakers on and run it. The sofa potato could die on a heart attack! You need to train first. Go to do little walking first. Then jogging. Then run weekly sessions, while increasing the number of weekly training days and running distances as you train. You need to train yourself in correct running position, right drinking, right eating, know your body and how to take care of it, so many things. Then when you are running around 50 km (30 miles) per week without too much of discomfort you could be ready to take on a full distance marathon. Same here. First study the basics: posture, correct environment, the structure of the session, the importance of having a regular practice, some general obstacles, and ways counteracting the obstacles.
Don’t try to get cheap wins, but take rather a long-term approach. Agree with yourself to do a schedule and follow it for a while: A month, three months, or a year even. And then evaluate what you have learned. It’s more probable to see signs of progress with longer time periods.
Very essential: Part 3 – Meditations on the Mind
By this time you’ll know the two main types of meditation techniques and can tell their difference. Here, I recommend spending some time with the breathing meditation (p.37) to get a general feeling and experience of meditation. Do several sittings 3 to 5 at least to get some familiarity on the practice. Once, you have some stability proceed with the following ones (p. 42 and p.45).
Especially the meditation on continuity of mind is interesting. See how far back you can map your thoughts. Can you find an absolute beginning that you are sure of? This can be a great exploration into your self! =)
Very essential: Part 4 – Analytical Meditations
After gaining some foundations to build on, it will be interesting to proceed to the contemplative meditations. With these you can find new ways of thinking, develop your positive sides and equally work on the negative aspects of your mind. I’ll do below bullets on some of my favorite ones, in my order of preference
- Death (p.69). Personally I like this so much. But please don’t get me wrong here. It’s not that I want to die, I can assure you it’s completely the other way =D. Instead what this does, it will very effectively bring you to an understanding of reality concerning you own death. It should give you energy in a way that you stop wasting it on idle tasks and secondary pursuits. It can be a shock also, if you’re not yet in terms with your own mortality.
- Appreciating Human Life (p.59). Another good one. We’re privileged in many ways, though often we just forget this. Then we become selfish and just demand more. A simple thing really, if you observe yourself. So, don’t take your life for granted, instead spend it well. This should give some food for thought on that.
- Impermanence (.65). Everything is impermanent. This goes to teach you the deeper experiences on this. This also brings you to a more realistic level on seeing reality.
- Karma (p. 80). Everything has a cause. You create your own present with your past actions. Your good and bad actions follow you like a shadow, and when time and conditions are ripe, they manifest. Understanding this you should be more concerned of your current actions to guard your happiness in the future. We make our future continuously today and in this moment, better make it good!
- Equanimity (p.106). Friends, Strangers, Enemies: The labels change and are not permanent. My friend of the past, who before that was an enemy, is today my stranger. So is there a absolute friend…or enemy? In addition, were all the same in our wish to have happiness. We just go different about it.
- Emptiness (p.53). Maybe the best one actually, very powerful, but this is the most difficult. For this one you might need time and more research on this topic – it’s a tough nut to crack. Some study this topic even several decades. All the other meditations act as prerequisites, so please don’t try this at first.
Best method is to practice one meditation at a time. So, do not jump all over the place. Do a period focusing on one type about 3 to 5 sitting sessions, again to build up familiarity. Try neither to have any expectations nor to judge yourself. Just do it and observe your thoughts. That’s enough.
Optional: Part 5 and 6 – Visualizations, Prayers, and Other Devotional Practices
These dig now more into the devotional side. But if your interest has peaked during the earlier part of the book, I would recommend finalizing the whole book. Especially the mediations on purification, the simple one (p. 148) and the Vajrasattva purification (p.219) are really worthwhile doing several times, even taking the as regular practice! You really feel better after these. Best is to end the day with a purification, so you get a good nights of sleep!
Practicing meditation can be a wonderful thing in so many ways. Therefore, from the bottom of my heart I wish you all the best in your endeavor. I hope you will have the enthusiasm and energy to study and practice further. The fruits that you will be able to harvest will be great for you and those around you.