Learning to meditate


A couple of people have gotten in touch with me after a previous post on my experience doing a ten day silent meditation course, asking me about it and about other introductions to meditation that are out there. Long story short, you’ve found the wrong person. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ll give you my input in case it’s of some use… consider it help from a layman to a layman.

First things first, just make a commitment to meditate and start. Decide on an amount of time that you will sit calmly in a quiet place each day. It’s important to minimise distractions so if you are doing this at home make sure to let the other people in the house know not to disturb you. I’d recommend starting by committing to just five or ten minutes of meditation each day. The actual meditation part is easy to describe. All you have to do is to focus on your breathing, trying to avoid other thoughts that pop up to distract you. There are tonnes of meditation methods out there, but I would recommend just focusing on your breathing. Nothing else. Don’t visualise something, chant something, count your breaths or anything like that. It makes it easier to concentrate in the short term, but I think it’s detrimental in the long run…. because at the end of the day you are just replacing the distraction of your thoughts with the distraction of whatever else you’ve decided to focus on. However, if you want to start this way, go ahead. I myself started by counting on each exhale from one to ten, and then repeating that for the whole meditation period, so who am I to talk?

Next, get yourself a meditation timer. I’m not much for old-school things so I’d recommend this app (Android of course) by Neill Alexander: Meditation Helper. It’s strictly no frills but is designed very well. The app shuts off all your phone’s various potential interruptions so that you don’t get distracted.

Other resources: There are tonnes of resources out there to help you get started. Take a look at this post about meditation on The Kindness Challenge, a blog run by a friend that I met in California 5 years ago (has it been that long?!): Alison Cebulla. I also recommend the Secular Buddhist site as they have interesting podcasts that you can listen to to get you started. Every so often they run a month-long meditation challenge which is simply a way to keep you motivated to meditate. You sign up and each day you get a reminder to meditate for the day (for however many minutes you’ve committed to meditate) and a topic to focus on. They also have far more links to useful resources than I will be putting in this post!

Taking a course: As for doing actual courses with teachers to help you, I think this is the best approach. Having a structure helps keep you disciplined when you are starting out with meditation, and you can ask questions about anything you don’t understand. It also helps to regularly hear from an expert that the difficulty concentrating that you will certainly experience are completely normal. You just have to choose the right course for you, which admittedly can be difficult. I tried visiting a few meditation temples over the years, Thai and Zen Buddhism and the like , but the religious aspects always put me off. If you’re interested in that side of it, then go for it. Usually you will find monks in any temple who are more than happy to help. I’ve never done any courses like these myself, so I can’t be of any use with recommendations here. However, I learned how to meditate by doing a secular Vipassana course, so understandably most of this post will be about that. You can read about my experience on one of the ten day silent courses here.

There are 160+ Vipassana centres in 110 countries all over the world that teach exactly the same course as I took, so you should be able to find one nearby quite easily. The course structure, teachings (audio and video recordings) and timetable is exactly the same everywhere, so you don’t have to worry about getting a less than ideal experience in a centre close to home. That said, I do have a few points that you might want to consider before choosing a centre:

  1. Choose someplace where you will find the climate comfortable. I did a course in Sri Lanka in March and the midday heat of 37°C was almost unbearable. As much as I got from the course, I think I would’ve gotten even more if I had been able to focus better during the hot hours from 11 to 3. Most of the time I was uncomfortably shifting around and just generally feeling unwell, which is something that you definitely don’t want. Colder is definitely better in my opinion – you can always put on a jumper! Eventually meditation will help you handle discomforts like this, but it can be a hindrance when you just start learning.
  2. Choose a centre that is located in a good place for meditation. It’s hard to tell this from the website, but some centres are located in less-than-ideally quiet areas. Have a quick Look on Google Maps to see if it’s in the middle of a city, near a major road, a noisy temple, or a load of buildings. It’s not essential, but some of the road noise was an unnecessary distraction on the course that I did.
  3. If you can, find a course where you have your own room. Many have dormitory style accommodation. That was the case on the course that I did. It was actually very comfortable so I have no complaints at all there, but then again none of the other twenty grown men in the dorm I stayed in were snorers. You might not be so lucky! Also, if you have your own room you can meditate there some of the time instead of in the group hall, which some people might prefer.

Hopefully this is of some help to someone out there on the intertubes. Enjoy your meditation.

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