No matter how long you’ve been practicing meditation, you’re always a beginner.
I came to meditation a desperate skeptic. It was late October, 2002 and I had just been diagnosed with cancer. I was twenty-one years old.
At the time, finding solace in established religion never even crossed my mind. I simply did not grow up with religion. My family stopped attending church when I was six or seven years old, after my father discovered that the pastor had been embezzling funds from the church coffers.
Instead, I grew up with books, and lots of them. Books were my religion. From as far back as I can remember, my dad has had bookshelf after bookshelf lined with tomes of self-help and philosophy and psychology in all varieties. A life-long tinkerer in self-improvement, it was he who recommended that I try meditation as a way to both deal with and possibly cure cancer.
I had browsed many of my dad’s books, and had even read a few of them, but took almost none of them very seriously. Instead, I read science. And as student of science, and as a disbeliever in all things “New Age,” magical, or mystical, I remained reluctant to try something as “out there” as meditation.
It took two months after diagnosis for me to stop letting my ego get the better of me.
In the past decade, scientists have studied meditation extensively. It turns out that it was not as “out there” as I may have thought. Discussion of meditation has instead moved well beyond the fringes of popular culture, the topic having even graced the cover of TIME magazine in 2003.
The rise in popularity of meditation coincides, perhaps not surprisingly, with the rise of the Internet, information overload and the entrance of terms like “continuous partial attention” into the common vernacular. Simply put, people are stressed and they are looking for ways to handle it.
I, too, came to meditation as an attempt to handle stress – the stress of the barrage of tests and doctors and treatments, as well as having to face my own mortality at such a young age. I needed help, and after a few months I realized that this was no time to let my pride stand in my way. For this reason, cancer was the greatest gift ever given to me.
Ten years post-cancer, as a tool for coping with and preventing stress, meditation has delivered value beyond that which words can describe. Not only has it has made me more resilient, it has introduced me to life-long friends and teachers I would have never met otherwise. Of course the value of meditation does not end there. Other benefits include:
- Improved concentration and mental clarity
- Improved awareness and listening ability
- Improved memory
- Better overall happiness
- Lower blood pressure
- Improved creative thinking
And so forth and so on. By no means does this represent an exhaustive list. Any quick Google search on “meditation benefits” will return thousands of results extolling its many virtues. Mine is but a single voice in the choir of those singing its praises.
How To Start
My experiments in meditation began haphazardly. At the time, I was reading Living Proof: A Medical Mutiny, Michael Gearin Tosh’s personal account of surviving one of the deadliest forms of cancer – multiple myeloma – through a combination of traditional and alternative treatments. In the book, Tosh described a kind of Chinese “bone breathing” meditation he explored as part of his alternative treatment regimen. I had leukemia, a disease of the bone marrow. I figured Tosh‘s “bone breathing” was as good a place to start as any.
This was how I learned my first great lesson in meditation: The best way to start meditating is simply to start.
As a practice perhaps as old as humanity itself, meditation has a deep and rich history. The subject is vast. Buddhist practitioners often say that there are as many forms of meditation as there are living beings. So there is no harm in simply exploring the space and finding what works best for you – you may soon stumble upon your own unique practice. This is exactly what happened to me.
That said, many friends have often asked me how to start such an exploration. What if you don’t have cancer? What if “bone breathing” simply sounds ridiculous? The following is what I usually recommend:
Read “Mindfulness in Plain English”
“Mindfulness in Plain English” offers an in-depth, step-by-step guide to Vipassana, or “insight,” meditation. Though Vipassana has a Buddhist heritage, basic Vipassana offers a simple, easy, no-frills, non-denominational introduction to meditation that works for nearly everyone.
I also like to recommend Living in Balance, a book by my first meditation teachers, Dr. Joel and Michelle Levey. Joel and Michelle have taught meditation at NASA and at West Point to U.S. Army Green Berets. They have decades of practice and serious credentials.
Create a small space in your home that you can use for daily meditation. Dedicate that space as your space for meditation practice, and outfit it with a cushion or chair, and perhaps a candle or an altar or an incense burner or whatever works best for you.
People who work from home often find that they require a dedicated workspace in their home that they go to in order to enter the right frame of mind to begin working. The spatial boundary provides a kind of psychological cue for the necessary mental shift.
Meditation is no different. Have a place to go that provides to the cue to shift into “meditation mode.”
To paraphrase a Chinese proverb, only a constant drip of water will bore a hole through rock.
The best results from meditation arise from consistent daily practice, even if only for five minutes per day. Quality trumps quantity, and it is far better to meditate with great focus for five minutes per day than to allow your mind to wander aimlessly for thirty minutes every few days.
Despite my eight-year history of Zen, I've fallen off the meditation bandwagon several times. Each time, getting back on has consistently proven difficult. Stay regular. Consider using modern tools like the Insight Timer app for iPhone and Android to help track and document your practice.
Find a Sangha
Sangha is the Sanskrit word for community, and in Buddhism it simply refers to a community of like-minded meditation practitioners. I found my sangha through Zen, but you may find yours any number of ways. Perhaps a local Meetup group can serve as your sangha, or simply a group of like-minded family and friends. Even an online social network provided by meditation apps like Insight Timer offers enough to get started.
Sanghas provide support, stability, and accountability. You will meditate more when you have people to meditate with, and you will learn more when you have a teacher or peers who can help you.
Meditation is not punishment. But I'd be lying if I said it was always fun and exciting. However you may feel at the time, if your mind begins to wander, simply remember your practice and smile.
As Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said about meditation, “What you are doing is so important, you musn’t take it too seriously.”