A friend recently asked me about my view on how to get started with meditation. Here’s my answer in the form of five keys.
The first key is — know that meditation is anything that centers you, purposefully. Different people at different times in their lives have different practices that help them meditate, because there are different causes of being off-center and an endless number of methods of intentionally re-centering. In addition to very traditional methods of sitting meditation, I personally know people who meditate by knitting, running, playing music, martial arts, painting, attending support groups, and many, many other things. One of the most important things about re-centering, finding balance, is that it’s a mainly just-for-today thing, a constant course-correction process.
Which leads to the second key — spot check. Take one minute to do a back-of-the-envelope inventory. How are you doing in terms of balance in some key areas — rest / activity, diet / elimination, work / play, solitude / social time, mental / physical, stability / change? You may have your own axes of assessment — use them. The key is to see if there any areas where you’re consistently further to one end of the spectrum than you know is healthy for you, or are falling short of what you really want or need? Once you are in touch with what’s not quite right about the complexion of your life right now, ask, what can I do that might help? Try to keep the answers simple and specific– like — “need more quiet”, or “get exercise” or “make music” or whatever.
Over time, make the spot-check a continual habit. I’ve benefited from setting a timer on my computer or cel-phone for various lengths of time or times of day — every six minutes, every hour, at meal-times, before bed, etc, to pause and do a momentary check-in and undertake a gentle course-correction. The more frequent the course-correction, the gentler the invention usually. If it’s every six minutes, I usually just take a deep breath, stretch my arms or twist in my chair, and continue what I’m doing. If I don’t do it for weeks or months, I can need a long vacation and lots of effort to find that clarity and center again.
The third key is — creative action. Once you know what you need, choose a simple practice or method to help begin to restore personal balance — ideally, a way you’re already know you are pretty skilled with or enjoy. For some people, having solitary highly-focused desk jobs and car-based commutes, the key things they need to restore balance is vigorous exercise of some kind and an opportunity to be social in a creative way, like playing music or dancing. For others, who are working on their feet, dealing with the public, multi-tasking, using public transit, the key thing is time to be alone and do something very simple, like sitting quietly just watching the breath rise and fall. Choose a practice that you know you can definitely do — it really can be anything that you think will work to help center you, like sitting quietly for ten minutes just observing your mind, or going for a short jog, or jamming out musically with friends once a week. If you’re choosing something you’ve already done before — sport, art, music, just sitting doing nothing — it’s important that you now choose to do this practice with a primary intention of centering yourself, of restoring balance in your self and in your life, not with any external goal. That’s what makes it meditative; without this intention clear, it’s just not going to work consistently as meditation.
The fourth key is — commit to a regular effort. When getting started, make the commitment for a brief but substantial time frame, say ten minutes a day for three weeks, or once a week for an hour for six weeks. Then, see if the benefit you experience is worth it. Especially when starting out, the deeper benefits require some consistency to realize themselves, so an initial commitment to a specific practice for a specific time frame to get yourself over the hump is key. For me, I have three 1-hour commitments to yoga and meditation on different evenings of the week that I do with groups, and I put them into my calendar and treat them as real and important as any other appointment, deadline or commitment in my life.
Fifth — get curious. Be open. Go where the practice leads you. Whatever the specific practices of centering you work with, as soon as they start to work, you are likely to become inspired to deepen your knowledge and connection to various techniques or traditions behind them. Honor that curiosity, that calling–for many, it is the most powerful way to opening new creative possibilities, resolving long-standing issues, and fostering personal growth that leads to greater peace, contentment and success.
Last (same as the first) — remember the point. Like anything in life, if you don’t experience the benefit, you won’t continue for too long. So this is the single most important thing for the beginner — do not confuse the various techniques and traditions of meditation for the essence of it. The essence of meditation is centering, and you can achieve this on your very first day of conscious effort at taking a spot check, choosing a practice, and doing it.
As your practice deepens and evolves, the techniques and traditions can open up new possibilities and new growth but they still should be done with this basic intent firmly in mind. There is an art or a science to many practices, valuable for their own sake as well, and the specific mental, verbal, physical, breathing and movement techniques of meditation that exist can lead to tremendously accelerated growth and deeper peace. Yet when those aspects overshadow the basic personal purpose of centering, it’s time to remind yourself of this purpose, and either accept that what you’re doing is no longer meditation, or return to doing it in a way that is. So remind yourself of this intention whenever you begin practice and whenever it seems to have slipped away in the course of doing it, and you’ll again experience the benefit. This mindfulness is key to any practice working.
So these five keys are what make any method of meditation work: mindfulness of intention, regular spot-check, creative action, commitment, and curiosity. Keep applying these and whatever shape your meditation efforts take, you will experience the benefits and make steady progress.