How To Start a Meditation Practice
In a previous article entitled An Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation, I wrote about my daily meditation routine, offering some links to serve as a jumping-off point. In this article, I’d like to go one step further and provide a how-to for beginning your own meditation practice. With a few exceptions (like the books in-print), everything I’ve written about below, like the recordings of guided meditations, electronic books, guides, and podcasts are available for free.
In my next article, I’ll go into more detail about establishing a routine, creating a good environment, and setting the stage for a meditation practice. I’ll also talk about meditation gear (yes, there is such a thing).
A note about meditation
Although I spent some time in my previous article offering a definition for meditation, it’s worth revisiting here for the sake of clarity. When I write or talk about meditation, I mean:
A practice in which one works to maintain mindful attention and concentration on a single object, usually the sensations of breathing, as a focus for developing awareness in and of the present moment. This type of meditation is called Vipassana or “Insight” meditation, and its goal is to cultivate an inner peace and a lasting happiness.
Over the years, a daily meditation practice has completely transformed my life, helping me to be happier, more effective and productive, and less reactive to daily difficulties.
Regarding meditation, Gil Fronsdal, the primary teacher for the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, has said (I’m paraphrasing): I’ve heard people say that their minds are too distracted to meditate, which is like saying you’re too sick to go to a doctor.
No matter how old or young you are, no matter what’s going on in your life, or how little time you may have to devote to it, it’s likely that a meditation practice will be of great benefit to you.
Here’s how you can get started.
Books and articles
There’s a tremendous amount of written information available about meditation, so much so that it can be difficult to determine where to start. I’ve compiled a list of the books and articles that were the most useful in my practice.
With a few exceptions (printed books sold on Amazon, noted in parenthesis after the link), these writings are are all free.
Mindfulness in Plain English, Bhante Gunaratana
This book is a step-by-step guide to Buddhist meditation, written in a practical and direct style. I consider this to be the definitive book on Mindfulness practice, and it’s a great starting point for anybody interested in this topic.
Keeping the Breath in Mind, Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Keeping the Breath in Mind is a “how to” book. It teaches the liberation of the mind, not as a mind-boggling theory, but as a very basic skill that starts with keeping the breath in mind.
The Steps of Breath Meditation, also by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, provides an incredibly straight forward explanation of the basic steps in this guided breath meditation.
Starting Out Small, Ajaan Lee
Starting Out Small is written from Ajaan Lee’s lifetime of direct experience with students. He answers many basic questions: Why meditate? How should I meditate? And why in that particular way? He provides clear, concise answers to these questions with clear analogies to help explain sometimes complicated concepts.
Many people prefer to start a meditation practice by listening to audio instruction. It is and has been invaluable to me as I started and further developed my own practice.
Gil Fronsdal, Insight Meditation Center
My favorite beginning meditation series is offered by The Insight Meditation Center, where Gil Fronsdal teaches a 5 or 6 session instructional series for beginning meditators, providing an overview of insight meditation practice and guided meditation. These lessons are very helpful in teaching beginning meditators how to establish and sustain a daily meditation practice.
I recommend starting out with the Introduction to Mindfulness audio instruction linked below, and then as you’re ready, listen to the subsequent sessions to grow your practice.
IMC also publishes a frequently updated podcast (see the Podcasts section below).
Thanissaro Bhikkhu, Watt Metta Forest Monastary
I’ve found the Downloadable Dhamma Talks of Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a senior monk in the Thai Forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism, to be invaluable. Many of the talks are geared for someone who has already established a basic practice. They’re are a great place to go to continue to develop your practice once you’ve listened to the IMC introduction course. There are hundreds of recorded meditation related talks available here, and I listen daily.
In addition to the main listing of talks, there are two groupings of talks organized for the beginning meditator:
It’s worth noting that Thanissaro Bhikkhu (or Than Geoff as he is known informally) has an amazing voice that is incredibly relaxing and easy to listen to, yet authoritative.
I think meditation-related podcasts are a great way to learn, and help put you in touch with a group of other meditators, even if you can’t be there in person for the talks.
The Audio Dharma Podcast is produced by the Insight Meditation Center, and features talks by Gil Fronsdal, the resident IMC teachers, and many visiting teachers and guest speakers.
This is one of my favorite podcasts, and I really enjoy the question-and-answer sessions from the audience.
Bhavana Society Podcast
The Bhavana Society was created to preserve the Theravada forest meditation tradition within the context of Western culture. The Bhavana Society Podcast features talks from Bhante Gunaratana, the founding abbot, and other senior monks.
The Dharma Seed Podcast is a collection of talks by teachers about meditation. New recordings are being added from both well- and lesser-known contemporary dharma teachers in the Mindfulness tradition.
I hope that these articles, books, and audio recordings will be helpful to you in establishing a meditation practice.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, my next article will go into more detail about creating a meditation routine, setting up the right environment, and the gear you’ll need to develop your practice.