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My Best Tips for Beginner Meditators

Let’s cover my best advice for beginner meditators. All my new students read this article before they start their training. Stick to these principles, and you’ll avoid a lot of the early pitfalls.

I’ve been practicing meditation consistently for nearly a decade and now teach dozens of meditators in Sussex, UK. What I’ve found is that we tend to come into meditation with all sorts of misconceptions that then influence our early experiences with it.

I find these misconceptions unhelpful and even damaging, so let’s address them and begin planting the seeds of a mature meditation practice from day one.

Tip #1 for Beginner Meditators: Be Here Now

Know that there are two dimensions to the meditation journey. One is the inner growth that accumulates over time, the other is the simple fact of the present, as it is moment to moment to moment.

When we come into meditation, we’re often driven by the vision of who we’ll become after so many months and years of practice. This vision is an essential part of the journey and a crucial source of motivation.

Yet in another way, these motivations are antithetical to meditation. Though meditation is a practice that over time strengthens our awareness skills, much like weightlifting trains our muscles, it is also strips us back, cleans us out, and polishes us. It is more of a return home than a journey away.

What do we return to?

This is where language gets in the way, because we don’t return to a location. We simply “return” to the present and our most fundamental selves. Our body, our mind, and our environment, all intertwined, all present, all witnessed, all together.

It’s a return to clear seeing, shall we say. Yet it’s also not a return, because you already possess this clear seeing. Yet it has been clouded over, veiled and forgotten.

As such, in a way that becomes shockingly obvious over time, meditation gives you nothing – nothing but clear seeing.

You bust your touche meditating for years, and what do you get? Nothing. But it’s a very special Nothing.

Shinzen Young (paraphrasing)

My advice is to have a clear vision for your practice, yet also realise that anything you do to avoid the present is diametrically opposed to the practice of meditation. From day one, cultivate clear seeing: the pristine moment-to-moment awareness of everything you’re experiencing right now.

Tip #2 for Beginner Meditators: Let Go of Expectations

When we start out meditation, we tend to come in looking for something – to escape from our restless minds and bodies, to relax, to feel calm. In short, to be different from how we are in this moment.

In fact, we tend to measure a meditation session according to how we feel during it. I see this almost every time I teach a beginner’s class, and all meditators go through this phase.

These are legitimate goals, and there’s little doubt that meditation certainly helps us achieve them, but it does so in a very different way to what we imagine. We don’t achieve these things through trying, because this is the proverbial dog chasing its tail.

“Meditation is not relaxation spelled differently,” warns John Kabat-Zinn. If we believe we can close our eyes and suddenly feel a certain way with little effort, we’re in for a rude awakening, and we’ll soon conclude that meditation isn’t for us.

Some days meditation will feel relaxing and tranquil. Other days you’ll be distracted, fidgety, sleepy and bored. This is a feature, not a bug. It’s crucial you shift your attitude to these states early on. Come in expecting hard work and challenge, and know that the rewards of this work are remarkable.

In mindfulness meditation, what’s important isn’t our thoughts and feelings, but how we attend to them. This is a weight off our shoulders – we don’t need to try to feel a certain way.

I’ve often considered doing away with the word “meditation” and calling it “attention training”. That term doesn’t carry the baggage of relaxation and calm, and is a more revealing description of what meditation is. Attention is the standard. Attention is king.

Work hard to maintain your attention on your object of focus, be it the breath, the body, sights, sounds, or anything else sensory. Ensure you’re using your attention to get a clear picture of the object – its location, size intensity, movement and so on. Have equanimity (AKA non-resistance) with everything that comes up.

Do those three things, and you’re meditating. You’ll come up short over and over again, but the effort is what really counts.

On a deep level, our field of awareness is already liberated, already free, no matter what we’re experiencing. Our job is to take up residency there, and in the path of mindfulness we do so by training our attention, not by relaxing.

If consistent relaxation is what you want, look for relaxation techniques. But know that you’re missing out on profound, reliable poise and clarity that make temporary relaxation look puny.

Tip #3: Don’t Repress Thought

One hallmark of a mature meditation practice is the willingness to be with whatever we’re experiencing, whether it’s pleasant, unpleasant, remarkable, mundane, or a mixture of the lot. With enough training, this can reach remarkable levels. This includes thinking.

Many beginner meditators believe the goal is to stop thinking. I don’t know where this myth came from, but it’s in the ether and is the automatic assumption people make. It seems reasonable. It certainly seems that a meditating monk sitting cross-legged is experiencing utter mental quiet and tranquility. But I’m not so sure, and to me it’s beside the point.

For one thing, mindfulness meditation is about attention, not content. It’s about letting everything come up and processing it optimally. There is profound release and satisfaction in doing so, regardless of what we’re actually experiencing.

What’s more, I don’t think it’s possible to consciously stop the mind, at least not in the way we might think. Our sense of control over the mind is a kind of illusion. You trying to stop the mind is like standing in the middle of a raging river with your arms wide open, trying to stop the water.

The mind naturally ebbs and flows, and you can’t control it. What you can do is train yourself to notice and inhabit the ebbs and manage the flows, thereby controlling your relationship to them.

You can enjoy profound freedom from the mind even when it’s wild – especially when it’s wild. This is what you really want.

My practical advice is to focus on training attention. By doing so, you train yourself to work with the thinking mind rather than fighting against it. This is how you gradually free yourself from it.

Tip #4 for Beginner Meditators: Make It a Habit

In one sense to meditate is to return, to non-do, to clearly see, but it another sense it is to train, and you’ll discover that you need to train a lot.

It’s the same with any skillset: we only improve through regular practice. Studies on meditation make it very clear that the more hours you practice, the more benefits you experience, and that the differences between beginner, experienced and veteran meditators are enormous.

So daily practice is crucial. When you are persistent in your daily meditation, you quickly rack up hours. Meditation becomes a habit, and the skills become ingrained.

Over time, you start to take refuge in your practice. It becomes a treasured part of the day, and you find you can bring it into the everyday too.

With enough practice, the lines between meditation and the everyday blur and eventually disappear. You truly come home. You see that clear seeing was always available. You’re now a monk in the world, able to meditate on a dime, wherever you are, whatever is happening. Meditation doesn’t just happen during your day; meditation is your day.

In my meditation classes, we do sitting practice and practice in movement. At home, we do the same. This way, we’re moving towards and tasting the deep end of the pool as soon as possible.

By practicing diligently, we’re slowly but surely coming back, arriving to ourselves again and forever. And you will be so thankful for it.

The 4 Tips: Roundup

In summary, if you’re a beginner meditator, the best way to get the most from this practice is to set goals yet realise that Now is what’s most important, let go of your expectations, avoid trying to silence the mind, and practice diligently.

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