It must’ve been a commercial break. They had entered my bedroom without a knock.
I can still remember that double-edged feeling; that feeling of frustration with my friends and the desire to laugh as they taunted me, flicking my ear, saying “Rinko’s an idiot,” and laughing in chorus at me, while I kept my eyes clenched tight and tried to continue doing the unthinkable, meditating on a Sunday afternoon while football was on the tv downstairs in the living room.
They came in, they tried to distract me, they had their fun, and ultimately, like the many thoughts whirling around my mind during any meditation session, they left, back to watch the game.
Why young men have such a strong impulse to distract their friends from their goals, to offer a drink when there’s a big test tomorrow, to offer again when you say no, I’ll never understand.
But I do know, if you ignore them enough, they’ll go away — a lesson I may have learned from years of meditating and watching thoughts and feelings shake me and yell in my face then drift away like drunk frat guys back to the keg.
Meditation has been a life-changing practice for me, and I’d like to share with you how I learned it on my own, to the point where I was doing 60-minute sessions every day for a month (okay, I missed a few days…).
Hopefully you’ll realize it’s not that hard to learn, and that, although meditation teachers and courses are helpful, they’re unnecessary for beginners trying to get into the practice and derive the most important benefits from it — peace, stress-relief, focus, patience, insight into the nature of our minds.
I’m writing this now because over the last year I’ve fallen out of practice. Driving around the country Airbnb-hopping was not conducive to forming steady habits.
And, without this practice, I’ve noticed a background anxiety in my mind, one that can only be solved with snacks, television, or alcohol.
So I’ve realized it’s time to get back to it, and what better way to remind myself of the purpose of this artform than to relive my learning process in its fundamentals.
1. Read Waking Up by Sam Harris
Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, philosopher, avid meditator, and public intellectual. People have described him as the most articulate person they’ve ever encountered.
I can’t help but think that his meditation practice is in some way responsible for this gift of verbal fluency.
Meditation, after all, teaches you to slow down and think, which can improve your precision of thought.
Aware of his mind, calm and in no hurry, feeling less stress than the average person in conversation, he’s able to pull the right word at the right time.
Though this is interesting to me, I’m wandering like the average human mind.
The point I want to make is that this book, Waking Up, opened my eyes to meditation and spirituality in general.
I read it Freshman year of college.
As someone who was totally disillusioned with organized religion at age 18, perhaps even unfairly hostile towards it, his message that one can attain a spiritual life without subscription to certain beliefs and rituals, really resonated with me.
In his book, Harris also shares stories of his long meditation retreats, and in one chapter goes over a neuroscientific explanation for why meditation works to generate the benefits practitioners often cite.
The effect the book had on me was enormous. Immediately I was a convert. The renowned atheist had filled me with religious devotion to a new practice: meditation, and a new philosophy: Buddhism (want to learn Buddhist philosophy on your own? Here’s a 7-step roadmap).
There are other books I’ve read in my journey that go more into the practice and theory of meditation than Sam does in his book: Mindfulness in Plain English being my favorite on Vipassana, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind my favorite for learning about Zen.
Read all three and you’ll have yourself a firm base, but, as with anything, the best way to learn is to do the thing you’re trying to learn, aka direct practice.
2. Listen to Alan Watts
From there, I began my practice, focusing on my breath for ten minutes at a time. The practice was inconsistent at first — one week on then a week off, a day here a day there, with little dedication until some YouTuber or Blogger would remind me of the benefits.
Besides, I was in college. Habits don’t stick when you flood your brain with cheap vodka every other night.
The man who often slapped me back into my practice, who was the closest thing I had to a meditation guide, was Alan Watts.
His guided meditation, linked below, taught me the power of focusing on sound at the beginning of a meditation session. It also taught me the power of the British accent to seduce one into a state of calm receptivity.
There are so many great guided meditations out there.
Sam Harris has his Waking Up app, which comes with a beginner’s course in meditation.
Many apps like HeadSpace even have meditations for particular instances, whether that’s interview stress or bedtime restlessness.
3. Try a Bunch of Different Types of Meditation Techniques
From there, I started experimenting with different types of meditation practices and techniques, not really sticking with one for long, but just getting a feel for all that was out there.
- Compassion meditation
- Gratitude meditation.
- Open awareness meditation
- Vipassana meditation (best for beginners I believe)
- Zen meditation
- Sitting in a chair
- Lying down
- Cross-legged on the floor (I use a chair these days)
- Counting breaths
- Focusing on my swelling lungs
- Focusing on my nose
- Focusing on sound
- Focusing on a mantra
- Pre-exam meditations (these were great).
I was exploring the tradition, finding how my mind reacted to different types. Was this necessary? Maybe.
Or was this simply my addiction to novelty manifest? Certainly.
Regardless, was this beneficial to my overall understanding of meditation? I think so.
Consider it a sampling period.
I’ve written a lot of different types of stuff: blog posts, short stories, political essays, contemplative essays, articles, LinkedIn posts across a wide range of topics and styles.
I like to think that from every type of writing I experimented with I learned something about the craft and about myself, about my tastes. And knowing yourself and what you like makes it easier to pick the meditation technique you’ll stick to, which is what matters most for beginners.
That said, I could’ve certainly benefited from sticking to one practice every day for months at a time, stretching the sitting time longer and longer each week, while exploring randomly. But, ce la vie.
It was only after college that I got really serious with meditation.
4. Meditate for 60 Minutes Every Day for a Month
My friend Ted roped me into this one. He ropes people into things. He’s that friend that wants to do the 12-night backpacking trip through the forest when you’d be satisfied with four.
It’s a good type of friend to have. They push you out of your comfort zone, force you to be your best, to grow as an individual, though it may hurt…
Ted wanted to do 30 days straight of 60-minute meditation sessions each day. I thought sure, why not.
It was the pandemic. I was playing Skyrim again, reading, and writing. And I’d done 30 minute sessions before, so why not 60?
I chose to do Vipassana (insight). I’m pretty sure he did Zen, because he’s a psycho and likes to feel complicated.
Our plan was to tell each other after we did the meditation session so that we would hold each other accountable.
The first session was nice for thirty minutes then hell. At thirty minutes I had to get out of the chair and lie on the bed.
This habit stuck for the rest of the month, though my pathetic eyes-closed lunges for the bed were delayed to 50 minutes by the end of the month. Progress!
There was another habit I picked up, not doing my meditation practice. I probably did 20/30 days. It was just too much to take on.
But I did come away with an appreciation for how much it can change your mind. I was calmer that month than I’ve ever been. I dealt with the ups and downs of life more easily. My writing was concise and clear, and I did my writing every day, without as much resistance as I usually feel.
I burned myself out by the end though, and took a long break. I started to think “oh this is such a sacrifice of time.” And “I’ll get back to it soon, back to 30 minutes per day.” I didn’t. Not for a while.
5. Fail to Stick to the Practice & Then Start Again, For Real
My return to Meditation:
Get more books on meditation. Read them closely this time.
Go through your old books and read what you underlined and try to do what you know you should.
Remind yourself of why meditation is important and how to do it and what it is and what it isn’t.
Dive into Buddhist philosophy. Pick a meditation technique to master. Vipassana.
Stick with it. Stick with it god dammit you short-fused madman always going a hundred miles per hour always overthinking. Make time for it, you undisciplined barbarian, you trickster, always convincing yourself you don’t really need it. And then you scream when you spill the blueberries!
15 minutes per day. Easy goals. Easy wins.
Public service announcement: I’m declaring 15 minutes in the morning as my time for meditation. This will set up my mind to work efficiently throughout the day.
This is where I am and what I must do, because the insanity of modern life is too toxic if you have nothing strengthening you from within, helping you pierce through the illusory and see the self-limiting beliefs for what they are.
Kobe Bryant did it twice a day!
Now it’s time for you to practice what you teach. A beginner again. A beginner’s mind. Breathe, focus, wander, notice, return, smile, and awaken from within.
And, like that, I’ve returned to my practice, and I hope to remain consistent this time.
Will you join me?