How to start a successful meditation practice

Up to half of all new meditators stop the practice before they gain any benefits. Here’s the explanation why and some clues to building a great meditation habit.

Need help to get your meditation practice going?

How can I learn how to meditate? The answers are pretty simple and backed by centuries of experience in meditation.

Sometimes even experienced meditators find it difficult to meditate, although the obstacles we encounter later on are different from those that trouble us at the beginning.  But please remember that meditation and mindfulness are forms of mind-training; this means we are literally changing brain function and structure over time.  So in the first weeks, when you start to meditate, you are likely to be doing something quite unnatural; meditation practice is simply about training yourself in a new way of working with your body, speech and mind.  Therefore, it can be difficult to begin with, just like  learning how to; run, play a musical instrument, or learn a new language. The first principle of meditation, therefore, is that practice makes perfect. 

However, before committing yourself to a particular method or a teacher, you should satisfy yourself that they are suitable for you and consistent with your goals. Only when you feel confident with the technique can you dedicate yourself to regular practice.  I think this is the case with secular medicalised meditation and mindfulness as well as traditional methods.  Your starting point as a new meditator is to find something that appears to be reliable.  However, meditation should never cause pain or suffering, so if your practice leads to physical or psychological difficulties you should stop immediately.

If you have reached the point where you have a method that you’re confident with and a teacher that is reliable, you have the foundations to build a regular meditation practice.  If my own new students still find difficulty meditating at this point, I encourage them to commit to three weeks of practice or take a break.  Practising four times a week over three weeks is usually sufficient for a new meditation student to get comfortable with sitting still, holding a normal meditation posture and working with the psychological concepts of the practice.  In short, they should know how to sit and what they are supposed to be doing with their mind.  Typically even at this stage, the major obstacle is controlling one’s thoughts, which is the ultimate goal of meditation.

Meditation and mindfulness are not for everybody, almost everyone has the capacity for some meditation, but they may lack the motivation.  If you’ve undertaken three weeks of practice in a reliable method with a competent teacher and are still not making any progress, you may want to rethink your strategy.  Your meditation teacher may have some explanations and guidance for you.  But eventually, you may need to identify a more suitable teacher or method, or just ‘park’ the idea of meditation for a while and return to it at a later point.

Some meditators experience almost immediate benefits from practising and have visible signs of: improved emotional stability,  mental health, and happiness. At this point, meditation practice becomes much easier because we can see the effects. Many people stop meditating or develop bad habits before they reach this point and so never really create the relationship between meditation and its great potential. But if you don’t see immediate benefits, don’t be distracted by the progress of those around you; meditation is a highly personal experience.  Your progress as a meditator is dependent on many causes and conditions, sometimes physical, sometimes psychological.  My understanding from teaching hundreds of people to meditate is that those with the greatest persistence tend to reap the most significant rewards. 

This is an excellent moment to summarise.  Firstly find a method that meets your meditation goals and connect with a knowledgeable teacher. If you experience difficulties meditating at the beginning, talk to your teacher and consider committing to three solid weeks of practice to develop a basic meditation capacity.  If the meditation leads to physical and mental suffering, stop immediately and seek advice. Once the basic skills have been acquired, it is usually a matter of training.  In traditional meditation, it is typical to change meditation teachers and meditation methods as you develop, but the fundamental challenge of working with your mind remains the same.

It is frequently said “the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do”.

Good wishes to you all for your meditation practice and drop us an email to let us know how you are getting on.

Author: Stephen

Neuropsychologist researching what happens when a spiritual practice (meditation) is translated to a psychological intervention; what is lost and what is gained from the curative potential? A PhD candidate writing the scientific history mindfulness. Also researching how compassion and explicitly nondual meditation methods influence our physical and mental health. Stephen has decades of personal practice in spiritual and secular forms of meditation, he has also been trained in the Himalayan Science of Mind and Perception (Tsema). Alongside the teaching and research of nondual methods, Stephen trains his own brain every day with Dzogchen practices.

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