Advice for Starting a Meditation Practice: My 10 Favorite Tips

I know it’s almost a new year, and a lot of people like to make resolutions.  I wrote this blog in case one of your intentions in 2019 is to start a meditation practice.  

I think New Year’s resolutions are great, but for the record, you can change your life anytime.  

So, if you come back to this blog on a Wednesday in April or a Sunday in August, that’s fantastic.  

All of these tips are things I’ve learned from a multitude of people. I’ve just put them into my own words and perspective here.   I’ve found these ideas to be really useful as I’ve started and maintained a meditation practice.

  1. Start small and go slowly.  

I just watched a lecture by Dr. Richie Davidson, a researcher on the neuroscience of meditation, and he suggests taking an honest look at your life and asking yourself, “How many minutes a day could I commit to a mindfulness practice for 30 days?”  It it’s 1-2 minutes, great, go for it. Set yourself up for success.

Let’s look at the analogy of getting in shape physically.  I’ve been a runner since junior-high, but the past several years, I’ve not had a consistent habit.  I miss it for a lot of reasons, so I’ve committed myself to regular running again. Did I go out and run a marathon the first day?  Of course not. I’m running for 10 minutes at a time and then walking. Next week, I’ll up it to a 15 minute run. This is how you gain momentum.  

  1.  You are an experiment of one.  

I love this quote from the late Dr. George Sheehan, a running philosopher.  You have to figure out your own life and what works best for you. Hate the morning?  Don’t meditate then. Hate that breathy, sing-song voice on your app? Don’t pick that teacher again. Always falling asleep when you meditate?  Try standing or walking meditation.

I was once talking to an acquaintance, and I knew she a meditator.  I was curious, so I asked her about her practice. She didn’t know that I had been practicing mindfulness meditation for a while,and she started to put this style of meditation down and explain that the type of meditation she did was the correct kind and everything else was basically garbage.  I really found these comments to be the opposite of the whole spirit of meditation and mindfulness- awareness, presence, not judging, compassion. Bottom line- do what fits for you and your life. Find the practice that helps you feel and function the best.

  1.  Don’t go it alone.  (unless that really works best for you)  

When most of us are learning a new skill, we find benefit in having some structure and guidance.  

  • Use an app like 10% Happier, Headspace, or Insight Timer (free).  
  • Take a class. If you’re a Rochester educator, I frequently offer PD on mindfulness.  Take an online class like Mindfulness Fundamentals through Mindful Schools. Mindfulness Fundamentals for Teachers class. It’s excellent.   Or take one of Sarah Rudell Beach’s online classes. Link to Sarah’s class offerings..  She has classes for beginners, teachers, mothers, and stress reduction.  I never recommend anyone or anything unless I have personal experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend Sarah and Mindful Schools.  
  • Make a pact with a friend that you’re going to meditate.  Check in with each other daily or weekly to see how it’s going and keep each other motivated.  
  1.  Instant gratification is the enemy.

Meditation practice is not Candy Crush or Instagram.    You’re not going to have a huge hit of dopamine every time you meditate. You probably won’t have huge insights in the first week or become enlightened immediately. (or likely ever) But, if you’re like me, enlightenment is not the goal.  Finding a healthy way to cope with stress and taking some time to turn inward and quiet the mind are the qualities you’re after. So, take the long view. Over time you’ll notice a difference. And, then one day, you’ll skip your meditation, and all day you’ll feel like something is missing, and you’ll remember you didn’t meditate.  And, you’ll know that it has become a part of your life.

  1.  Set aside the excuses.

You really want to start a meditation practice, but have lots of excuses?  Welcome to the party. This is human nature. We all love the idea of meditating, but actually sitting down and putting in the time and the effort?  Not as much fun. I read books about mindfulness and meditation for about 20 years before I tried to seriously start a practice. You don’t have to be a slow learner like me.  🙂 Here are a few common obstacles and my responses.

*No time to meditate?  Commit to one minute a day or 10 good breaths a day.  

*Don’t have a special, quiet, serene place to meditate?  No problem.  Meditation is the ultimate portable coping device.  You don’t need a cushion, beads, candles, or bells.  Yes, I do have a few special places in my house that I like to sit and meditate.  But, I have also meditated in my car (sitting in a parking lot) and  by my computer at school during my prep time. I’ve practiced mindfulness and deep breathing walking down the hall of the middle school I work at and while standing in line at the grocery store.  The great thing about mindfulness is it’s always in your pocket.

*Think it’s too woo-woo, out there, mushy, mystical?  Read about the science and neurobiology of meditation.  Don’t choose practices that are filled with mantras, phrases, and practices you find annoying.  People from all walks of life are embracing mindfulness and meditation-police officers, the military, professional athletes, and business executives.  They realize that it works, and they use it to their advantage.

*Think taking time to meditate is selfish navel gazing,and that you should be tending to the needs of your partner, kids, students, your community, the world instead?  This was one of my biggest barriers.   Now, after four years of steady practice, I realize that taking the time to be still and look at my inner life is the one of the best things I can do so that I can be of greater service to others.  I’ll turn 50 in 2019 and I think I’m finally starting to understand just how important self-care is. That’s my priority this year- to really take good care of myself physically, emotionally , and spiritually.  I know that if I truly do this, my ability to care for others will be even greater.

  1. Bring mindfulness and meditation into your real life.  It’s not just about what you do on the cushion with your eyes closed.  That’s only the beginning.

Sharon Salzberg, one of my favorite meditation teachers, says, “We don’t meditate to become good meditators.  We meditate to become better at life.” In other words, if you sit in a perfectly concentrated meditative state for two hours a day, but are a complete tyrant to your partner, kids, and co-workers, you’re not getting it.  This is where the rubber hits the road- meditation is the practice, the training, the bicep curl for real life. This doesn’t mean you’re going to walk around in a state of calm bliss all the time. You’re still human. When I started teaching mindfulness to my students and other educators, I used to put pressure on myself to be this pure paragon of mindfulness, but I found that’s unrealistic, unreachable, and unrelatable.  And, I got rid of that self-imposed expectation fast. However, I don’t want to undersell the benefits of meditation in real life. I have benefited enormously from applying the principles in my daily life- a happier classroom, better relationships with students, improved communication at home, greater tolerance for difficult people, and increased well-being and calm.

I noticed a difference in my co-worker last year, who is an amazing person and teacher to start with.  Things weren’t getting to her like they sometimes did. She’s expert at dealing with difficult kids in a calm and productive way, but there was a shift in how she was responding- she wasn’t taking on the stress and becoming overwhelmed.  She seemed to have a lot of equanimity about it all. I told her about my observations and asked what the difference was, and she said it was because of her meditation practice. It was transferring to her daily teaching life.

7.  Don’t take it all too seriously.  

Yes, meditation can be serious.  I’ve been moved during meditations.  I’ve cried my eyes out at times, because stuff comes up when you get quiet and still.   I went on retreat this summer, and it got really intense at times.

But, meditation can also be light-hearted and fun.  The teachers who have this spirit and can laugh at themselves and the ridiculous of their own minds are my favorites.  I love Jeff Warren’s meditations on 10% Happier for this reason. Take a light approach. Meditation should not be a death march.  If you want to hear more on this, listen to the intro on this 10% Happier podcast, when Dan Harris answers my question about this topic!  Yes, I feel very famous and important.   Episode #160, I start at 7 minutes 🙂

  1.  When you finally get hooked by meditation, and think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, don’t be annoying about it.   (And, I’m sorry if I’ve done that to you-I’m really trying not to.)  

The fastest way to get the people around you to not meditate is to tell them to meditate.  I don’t go around telling people to meditate, but if someone opens up a conversation, I’ll talk as long as they want to.  🙂 My immediate family members don’t meditate but they know what I’m doing and they have a lot of respect for it. And, they all bring mindfulness to their lives in different ways.  Just walk the talk with meditation and mindfulness. If people notice a difference in you and ask, then you can tell them about your great new practice.

  1.  Keep your interest in mindfulness and meditation alive.

Read books and magazines. Check out websites.  Listen to podcasts. Chat with others who are interested.   What aspects of mindfulness and meditation are your interested in, curious about?  How you can stay calm in emotionally charged situations? How to improve your work life? How to be a more mindful communicator? Mindfulness and sports? Creative life?   How to notice your unconscious bias? The neuroscience and research behind mindfulness? Mindfulness and addiction? I have recommendations for books, magazines, and podcasts under the Resources tab on my website.  

  1.  If you stop, begin again.  

Each time you let a meditation practice lapse, it’s is not a failure. You’re building those neuro-pathways in your brain every time.  Don’t beat yourself up. Simply begin again. This is what we do in practice when the mind wanders, and this is what we can all do in life when we get off track.  Wake up, notice what’s happened, and begin again.

Be gentle with yourself.  Find what works for you. Let me know if you have questions or other obstacles to developing a meditation practice.  I’m still learning, too- always a work in progress.
Good luck out there!   

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