Meditation, How to Begin

I’ve had a number of people ask me of late how to get started in meditation, where to go, what you actually do, books to read. Rather than trying to squeeze answers into a tweet or fit advice in over the bustle of a dinner, I’m just going to sit down and gather all my thoughts and resources in one handy link (just for ya’ll, see I’m looking out for ya!).

Meditation isn’t really anything exotic, we’re hardwired to do it, though our current culture derails most of our natural tendencies. Pretty much every religion and philosophy has some sort of meditation, even if it doesn’t describe itself as such.

I think it was maybe the Dalai Lama said, start with the path that’s close to home (that feels very Tolkien-esqe eh?). If you’re at all connected to your own roots, be it Christian, Jewish, Hindu, whatever, start there (just google your religion + mediation, who knows what you’ll find). Maybe what’s close to home is more literal, like the yoga studio in your neighbourhood. Keep in mind if you’re looking for a group, a place to practice, you’re going to have to go there on a regular basis, you don’t want all that inner peace fried by the commute.

Regardless of the sect/philosophy you choose, in a group, what matters most is you feel an affinity for the people around you and the things they practice. The philosophy on paper may resonate with you but the actual people that gather may not be your kind of folk. That’s okay. There’s meditation happening all over, keep looking ’til you find something that fits.

Reading books and practicing on your own is an option too, there’s plenty out there, though I would suggest connect with people, even in an online discussion group (heck, feel free to comment on this post, there’s a community of sorts right here). It helps to have people to talk to to share experiences; some weird and intense things can arise while meditating, it helps to have other grounded people who can reassure you and give you suggestions on how to process those issues (something in me wants to caveat that with saying don’t chase the dramatic in mediation, a good quiet sit is valuable work too).

So, resources:

Thich Nhat Hanh is a great start for mindfulness practice, the Plum Village website has a great deal of resources and links to books and discussions of practices. I’ve been highly influenced by this approach, and the Wild Rose Sanga here in Calgary practices in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition. There are all sorts of other Buddhist organizations here in Calgary, I haven’t been to them directly, so can’t speak on them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a good fit for you.

The writings of Pema Chodron have been a great guide and comfort to me in my own process. A western born Tibetan monk, her writings are beautifully human and earnest and in simple enough language you don’t have to be a Buddhist to understand most of what she’s presenting (though googling the odd term will help you out). She, more than anyone else I’ve read, has spoken of working through her dark angry resistant parts in mediation, and her loving acceptance of her own nasty bits helps me make peace with my own.

In the Christian tradition, meditation (at least the style I like) is called Centering Prayer, and the books of Cynthia Bourgeault have helped me reconcile my early Eastern teachings with Christianity (which is the path that starts from my door). Perhaps your local denomination of church has a meditation group based on this practice (or maybe there’s a pile of people wishing someone would start one). Her organization, the Contemplative Society is centered (pun!) in BC so maybe a nice road trip for a retreat or course.

Some really approachable, plain language lectures can be found through Audio Darma podcasts of speakers at the Insight Meditation Center in California. Again this is Buddhist based, but the lectures are so full of simple daily life issues, humour, struggle, and great perspective, I’d recommend them no matter what tradition you’re working from.

If you want some good meditation resources coming from a western, scientific paradigm, unattached from a particular spiritual tradition (atheists and agnostics I’m talking to YOU) I recommend the work of Anna Wise whose study of brain waves and states of consciousness not only helped us all understand what meditation actually does to our brains, but has reverse engineered to help find practices to get you into various mental states and brainwave patterns. I hearty recommend her books and CDs as a great primer if you’re just getting started.

I first learned a simple and clean sitting meditation practice from the Taoist Tai Chi Society, though more through the Fung Loy Kok Temple (the Taoist practice over the Tai Chi) side of the organization. But Tai Chi is in itself a moving meditation, don’t discount the value of that for just chilling your brain and helping you just let go of stuff. The TTCS is an international organization with clubs practically everywhere, so there’s likely something near you.

On the topic of just chilling your brain and letting stuff go, meditation doesn’t have to be some exotic practice where you sit on a cushion and twist your legs into crazy positions. You can start meditation RIGHT NOW (well, finish reading this first). To start, TURN OFF YOUR CELL PHONE and your lap top, and your ipod, and your kindle, and everything, and just sit there.

Yep, that’s it, it’s that simple. Just sit still and do nothing for a little while. Just be quiet and notice, everything. Notice what’s happening around you (there’s actually lots) the sights, the sounds, the smells, the movement of air. Notice what’s happening within you, what you’re feeling in your body – tension, position, breathing, heartbeat. Notice what’s going on in your head (there’s definitely lots); don’t try and do anything about the thoughts, just notice them, and then go back to noticing something else, like your breath or the colour of the sky.

Just sit still, do it every day, do it for a few minutes, you’ll find things slow down and there’s suddenly more space in your life, and more clarity. It’s really that simple. We’re built to do it, just give yourself a chance.

6 thoughts on “Meditation, How to Begin

  1. And because we do have a beautiful little community of soul-seekers around here,I’m going to crowdsource this too.

    Post your favourite books, resources, communities, practices.

    There’s a smorgasbord of spirituality out there, handy tips for the stuff that’s nourishing and easy to digest?


  2. One of my colleagues commented this past summer on the calm glow that seems to follow me in whatever I do. She said that she is striving for that kind of being. I was a little taken aback because I’ve never thought of myself as a role model for calm. She told me it has been her desire to go on a meditation retreat to learn how to do this, and she asked me how I learned to be so centred.

    I said that I’m not sure how it came to be. It just happened. That’s not to say that I was passive. I’ve been doing major self reflecting awareness stuff for the last 20 years, and I guess the result of it is that I’m more comfortable in my skin. So like Valerie, I don’t need to go off to some exotic local, don’t have to go off to a retreat to find a quiet spot and meditate. It’s more a state of mind, a quiet place inside myself that I can go to. I told my friend that going on a meditation retreat is good to get you jump started into find the quiet but meditation is only useful if you can do it in your daily, busy life.

    And like Valerie, I believe that meditation isn’t about turning off the mind or ignoring the outside. It’s being aware of everything internal and external and then letting it go. My 24 yr old son once had an experience while meditating where he described being aware of everything all at once, where he was a part of the whole. It was an experience so profound that it scared him at the same time as awed him. He’s never been able to find that space again, but at least he knows it exists.

    I don’t tend to do sitting meditation very much. My meditation comes from finding the still point in Taoist Tai Chi. I practice daily and that seems to set the tone for my life, inner and outer. I’ve been playing with this form of Tai Chi for about 15 years and I’m finally at the point where I’m starting to understand what my mentors have been trying to teach me. I’m at the point that I know my body well enough to try to incorporate what they are trying to relay to me. I’m not so resistant to change.

    You are going to get tired of the phrase “like Valerie…” but it’s true, my practice of meditation and basis of meditation is very similar to Valerie’s. I don’t have one religion, or philosophical dogma from which I base my practice and readings on. I enjoy Christian, Sufi, Buddhist, Shamanic…mystical writings and practices.

    One book I have found helpful is “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. And I’m a real Pema Chodron reader. You might get some other resources from a companion book to a PBS Bill Moyers special called “Healing and the Mind”.

    I have a friend who teaches yoga and she has several reminders to herself of taking time to meditate throughout the day for a few minutes at a time. She has little stikki notes around her home that say “Breathe” and she also sets an egg timer to give her the space in time to do just that. When there is something upsetting in daily life I remember her example. I stop for a few minutes and just observe my natural breathing pattern of “in and out” That’s as close to sitting meditation that I do on a daily basis.

    It’s the best kind of magic there is…simple. Just stop, be quiet, listen and open your heart.


  3. big deep breath is not only a great meditation tool for me but also helps tremendously in stressful and tense situations.

    I take a moment to breathe and also remind people around me to take a deep breath and instantly the mood in the room shifts (gets unstuck)


    1. Good point Helga! Sometimes I forget how much just chilling yourself can bring down the tension for everyone. And if you can get everybody to take a deep breath, bonus!


  4. Gee, I feel wistful. And I’ve read/ heard/ done some Buddhist stuff, but this makes me really curious about Anna Wise. As well as missing Pema Chodron.

    There is a great literary book where the main guy’s spiritual journey plays a role. And the author writes about reading Pema Chodron in the acknowledgements. _The Lizard Cage_ by Karen Connelly. Sad sad, it is set in prison, but, we kind of know that these terrible things are happening even if we don’t read novels about it, right. I recommend it.


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