Introduce me to meditation properly
March 5, 2012 11:40 AM   Subscribe

I'm curious about meditating, but I don't really know where to begin. Further, I hear there are different types of meditation out there. Is there a difference between the effect of each type?

I've been exercising and working on the discipline to take care of myself lately, and I've started to notice a trend of people on NPR who work in neurology speaking positively of meditation. I'm not religious and not really looking to learn meditation for spiritual gain*, but I do like the idea of improving my mind and energy/relaxation. If meditation could help me be more productive or feel healthier, I would definitely like to pursue it.

How do I go about starting meditation? I did it way back as a middle schooler in karate, but I always found myself getting bored or sleepy, which I recall isn't an appropriate response to proper meditation.

If I could achieve one thing from meditation, I'd particularly like to be more awake/mindful. I used to drink a lot of caffeine, but now my doctor wants me to stop entirely, and I find myself being less mentally agile and less enthusiastic about things because my energy is down, and sometimes I take an afternoon nap. I've been prescribed Adderall in the past, and it works similar to caffeine for me, but I'm a bit reluctant to use it because I find it keeps me awake at night, and there is a bit of a history of prescription stimulant abuse in my family.

*No disrespect to anyone who is.
posted by mccarty.tim to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 129 users marked this as a favorite
I've really been enjoying the twice-a-week meditation emails from Susan Piver. They're free, and pretty thoughtful.

I'm also a huge fan of Alan Watts. (Another option from him, this one an audiobook.)
posted by jbickers at 11:54 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not all meditation is like vipassana. You might look into something like active meditation (which is why monks were really into stuff like gardening and menial labor).
posted by mattbucher at 11:58 AM on March 5, 2012

Everyone told me to start with the free Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana (you can also find PDFs online), and I did, and it was good. One slight downside is that it takes a while to get to the point of actually telling you what to do, but it's not a long book. It is fairly light on spiritual stuff, all things considered.

For a more Western introduction, Get Some Headspace by Andy Puddicombe looks promising. (Apparently he is well known in the UK but not in the US yet.)
posted by dfan at 12:02 PM on March 5, 2012

One more, and this is actually the one I use the most: Meditation Oasis is an app that comes with dozens of guided meditations. I've used them a lot, and have come to absolutely love and take comfort from the narrator's voice.
posted by jbickers at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

which I recall isn't an appropriate response to proper meditation

Hah! Pema Chodron's warm and humorous instructions will release you from that eroneous idea. An ex New Yorker, she has been a meditating buddhist nun for 30+ (7 years in a cave or something?!) and she still 'doesn't do it right' (joke being, there is no right or wrong meditation, there just is meditation).
posted by Kerasia at 12:22 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Years ago I was a regular practitioner of transcendental meditation. There was no spiritual aspect to it, the way we were taught. But, it really did make me feel more awake and alive and energetic. I was in school at the time, and it seemed like I could focus better, and retain and integrate information better. (I should start doing TM again!)
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:24 PM on March 5, 2012

I occasionally have problems with anxiety and cortisol and flight or fight.

After reading about the awesome effects of TM, I did some research and even read "The Relaxation Response" and even purchased the materials from Natural Stress Relief.

Turns out that it was unnecessary, and all I needed was a mantra (they give you "lam") and 15 minutes a day to get the relief and benefits.

HIGHLY recommend.
posted by THAT William Mize at 12:32 PM on March 5, 2012

I like to think of meditation as making yourself available for meditation; then it will either happen or not.

It's a misconception to think of meditation as something peaceful and relaxed in itself. You are becoming more aware of tension, boredom and discomfort, and you will experience them more acutely when you start. I feel this is the main reason most people give up meditation: it appears that meditation creates a great deal of discomfort when it fact it just brings your attention on it. Even though you might understand this, you can't help but feel there's a cause/effect connection between meditation and unpleasant tension and distraction.

That's precisely why it needs a good deal of persistence. And that's before you even start talking about different types of meditation!
posted by rainy at 12:39 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Personally, I'm a big fan of Andrew Jackson's Guided Meditation. I have his iPhone apps and I do "Success" when I wake up (and it definitely wakes me up), and "Positivity" to go to sleep. I dunno that I believe they make you more successful/positive, but they definitely help me stay centered.
posted by dotgirl at 12:53 PM on March 5, 2012

As a form of meditation, I enjoy disassociation practices. I generally lie flat and concetrate on my breathing. After getting my breathing under control, I begin to focus on my feet, and begin the process. Basically, I have a numbness, tingling feeling that I focus on as it moves its way towards my head. It can take a bit of practice, but it takes me into this out of body, relaxed meditated state.

Meditation can be a personalized exercise, with no one single path.
posted by handbanana at 12:55 PM on March 5, 2012

One thing that helps me in meditation is having something to focus on. I did two hardcore vipassana retreats and while they were awesome, I've never been able to maintain that kind of empty-minded focus in the "real" world.

A very simple meditation I do involves focusing on your breath and counting to keep your mind from wandering. Just breath and count on the exhale, from 1 to 5. When you do the 5th exhale, start over again at 1. Focusing on a small range of numbers gives you some guidance and also helps you notice when you're drifting -- I've caught myself at 8 or 9 before and just gently started myself over again.

If you have an iPhone, my very favorite app of all time is called BellyBio. It takes a bit of practice to figure out how to make sure you really are breathing from your belly, but once you get it right, it's wonderful. The music changes with your inhalations and exhalations, so it keeps you calm and focused, plus gives you this weird feeling of control at the same time ;)
posted by missjenny at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2012

There are a ton of different activities which are all called "meditation." There are visualizations, concentration exercises, relaxation exercises, activities meant to cultivate desirable mind-states (like loving-kindness or flow states), etc, etc.

The kind of meditation neuroscientists have studied the most is "mindfulness-based stress reduction" -- if you plug that into google scholar you'll find a ton of results. (You can also read "is buddhist meditation good for your health, a very interesting and not-religious nyt article by stephen s hall.) MBSR has been studied and seen to have beneficial effects on stress, depression, pain, anxiety and a bunch of other things, and is often offered at hospitals and community centers as an 8 week class.

Another approach would be to read a book like 8 Minute Meditation. It is a great beginner's book which encourages you to meditate 8 minutes every day and introduces a new technique every week. So at the end of the two months you've tried eight flavors of meditation and might know what you'd like to explore further. (Other folks who make good material for beginners include Sharon Salzberg and Shinzen Young.)

Meditation really can be beneficial, even in small doses. Have fun exploring.
posted by feets at 1:27 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was in this very position a couple of years ago, and I came across this amazing series of podcasts from the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City in California.

Every so often they host Introduction to Mindfulness Meditation courses, record them and make them available for everyone. Here's the latest course:

Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4, Week 5, Week 6

I found those to be incredibly helpful and insightful; they lead you through basic concepts and have micro-meditations during the course which increase in time over the weeks. As well as that he gives you a task to start doing meditation at home, which start at 10 minutes and go up as you find you're coping with them.

They *are* a buddhist center, but the introduction courses talk really only about mindfulness meditation and don't really talk about the spiritual side of it at all.

They also offer these meditation timer mp3 files at varying lengths, which are just silence with a BONG at the end to tell you you're done.

Once you've finished the intro course that site is a trove of other meditation podcasts, as well as a more advanced course and talks about practising mindfulness during your day to day life rather than just during meditation.
posted by leemajors at 1:38 PM on March 5, 2012 [17 favorites]

A little book called Zen Mind Beginner's Mind was my introduction to meditation, and has since become one of my favorite handbooks for living. I am a strong partisan of the demanding simplicity of Zen meditation over other, more complicated kinds.
posted by ecmendenhall at 1:40 PM on March 5, 2012

Seconding MBSR if you're specifically looking for secular training that treats meditation as a means to an end (such as productivity or health benefits).
posted by feral_goldfish at 2:01 PM on March 5, 2012

In answer to your second question, the techniques vary but the internal destination is likely similar.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 3:08 PM on March 5, 2012

+1 for the Headspace series. I've been doing it now since last October and it's really simple. There's no woo-language or anything like that. It's very much "sit in the chair, feet flat on the floor and close your eyes. Now feel the weight of your body on the chair. If you have a thought, just notice it and go back to breathing."

The Take 10 series is free to do, and it's 10 minutes a day for 10 days.
posted by Solomon at 3:21 PM on March 5, 2012

I'm not a fan of religious meditation practices. I find mystical language very off-putting. But I do meditate daily, and my favorite book on secular meditation -- often called mindfulness -- is Full Catastrophe Living. It's written by the guy who founded the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where cardiac patients get sent to take eight week meditation courses. Apparently it's a marvelously effective program not only for stress reduction but also for the making of lifelong meditators. This book is a great how-to guide; it explains in detail what they do in the course week by week, and gives you various exercises so you can learn and explore different kinds of meditation. However, what's also awesome about the book are the passages that discuss what happens in our brains when we meditate, and the studies that have been done on the various health advantages that accrue to people who meditate regularly. Fascinating stuff!
posted by artemisia at 4:27 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding Full Catastrophe Living as a great introduction.
posted by kaspen at 4:36 PM on March 5, 2012

2nding 8 Minute Meditation as a great, easy-to-follow, primer. It may be all you need to practice! But for more information I 2nd the aforementioned MBSR course founded at UMass by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and Full Catastrophe Living (also aforementioned, in different replies) which describes the MBSR process and thensome, and was used in the MBSR course I took. There's a link on the UMass MBSR website about finding local programs (but it took a while for me to get it to open.)
posted by NikitaNikita at 6:03 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding "Zen Mind Beginner's Mind" (the audiobook with Peter Coyote narrating works well). The basic gist is sit, keep good posture, pay attention to your breathing. Exciting? Not exactly. But good for settling your brain.

For more movement/lifestyle-based mindfulness training (if sitting just doesn't do it for you), check out Jan Chozen Bays' "How to Train a Wild Elephant" which has 52 weekly exercises you can play with. While I still can't stand eating and only eating, the ones on "Filler words" and "Leave no trace" have remained with me.
posted by sazanka at 6:34 PM on March 5, 2012

audiodharma. Gil Fronsdal, who does most of the talks and guided meditations at that site, knows a tremendous amount about meditation. They have a "Recommended Talks" section for beginners.

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind in audio form. Lots more ambiguity than audiodharma, but full of amazing little profundities.
posted by aesacus at 7:01 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Tara Brach's website is amazing. I was completely unable to meditate until I went through her four week introduction series. Yes, they are long, and yes, they are worth it.
I also downloaded an app, insight timer, which is useful for my daily meditation. But I really, really recommend listening to that 4 week series. Do it over 4 weeks. I did it on Sundays, and now I have a habit of listening to one of her seminars every weekend. It's kind of like church only not. I realize that you aren't coming to it for spiritual gain. I wasn't either, but found that the best effect of meditation on me was an increasing empathy and kindness to myself and others. It also does help in awareness, of course.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:21 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

There will be some overlap with the answers you've already got, but I asked for suggestions for not-overly-spiritual/good-for-beginners books about mediation a while back and got a bunch of good answers.
posted by aka burlap at 9:49 PM on March 5, 2012

I recommend How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery, a book by Lawrence LeShan. He describes the practice of a number of different traditions, and leaves it to the reader to decide which works best for them.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:38 AM on March 6, 2012

zen mind beginner's mind is a great starter text for the mindset you are looking for.

i also like thich nhat hanh's work, when i read it i feel as calm as i do while actually sitting for meditation. his books "the art of power" and "the sun my heart" are two of my favorites.

search for john daido's loori's "finding the still point" on mediafire. i have it on my ipod as an audio meditation guide with the timed 10 minutes and 30 minutes marked by bells. there is a 10 minute introductory talk where he provides practical advice: how to sit, what to do with your hands, how to handle distractions and interruptions, how to breathe, etc.

if you find it difficult to do meditation while sitting still in silence, consider walking meditation or some physical activity along with the mindful thinking (running, martial arts, yoga etc.) as an anxious and caffeine-addicted person, i could not sit peacefully until i first got used to meditative thinking while i was doing something with my body. i still have a hard time with sitting but at least now i can do it enough to make gradual progress.
posted by zdravo at 8:54 AM on March 6, 2012

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