A number of people have asked me about how to begin a sitting meditation practice. Often I end up referring them to one of my blog entries or cobbling together a list of resources. I thought it might be useful to put everything in one place, so here it is! For those looking to begin a mindfulness practice with children, I have a separate page just for that topic here.
1) Start small and be consistent. Don’t be overly zealous at the beginning of your practice as this may lead to you burning out quickly. It is better to meditate every day for 10 minutes than once every few days for an hour. Steadiness is key. Make meditation a habit.
2) Posture is important, but you don’t need to cross one leg over another in a lotus position like a Buddha statue. In fact, I find that if my legs or ankles are crossed, they are more likely to fall asleep. Whether you are sitting on a cushion or in a chair, try to be upright and still, your back straight, your eyes cast down or softly closed, your hands resting on your knees or in your lap, your mouth closed or just slightly open, with your breath moving in and out quietly through your nose. Thich Nhat Hahn says, “Sitting is an enjoyment, not hard labor for enlightenment.” If it is necessary to adjust your position, do so quietly and mindfully.
3) Beginning meditation instruction usually focuses on awareness of the breath. It took me a long time to figure out what this meant. In order to save you a long time, I highly recommend the following online resources provided free of charge by the American Theravadan monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu:
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s excellent 40-minuted guided meditation on following the breath is available as a free audio file at the bottom of this page (I recommend the file called “Breath Meditation with Instructions for Leaving Meditation (40 minutes)”). I listened to that several times until I internalized the instructions so that I can now “play” them mentally at the start of each meditation period.
- Following the breath in sitting meditation translates very naturally to following the breath in walking meditation, a topic that Thanissaro Bhikkhu covers in his excellent meditation guide With Each & Every Breath, available for free here (search for “With Each”). It is a clearly written and beautifully formatted book, ready for any e-reader or computer.
- Thanissaro Bhikkhu also led an online Tricycle retreat called “Working and Playing with the Breath”. The first recorded retreat teaching is accessible to everyone; the other sessions are available to paid Tricycle subscribers, who also get access to other recorded retreats and a huge online database of articles on Buddhism and meditation.
4) Starting and maintaining a regular meditation practice can be challenging without the support of Sangha (a community that practices together) and an in-person teacher to provide guidance on the practice. Look online for a mindfulness, meditation, or Buddhist practice group in your local area. Here is a helpful directory of centers that practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.
5) The benefits of sitting meditation are strengthened with mindfulness practice. Thich Nhat Hahn writes “To be mindful means to be here, fully present, with body and mind united, not in a state of dispersion . . . Mindfulness makes it possible for us to understand, to accept, to love, and to relieve suffering.” Thầy has written so many books about mindfulness practice that it’s hard to recommend just one. Here are some good ones to start with:
- Peace is Every Step: the Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life
- The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
- Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries is a more weighty book that includes Thầy’s translations of and wonderful commentary on key Buddhist scriptures. The Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing is perfectly suited for establishing a meditation and mindfulness practice.
6) Stop waiting for the perfect time to start meditating – the only moment you have is the present moment, so the perfect time is, in fact, now! As Thầy says, to practice mindfulness “You don’t need to be a Buddhist. You don’t need to be a Dharma teacher. You don’t need transmission from a teacher in order to start a practice group. You can start a mindfulness practice group anytime, anywhere. . .” The important thing is to begin. You can do it! Just sit.