Meditation 101: Getting Started + Tips & Tricks for Success
by Kiki Athanas
January 14, 2019
While it may sound cliche, the “power of the mind” is truly a force to be reckoned with.
Women who come to me asking for advice on dietary adjustments, supplementation with adaptogenic herbs, or just a general desire to reduce their anxiety, stress, and/or are struggling with depression - there’s one thing that I never leave out when it comes to my top recommendations.
It’s scientifically proven to literally change your brain and sense of self, it’s free, and it’s incredibly “easy” (in theory…).
What I’m referring to, is none other than meditation.
Yes, the “mindfulness” trend is in full swing and will likely continue as 2019 rolls along and more of us turn to “alternative” methods and healing modalities to optimize our health and overall wellness potential.
But I’m not talking about another consumable “fad” to check-off your to-do list, nor anything consumable at all - regardless of how much today’s “wellness world” wants to literally sell us on meditation and mindfulness.
Nor is Christopher Whittington - who started meditating while living at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash in the Cotswolds, England, and who was previously Chief of Operations for WCCM (the World Community for Christian Meditation).
I had the pleasure of being introduced to Chris while in the UK this past summer, as he has quite effortlessly made a name for himself regularly giving talks and leading retreats around the country. He is also also a Partner and Head of Education Law at Anthony Collins Solicitors, a unique social purpose law firm dedicated to improving lives, communities and society.
My conversation with Chris was as enjoyable as it was valuable, and the practical insight he shares around meditation is the truly the perfect resource for those looking to either start or advance their mindfulness practice.
I am so thrilled to be able to share his work with you in his following write-up, which I point all my friends and family to whom ask: “How do I meditate?”
So cozy up, grab a tea (or whatever other fun adaptogenic elixir!), and enjoy my interview with the extraordinary Christopher Whittington...
In order to find meaning in our lives, to love and discover that we are loveable, we need to be here, we need to be present.
Most of us know that simply being present in the present can be a surprisingly difficult thing to do. A great many people feel they spend a great part their lives seemingly enmeshed in (exhausted by) the content of their surface mind and its uncanny ability to concoct unhelpful (sometimes harmful) narratives about future or past events. In many ways we live distracted, dispersed, fragmented lives. James Joyce put it well in his short story “A Painful Case”, describing the character Mr. Duffy as someone who “…lived a short distance from his body”. Instead of meeting life simply as it is, its joys and challenges, its beauty and difficulties, we tend to throw a veil of reactive mental commentary over it.
We need help with being here. Meditation is simply a way to practice being present, to come home to the only place we can actually ever be. A simple way that requires effort and discipline, to discover who we are and the gifts offered to us moment by moment in life.
The simple form of practice I’ve recommended below is a way of learning to bring our attention to a single point of focus, so we are better able to direct our attention to whatever we want to give our attention to in our daily life and stand back from what we don’t want to give our attention to - most often our habit of spinning an attractive (or unattractive!) commentary on life, rather than meeting life as it is.
When we start our practice, it can feel a little like setting off to climb a mountain. Our path begins in the trees and thickets that cluster around the base of the mountain. At first, we can’t see very far. The trees and thickets of our thoughts and feelings surround us.
But as we steadily climb, little by little the trees and thickets begin to thin out. And before too long we begin to notice this, and that the field of our vision is opening. Step by step we see further, and further still. All that hemmed us in, that seemed so large and close when we set off, now looks small and distant.
And as we continue up the mountain path, we might begin to notice a curious change coming about in us: that as our awareness of how large and wonderful the world is grows, we simultaneously become aware how small we are in the universe – and that we don’t care. Because to behold this view is to be rapt in self-forgetful wonder, and know that you are an infinitely precious part of this.
Wherever we are, we are always standing on holy ground. The opening of this awareness is like a sunrise in the heart. As the morning light begins to grow, we come to realize where we are, that we were always home, and have never have been and cannot ever be anywhere else.
Two Well-Kept Secrets
In talks I often refer to “Two Well Hidden Secrets”
Secret 1 Despite all our cultural training to the contrary – we are not our thoughts and feelings.
Secret 2 Beneath all that we argue over, all that we think divides us - we all look exactly the same.
Ask someone who they are and, after saying their name, they will very likely list off how they fill their days. But if we lay to one side all that we do, and all the pictures and narratives we routinely use to say who we are, we are left with some rather large and fundamental questions. The purpose of meditation is to help us relax our grip on what we routinely take to be the answers to these questions, so the answer can begin to reveal itself.
Much of contemporary culture and education is directed towards the cultivation of the thinking, acquisitive mind. While necessary to manage daily life, an over preoccupation with the content of the surface mind (the smaller, observable part of our mind) and its ceaseless reactive commentary can prevent our simple, direct encounter with the events of our life. We tend to identify (or super-identify) with the flow of thoughts, feelings and concerns that arise in us moment by moment, gather them together into a powerful cluster we call the ‘self’ and tell ourselves (and others) that this conditional, virtual reality is who we are.
When we meditate, we are intentionally turning away from the noise in our heads, from the pictures and narratives we create moment by moment. We are shifting our centre of gravity from the surface mind to the deep mind, to what my teacher at Prinknash Abbey, Dom Sylvester Houedard, liked to call ‘heart of mind’.
Learning to meet our thoughts and feelings directly, without immediately reacting and adding commentary to them, can give us a powerful sense of liberation and possibility for radical change in our lives. As when climbing the metaphorical mountain above - our world opens. We start to see beyond what we do and who we are starts to unfold. We learn to step back from judging and from building our judgement into structures to be defended against others, or forced on others. We come to the threshold of a subtle and profoundly important doorway.
Let me bring this down to earth by telling you about a brilliant lawyer I used to work with. David was regularly afflicted by severe bouts of painful anxiety. His clients loved him. He was technically brilliant and always gave excellent, detailed advice. But despite being a very good lawyer, he regularly suffered crushing waves of anxiety and was endlessly worried about making a mistake and some calamity ensuing. David just thought this was the way he was and how life would always be.
One day we were talking about this and he raised his hands in despair and said “I’m just an anxious person”. I knew him pretty well, so I took a risk and said “No, you’re not.” He almost exploded, but managed to ask me what on earth I was talking about. I asked him if he could look at the anxious thought. He said he could. So, I suggested to him that if he could observe the anxious thought, he wasn’t the thought. He was the person looking at it. He was suffering the impact of these anxious thoughts – but he wasn’t the thought. I then asked him what the person looking at the anxious thought looked like.
You can see how a very fundamental question can arise. If we are not our thoughts and feelings, but the person observing them, what does that person look like?
For David, meditation - the practice of stillness and silence – introduced him to an inner stability and peace he had never known before and which, in his own words, he experienced not so much as acquiring something, but rather as the unveiling of the silent, peaceful ground which he now knew had always been there.
I believe we are all called to encounter the mysterious beauty and fullness. And that this is the deepest truth of who we are - who we all are - whatever faith we do or don’t hold.
One final comment on the second of the ‘Two Well-Hidden Secrets’ - Beneath all that we argue over, all that we think divides us - we all look exactly the same’: Meditation builds community as it disposes us to the peace that undermines and transfigures all that divides us, and lays bare who we are - members of one family. But don’t take my word for it. Meditate, under good guidance, and know this for yourself.
What is the importance of incorporating (any form of) meditation into our daily lives?
The importance is that we might come to be fully present in our life, to fully appreciate and wonder at the gift of simply being here. Regardless of how meditation is pictured in the media, it isn't about being calm so you can generate more profits at work. It's not about 'blanking your mind' or having no thoughts. That only tends to happen if you’ve been hit very hard on the head with a heavy object. The practice doesn’t say “believe this” or “believe that”: it says “come and taste for yourself”. And it’s not a ‘lifestyle option’, consumer choice or bolt-on life style accessory. It’s not even about seeking an extraordinary life, in the many forms we like to imagine this for ourselves and for others, but about living our ordinary lives, extraordinarily well. It’s about wellbeing, healing, fullness of life. It’s about being present with and rooted in reality. It’s probably the most radical thing you can do. In Christian terms, it’s about the resurrection of the mind through the body.
What might meditation look like for the beginner?
The essentials of the practice are the same whether you are practicing for the first time or have been doing so for many years. Sometimes meditation is spoken about as if it’s something complicated, somewhat esoteric, and this impression is compounded by the myriad forms and variants of practice that appear to be on offer.
Actually, meditation is deceptively simple. It’s as simple as breathing.
I know children of five, leaders of international businesses and members of the House of Lords who use the same, simple practice. The wisdom and healing of the practice is available to everyone because the basic workings of the human mind are universal. The practice isn’t reserved for ‘specialists’ or owned’ by any group and can be practiced by anyone. It’s profoundly egalitarian.
I would suggest starting with the following simple practice.
- Make sure you are sitting comfortably, with your back as straight as you are able, with your body still and relaxed but alert.
- Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply.
- Focus your attention on your breath, follow it flowing in and out through your nose.
- If it helps you focus your attention, choose a word or short phrase and recite it silently in your mind, in time with the inward and outward flow of your breathing. Christians often use the ‘Jesus Prayer’, where you silently recite “Lord Jesus Christ...” with the in-breath, and “...have mercy on me” with the out-breath. Or you might choose a single word, like ‘Love’ or ‘Peace’. Or if you prefer, just focus on your breath and follow it flowing in and out through your nose.
- Whether we follow the breath or use a word or short phrase united with the breath, we are doing this to focus our attention and bring body and mind together, to bring us to stillness.
- When distractions come (and then will!), don’t fight them and don’t be discouraged. Whenever you notice your attention has followed a thought or feeling, just gently bring your attention back to reciting your word and/or following the breath.
- We are not trying not to have thoughts and feelings when we meditate. We are changing our relationship with them. It’s precisely the practice of noticing yourself noticing a thought or feeling then gently, repeatedly, turning your attention back to your practice which helps loosen their grip on you.
- And most importantly, do not place any demands or expectations on yourself. Don’t try to judge or evaluate your meditation. You can’t, so don’t try and worry yourself in the process!
How you approach and understand meditation certainly changes over time as the gifts of the practice manifest in your life. What you ‘feel’ during a time of meditation is not really important. What’s is important is how the wisdom and healing processes of meditation manifest in our everyday life and in our relationships with those around us.
Think of meditation as taking your mind to the gym. When you take your body to the gym you expect to have to work. There will be times when it feels easier and times when you feel tired and you’d rather go to a nearby café and eat an enormous cake. But how it feels is not really the point. We go to the gym for the health benefits we can take into our daily life. We meditate to be present to the wonder of life, to be fully, radically human. It’s that simple, that radical.
One of the most important things to understand about meditation is that it is not acquisitive. When I arrived to live at the Benedictine monastery of Prinknash Abbey, passionate for enlightenment and to immerse myself in the practice, one of the first things the monks did (with much wisdom and gentleness) was to encourage me to stop looking for answers, as if these were objects I might get hold of, grasp and possess in some way. Instead, I was guided to focus on learning to ask. When I say ‘ask’ I don’t mean asking for anything in particular – but just to ask, to cultivate an open, attentive receptivity.
When we meditate, we are not seeking to acquire anything, any more than the vine branch would look to acquire the vine. We are seeking to remove the veils that obscure the truth that is always present, always waiting to disclose itself.
In meditation we discover what we already have. As the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton put it, “You start from where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize you are already there. We already have everything but we don’t know it and don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us. All we need to do is experience what we already possess.”
However much a noisy commercial, commoditized world might wish to sell us meditation on the promise of emotional highs, deep experiences and sure access to truth (and sometimes wealth through the ‘upgrade’ in attention we will ‘obtain’), we already have everything we need. This is a profoundly counter-cultural message, and hopefully one that might bring much relief and joy. We don’t need to acquire anything! It is more case of releasing what obscures our seeing this, knowing that we have everything we need and more than we could ever wish for. That we don’t need to search outside ourselves.
So, ‘What might meditation look like for the beginner?’ It will look very simple, and at times feel like hard work. And when it does feel like hard work, remember that this work is like ‘resistance training’ at the gym for your mind. It’s only to be expected.
The light will break through, like a steady sunrise in the heart.
What are some resources we can use to “get into the groove” of meditation? What about tips for maintaining momentum?
As for resources:
- Read anything by Martin Laird OSA. His books are profound, poetic, and bracingly pragmatic. Also, anything by the Zen master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.
As for tips:
- Practice. If you want to understand the practice and discover it’s riches you have to practice, you have to do the work;
- If you decide to follow the simple practice I have described, if you choose a word or short phrase, stick to it. If you keep chopping and changing it will be more difficult to settle into your practice (a little like wearing new shoes that you are conscious of, rather than a pair you have become so familiar with that you hardly notice them);
Don’t expect to have sudden flashes of light, sudden bursts of enlightened insight.
Don’t look for them, they are not necessary. Just relax into your practice. It is a gentle process. It is like taking a walk through an early morning mist. You hardly notice the tiny droplets of water settling on you, gently penetrating your clothes, until it reaches your skin and you are saturated. There is a beautiful passage from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament (32:2) which has always struck me as beautifully expressive of the process of becoming that meditation disposes us to:
“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” (Deut. 32:2)
Be disciplined. Be diligent. If you can, practice each day for 20 to 30 minutes, in the morning and in the evening.
If you are starting out, be confident that you are setting out on the most profound journey of your life.
If you have been walking this path for some time, you will know this already.