Meditation advice

I have meditated regularly for 13+ years, but my interest in meditation and Eastern philosophies began already when I was a teen.

In 2004, I began studying vipassana (insight) meditation at Deep Spring Center, a non-denominational meditation center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, led by founder and guiding teacher Barbara Brodsky. I also took classes with David Lawson, who later went on to found Still Mountain Buddhist Meditation Center. I studied vipassana meditation and mindfulness, the brahma viharas and metta (lovingkindness) meditation, as well as Buddhist topics and discourses, primarily from the Theravada tradition.

Today, I still meditate regularly and enjoy studying the original texts, such as the Satipatthana Sutta.


Q: How to get started in meditation?


Classes


The best way is definitely to find a local meditation center that offers beginning meditation classes and sign up for a class. Many meditation centers also offer classes through community enrichment programs. That way, you have a teacher to ask questions, and questions will undoubtedly arise as you get your meditation practice off the ground.


Vipassana (insight) meditation


Personally, I would recommend getting started with vipassana, or insight meditation, a meditation practice with roots in the Buddhist Theravada tradition (but you do not need to be a Buddhist to practice vipassana).

I find vipassana suitable for the beginner as it contains progressive steps from focus on the breath, physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, and emotions (with what is called natural concentration, following what is dominant in your experience at that point) to deeper insights such as impermanence and no-self.

It is called meditation practice as it is something one practices regularly and never gets done with. Within the practice are layers and layers of insights so we never stop learning, which is what makes it so interesting!

Here is a link to a good set of vipassana instructions from the New Hope Sangha in Durham, North Carolina, written by Barbara Brodsky and John Orr. I have yet to find an easy-to-read beginner's book on vipassana meditation, so I cannot recommend one at this point. Again, I still recommend taking a class to get started.


Mindfulness meditation


Mindfulness meditation is a concentration practice, closely related to vipassana although vipassana is an insight practice. Mindfulness can be practiced in most aspects of one's life, not only on the meditation cushion (or chair) but also in everyday life. Mindfulness is used both in MBSR, mindfulness based stress reduction therapy, and ACT, acceptance and commitment therapy.

For a good beginner's book on mindfulness, I recommend Full Catastrophe Living, Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness by Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of MBSR. He also offers an audio CD set with both meditation and easy hatha yoga instructions and I have found especially the yoga instructions very useful. As stated above, I still recommend taking a class to get started.


Books and magazines


A few good meditation books and authors for the continuing student


Once you have a foundation practice underway, the following are a select few good books and authors. And if you are taking classes, you will certainly get good recommendations from your teachers as well.

In 1975, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg founded IMS, the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. They all contributed to bringing vipassana to the West and have each written several books about insight meditation and related topics.

One book is Lovingkindness. The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. This book is about lovingkindness or metta meditation, and includes chapters on the other three brahma viharas (heavenly abodes) as well; compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity.

In 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. There, he developed the mindfulness-based stress reduction program, which combines meditation and hatha yoga. He subsequently founded the Center for Mindfulness, also at the UMMS. In addition to his seminal book Full Catastrophe Living, Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, he has written several other books.

No list of meditation books is complete without mentioning Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who founded Plum Village in France in 1982. He has written extensively on mindfulness, peace, and non-violence among other topics. His teachings combine Zen teachings with those from other traditions. A good beginner's book on mindfulness is Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Two other books for the continuing student are Breathe, You Are Alive: Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing on the Anapanasati Sutta, and Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness on the Satipatthana Sutta.

For those ready to enter into the Buddhist discourses, Ven. Analayo has written one of my favorite books on the Satipatthana Sutta, Satipatthana, the Direct Path to Realization, originally his PhD thesis on the Satipatthana Sutta, the Discourse for the Establishment of Mindfulness.


Meditation magazines


For those of you looking for a good magazine on meditation, the three most well-known magazines in the United States are Lion's Roar (formerly Shambhala Sun), BuddhaDharma, and Tricycle. Go to the bookstore and check them out and see if there is anything that speaks to you.

Another magazine is the more recent Mindful Magazine, which among other things has articles about taking mindfulness out into the world.


Equipment needed


None.  :)  You can meditate sitting on an ordinary chair, as long as you can keep your feet steadily on the floor and sit up straight yet comfortably for anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour.

If you like to sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion, you can get a zafu (round meditation cushion) and zabuton (square cushion to keep below the zafu) from a store such as Carolina Morning Designs or DharmaCrafts. You can get a zafu filled with buckwheat hulls that has a zipper so you can adjust the amount of buckwheat to your preference and you can also get washable covers.

If you like something to hold while you meditate, a good size crystal can be useful, such as a clear quartz, amethyst, or rose quartz. Select one that feels good to hold and that fits your hands.


Other practices conducive to meditation and mindfulness


In addition to meditation, many people also have a physical practice that, in addition to providing physical benefits, helps with establishing mental focus and mindfulness. Examples are yoga, perhaps especially an "easier" or lighter practice such as hatha yoga, and tai-chi.


Feldenkrais


Since 2010, I have practiced Feldenkrais, a kind of somatic movement that involves self-awareness and movement. After each session, I am amazed at the changes I experience in both body and mind from doing only very small movements!

As with meditation, I would recommend the interested beginner to take a class in order to get a feel for the foundation, otherwise it is easy to overdo it and not get the full benefit of the movements.

Once you have a few classes under your belt, there are both books and CD sets available.


Feldenkrais and somatics books and CD sets for beginners


One good book is Somatics: Reawakening The Mind's Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna, which includes eight exercise sequences to improve muscular control and movement. The first two exercises alone have helped me with back pain, so this is a truly remarkable book!

Deborah Bowes is one teacher who offers several CD sets, such as Discover Easy Movement and Pain Relief, which I think is a good beginner set. It includes several of my favorites, such as see-saw breathing and easy twisting. Another CD set is her Pelvic Health and Awareness, also suitable for beginners but focused on the pelvic area.


Feldenkrais books and CD sets for the continuing student


Once you have taken a few classes, Awareness Through Movement: Easy-to-Do Health Exercises to Improve Your Posture, Vision, Imagination, and Personal Awareness by Moshe Feldenkrais, the founder of Feldenkrais, is a good introductory book that will remind you of and elaborate on what you have learned in class. The book includes twelve exercise sequences, called lessons, with movements that you probably will recognize from your classes, such as twisting movements relaxing the back, hips, and shoulders, see-saw breathing, and the pelvic clock to name a few.

Deborah Bowes CD set Lessons to Go! Volume 1: The Primary Image contains more advanced movements.

Another teacher is Annie Thoe, who offers an entire series of Feldenkrais lessons under the title Sensing Vitality. The topics include breathing, balance, back, shoulders, vision, and more.  


I wish you good luck in starting your own meditation practice!