Interested in beginning a meditation practice but don’t know where to begin? You have a mind, body, thoughts, and a natural bent toward awakening.
If you are inspired to establish a personal meditation practice or explore the Buddhist teachings, what is the best way to go about it? For many of us, it’s a very different path than it used to be.
Traditionally, aspiring students would often have to undergo a difficult journey to find a genuine teacher and receive teachings from that master. After they were accepted by the teacher, they could then rely on the sangha, the community of fellow practitioners, to support their practice and study.
The good news is that if you are going it alone, you have the resources you need.
Today, some practitioners still choose the traditional path of finding a teacher and joining a sangha. But many people who are interested in Buddhist practice and philosophy are not inclined to commit to one particular teacher or organization. Or they do not have direct access to a dharma teacher or a community of practitioners. Or they’re just not ready to take that step at this point on their spiritual path.
Although it is challenging, the good news is that if you are going it alone, you have the resources you need. According to the dharma, we naturally bend toward awakening, just like a plant bends toward the sun. It’s who we are.
In the West today, there is a greater abundance of dharma books, dharma programs, dharma magazines, and dharma teachers than ever before. There are YouTube videos of renowned teachers at your fingertips. You can find an overwhelming number of articles about Buddhism online, and if you ask Google even the most obscure dharma questions, you will find a variety of answers. There is no lack of information—and no lack of misinformation either.
But even with all these resources, when it gets right down to it, becoming a practitioner is a do-it-yourself project. Fortunately, though you are on your own, you can learn from the experiences of others. Here are a few simple guidelines that can help you establish a meditation practice and progress on the path of dharma.
Keep coming back to your initial inspiration
Something has inspired you to be interested in actually trying out the meditative practices you have heard about. Many factors have come together to bring you to this point, pushing you from behind and drawing you forward.
When you face challenges, it is good to come back over and over again to that first inspiration, when something fundamental opened up within you. You may feel you are just starting but your journey began long ago.
Don’t take too narrow a view of practice
Here is a simple equation: practice equals meditation plus postmeditation. The reality is that significantly more of our time is spent in our daily lives than in formal meditation. One could take the view that the meditation practice is the real thing and the rest is just life as usual. But instead of thinking of practice as something you do, which you turn on and off, you could shift to the view that because you are a practitioner, everything you do becomes practice.
Be a continual student
There is a saying that goes, “If the student is ready, the teacher will come.” I’ve thought about this a lot. Some people feel bad when they hear this. They think there is something wrong with them, that they are obviously not ready, since no teacher has magically appeared on their doorstep. But I take this saying to mean that when you maintain the attitude of a student, you begin to see teachers everywhere. The whole phenomenal world begins to be filled with teachings that you simply had not noticed before.
Schedule meditation sessions weekly
When students asked my teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, about their difficulties in keeping up their meditation practice, Trungpa Rinpoche often boiled his advice down to a matter of scheduling.
The point is, if you don’t make room for meditation in your schedule, it’s just not going to happen. Rather than waiting for when you are in the mood, it is better to decide ahead of time how much meditation you can commit to in a day and how much you can commit to in a week. You can decide what time of day works best for you, and whether there are days you might need to skip and days where you might be able to do a bit more. Each week, take a realistic look at what is on your plate and schedule your meditation accordingly.
Time each session
When you sit down to meditate, decide in advance how long you plan to do so. Then do the practice and don’t worry about how well or badly it goes.
Personally, I like to set a timer on my phone. That way I don’t have to keep track of time, but can focus on the technique. There are great apps, like Insight Timer, that you can program to whatever length of practice you prefer. A gong rings to start and end a session, and as a bonus, you can see that many other people are meditating at the same time.
Choose a regular place to practice
If it is practical, it is good to set aside a corner of a room or even just a regular spot where you can do your meditation. You may keep a cushion or chair there that you use especially for this purpose. Such a designated area serves as a physical reminder of your intent to practice. Even when you are not practicing, it is as though you’re inviting practice vibes into your living space. Some people like to create altars, hang pictures, or include statues or other objects in that area. which reminds them to maintain an attitude of respect and sacredness in life.
You certainly don’t have to become a Buddhist scholar to engage in meditation practice, but it is important to devote some time to study. As a support for sitting practice, sometimes less study is more, so reflecting on just a short passage each day may be more than enough food for thought.
Personally, I like to go slowly and deeply when I read dharma, giving myself time to consider why something is being said and contemplate the many layers of its meaning and implications. I like to try rephrasing what I have read in my own words.
Overall, it is good to balance practice and study. If you are too attached to words and intimidated by practice, maybe you need to lean into the practice side of things. If you love practice, but are intimidated by study, maybe you need to lean more into sharpening your intellectual understanding. For some book recommendations, see “Buddhism A-Z: Ten Buddhist books everyone should have.”
One of the best supports for practice is daily life. Here you have the opportunity to cultivate behaviors and attitudes that prepare you to be a better practitioner. By paying attention to your behavior and lifestyle, you can put your practice realizations to the test.
It is a two-way street. Your meditative training is nurtured and strengthened by a loving and skillful engagement with the world. In turn, your engagement with the world becomes more effective when it is joined with the greater mindfulness and awareness developed in your formal meditation practice.
Meditation is challenging. It is not so easy to stick with it, and for the DIY meditator, going it alone, it is even harder. But if you are aware of some of the challenges that may arise, it will be easier to deal with them and keep moving forward.
Each of us is mixing our unique history, style, habits, and understanding with the practice, so different obstacles and breakthroughs will arise for each person. However, it may be helpful to go over a few of the common challenges you are likely to encounter. Hopefully this will help you to be less surprised or discouraged when they do arise. They are to be expected and are not a sign of failure. Actually, they are an indication that your practice is starting to cook. Traditionally, it is said that more progress means more challenges.
Learning to meditate
As a beginning DIY practitioner, the first challenge is to find clear instructions on how to meditate. There are many different schools of meditative training, and you need to choose a technique that makes sense to you. Once you have decided, then it is important to explore that technique and become familiar with it through direct experience—through practice.
Doing one thing repeatedly and well is apt to bear more fruit than dabbling in one thing after another, or taking a mix-and-match approach. Meditation practice is called “practice” for a reason: just like a singer practicing scales or a yogi practicing downward dogs, the point is repetition, doing the same thing over and over.
For one such practice, try Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple instruction, “How To Sit.”
The second challenge is to get used to meditation practice on a physical level. Most of us are not used to sitting still for any length of time; nor are we used to sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion.
It is common to experience physical pains of various sorts as your body adjusts to sitting practice. When that happens, instead of becoming disheartened or freaking out, it is useful to explore such sensations as they arise. Some pains seem to come and go. They are shifty: they’re there and then they’re gone. If they stick around, you can alleviate many physical pains by adjusting your posture so that it is more relaxed and balanced.
Basically, when pain persists or grows, you have the option of either sticking it out or giving yourself a break. You could move to a chair, or stretch and regroup. As a guideline for responding to pain, try to find a middle ground between being too tight or too loose.
You also might have a health or bodily issue you need to take into account. As a DIY practitioner, you need to find a posture and sitting set-up that works for you.
Staying on track
A third challenge is figuring out if you are on track or not. Without a meditation guide, how do you know if you are doing it right?
This can be quite tricky and subtle. It really puts you, as a DIY practitioner, on the spot, for it is sometimes said that one who is self-taught has a fool for a teacher. But a few guidelines may be helpful here.
One is to be aware of the fixed views and expectations you bring to the practice. As they arise, simply note them and return to the technique.
Be wary of attempts to match your experience to what you think should be happening. Instead try to stay with your present experience just as it is.
Traditionally, the only true measure of whether your meditation practice is on track or not is the extent to which your attachments, conceptual fixations, habits, and egocentrism are increasing or diminishing.
Another obstacle to watch out for is doubt: doubt about what you are doing and doubt about yourself.
Without the encouragement of a teacher or community, it is easy to begin to doubt what you are doing. The people around you may be uninterested or even threatened by what you are doing. Furthermore, we are deeply enmeshed in a world where materialistic assumptions dominate, and it is not so easy to go against the momentum of that paradigm.
Many of us also have the deep-rooted doubt as to whether we have the chops to succeed as meditators. We doubt our own nature—our own goodness and capacity to grow. On the other hand, a certain amount of discouragement is good, as our fantasies and unrealistic expectations begin to be exposed. It is actually an opportunity to let go of a lot of mental anguish and complexity and come back to a simpler, more unadorned relationship with your practice, your world, and yourself.
What lies beneath
Meditation practice is a way of calming and steadying the mind, but it also brings insight, and it is not always so easy to deal with the insights that arise.
Meditation is like a mirror that reflects yourself to yourself dispassionately and accurately. The inner world it reflects turns out to be quite busy, with multitudes of thoughts, memories, emotions, moods, fantasies, and visions. Everyone you know lives there, and everything you have done lives there, including your loves, embarrassments, regrets, losses, disillusionments, and betrayals.
The good news is that this uncovering process tends to be a gradual one, going from more surface concerns down to more deep-rooted patterns. The challenge is that this process can bring up strong emotions.
Always, the best response is to be gentle. As you get more experience with practice, you may be able to slow down and see how emotions emerge quite subtly, but rapidly become full-grown and overwhelming. Catching the emotions as they first arise shifts the balance of power, so that you are less under their control.
You may feel lonely and isolated as a DIY practitioner but, in fact, practitioners within sanghas are lonely too.
When you are practicing meditation, no matter how many teachings you have received or sangha compatriots you have, you are on your own. No one can practice for you. You have to do it yourself.
This is as true for the longtime Buddhist as it is for the DIY beginner. You are the only one who knows what is going on in your own experience, the only one who knows your history from the inside out. Other people may have their ideas and opinions, but only you know when you are genuine and when you are phony, when you are just going through the motions and when you are really practicing.
The challenge is to learn to trust this loneliness, to rest in it and acknowledge it in others. It is the ground for a more open and heartfelt connection to the people around you and for an enhanced appreciation of the natural world.
You Have All You Need
Dharma practice is not for a select few privileged ones. It is for anyone who is inspired to engage in a journey of self exploration.
You don’t need special credentials to become a good dharma practitioner. As my teacher once said, all you need are three things: a restless body, a wandering mind, and out-of-control emotions. With those three you are well qualified.
As a DIY practitioner, you are your own coach and encourager, and your own critic as well. Fortunately, you can also rely on the people around you and the situations of everyday life as a reality check as to how you are doing. You can bring every aspect of your everyday life onto the path of dharma. It’s like the basketball saying, “Nothing but net.” But in this case, it is “Nothing but dharma.”