Meditation Tips for a Lifetime of Practice

I recently shared a long thread of opinionated meditation tips on Twitter. This post is a cleaned up and polished version of that thread. Whether you’re brand new to meditation, or you’re interested in kick-starting your existing practice, I hope this post will have something helpful for you.

Preparing to Meditate

Before you start meditating, I recommend you invest in your general well-being. Getting the basics down will make it easier and more rewarding to meditate.

  • If you’re looking to stress less / be 10% happier, you’re probably going to get more bang from your buck from exercising, sleeping well, and eating right. Take care of your body.
  • Seriously, go do some basic cardio. Running is free, yo, just like meditation – and it gives you a head start on cutting through the hindrances (more on these later).
  • Practice using a gratitude journal for a time (1-3+ months). It will help you learn to feel good emotionally in your body, a skill that will come in handy later. Again, this will probably get you more bang for your buck early on than vanilla mindfulness practice.
  • Unfortunately, feeling good is not enough. You’ll also need to feel all of the yucky, uncomfortable feels that you’ve probably ignored and repressed because of trauma. Until you learn to fully feel, express, and resolve these, they’re going to block you in your meditation practice and your life. Techniques like Gendlin’s focusing and the Bio-Emotive Framework can help.
  • As you learn more about meditation, you’ll probably encounter Buddhism and other contemplative spiritual traditions. Be open and humble. Go to the source where possible and e.g. read Buddhist scriptures. They’re pretty damn good. Access to Insight is a gem.
  • Feeling good physically and emotionally in your body matters. If you’re doing all the things I’ve mentioned and still feel like crap, it might be a sign that you need to make behavioral and ethical changes in your life.
  • Buddhism has a pretty great starting point for ethics: the Five Precepts. Don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit sexual misconduct, don’t lie, and don’t use intoxicating/addictive substances. These are ethical table stakes.

Starting A Meditation Practice

With the basics down, you’re ready to start your meditation practice.

  • Meditation is a life-long journey. Plan to meditate for the rest of your life.
  • In the beginning, consistency beats quantity. Practice for the minimum amount of time that you can reliably maintain. 1-5 minutes every day > many minutes irregularly.
  • Have realistic expectations. It may take a little while to see the benefits of practice – it probably takes at least 50 hours to get really meaningful results from your meditation practice. Stick with it and get over the hump.
  • Meditation can be fun. Practice in a way that optimizes for fun, pleasant, enjoyable, relaxing.
  • Meditation apps are great. Brightmind is the best I’ve seen.
  • Motivating yourself is a key skill you’ll need in meditation and life. Know why you want to practice and how to remind yourself of it, especially specific phrases or images.
  • In many respects, meditation is like exercise. If there’s a problem or something that’s confusing to you, consider how you might approach a similar situation in physical exercise. In most cases this mere transposition solves the “problem.” Daron Larson is a master of this.
  • Learn and consistently do loving kindness / compassion practice or similar techniques from the very start of your meditation practice. These techniques have more power early on than e.g. following the breath. Why? Many of us in modern culture have psychological trauma; loving kindness helps heal these wounds.
  • Just so you know, it’s possible to enter very deep states through metta / loving kindness practice. So don’t think of it as a lesser form of practice.
  • To my great sadness and boredom, loving-kindness techniques are often taught formulaically. Try the formulas, but be playful and experimental. Go in the direction of feeling emotions in your body.

Meditating With Your Body

Meditation is something you do with your body, not your head. Here’s how to meditate with your body.

  • You can use your posture, your breathing, your muscles, and your awareness to stay in your body. Meditate with your body, not your head.
  • Relaxation is a technical term; learn to relax. We unconsciously build muscular tension throughout our days and our lives. But we can apply awareness and intention towards gradually relaxing that tension.
  • Smile. Smiling releases chemicals that make you feel good. It’s okay to fake it until you make it.
  • Meditate in loose clothing. It will help your body to breathe naturally, rather than feeling subtly tight and constricted.
  • Breathe through your nose.
  • Breathe slowly. You can learn to breathe far, far more slowly than you are probably used to. Breathing slowly will slow down your thinking and bring you into your body.
  • Breathe into your abdomen rather than your chest. Chest-first/chest-only breathing is bad. Once you’ve filled your abdominal area with oxygen you can optionally breathe into your chest as well for a whole body breath.
  • All 360° around your abdomen and ribs can expand and contract with healthy abdominal breathing. Learn to breathe so that your ribs expand laterally. Placing your hands at your ribs can help you feel this motion.
  • The breath can move into and through the sitz bones and the pelvic floor as well. Integrate this area into your breathing.
  • It’s normal to feel pain when meditating, especially in the beginning. The good news is that this often gets better with time. The bad news is that it might take a few years.
  • When you practice meditation, try to move as little as possible – or even better, not at all. The breathing you’ve been working on will help diminish fidgetiness and discomfort, especially breathing slowly.
  • You’re still exercising, right? To make exercise more fun: experiment with practicing meditation immediately before exercising. Experiment with practicing immediately after exercising. Notice if either ordering affects/improves your qualitative experience of either activity.
  • Aim to end meditation sessions on a good note, feeling happy and relaxed. Your brain will associate meditation with this bodily pleasure. A few strategies: shorter sessions; ending with loving kindness or other, similar techniques; lying down for a few moments in total relaxation.

Posture

OK, you’re exercising and eating right and sleeping well and you’re grateful and you’re compassionate and you’ve improved your ethics, too. Now for the real good stuff: posture. Good posture will help you take care of your body, feel good emotionally, stay in your body, and be focused.

  • Start meditation sessions by establishing good posture.
  • Picking a good posture to sit in will help you get started on the right foot. If you can sit in full lotus position, or half-lotus, do it. To a close approximation these are the best meditation postures.
  • If you can’t, sit in Burmese, which is gentler and easier for Westerners.
  • If you can’t sit in Burmese, sit with a seiza bench.
  • If you can’t sit in seiza, sit forward in a chair (don’t let your spine touch the back of the chair)
  • If you can’t sit in a chair, lie down. Practicing while lying down is a totally valid way to practice – just don’t fall asleep. If you can trust yourself to not fall asleep, enjoy it! It’s a lot easier to stay physically relaxed while lying down.
  • You don’t have to have perfect posture right away. That’s not feasible for most of us. Instead, be sure you are learning about and improving your posture over the months and years of your practice.
  • If you remember nothing else about posture, remember this: upright and relaxed. Start sessions by straightening up and settling in: making your spine as long as you can, and relaxing your muscles. Upright body, alert mind; relaxed body, relaxed mind.
  • In whatever position you sit in, maximize the surface area between the lower half of your body and the ground. Feel the points where you contact the ground and enjoy the relaxation and security that comes from those points.
  • In all positions except horizontal / supine / lying down, make sure your hips are above your knees. This image will help you see what that looks like.

  • Balance your body from front/back and side/side. Move like a pendulum to the extremes, back and forth, and find the midpoint.
  • Open your chest, like you’re confident and proud. Notice that opening your chest makes you feel confident and proud. Enjoy that.
  • Bring your neck forward, and notice it’s very hard to breathe abdominally. Bring your neck back, and notice it’s easy to breathe abdominally. Keep your neck in this position.

  • Elevate the top of your spine. Your chin will tuck naturally as a side effect. Avoid looking like the meditator in Time Magazine’s mindfulness special. This head position is a surefire recipe for you to think a whole bunch of thoughts (read: not be in your body).

  • Tuck your tailbone.
  • Go to a yoga class – hatha yoga is a great complement to meditation. One of hatha yoga’s main goals is to help you with seated meditation, so that you can sit still in good posture for a long time.
  • A good hatha yoga teacher can help you learn these postural alignments. For fast feedback, practice moving in and out of good posture as they narrate what’s happening.
  • They might look funny or feel weird, but use mudras – hand positions. Mudras help your hands to relax and become still. Here’s a good, simple one.

Photo by David Gabriel Fischer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Concentration and the Five Hindrances

The Buddhists love their numbered lists, like The Eightfold Path, The Four Noble Truths, and The Three Jewels. One such list, the Five Hindrances, will help you to work with distractions and improve your concentration.

  • Getting distracted in meditation practice is normal. Meditation develops concentration in two ways: by staying with the focus object, and by noticing when you are getting distracted. Rather than getting angry at yourself when you get distracted, celebrate that you noticed you were distracted!
  • When we get distracted, you have a chance to notice the nature of your mind more clearly. In most cases, you’ve probably stumbled into one of the Five Hindrances. Memorize these bad boys: want, hate, agitation, stupor, and doubt.
  • Having memorized the Five Hindrances, learn to recognize them in your experience. Learn which shows up most frequently for you and why, and learn what works for you to break through them.
  • There are many, many strategies for breaking through the hindrances, and you’ll have to find what works for you, but simple mindfulness helps with all of them. If a hindrance comes back, fall back to being mindful.
  • Here’s what typically works for me for each hindrance. For want, I notice that I’m craving the thing and consider the ways in which that thing is not that good or satisfying. E.g. food doesn’t last a very long time.
  • For hate, I do loving kindness practice. I remember that the person I’m annoyed at / angry at / hateful towards wants to be happy. Or if that’s hard, loving kindness towards anyone and everyone helps.
  • For worry/anxiety, I slow my breathing down and/or say nice things to myself (positive self-talk) and/or do mindful review. I blogged about Mindful Review here.
  • Most of the hindrances show up in multiple ways. E.g. stupor can be sleepiness or laziness. For sleepiness, I open my eyes, straighten my spine. Rinse and repeat.
  • OK, sometimes opening your eyes and straightening your spine isn’t enough for sleepiness. That’s when I break out the big guns. Really, really, really slowing down the breathing – in particular extending the exhale can help you generate energy and wakefulness.
  • Here’s an early video of my meditation teacher teaching this technique, which is called sussokan or the extended exhale.
  • Stupor can also manifest as laziness. Use your motivation skills here. Remember why you’re practicing.
  • Feel free to get dramatic and big picture here. Pep talks and severe talking-tos are great. I typically recall that our whole species and planet are at risk of collapse and extinction. Mindfulness is helping me become a leader that can face these problems.
  • Doubt in its extreme form is thinking “this is bullshit.” In a less extreme form it’s subtly not really believing that meditation is a good use of your time. Again, reason yourself into remembering that meditation and mindfulness are good in general and for you in particular.
  • Take time off the cushion to really let these Five Hindrances sink in conceptually. Recall times when they’ve been present for you, and what that was like. Write down a plan: if I experience desire, I will… if hate, I will… if worry, I will… if stupor… if doubt…
  • Celebrate! If you can reliably: not be a jerk, do good things, take care of your body, feel good emotionally, sit down to meditate with good posture and notice/cut through the hindrances- you will increasingly find a new kind of joy and satisfaction from integrity/awareness.

Exploring Meditation Techniques

If you can cut through the hindrances, you can stay with your technique. Here’s what to do once you’ve developed this level of consistency in your concentration power.

  • There are a lot of techniques out there. Learn about them! Try them!
  • Having learned about the many, many meditation techniques there are out there, try making your own meditation techniques. Be creative and playful.
  • Then again, you can also keep it simple. Let following the breath be the default technique – the default when you have done everything else mentioned here, especially cutting through the hindrances.
  • Whatever technique you do, commit to doing a specific meditation technique for a specific period of time – the whole session, or part of the session (then switch techniques).
  • At this point the breath becomes a really, really important tool. You’re already breathing into your abdomen, and slowing your breathing, and you may have learned to energize it as well. Be playful in experimenting with different breathing techniques.
  • In addition to the technique in the video shared previously, try the Wim Hof technique, which is becoming more and more popular/well-known. This and other techniques will convince you intellectually and physically that the breath can alter your conscious experience dramatically.
  • Most Western mindfulness instruction errs towards “following” the breath passively; counterbalance that by learning to “manipulate” or change the breathing actively. Play with different points along this spectrum.
  • Whichever strategy you take, whichever technique you do, avoid letting the breath become stale/static/repetitive.
  • Try to see if you can let the breath affect / flow through your whole body.
  • Learn to “breathe into” specific parts of your body. This can be as simple as bringing awareness to those parts of your body while you breathe, but can get more involved.
  • This is a good point to take time to re-investigate why you want to practice mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality. You might not have the same reasons for practicing that you did when you started.
  • Although self-oriented reasons for practice are valid and good, there are other, more wholesome motivations: relentless, determined renunciation; compassion for all beings; doubt and confusion about basic issues to life and death; vigor and energy; faith and trust. Recognize and summon these.

Going Deeper In Formal Practice

There are always ways to keep your meditation practice fresh and exciting. Here are some ways to spice things up.

  • Read widely, learn widely. Read the original texts of wisdom traditions. Read contemporary interpretations and practice manuals. Practice applying what you learn and trusting your intuition as to what you should put into practice.
  • Reading about meditation and spirituality helps give you information, but it also serves to inspire you. Include books about meditation and spirituality in your reading regimen, and you will naturally benefit from the motivation boost.
  • Here are some ways to dramatically accelerate your practice. A tried and true method is “strong determination” sitting – commit to sitting in a specific posture for a specific period of time without moving. This helps you learn to work with physical pain and strong emotions.
  • Another similar method is what Shinzen Young calls “trigger practice,” “[exposing] yourself to a sight, sound, or physical-type body sensation that would tend to create a mental and/or emotional reaction within you.”
  • Sad, scary, even cringe-worthy YouTube videos works great for trigger practice, as does music you dislike and news you don’t agree with.
  • You can also enjoy trigger practice! Funny gifs, adorable cat pictures, news you agree with, and music you like all work splendidly.

Practicing All Day Long

Aim to have the mindfulness you cultivate during formal practice periods seep into the rest of your day. Maintaining mindfulness or heedfulness through your whole day will accelerate your meditation practice; it will also help you to develop ethically.

  • There are a few important strategies for practicing through the whole day. If you haven’t already, take up a contemplative movement practice, like yoga, tai chi, or qi gong. These are designed to help you maintain and increase your mindfulness skill and power in motion and life.
  • Walking meditation is also great. Fast walking meditation, slow walking meditation, it’s all good. Make time to practice in motion.
  • You can keep your meditation technique going throughout the day, even when you’re not formally practicing. Simpler techniques work better for this – e.g. following the breath.
  • One approach is to use “micro-hits” – short periods of practice of 1+ minutes that you sneak into your day: at your desk, in the bathroom, in the parking lot, etc. As you normally do, commit to a specific technique for a specific time. Enjoy these practice sessions- have fun!
  • Another approach is “background practice” – keeping 20% of your attention on your technique throughout the day, while 80% is dedicated to the task at hand. You might be surprised that this can actually improve your performance at certain tasks.
  • Use Shinzen’s challenge sequences to help you practice increasing your mindfulness throughout the whole day: take a meditation technique and “attempt to maintain it through a sequence of progressively more challenging activities.”

Practicing In Community

Western culture worships independence and individualism, but you can’t complete the spiritual path by yourself. Find and build communities of spiritual practice.

  • Finding a “sangha” or community of people that you can practice with on a more regular basis, e.g. for a couple of hours or more each week. Formal practice with other people helps hold you accountable and you also get to learn from others. Plus, it’s more fun with other people!
  • Circling, authentic relating, and other interpersonal practices are an excellent complement to meditation. They help you practice awareness in the presence of others; others can also help you notice patterns of behavior and speech that you might not detect on the meditation cushion.
  • Monastic communities are the ultramarathoners of meditation and spiritual practice. Visit a monastery to get inspired.
  • Find a coach or teacher to work with. Depending on how serious this is for you, they can be like a workout advisor or an all-inclusive spiritual teacher. In any case do due diligence internally and socially to make sure you trust them / they are trustworthy / they are qualified.
  • Remember you’re in this for the long haul. Schedule time each year for an extended period of practice. The typical goal is to do at least one silent week long meditation retreat with a qualified teacher each year. Plan ahead of time, then go do it!
  • At this point, if you haven’t already, you should learn about concentration states and insight attainments. Know that these are easily confused and you’ll want your teacher to verify any that you find.
  • Be open to receiving feedback about your practice from teachers and senior practitioners. Be open to receiving feedback about your actions from anyone and from the world. You have something to learn from everyone, in every moment.
  • Have the humility to branch out into spiritual traditions that are unfamiliar and even uncomfortable to you. Be charitable and assume that practices and customs have reasons and benefits you might not be aware of.
  • Notice if there are any traditions or practices you are especially averse to. A very overly simplistic heuristic is that the more aversion to a spiritual practice you have, the more likely you are to benefit from it.
  • For example, having an altar. Someone else’s altar is probably not going to resonate with you and may even turn you away from this time-honored tradition. But having a place with items that remind you why you’re practicing is a tried-and-true method for hacking motivation.
  • Another example: chanting. Chanting can strike people in Western culture as weird, foreign, backwards or bad. But chanting in a group hacks motivation *and* concentration – especially with chants that repeat the same phrase. Chanting is way easier than everything I describe here.
  • Yep, I’ve been averse to both altars and chanting in the past – and then benefitted from them. My example proves there’s hope for you. Other powerful but aversion-generating spiritual technologies: bowing, generosity (donations), prayer, visualization, pilgrimages, community

Serving Others

Formal practice isn’t about separateness, isolation, navel-gazing. We do formal meditation practice to live our lives, to dance our dance, to manifest our vows.

  • So much of this path has to do with inspiration; all of it has to do with friendship. As an early meditation teacher of mine, Frances Brown, said in her memoir: you will be inspired by others, and you will inspire others.

  • You’re now in a position to inspire, help, and even teach others. Try teaching meditation and mindfulness to someone. You will find that this is a mutually supportive relationship, precious and sacred.
  • Consider the possibility that you are a bodhisattva, a saint, a being dedicated to the service to others. You don’t go through this much challenge, put this much effort in, just for yourself.
  • Stay humble. There’s always more to learn, always more to grow, always higher standards to hold yourself to. This is more and more important as you progress – and also increasingly rewarding.
  • Take every opportunity you can to be of service to others. This includes obvious things, big things, small things, and subtle things. Teaching is service. Feeding someone is service. Smiling is service. Being present with someone is service.
  • Take a good look at the problems we’re facing collectively and see if there’s a way you can help. Consider the possibility there’s a service you can do others and the world that no one else can. All of the skills you’ve built with meditation will serve you as you serve others.
  • Then again, don’t take yourself too seriously. Learn to laugh, and to enjoy it. That’s a practice, too.

I hope that these tips were helpful to you! Consider taking some time to take notes on what you found that was new, motivating, or helpful, and how you plan to apply it.

Further Reading

  • Maple Seeds: much of this post is a poor summary of Soryu Forall’s meditation teachings; this is a book I wrote that summarizes his teachings.
  • Meditation Handout: an overview of practice that I give all of my meditation students.

Thanks to Venkatesh Rao for inspiring this post with “Threadapalooza 2019,” and to James Stuber for pushing me to participate. Thanks to Daron Larson for helping to improve this post, and to Stewart Alsop for his suggestions on breathing (Stewart offers live breathwork sessions on Zoom by donation – how cool!). And special thanks to my teacher, Soryu Forall, who has helped me to learn so much of what’s shared here and on the spiritual path more broadly.

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