Meditation Notes and Resources
Over the past year or so I got a few people asking me about meditation and mindfulness practice and how I would recommend getting started. I am not an expert, monk, or any sort of authority on the subject. I am a beginner, and sometimes a little too proud of my progress. Right now I feel the need to reflect on this information I have gathered, and consolidate some of the texts, advice, and thoughts that I have expressed personally. I do this with the hope it may help others, but also may help myself recognize some of the gems in my practice and revisit them with more vigor, and awareness.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional, if you are suffering deeply seek qualified medical advice.
My journey with meditation started in middle school. I was spending a lot of time on the internet, researching, learning, and programming; and I was always a bit different. I had fallen into the Nihilism trap at a pretty young age and had flirted with the absurdism of Camus a little bit after that. So through [existentialism] and later the Beats I started to get exposed to some Westernized versions of Buddhism, culminating in reading “Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac. Which eventually lead to Allan Watts, Zen, and general mindfulness, often researched through the internet and deployed haphazardly. Nonetheless, I started sitting, and I lost weight, and I quelled deep anxiety and touched the edges of deep frustration with the world. At this time I was mostly following the breath and counting, doing body scans, and the occasional loving-kindness meditation. Through college, as an engineering student, I pretty much gave up on all of this much to the detriment of my internal life, and after college bonded more deeply with the spiritual side of Buddhism, meditation, and mindfulness (and Stoicism and philosophy for good measure). This is not a guide to “the good life”, mental health, or self-care. This is just a list of resources, and useful tools I have found along the way that I hope others may find useful too.
I recommend committing to 5-15 minutes a day to start. Once that feels good you can play with increasing the numbers; however, you will find that keeping awareness for 10 minutes can be exhausting and the habit is more important to start than duration. If you can only spare a minute do it. 10 breaths are better than 0, and the relative benefit of doing anything far outweighs doing a lot. It is good to occasionally push it and go for longer (play with it), a daily practice allows you to be more playful when you sit down to meditate outside of that practice. I think this playfulness is important. You do your daily workouts, then when you have time you can go out and play and perform, the same goes here.
Also remember it is like lifting weights, every time you are distracted it’s not a failure, it is another opportunity to bring your attention back. To lift that weight back up. I would say this might be true for any behavior when received with awareness, it is not in and of itself good or bad, but being aware gives you the power to work with it.
Guided Meditations: Apps and such
- Sam Harris Waking Up App ($100 per month): I have found this app to have the most comprehensive 28-day program, followed by a ton of additional material and talks with many prominent teachers of mindfulness. I highly recommend it to anyone and it is a very secular approach, which combines some elements of mindfulness, concentration practices, and zen.
- Insight Timer App (Free): This is a very different style, it is fundamentally unstructured. They have a really good meditation timer built-in and you can search for all sorts of guided meditations. The quality does vary widely, but I recommend [Jack Kornfield], Tara Brach, and [Joseph Goldstein] as a good starting place on this platform. There are also talks from [Thich Nhat Hanh] and others on here, so it can be a very good exploratory platform.
- I have enjoyed the guided meditations offered by Tara Brach, especially the longer ones and Dharma talks for a spiritual day of recovery and soul healing
I started with simple breath-work:
- Start by sitting down comfortably, in a chair, on the floor, it doesn’t matter. I recommend not laying down, and sitting attentively.
- Breath in and notice the breath. Note the breath and count it.
- Stay with the breath for the whole in and out.
- Count 10 breaths total. If you lose count start back at 1. Simply begin again.
- Repeat for however long you want.
The breath here is the object of concentration as you continue to progress you can experiment by noting sounds, or even open your eyes and note visuals, and I recommend you play with all of this. Unified mindfulness has a categorization of these noting practices, but it need not be complicated. Just concentrate on a sense, and note the sensory input, and move on. If you do many senses at once, just note whichever one is dominant, be with it, and let it go. I always find sound to be a good one for me, it highlights just how temporal our experience is. However, I find that breathing in and out is the best anchor practice. You can always try something else, but if it becomes too much you can return to the breath.
Some other forms of practice that can be good to experiment with early on are Loving Kindness or Metta meditation. I don’t remember where I got this one from, but I have always found it useful and enjoy it for its simplicity:
- Starting with yourself, wish yourself well.
- Grow the circle from yourself to close friends and family, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
- Keep expanding the circle. Bring to mind specific people and wishing them well. I like to grow this circle geographically until it encompasses the whole universe.
- Skip people who it is too hard to wish well, but I encourage you to occasionally try.
It feels sappy at first, but I find my heart can overflow with compassion through these exercises. Giving yourself compassion can be hard, so you can leave yourself out if this is too difficult, but remember:
“If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete” – Jack Kornfield Quote
Here are a few books that I felt helped me along the way. There are many great books, but these had a lasting impact on me.
- Peace is in Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. I read this book constantly. Anytime I get angry or upset or have a poor reaction to the world I thumb through this book. The writing style itself is simple, meditative, and lovely. The examples are so simple, drinking tea, eating an orange. Towards the end, Thay does get farther into an important Buddhist concept called Interbeing, which can be mind-bending. In every flower, there is the sun, the garbage, and you.
- The Other Shore by Thich Nhat Hanh. A beautiful translation of the Heart Sutra dives deep into one of the core misunderstandings of Buddhism, which is in regards to “emptiness”, “non-being”, etc. This misconception can lead to Nihilism, but Thich Nhat Hanh explains why this is not the case. The Heart Sutra is a core Buddhist text and it is nice to interface with the core material and have some commentary.
- Already Free by Bruce Tift. In this book, Tift discusses how western psychotherapy and eastern mindfulness, and Buddhist principles can be synthesized together to both: improve your situation in life, and also realize you are already free. It is a good struggle with a fundamental paradox at the core of mindfulness practice for the driven individual
- This is It by Alan Watts. Is just a bunch of fun essays. Allan Watts brings a bit more of a Zen vibe and is not unwilling to smack you upside the head.
- Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is a wonderful tale of why you deserve to accept yourself, some good exercises for doing so. Stitching together teaching, personal life experience, and actionable meditations into one book that can help you with self-acceptance and compassion.org/wiki/Meditationv