Meditation is mainstream. You can learn it from an app on your phone. “Mindfulness in the workplace” is a thing. And the media is constantly buzzing about the benefits of meditation. But meditation is a much deeper practice than the mainstream would lead you to believe. While it might be easy to find resources to start a meditation practice, it’s not as easy to learn how to advance one’s practice.
Most people are not learning meditation in the traditional guru-student model anymore, so for those ready to deepen their practice, here are some tangible tips that I’ve picked up along the way from my own teachers.
1. Wear earplugs
During meditation, you are directed to turn inward. But what exactly does that mean? In order to effectively turn inward, our five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch must be disengaged from our external environment. Sitting still and closing our eyes is enough to withdraw most of our senses. However, the most difficult, and often the last to turn inward, is our sense of sound. Wearing earplugs, akin to closing your eyes, allows you to more easily tune into the inner space. Earplugs will enable you to actually experience the inner peace and silence that has existed within you all along. The sound of your breath will move from the background to the foreground.
2. Study the Dharma
In the wellness craze, meditation has not only become a buzzword, but also the prescription for stress reduction and anxiety. And while a meditation practice will certainly provide in those areas, they are just some of the fruits along the way—not the destination. There is no better way to understand the deeper purpose of meditation than by immersing yourself in the teachings from which this practice emerged. While the absolute origins of this ancient practice remain hazy (earliest written records come from Indian Hindu traditions in Vedatism from around 1500 BCE), meditation is an integral part of most Eastern spiritual paths, allowing the student to choose what resonates most. A student may choose to study Buddhist texts, learn about the Yoga Sutras, or immerse themselves in the Hindu epic of the Bhagavad Gita. Having an understanding of the dharma (or purpose) behind meditative practices will undoubtedly advance your own.
3. Improve your posture
There can be many hurdles to starting a meditation practice, actually doing it is one and posture is often another. Teachers will often place less emphasis on posture in favor of the student making their way to the cushion. However, when you are ready to deepen your practice, posture is one of those things you can no longer ignore. As the yogis teach, kundalini energy is locked at the base of the spine. In order for this energy to ascend through the chakras moving you towards samadhi (a state of complete oneness or union, also called enlightenment), an upright and straight spine is necessary. Once your spine is in a vertical and elongated position, you may play around with the shapes of your legs to best suit your body for ultimate comfort. You will also want to relax the shoulders, slightly tuck the chin, rest the hands on the lap, un-tense the jaw, and rest the gaze. My teachers call this seven-point meditation posture “going full yogi”.
4. Pick a technique and stick with it
By now, you may realize that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to meditation. With so many styles and techniques, every new meditator is likely to experiment with a few before finding one that works for them. If you try a form of meditation for a few weeks and don’t see any benefits, it would be wise to choose another. But do not be fooled into thinking that meditation is not for you! There is something for everyone, but it is only found with a level of commitment from the practitioner. Once you’ve found a technique you like, stick with it with perseverance. Deeper insights and benefits of meditation come from consistency. The more familiar you become with a technique, the less resistance the mind will have and the more the practice will open up for you, moving you into deeper realms of meditative states of consciousness.
5. Practice off the cushion
The most rewarding part of dedicated meditation practice is when we get to experience the fruits of our labor. At its core, meditation practices are simply a way of guiding our awareness into our present experience so we may meet the moment exactly how it is with a clear vision and skillful action. But engaging our present moment awareness does not need to stop when we get off the cushion. The most fertile practicing ground is our everyday lives. Where can replace our habitual reactions with a moment of mindful awareness? An uncomplicated form of practice is to simply pause. Practice this before jumping out of bed, before eating a meal, or before reacting to a situation.
6. Go on a silent meditation retreat
Our external environment plays an undeniable role in the health and wellbeing of our mind-body system and retreat intends to capitalize on this interdependence. Not only by providing the necessary conditions so our minds and bodies may rest and renew, but also by cultivating dedicated time and space to go deeper into our practice, allowing for expanded insights, the emergence of awakened consciousness, and promotion of healing. There is a reason meditation retreats are done in silence. As the Buddha teaches, silence is the greatest teacher. In fact, Buddha most often passed wisdom through his noble silence rather than his words. This is because some things can only be understood experientially, rather than through the intellectual mind. In essence, this is what a silent meditation retreat provides, a dedicated container where all distractions are removed for you to develop experiential wisdom. Experience is the most profound and lasting way to deepen a meditation practice. If this type of retreat is not in the cards yet, try a DIY retreat. Spend a day alone in nature. Provide yourself space to completely disconnect and commit to resting in silence. As my teacher often offers, nature is a profound teacher.
7. Experiment with longer sits
When starting a meditation practice, it is wise advice to begin judiciously, perhaps 5 to 10 minutes a day. But once you have gotten comfortable with a length of time, try experimenting with longer sits. Now it is important that the amount of time still feels achievable and keeps you motivated to continue. This is not to fixate you on the number of minutes, because quality will always trump quantity. But there is a natural progression that happens when we commit more time to our meditation practice. As the eight-limbed path teaches, there are meditative states (you can think of them as levels of meditation) that we progress through. (Note that this is by no means only a linear progression as we move back and forth between the states.) Not only will we progress through these meditative states session after session, but we will also move through these states within a single meditation session as well. Like any challenging practice, to progress to the more liberating meditative states requires more time.
8. Commit to daily practice
It’s no secret that a daily meditation practice requires discipline, perseverance, and commitment. Alongside the likes of compassion, acceptance, discernment, and humility, these are qualities the yogis teach as important to cultivate on the spiritual path. Experienced meditators will point to daily practice as the most significant way to deepen one’s practice and in turn, transmute the teachings from practice to a more palpable lived experience in waking life. As the great sages have taught, meditation is a practice of connecting to one’s soul, an essential component of leading a fulfilling life. When we feel stressed or overwhelmed, our commitment to our practice is often the first to go. But these are the exact moments we benefit from slowing down the most. A word to the wise from personal experience… if life happens and you miss a day (or a week), simply recommit. The moment guilt or judgment surrounds your practice, you’ve missed the point.
As Buddha said… “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.”