10 things I wish someone had told me before I started meditating

1. Meditation is not therapy

The first meditation session I ever did was led by Tara Brach, a meditation teacher who is also a psychotherapist. Like in her great book “Radical Acceptance,” she seamlessly wove mindfulness together with Western psychology. I left feeling healed, like a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

But the burden of carrying my emotional baggage kept coming back. Meditation would brighten my mood for a few hours, but it wasn’t until I saw a therapist that the baggage became easier to carry.

The spiritual teacher David Deida uses the metaphor of a stained-glass window to differentiate between seeing a therapist and practicing things like meditation and yoga.

“You look at yourself and notice there are pieces broken out of you. There are hunks of glass missing. You’re battered, abused, chipped, wounded, rejected.”

Therapy is like fixing or replacing the broken pieces of glass. It’s meant to heal emotional wounds and address psychological problems that interfere with living a healthy life. Simply put, therapy is about function.

Meditation is like cleaning the stained glass so more light shines through. It’s about flow. It increases awareness of the flow of life in every present moment — the movement of the breath, the sounds, the bodily sensations.

Why does the difference matter? Because of something called “spiritual bypassing,” which psychologist John Welwood defined as the “use of spiritual practices and beliefs to avoid dealing with our painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.”

In other words, it’s easy to pretend — often unconsciously — that by meditating or practicing yoga you’re dealing with your emotional problems. But as Deida says:

“You can be broken as fuck, and still do good yoga. You can be entirely dysfunctional therapeutically, psychologically, emotionally, you can be a wreck, and still be a master yoga. Yoga doesn’t fix the parts of you that are broken. It just takes the dust off.”

If you’re lucky enough to have health insurance, go see a therapist, now. If not, find a therapist who charges using a sliding scale based on income. Your partner, friends, and family will thank me.

2. The ultimate goal is to become friends with yourself

Sure, regular meditation increases focus, cuts stress, and reduces anxiety. But meditation’s biggest benefit can’t be measured.

Mindfulness, according to scientist Jon Kabat-Zinn, is “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” Non-judgmentally. That last word is the key.

Meditation is about befriending all the parts of yourself that you ignore, try to hide, and even hate.

You relax your body and watch your mind. Thoughts appear. Wild thoughts. Sad thoughts. Angry thoughts. Boring thoughts. The body changes. A burning chest. A tense stomach. A scrunched face. You just watch — non-judgmentally. (Meditation teachers sometimes call this part of the practice “compassion.”)

You’d be surprised by how much your life improves when you stop judging everything. Every time you see your partner, every bite of food, even every breath can be a new experience. For me, the real payoff of regular meditation is that I don’t criticize myself as much as I used to.

As 13th century poet and Sufi mystic Rumi wrote:

“This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!”

3. Regular meditation will change your relationships

“In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask before assisting others.” — The flight attendant

Before I started meditating regularly, I didn’t notice that I criticize myself almost constantly.

I obsessively plan what to say next, as if others won’t accept me unless I fix their problems, provide them some value, or come off in a certain way. I spend hours replaying conversations, worrying that others were hurt or weren’t impressed. This leaves me with a noxious mix of self-blame, shame, and guilt, what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness”:

“We don’t recognize what I call ‘the trance of unworthiness’–how much we are trapped in the sense of falling short. And usually it’s on every front in some way. It’s a background noise that’s always saying, ‘How am I doing now?’ Usually we find there’s a gap in how we think we should be and our moment-to-moment awareness. In that gap, we feel like we are always not okay.”

Mindfulness — like any form of “self-care” (more on that in a bit) — is about caring for yourself so that you can better care for others.

The more you befriend yourself, the more you’re able to tolerate others and maybe even appreciate things about them that used to annoy you. The more you think you’re okay just as you are, the more you’ll be able to think others are okay just as they are.

4. Don’t worry about becoming “enlightened”

As a beginner meditator, part of me thought that one day I’d be enlightened like Thich Nhat Hanh or some other Buddhist monk. I’d be mindful all of the time.

Turns out, enlightenment is a contested idea. Buddhist figures and meditation teachers have disagreed about it for centuries.

To Thich Nhat Hanh, enlightenment means being “capable of loving and forgiving.”

To Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, it means a “completely open heart and mind. The very life we have is our working basis; the very life we have is our journey to enlightenment.”

To author of “Why Buddhism is True” Robert Wright, enlightenment is a process: “Pursuing enlightenment is doomed to failure if we think of enlightenment as a kind of end state — if we hope to eventually attain the elusive apprehension of not-self, of emptiness, and sustain that condition forever, living wholly free of delusion and suffering.”

To French Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, it’s a “state of perfect knowledge or wisdom, combined with infinite compassion.”

I like Zen Buddhist Charlotte Joko Beck’s definition:

“My dog doesn’t worry about the meaning of life. She may worry if she doesn’t get her breakfast, but she doesn’t sit around worrying about whether she will get fulfilled or liberated or enlightened. As long as she gets some food and a little affection, her life is fine. But we human beings are not like dogs. We have minds which get us into plenty of trouble.”

The bottom line: don’t worry about becoming enlightened, because who knows what it means.

5. Short is fine as long as you keep momentum

Studies have shown that meditating every day can increase the benefits of the practice, like reducing anxiety and lowering blood pressure. But to be real, I meditate every day because the way it makes me feel wears off during sleep.

It’s like brushing teeth. Every morning I wake up feeling pretty much the same: anxious, tired, and groggy, as if a layer of plaque had built up on my brain. My daily morning meditation clears away the plaque, leaving me more awake, calm, and present.

Some might be motivated by hearing that regular practice can shrink the amygdala, the “fight or flight” part of the brain that processes emotions like anxiety, fear, and aggression. But I don’t meditate because it shrinks my amygdala. I feel the massive difference it makes it my life, and I want to feel that difference every day.

To develop a habit — especially one without visible results — it helps to begin with small amounts. As author of “Atomic Habits” James Clear writes, it’s easier for us to stay in motion once we have started:

“Rather than trying to do something amazing from the beginning, start small and gradually improve. Along the way, your willpower and motivation will increase, which will make it easier to stick to your habit for good.”

Neuroscientific research on meditation is still developing, but a consensus seems to be growing around ten minutes of daily meditation being the minimum viable dose. I started with ten minutes a day for a year before I stretched to 20 minutes, then 30, and then 40. Don’t be afraid to start small — you’ll get there.

And don’t worry about missing a day here and there. As Zen meditation teacher Norman Fischer writes:

“Don’t fall into the unconscious trap that ‘Since I missed a day, I guess I can’t do this, so I might as well not even try, or try less hard tomorrow because this missed day has weakened me.’”

Set a goal but be gentle — treat yourself as you would a good friend.

6. Find classes to sustain your practice

When your routine becomes boring — which it will — seeing others dive headfirst into the unknown of the present moment can re-inspire your solo practice. Groups meet in centers, monasteries, and living rooms in most U.S. cities and regions, many of which are sustained by volunteer effort and donations.

Look for public events. Often, you can hear a talk by a teacher without having to say a word to anyone. Most drop-in style meditation classes are donation-based, meaning they’re virtually free.

For example, Tara Brach’s famous Wednesday night class just outside of Washington, D.C., attracts 250–300 people who show up without registering. She leads 20 minutes of guided meditation and then gives an hour-long talk about mindfulness. Those who go aren’t monks or hippies or religious extremists. They’re “normal” people, experiencing divorces, birthdays, job losses, sicknesses, etc., like anyone else.

Try various types of meditation to see which resonates. Common types include insight (Vipassana), Zen, and various Tibetan Buddhist lineages. Many are secular and require little commitment, if any.

Keep in mind: meditation groups have a long way to go to be more inclusive, particularly for people of color, the working class, and the LGBTQ community. Search until you find your people, even if it’s an online community who meditate over video chat.

(If you’re reading this during the coronavirus crisis, here are two lists of online meditation groups: Tricycle and Insight.)

7. Read books to get inspired

There are three kinds of meditation books, generally speaking: how-to books, theoretical explanations, and personal takes. I find that third category to be the most helpful because it’s the closest to learning from a living, breathing teacher.

Start with Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance,” Pema Chödrön’s “When Things Fall Apart,” or Charlotte Joko-Beck’s “Everyday Zen.” Read free excerpts online before buying one to start with. Based on which of these resonates most, you’ll get a sense of which type of meditation is best for you.

If you like Brach, read more about insight or mindfulness meditation. If you like Chödrön, read about Tibetan. And if you like Joko-Beck, read about Zen.

If all of this sounds too woo-woo and New-Agey, read Dan Harris’s “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.”

I almost always have a book on meditation at my bedside to keep me curious about my practice — which, as you might expect, can get a little boring from time to time.

8. Don’t get too comfortable

When you’re meditating, make sure you’re comfortable but not too comfortable. The idea is to wake up — to what’s happening in the present moment — not to fall asleep.

If you’re sitting in a chair, avoid leaning back. The edge of a bed also works well. Keep your back straight but not strained. Imagine your spine as a stack of playing cards. If you lean too far in one direction, they’ll fall over. It helps to cross your legs under the chair or bed, creating an arch in your lower back.

Either way, find a comfortable position for your body. Some people prefer to meditate lying down. But make sure you’re not dozing off. If that happens, stop and get some sleep.

9. Don’t be ashamed to rely on an app

For the first year of my daily practice I played guided meditations on my phone. I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it if not for Tara Brach’s direction and soothing voice. (Her guided meditations and talks are on YouTube and many meditation apps.)

Find an app and teacher (or two) who resonate with you. My favorite is Insight Timer, which is free and has thousands of guided meditations — including a few of mine. It also allows you to track your progress to keep up momentum.

Don’t use headphones. Find a relatively quiet place, like your bedroom or car, or in a park, and let your phone play out loud. A guiding voice is helpful, especially for those of us who think we think “too much.” (And, no, you don’t think too much. News anchor and author of “10% Happier” Dan Harris calls this the “fallacy of uniqueness. People think that their minds are uniquely busy, but that’s just not true.”)

You don’t need to shave your head and sit in a cave. You don’t need to buy an expensive meditation cushion or Tibetan singing bowls. As Pema Chödrön says in the title of my favorite book of hers, “Start where you are.”

10. You’re not going to convince others to meditate

I’ve spent years trying to get my mother to meditate. I’ve bought her books by Tara Brach and Zen meditation teacher Natalie Goldberg. I’ve invited her to classes, even my own. I asked her to edit an early draft of my ebook. Every time, she rolled her eyes, and then I tried even harder.

Research shows that when someone tells us what to do or how to do it, we respond with defiance, probably because we value our own freedom and decision-making. It takes modeling to maybe convince someone to follow our lead. People are willing to follow the behaviors of others — especially when these behaviors appear to produce good outcomes.

Goldberg once told me that, after a retreat, we want to tell everyone about our experience because we’re so vulnerable. Meditation splits us wide open. But, she said, if we want our wife, best friend, whoever to truly understand what we’ve been through, we should just listen, and they’ll know — they’ll get it.

You’re bound to want your partner, family, and friends to experience the benefits of meditation. But — as hard as this is to accept — they will or they won’t. They’ll try it in due time if it’s meant to be.

As the poet W.H. Auden wrote:

Truth, like love and sleep, resents
Approaches that are too intense.

Want to start meditating or meditate more often?

My ebook, How to Get Out of Your Head, will help you start or stick with a regular meditation practice. Get it for free here.

Listen to my podcast

On Meditation for the 99%, I take meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and Corporate America, and bring it to work, relationships, and, especially, politics. Listen everywhere podcasts are available.