Meditation isn’t a new phenomenon but an ancient practice used by yogis for thousands of years. Originally brought to the west by gurus like Swami Vivekananda, Maharishi, and D.T. Suzuki, meditation’s popularity continued to grow through endorsements from celebrities like The Beatles.
The last 10 years have sparked a resurgence propelling meditation and mindfulness into a global trend. Since 2012 the number of people practicing meditation has tripled with over 14% of the US population stating that they have tried meditation. While the growing awareness and embrace of meditation is encouraging it’s unclear how many people are practicing consistently and diligently.
On a surface level, meditation can produce positive effects but it is only those who practice deeply that will reap its greatest benefits. In this article, we will explore everything you need to know to go from beginner to skilled meditator.
What is meditation?
Meditation is the act of training attention and awareness to cultivate concentration and mindfulness. We can understand attention as that which immerses us in the content of our experience and awareness as that which knows the context of our experience.
Concentration is our ability to stabilize attention. In other words, concentration is being able to keep your attention on an object of choice for a prolonged period of time.
Mindfulness is a bit more nuanced. The mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. Meditation Master Culadasa defines mindfulness as “the optimal interaction between attention and awareness.” We are mindful when we can see both the content and the context of our experience simultaneously.
Instead of being immersed in the thinking of a thought, you are aware of the thought arising. The thought is the content and you sitting here, right now, meditating, watching the thought is the context. Mindfulness is the watchful awareness, a sort of stepping back from experience that requires at least a base level of concentration.
What are the different types of meditation?
There are a wide variety of meditation techniques today but most of them fall into the category of concentration or mindfulness. It is important to remember that we cannot fully disentangle concentration from mindfulness but we can choose to predominantly focus our efforts towards either end.
Concentration focused practices allow us to access deep states of peace and bliss. In all concentration practices, you direct attention towards an object of choice while ignoring everything outside of it. Your object of concentration can be the breath, a mantra, a kasina, a candle flame, a flower, or any other physical object.
The shadow side of concentration focused practices is that they can turn meditators into bliss junkies and escapists. Practitioners that learn to develop high levels of concentration can hang out in absorption states while blocking out all other aspects of experience. These states can be extremely healing but they can also serve to maintain ignorance.
Mindfulness focused practices allow us to access insights into the true nature of things. We practice mindfulness by observing whatever arises in our mental space without focusing on anything in particular. This type of practice allows attention to move fluidly without you trying to control it.
The shadow side of mindfulness focused practices is that they can make meditators unstable and agitated. Those who practice mindfulness without the lubrication of sufficient concentration may find the meditative path to be needlessly rough.
At any given time a meditation practice will lean towards concentration or mindfulness. Becoming a skilled meditator requires learning how to balance these two distinct yet complementary skills.
Most people become interested in meditation for its mind-calming effects. Some decide to meditate to improve energy, focus, and performance. But few take their practice far enough to recognize that there is something more profound that meditation offers. Meditation can certainly calm the mind, improve energy, focus, as well as performance, and well-being but its greatest promise is that of awakening.
What is awakening?
Awakening otherwise known as enlightenment or Self-realization is the permanent awareness of Ultimate Truth. It is simultaneously the transcendence of false self (ego), the recognition of True Self, and the complete liberation from all suffering. Meditation master Daniel Ingram states it in a more practical manner “awakening is not a thing or a mind state or a thought, it is an understanding of perspective without some separate entity that perceives”.
The concept of awakening or enlightenment seems like a fairy tale to most yet even the most skeptical can follow simple meditation instructions and see for themselves where this practice leads. Doubt is one of the obstacles in meditation practice but we must not abandon it too soon. As the buddhist scholar Garma C.C. Chang once wrote “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening. No doubt, no awakening.”
What is insight?
Mindfulness focused practices are sometimes called Vipassana or insight meditation. Insight is special wisdom or understanding that can only be accessed in a concentrated and tranquil state of mind. Unlike ordinary insight, the insight we are speaking of here is not derived from intellect or belief. It can be understood as ultimate or fundamental wisdom because it can be perceived in all experiences without exception.
The late great meditation teacher Rob Burbea defines insight as “any realization, understanding, or way of seeing things that brings, to any degree, a dissolution of, or a decrease in, dukkha (suffering).” He continues “Rather than being based upon faith in the experience of another, or upon blind beliefs – even ‘Buddhist’ beliefs – about how things are, insight, as we are defining it, is based primarily on personal experience of what decreases dukkha. When there is insight, the seeing melts dukkha; and that release of dukkha we can feel and know for ourselves.”
Those who practice deeply will experience what is meant by the old adage “The Truth shall set you free”. The way things truly are is liberating; what is true sets us free. When we feel trapped in suffering we can be sure it is due to ignorance that is obscuring us from seeing the true nature of things. The culmination of insight leads to awakening; and complete liberation from suffering.
What are the obstacles to meditation?
There are 5 obstacles that all people face when they sit down to meditate. These obstacles have traditionally been called the 5 hindrances and are mental states that occur in all people to varying degrees. These mental states have been useful in our survival but if we want to progress in our meditation we have to learn to overcome them. All meditators experience each of these obstacles but depending on their unique wiring several of them will be harder to overcome. The 5 obstacles to meditation are aversion, desire, dullness, anxiety, and doubt. An easy way to remember them is A-D-D AD as in Attention Deficit Disorder ADvertisment. Makes sense considering that we are trying to develop concentration and these are obstacles to it.
1.Aversion or ill will
Aversion is the resistance to unpleasant experiences in life. In its most extreme form aversion can manifest as the urge to destroy or get rid of. We feel aversion in response to anything we don’t like. The mental tendency of aversion evolved to help humans survive and stay away from that which may harm or kill us. Even today this quality can be useful but it typically creates more harm than good.
While aversion kept us running from the wild tiger it now keeps us glued to the couch away from any physical discomfort. All judgment and criticism arise from aversion. Every time you pick up your phone to avoid boredom you are being guided by thoughts of aversion. Through meditation, we can access deep states of joy which will naturally override the negative mental state of aversion. We can realize that we don’t need to run from pain, discomfort, or fear because true liberation lies on the other side of them.
2.Desire (more specifically worldly desire)
Worldly desire is our attachment to the pleasures of the material world. This includes the pursuit of pleasure in the form of material possessions, money, fame, status, and power while preventing pain in the form of losing these aspects. Desire evolved in humans to motivate us to collect resources and reproduce. This is also why our default mental wiring makes sure that pleasure doesn’t last. Imagine if humans could have everlasting joy after one meal or one night of sex, none of us would be here today.
Desire helps us survive but when uncontrolled it creates suffering. The same desire that kept us from starving in the past is responsible for the obesity epidemic today. Through meditation, we can learn to see how desire manifests in our lives and how it leads to suffering. The goal is not to repress desire but to learn to enjoy pleasures without grasping or attachment.
3.Dullness (Laziness & Lethargy)
Dullness arises from laziness and lethargy. Laziness can be understood as procrastination while lethargy is our urge to get rest. Both arise due to a lack of energy or mental clarity. Most of us see laziness as a negative quality but it evolved for a reason. Laziness prevented us from spending time on activities that were unproductive or unpleasant. This allowed us to conserve our time & energy for survival, reproducing, and other pleasurable activities.
Whenever we are too lazy to partake in an activity it is because we believe the costs outweigh the benefits. The technological inventions that help automate tasks are designed to tap into our inborn tendency for laziness. Our ancestors had to be physically fit to survive, now fitness is an option. Lethargy arises when nothing interesting or important is showing up in our experience. The purpose of it is to allow us to get rest and recovery. We need to see the long-term rewards of more demanding tasks to overcome laziness and lethargy. Through meditation practice, we learn how to overcome this tendency and develop a more diligent, resilient mind.
4.Anxiety ( restlessness or agitation due to worry and remorse)
We experience this kind of agitation both when we reflect on the past or imagine the future.
Our ability to think back and ahead has helped humans become the dominant species on this planet. But like the other mental tendencies, it can bring us great suffering and prevent us from being in the moment. When we live our lives in a questionable manner we experience remorse for our past actions or worry about future consequences. Through meditation, we can connect to our innate goodness and resolve to live in a virtuous manner. As we develop mindfulness we learn to live in a way that is more conducive to our mental well-being. Our excessive worries dissipate as we begin to trust the decisions we make.
Doubt evolved to help us question and investigate the world. A healthy dose of skepticism is a requirement of clear thinking but too much doubt can hurt the quality of your life. When we have too much doubt we become overly focused on negative results and consequences. We lose the ability to believe in our success and good outcomes. We cannot avoid uncertainty in life and it is uncertainty that causes us to doubt. However, we can learn to use doubt in a healthy balance and make peace with uncertainty in our lives. As our meditation practice strengthens, excessive doubt is transformed into faith.
How Attention works and How to meditate
When most beginners sit down to meditate they have no clue what is going on in their minds. By Learning how attention works we can improve our understanding of meditation and deepen our practice.
Our attention works automatically, scanning the environment for whatever it deems to be most important. Priority is given to that which causes us the most pain or unhappiness, followed by that which can bring us the most pleasure or happiness. Attention doesn’t want to be stabilized, it wants to keep moving, searching for things that are novel or new. We evolved to favor a spontaneously moving attention because that is what kept us alive. And while that adaptation was good for survival, it doesn’t help with creating a calmer mind.
To help stabilize our attention we select an object to concentrate on. This is usually the breath but can also be a mantra or a kasina. As we begin to meditate, It won’t be long before we notice subtle distractions tugging on our attention, trying to pull us away from our object of concentration. These distractions come in the form of noises, sensations, and of course the most enticing thoughts.
Our job as meditators is to notice these distractions, let them go, and tighten our focus on our object of concentration. As long as we are aware of these distractions they remain in the background however if our mindfulness begins to wither these subtle distractions will turn into gross distractions and take center stage. At this point, our object of concentration has faded into the background. Our attention got hooked by a distraction and now we are in danger of losing our object of concentration. If we don’t notice this shift in attention quickly enough we will forget that we are meditating. Forgetting leads to mind wandering; a free-flowing state in which our attention goes from one thought to the next.
But here is the miraculous part, at some point, after a minute or two or 5 or 10 we wake up from mind wandering. We suddenly gain awareness and realize that we were supposed to be meditating. Realizing that we have forgotten can cause us to become frustrated and self-critical but this is exactly the attitude that slows down progress. Instead, we should celebrate the moment of waking up, as that makes it happen quicker in the future. Waking up is an unconscious process but we can train it through our intention. Over time we forget less and with enough training, we can overcome forgetting altogether.
How to become a skilled meditator
1.Establish a disciplined daily practice.
Anyone can meditate but becoming a skilled meditator takes genuine effort and commitment.
Those who constantly skip sessions and meditate sporadically are unlikely to become skilled meditators. Consistency is key; establishing a daily practice is a must.
2.Overcome forgetting and mind wandering
Besides a lack of consistent practice, the greatest barrier to becoming a skilled meditator is forgetting and mind wandering. All beginning meditators experience forgetting and mind wandering; the goal is to reduce them. You would be surprised to find out how many people who have been “meditating” for years (me included) have spent most of their time on the cushion lost in thought. Nourishing the moment of remembering is crucial to having it arise sooner and to reduce the duration of mind wandering. Eventually, your level of mindfulness becomes strong enough that you’ll never forget your meditation object.
The next barrier to overcome is dullness. Meditators who learn how to calm their minds will eventually run into dullness. Dullness is a pleasant sinking feeling that reduces your awareness and the number of perceiving moments. If dullness isn’t combated it can eventually lead to sleep. Because dullness can be relaxing and pleasant, many meditators will mistakenly nourish these states. Noticing when dullness is present and taking the necessary requirements to brighten the mind is a prerequisite to becoming a skilled meditator. With enough practice, you can learn to keep your mind relaxed and alert at the same time; making dullness a nonfactor.
4. Establishing Access concentration
As we continue to practice both the strength of our concentration and the speed at which we become concentrated will increase. To make progress in insight we must at the very least be in a state of “access” concentration.
Leight Brasington The Author of Right concentration writes “Access concentration is concentration that is strong enough that no hindrances arise. Daniel Ingram defines access concentration as “ the ability to remain focused on your chosen object with relative ease to the exclusion of distractions”. You know you are in access concentration when concentration becomes almost effortless. There is a sense that you can keep your attention where you want without it wandering away. Skilled meditators can enter access concentration consistently.
Learning to concentrate well will calm our minds and improve our well-being but it won’t necessarily lead to deeper realizations. It is advisable to start with a concentration focused practice but eventually, we must tip the scale towards mindfulness. Investigating diligently means making an effort to perceive as many of the sensations that arise in our experience. It is only this kind of investigation that leads to the progress of insight and eventually awakening. Skilled meditators don’t spend all their practice time sitting around in highly concentrated blissful states, they also use concentration as a base from which to investigate the subtleties of experience.
6.Extending practice time and going on retreat
Few people have a consistent meditation practice but even those who do rarely meditate for more than 20 minutes at a time. Becoming a skilled meditator requires ramping up our sessions to 40 minutes plus. Sitting for longer increases the likelihood that our meditation will go deeper and lead to real progress. Even so, there is only so much you can do meditating one to two hours at home. Recognizing the limitations of your daily practice you may feel called to attend a meditation retreat. Attending a retreat is a great way to remove the distractions of daily life and to take your practice to the next level. Retreats vary in intensity but many will have attendees meditating anywhere from 5 to 15 hours a day. This amount of practice in a short period of time can increase the speed of progress and help establish us as skilled meditators.
7.Balancing discipline with malleability
As a beginner, picking a technique, sticking to it, and developing a disciplined practice is essential for creating a solid foundation. However, as our practice progresses we must learn to balance discipline with malleability. Every mind has its unique proclivities, learning how your mind manifests and applying the right technique at the right time is the art of meditation. As beginners we are adopting techniques, as skilled meditators, we are adapting these techniques to flow with our distinct mental streams.
Meditation is the act of training attention and awareness to cultivate concentration and mindfulness. Concentration is our ability to stabilize attention. Mindfulness is our ability to remain aware of what arises in our experience. Concentration and mindfulness arise together but we can choose to focus our efforts towards either end.
Many try meditation for its mind-calming effects but those who stick with it may discover something more profound. A dedicated practice produces insight; fundamental wisdom that underlies all of experience. The culmination of these insights leads to Awakening or enlightenment – a recognition of ultimate Truth and complete liberation from suffering.
All meditators will experience obstacles when they sit down to practice. These obstacles have traditionally been called the 5 hindrances and include Aversion, Desire, Dullness, Anxiety, and Doubt. An easy acronym to remember them is ADD-AD (Attention Deficit Disorder ADvertisment). Through our meditation practice, we learn to work with these hindrances and eventually overcome them.
When beginners sit down to meditate they have no clue what is going on in their minds.
Learning how attention works illuminates the mind and allows us to improve our meditation practice. Becoming a skilled meditator requires establishing a daily practice, overcoming forgetting and mind wandering, overcoming dullness, establishing access concentration, investigating diligently, extending practice time, and balancing discipline with malleability.