In 2015, with no prior meditation practice, I decided to take a meditation course in the form of a 10-day silent Vipassana retreat. People warned me that it was a very aggressive beginning to a sitting practice, but I persisted because I thought that it would give me a framework for a meditative future.
It was a very difficult 10 days, and those people were right. A 10-day silent retreat was not a beginner’s path to meditating. While I would do it again, I see the merits of starting a practice before launching into, say, a multi-day course with a dozen or so hours a day of meditating.
So I decided to build what I wish I had before I did the Vipassana retreat: a free primer for those who want to start meditating, but don’t know where to start. It’s a 10-week sampler of different types of meditation, alongside descriptions and free tracks to try them at home.
This allows everyone to land on what practices serves them best.
Purists may say that it dilutes the aim of a distinct, deep meditative practice—and that much may be true. But for many of us, starting a new habit is daunting because we rarely know how or where to begin.
So with the case of a beginner to meditation, I wanted to provide a gateway to several different types, all meditative techniques I have used and continue to use in my practice.
When I did the Vipassana retreat, I didn’t realize I wasn’t “supposed” to clear my mind of all thoughts. I kept assuming I was doing it wrong because all sorts of thoughts kept arising. Had I participated in meditation ahead of time, I’d have known that thoughts always arise, but the key is to observe them and gently return to the meditation practice. Not to banish all thinking and achieve an empty mind.
In the time since the Vipassana experience I’ve used meditation as a tool to keep me afloat and keep me grounded in the present. During the hardest months of my life, it has become a source of comfort. Meditation became a respite from the pain, and something that lifted me up.
Meditation wasn’t intended as solace for a modern world, of course.
The ancient spiritual practice developed to allow a profound exploration of the mind, one that could eventually result in an intense shift in our state of being. These days, many meditation practices remove the core spirituality altogether, focusing instead on the benefits to the brain, especially a brain that has been rewired for trauma due to life’s events.
“Meditation is a catch-all word for myriad varieties of contemplative practice, just as sports refers to a wide range of athletic abilities. For both spots and meditation, the end results vary depending on what you actually do.”
The best way to encourage new changes is to make them accessible, and then allow people to be disciplined in their application until the practice becomes a habit.
10-Week Free Course: Guided Meditation for Beginners
I’m not an expert in meditation, nor am I a teacher. I am, however, good at bringing disparate people together to explore a new thing. Whether it’s soup, or cow head tacos, or safety whistles (for the earlier readers out there!), much of my career is based on my enthusiasm translating in some way to my wonderful readers.
Since many Legal Nomads readers also meditate, I had the wondrous thought of us all meditating together. Previously, I likened the global support for this journey as lights on a map, blinking on from different locations. This 10-week meditation course for beginners allows us all to explore with our minds together, blinking in unison.
If you’re starting out with meditation, note that each of the tracks below is guided and instructions will take you through the 20 minutes or so of the track. For additional information about how to meditate, see the links at the bottom of this post.
WEEK 1, Metta (Loving Kindness) Meditation
For the first week, I chose a metta meditation. Metta means loving-kindness in Pali, and refers to an unconditional, wise love. A love that is exclusive, and doesn’t have strings attached.
The choice was simple: the meditation starts with ourselves, then spirals out to friends, family, and eventually to all living things.
Metta has no hoops to jump through – all deserve it. It has no expectations of anything in return.
This is a track from Tara Brach, who wrote Radical Acceptance – a very important book for the perfectionists out there. I’m one of them, and in the spirit of starting with loving-kindness toward ourselves we are starting with metta.
Metta takes concentration, whereas Vipassana includes awareness of constant change – awareness without consistently obsessing over it. Vipassana (the course I did and the practice I keep up) added a space between me and my reactions. Metta, in contrast, feels more like a deep focus on primordial, compassionate love.
Further reading about loving-kindness and acceptance
Radical Acceptance, by Tara Brach.
WEEK 2, Body Scan Meditation
For our second group meditation, we moved from the first week’s metta (loving kindness) to a simple body scan. While leaking CSF, I feel lots of pain but also a sense of distance from my body. And of course emotionally I’m quite attached to the desired outcome of walking again.
Enter the body scan.
For one, it’s done lying down – so we are all flat for this meditation.
But also it’s a deep, moment-to-moment investigation into what the body is experiencing. We all carry stress in the body, but while we may feel pain resulting from that tension, we don’t necessarily know where it resides.
With awareness and open acceptance of what one feels during the scan on a micro level, the goal is to notice what is happening on that minute level, helping voice where the pain is and what it says.
I find that by following these meditations, I have a sense of release, relaxation, and calm.
While metta had us bringing attention to all beings and things, the body scan turns that focus to the body itself, beginning with the left foot and ending at the top of the head.
I chose an abbreviated 30-min scan for this week, but in a few weeks I’ll share a 45-min one. I personally started doing body scan meditations after reading John Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living and reading about his mindfulness-based stress reduction program.
For newer readers, more info about why I chose this book – and others that can help with chronic pain – at my post here.
Funny enough when I first heard this meditation, I hadn’t yet gone to the Vipassana course. I emailed a friend saying, “I tried the meditation but I think something is wrong with the audio – there were all these periods of silence? So I just didn’t bother?” Of course now I know the silence is WHEN YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE MEDITATING.
All this to say, it’s a practice, not necessarily something that feels intuitive or natural.
John Kabat-Zinn on the body scan meditation:
“The body scan is not for everybody, and it is not always the meditation of choice even for those who love it. But it is extremely useful and good to know about and practice from time to time, whatever your circumstances or condition. If you think of your body as a musical instrument, the body scan is a way of tuning it. If you think of it as a universe, the body scan is a way to come to know it. If you think of your body as a house, the body scan is a way to throw open all the windows and doors and let the fresh air of awareness sweep it clean.”
Further reading about mindfulness and pain
Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Preface by Thich Nhat Hanh)
WEEK 3, Mindful Breathing Meditation
The mindfulness of breath is a calming practice, one that steadies the mind and encourages concentration. Vipassana is considered an insight meditation, whereby through the practice of continued close attention to sensation, “one ultimately sees the true nature of existence.”
In the Vipassana course I attended, the first days were devoted to breath meditations, and only on day 4 did we move into Vipassana itself. The rationale, we were told, was that one must first develop calm and concentration, and then move into insight and awareness of more.
Traditional mindfulness of breath meditations are called Anapanasati. It’s a straightforward term: translation is mindfulness (sati) of breathing (pana). The goal is to use the breath itself AS the focus when our mind wanders. For last week’s track, the focus was on specific parts / sensations in the body. In contrast, this is all physical sensations of breathing.
I chose a midway breathing track for this week, since it starts with a body scan and moves into some breathing work. Next week, the track will focus on breathing via a traditional Anapanasati guided meditation. They’re usually an hour-long but I will try to find a shorter one.
As with the other meditations we did, by putting less energy toward stressors or anxieties or pain during the meditation, we help our minds balance. With a regular mindful breathing practice, eventually that return to focusing on balance becomes more habitual, and carries to other aspects of our lives.
WEEK 4, Mindful Breathing Meditation
As I mentioned last week, we are doing another mindful breathing meditation. Many are over an hour but I chose this 26 minute one because it focuses on the four stages I learned when I first was taught how to practice it.
It opens by bringing attention to the physicality of breathing, counting (1) first our outbreaths and then (2) our inbreaths. When the mind wanders – which of course it will – we start back at breath 1 again. After that, we (3) focus on breathing but without the counting to keep things on tempo. Just noticing instead the continuity of that inhalation and exhalation, an infinity of sensations in flow. And finally, we (4) hone in on the minutiae of breathing specifically around the nostrils.
As with last week, the focus is on the breath as a tool to calm the mind.
WEEK 5, Self-Compassion Meditation
The next two weeks of our group meditations will focus on self-compassion.
I’ve recommended Kristin Neff’s work in my post on coping with chronic pain, as I have found her work especially helpful as it relates to pain and progress. Her book about Self-Compassion has helped many readers too, as I’ve received quite a few emails from people who have done longer meditation programmes based on her work.
For week five, we are going to do a compassionate body scan. Unlike the Kabat-Zinn scan from a few weeks prior, this meditation starts at the crown of the head (not the left foot), and it is rooted in practices of self-compassion.
What does this mean?
Per Neff, it is the skill of “treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling.” The idea of compassion generally (for all, not just ourselves) necessitates understanding suffering and feeling kindness and understanding in return, the desire to want to make those circumstances a little better.
It involves the quiet acceptance of the fragile human condition. And self-compassion is simply compassion turned inward, directed to ourselves.
What is it not? Self-compassion is NOT self-pity, self-esteem, or self-indulgence.
Instead of chasing self-esteem, which Neff notes can flip into narcissism more quickly than we’d like, we’d all be best focusing on softening our self-recrimination. To focus on feeling good about ourselves by needing to be better than others (the pitfalls of self-esteem in excess), we also open the door to cycles of self-loathing.
The alternative, says Neff, is to to develop self-compassion. To “be kind to ourselves life goes awry or we notice something about ourselves we don’t like, rather than being cold or harshly self-critical.” A self-compassion practice acknowledges the imperfections inherent in simply BEING human, and focuses on connecting us to others when we stumble – instead of isolating ourselves in a trap of judgement.
1. Self compassion (not self judgement)
2. Common humanity (not isolation)
3. Mindfulness (not over-identification / obsessive thinking)
Yes, our old friend mindfulness! As with each of the Legal Nomads meditation practices we’ve done so far, self-compassion also involves mindfulness. It is important to recognize, accept without judgement, and observe the painful aspects of life as they arise moment to moment. Instead of doing what many of us do and push down the pain to suppress (or for some, to blow it up to magnificent scales for public drama), we take a BALANCED approach to negative emotions so that they are neither suppressed nor exaggerated.
(In my case, I’m a suppress-the-feelings person, not a have an epic meltdown kind of person, so this practice – and meditation generally – has helped me reach a state of more equanimity.)
Research in Neff’s book (below) demonstrates that self-compassion decreases depression, alleviates stress, can help ease the thinking behind disordered eating, and mitigate chronic pain. At the same time, it increases happiness, optimism, hope, healthy behaviours, and immune function.
Further, practicing self-compassion or loving-kindness doesn’t just help us make other people happier, it helps makes us happier, too. Per a 2020 piece about meditation and its effects on the brain,
“Loving-kindness also boosts the connections between the brain’s circuits for joy and happiness and the prefrontal cortex, a zone critical for guiding behavior,” Davidson writes in Altered Traits, his authoritative 2017 book on the neuroscience of meditation, which he co-authored with Daniel Goleman. “And the greater the increase in the connection between these regions, the more altruistic a person becomes following compassion meditation training.”
Neff’s guided meditations are more casual, almost like a friend guiding you along. Not for every session, but a nice contrast to last week’s anapanasati.
Further reading about self compassion
Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living, by Pema Chodron
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, by Kristin Neff
The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, by Christopher K. Germer (author of Week 6’s track, below
WEEK 6, Self-Compassion Meditations
WEEK 6! As promised, this week’s meditation is another meditative approach to self-compassion. Chris Germer, alongside Kristin Neff from last week’s track, co-founded the Mindful Self Compassion course. It is an 8 week course built on the principles I discussed in last week’s post: treating yourself like you would treat a close friend who was struggling.
This will be the second of three weeks focusing on this topic, primarily because many of you have written me over the years sharing your stories as I have shared mine. And through those stories and my own is one very similar thread: a tendency to be AWFULLY hard on ourselves even when we are doing our best. And a tendency to push through instead of giving our bodies a little more grace.
So I’m spending three weeks on self- compassion, because I’ve decided we all really need it. 🙃
Next week will be a wider scope meditation, a beautiful combination of the loving-kindness track from our first week and the compassion meditation “to ourselves” from this week’s track.
WEEK 7, Self-Compassion Meditation
This is our last of three weeks focusing on self-compassion. First was a compassionate body scan. Then, a deeply personal metta for ourselves. To conclude, I’ve chosen a track that concentrates on self-compassion for ourselves and others, braiding together the prior week.
It’s a calming, quiet meditation and one that focuses on sending someone specific the gift of compassion – as well as ensuring we send it to our own bodies and souls.
WEEK 8: Zen, Nanso Uran Hou (The Duck Egg Meditation)
After a hiatus, I’m glad to find us back together for week 8 of the group meditations. My goals with these sessions are both to create a space for people to engage in a meditation practice while knowingly connecting to others around the world, and to provide an overview of different types of meditation to help narrow down what works best for each reader.
On to this week’s track, which is a guided Zen soft ointment meditation based on the Zen “Soft and Duck Egg Meditation.”
The practice was originally taught by Zen master Hakuin (1685-1768) to remind the body to relax and heal. Hakuin learned the Nanso meditation when fell ill and was sent to the mountains near Kyoto to locate a hermit named Hakuyo in the hopes of finding a cure for what ailed him. Hakuyo taught Hakuin the introspective meditation. The meditation draws on our spiritual eyes, using them to reach harmony between body and mind. The egg-shaped buttery ointment starts at the crown, then melts slowly down to our feet, our suffering, sorrow, and pain with it.
“The Tiger’s Cave” by Trevor Leggett on the Nanso Uran Hou meditation:
“If the student finds in his meditation that the four great elements are out of harmony, and body and mind are fatigued, he should rouse himself and make this meditation. Let him visualize placed on the crown of his head that celestial So ointment, about as much as a duck’s egg, pure in color and fragrance. Let him feel its exquisite essence and flavor melting and filtering down through his head, its flow permeating downwards, slowly leaving the shoulders and elbows, the sides of the breast and within the chest, the lungs, liver, stomach and internal organs, the back and spine and hip bones. All the old ailments and adhesions and pains in the five organs and six auxiliaries follow the mind downwards. There is a sound as of the trickling of water. Percolating through the whole body, the flow goes gently down the legs, stopping at the soles of the feet.”
WEEK 9: Zen, Healing Ointment Meditation
For week 9, I am sharing a different version of the track from last week.
Week 9’s Duck Egg meditation is called a Healing Ointment meditation, and is led by Julian Daizan Skinner, from Zenways in London. A long-term reader recognized the track from last week from her Zenways course, and graciously provided her teacher’s guided version for us to meditate with together.
I love it so much that I had to share it here.
We’ve explored a few different types of meditation practices, and the current weeks are focused on Zen, using meditation and mindfulness practices aimed at developing insight into reality and who we really are. In Zen, this is known as kensho – literally seeing or experiencing your true nature, not depending on beliefs or notions.
“There is no Zen without kensho; complete kensho is what is known as satori, Zen awakening. This realization is likened to finding an inexhaustible treasure, for it means the awakening of the whole potential fo r the experience of experience itself.”
– Kensho: Heart of Zen, by Thomas Cleary
I truly love this Healing Ointment meditation, with a comforting voice and a guide to engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and relaxing the body and mind, inviting it to open to healing.
Further reading about Zen training and meditation
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation, by Shunryu Suzuki
Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, by Katsuki Sekida (A handbook for zazen, the seated meditation practice, and an authoritative presentation of the Zen path)
Kensho: Heart of Zen, by Thomas Cleary
Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond, by Julian Daizan Skinner (who narrated this meditation)
How Rinzai Zen Came to America (Article)
Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond, by Julian Daizan Skinner
WEEK 10: Zen, Mindfulness of the Breath
Since so many of you loved last week’s Healing Ointment meditation, I am going to spend our last week on Zen.
First off: several emails have asked how to work through the frustration of consistently losing place or focus. It is the act of gently returning to the meditation again and again, without judgement or frustration, that helps train the brain. The answer for me is truly a matter of compassionate discipline, combined with the knowledge that the brain adjusts and gets less noisy as time goes on.
This week, we’re returning to the breath.
Unlike the earlier anapanasati of week 4 (mindful breathing), based on the Vipassana meditation system, this week is a Japanese Rinzai Zen practice.
Per Julian Daizan Skinner from Zenways, “the Rinzai Zen tradition extends back 2500 yrs and has a tradition of teaching meditation for wellbeing and insight both in and outside of the monastic setting.”
In this 25 minute practice, we become aware of our breath from low in our abdomen, and then using counting to keep pace while allowing any thoughts or feelings to arise and pass away. When losing focus, we return to the breath – without judgement! – and begin counting again. Simple but effective.
The Neuroscience of Meditation and How to Meditate
“Meditative awareness reduces tension in and heals the body. Meditation quiet the mind and gently opens the heart. It’s that is the spirit. It helps us learn to live more fully in the reality of the present, do you see more clearly the people we live with in the world we live in.”
- Jack Kornfield, Meditation for Beginners
While the focus of these meditations isn’t the neuroscience, it is fascinating to understand how meditation can change our brainwaves. If you are interested in a short video about the ‘how’ it affects the brain see below:
And for those really new to the practice, some basics here:
- Ananda’s How to Meditate
- Gaim’s Meditation 101
- My friend Leo’s tips for beginners to meditation: how to understand the mind
- Mindful meditation for beginners (tips and a video)
- National Institute of Health’s lists of studies looking at the benefits of meditation here.
Hope you enjoyed the course!