TL; DR

Any formal meditation, practised with sincerity, grounded in a robust wisdom tradition, with the guidance of experienced teachers and a supportive community, tends to be a very effective way to nurture the qualities of wisdom and compassion. The most important thing is to get started, and continue. Sign up for an Introduction to Mindfulness Course for EAs.

 

Sage words

Paraphrasing Tara Brach (teaching meditation for 30 years), “The longer I teach, the less certain I am about what practice is right for a given person.”

“A most useful approach to meditation practice is to consider it the most important activity of each day. Schedule it as you would an extremely important appointment, and unfailingly keep your appointment with the infinite” – Roy Eugene Davis

“It is indeed a radical act of love just to sit down and be quiet for a time by yourself” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

 

“Which meditation practice is optimal for me?”

Several EAs have told me that uncertainty about the optimal mediation practice for them is the main barrier to establishing a consistent meditation practice. This is a valid consideration; for best results, most experienced meditation teachers recommend sticking with a particular practice tradition long-term, so as not to confuse oneself with conflicting approaches. How can one get started with meditation, without going down the wrong track?

Choosing the optimal meditation practice based on evidence and reason is very tricky. The science of meditation is immature: we don’t yet have an evidence-based way to ‘prescribe’ the right meditation for a given person and context. In fact, there isn’t even a standard way to categorise or classify types of meditation. Nevertheless, there is a sensible way to navigate this uncertainty.

As a novice meditator, it’s generally helpful to drop your concerns about getting locked-in to a sub-optimal practice, and replace this with an attitude of discovery: explore different meditation practises, traditions, and teachers. For an accessible introduction, this article delineates 16 types of meditation. Then when you find what resonates with you, focus on that. 

Like wholesome physical exercise and nutrition, meditation is a practice for life. Finding what works best for you may take months or years, and you may choose to switch traditions later in life. This is all ok. The path you take is a very personal choice.

If you don’t already have a consistent meditation practice, the most important thing is to establish a consistent (if possible, daily) practice. The best meditation practice is the one you actually do. Ask yourself:

  • Which teachers, teachings or traditions do I feel most drawn to?
  • What type of meditation do I feel most motivated to practice?

If you have limited knowledge of what teachers, traditions and practices are available, the links below give some access points to dive in.

 

“But surely some meditation practices are better than others?”

A framing I find helpful is to see all meditation teachings, traditions and practices as signposts, guiding us along different paths to an equivalent destination. While meditation has a plethora of benefits, I believe the essence of the destination can be characterised as ever-deepening wisdom and compassion. 

Different types of meditation practice lead to different changes in the brain, and the development of different competencies and character traits. Different traditions emphasise different practices and qualities.

It’s worth noting that some meditative relaxation practices help to calm the mind, but don’t do much to cultivate wisdom and compassion. If this is all you practise, you’ll get a calmer mind, but you’re missing the main value of meditation.

 

My opinion on what to practice

In my view, a blended approach is advisable for optimal benefit. More specifically, I recommend a system of practice that aims to cultivate concentration, compassion for all, and insight into the nature of being.

For many novice meditators in contemporary western culture, I recommend placing an emphasis on practising self-compassion and/or loving-kindness. This is because contemporary western culture entails unusually high levels of self-hate and shame. Loving-kindness supports self-compassion, and self-compassion heals self-hate and shame directly. In my experience, this is a very effective way to unlock enduring wellbeing and lay the foundations to receive the deeper benefits of meditation.

Whilst self-directed meditation practice can yield great benefits, there is no substitute for being part of a committed practice community with experienced teachers to guide you. To make learning easier, I recommend joining a practice community/tradition that makes you feel safe, motivates you to practise, and feels like a good cultural fit.

 

Emergence of the scientific meditation tradition

Most meditation practice traditions have their roots in a specific culture, often a religious culture, with its own set of assumptions and epistemic norms. Religious traditions tend to have the most experienced teachers, well-established practice communities, with physical centres, residential hubs and expertly guided retreats to support practice. This is all very valuable for practitioners, but the epistemic norms may be an uncomfortable fit for EAs.

I’m inclined to include all meditation teachers that are updating their teachings and methods based on new evidence as part of a new ‘scientific meditation tradition’. I expect this emergent tradition to be characterised by continual rapid innovation, and an integration of methods and practices from diverse disciplines. Somewhere in this bewildering mix, and in the fullness of time, I expect many EAs to find their spiritual home.

 

Meditation practice resources

Introduction to types of meditation:

EA-friendly resources:

  • Waking Up meditation app from Sam Harris - spirituality without religion, with a wide range of guided meditations and insightful talks/interviews.
  • Shinzen Young - very experienced meditation teacher, popular with rationalists. He has developed a teaching method called ‘Unified Mindfulness’ (with free core training). He also has a mindfulness app.
  • Monastic Academy - residential meditation practice community addressing existential risk; they run various online programs.
  • There are several well-researched mindfulness-based clinical interventions, that have been shown to reduce stress, depression and anxiety. These are typically taught as an 8-week course with weekly group sessions. These course are a good way to help establish a mindfulness meditation practice. The most well-established interventions are Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). If this speaks to you, I recommend attending an in-person course in your area if possible.

Well-respected traditions in the west, with very experienced teachers, well-established communities of practice and retreat centres:

Other centres and teachers of note:

  • East Bay Meditation Centre, Oakland, California - meditation community practising radical inclusivity, founded to be welcoming to BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalised groups.
  • Eckhart Tolle, teaching from a place of profound presence, his book The Power of Now has been a gateway into meditation for millions.
  • A bit more niche, Adyashanti and Mooji teach with deep clarity, presence and their own unique style. I have learned a lot from both of them.

 

Personal support from me

I’m committed to helping EAs find a sustainable meditation practice that works for them. Feel free to take this mindfulness, self-compassion and wisdom self-assessment (20 minutes) and/or schedule a 30 minute 1:1 meditation coaching call with me.

Or to give your practice a real boost, join this Introduction to Mindfulness Course for EAs (4 x 90 minute weekly sessions; starts 20th April 2022). 

 

Concluding thoughts

We don’t meditate to become good meditators, we meditate to become good people, and live good lives. There are so many ways to nurture the qualities of wisdom and compassion within yourself. Formal meditation practice grounded in a robust wisdom tradition, with the guidance of experienced teachers and a supportive community, tends to work very well. The most important thing is to get started, and continue.

 

About Ollie

So that you can better evaluate the validity of the advice in this article, here’s a little about me:

I have been practising secular meditation for eighteen years, with around 2500 cumulative hours on the cushion. I have experimented with many different practices, teachers and traditions. I intend to teach mindfulness to longtermist EAs and adjacent groups.

I'm currently being trained to teach secular mindfulness meditation by experienced teachers from the IMS tradition, which is heavily informed by the Theravada Thai Forest Tradition of Buddhism. I expect to receive my teacher certification in February 2023, from University of California, Berkeley.


 

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The more I practice, the more I've come to believe that that only thing that really matters is that you do it. Not that you do it well by whatever standard one might judge, but just that you do it. 30 minutes of quiet time is a foundation on which more can be explored and discovered. You don't have to sit a special way, do a special thing with your mind, or do anything else in particular for it to be worth the effort, although all those things can help and are worth doing if you're called to them!

You should totally learn a bunch of techniques or practice a certain way if you feel called to it, but also I think there's a lot to be said for simply spending 30 minutes with the intention to be present with what is, even if that means 30 minutes spent with your mind racing or fidgeting. The time itself will work on you to allow you to find your own way.