An Introduction to Meditation by a Beginner

A lot of what I'll be talking about will be concepts from The Mind Illuminated that I have internalized and mostly put into my own words. The goal of this post is to summarize this, add in some of my experience, and give you a solid starting point for meditation.

Immediately Useful Things to Note

It's possible that you decide not to try meditation, and I think that's fine. However, there are some ideas I just found generally useful that I want to share before you decide to leave.

Your Mind is Like a Pet

When I read this concept, it brought me back to the book above. Basically, the main tenants of training have shown that positive reinforcement works way better than negative reinforcement. We've learned this pretty succinctly about pets, but we fail to apply it to humans (even ourselves).

This being said, I want to talk about frustration. Frustration is, in my experience, often the result of you realizing you did something wrong. You're frustrated for any number of reasons, but the fact of the matter is, often the exact point you get frustrated is not a useful time for your mind to get the feedback of frustration. The mind just gave you useful information: something is wrong. You want to reward that, and make your mind better at doing it sooner and sooner so that eventually you catch the incorrect thing before it even occur.

In meditation, this frustration can occur when your mind wanders and you forget to focus on the breath. This is, luckily, an easy frustration to overcome. You can work on being happy that you noticed you forgot and try to focus on the breath again. In life, there are similar frustrations where a simple altering of perspective can instead bring joy. See if you spot any of them and can make this transition.

The Six-Point Preparation Process

  1. Motivations: why are you doing this?
  2. Goals: what do you want to achieve this session?
  3. Expectations: are your goals and motivations realistic? Aim for a balance between challenge and skill.
  4. Diligence: set the intention to try for the duration of the session.
  5. Distractions: what distractions can you expect to encounter and how do you think you can mitigate them?
  6. Posture: you may be staying still for a good while, make sure your posture is sustainable and healthy.

This is a process for preparing for meditation, but I find it useful for many things. Even posture is often a good thing to think about when prepping to do something that'll take a while.

Dealing with a Busy Mind

Sometimes my mind is so scattered I can not hope to focus it towards a single thing. Instead of instantly trying to focus it to a point, focus it gradually. In meditation, there's this 4-step process:

  1. Focus on the present
  2. Focus on the body
  3. Focus on the sensations of breath within the body
  4. Focus on the sensation of breath at the nose

Like the six-point process, this idea can be applied elsewhere, though it needs tweaking to its context. Try defining your own 4-step process towards focusing on a given priority.

For instance, with work I've been playing with:

  1. Focus on company (email, slack, big thinking, using the product, etc.)
  2. Focus on team responsibilities
  3. Focus on assigned tasks
  4. Focus on specific assigned task

If you find you can not focus in the given space, give your mind more space to roam by going up the list. Start at the beginning if necessary.

Invoking Intent is Incredibly Invigorating

In the Mind Illuminated, each stage has an instructional intent to declare when sitting down to meditate. For example, stage 2's intention is to "appreciate the aha moment when you've realized you've forgotten the breath, and to gently-but-firmly redirect attention back to the breathe".

The argument is that this is all your conscious mind really does: declares purpose and validates outcomes. Going back to the "mind as a pet" analogy above, "you" don't do much, your mind does most everything. "You" point and the mind does, and then you can provide some additional feedback and/or veto some actions.

Meditation is, in a sense, about making the conscious intention, mind action, conscious feedback loop more efficient and effective.

Memorizing Key Details is Incredibly Valuable

Anything I read about meditation that I wanted to remember, I put into an Anki deck. Anki is a spaced-repetition app designed for efficiently memorizing things.

Memorizing things such that they're readily accessible in the appropriate context is like having a tool ready when you need it and not having to find where it is.

For meditation, I memorized:

  • The names of the stages (up to stage 5, stages 6-10 will be added soon)
  • The intent to invoke when practicing in a given stage
  • What mastery of a stage looks like
  • The definitions of subtle/gross distractions
  • The definitions of sublte/strong dullness
  • The elements and how they apply to meditation
  • The moments of consciousness model definition
  • Misc other things

Some of these things aren't helpful on the cushion, but having them all available makes the ones that are incredibly valuable. Knowing which stages I think I've mastered lets me know which stage I'm currently practicing in, which lets me know what I should intend to do, all while I'm settling into a meditation.

Some Caveats

You are not aiming to erase "negative" emotions from your life. I don't believe in negative emotions. Emotions are neutral, their application can be good or bad. My goal is to feel the appropriate emotions at the correct time and share them with the people I love (when applicable).

I do not subscribe to a phrase that is common in meditation circles: "Suffering is optional." Suffering is not optional. Pain is a weight, and you can train to carry quite a bit of it effectively. Suffering occurs when the weight overloads us. Meditation is the weight-lifting for strengthening this capability.

Further, meditation is not a cure-all. Many wonderful things started happening since I started meditation, it's true. What's not discussed is my years of therapy leading up to starting meditation, and the ADHD medication I started taking 2 weeks before meditation. That being said, the feeling I get from meditation each morning is transformative every time, and it sure feels like meditation is the cause of quite a few things that weren't quite in place before.

My Path

Meditation clicked for me immediately once my definition changed from "watching your mind go" to "Meditation is training the mind's consciousness by sustaining attention on a predetermined object and maintaining strong awareness of the present without directing your attention away from the predetermined object." You train the mind both by strengthening it and improving your control of that strength.

Meditation sustained for me because I had milestones to achieve, with clear metrics for success, and clear instructions on practice. These milestones are the 10 stages of meditation, of which I know 5:

  1. Practice Regularly
  2. Interrupted Attention and Overcoming Mind-Wandering
  3. Extended Continuity of Attention and Overcoming Forgetting
  4. Continuous Attention and Overcoming Gross Distraction and Strong Dullness
  5. Overcoming Subtle Dullness and Increasing Mindfulness

The breakdown of meditation into concrete, achievable goals is how I managed to quickly achieve stage 1 mastery: practicing everyday and practicing for the duration of the session. I always had something to work on, and a means of knowing whether I succeeded.

Stage 2 is about appreciating those moments when you realize you're lost in thought, and this concept was an epiphany for me and the most transformative part of starting meditation (so far). So often, I am lost in thought, away from the given moment. Appreciating this realization on the cushion made me appreciate it off the cushion, and until this epiphany I had no idea just how much time and energy I spent lost in thought. It is as though I have unlocked the ability to be awake and alert the entire day.

Within a few days, I found myself at stage 3, where you invoke introspective attention before forgetting the breath to search for and acknowledge distractions before they direct your attention away. And this is where I still am. Though, for a bit I thought I was in stage 4 (make introspective awareness continuous), and even dabbled in stage 5 (increase mindfulness). In truth, you can progress to the next stages during a session before you've truly mastered the previous one, but I think I have not yet mastered stage 3 (mastery looks like "forgetting and mind wandering no longer occur, and the breath stays continuously in introspective awareness").

What I'm Getting Out of Meditation

There was an almost immediate value to meditation that has sustained itself to this day. My energy levels are consistent throughout the day, and at a pretty high place once I end my morning meditation. I get this result before I take my ADHD medication or drink some caffeine! Though, just recently I have moved meditation to after those two things for unrelated reasons. I'm actually really curious what would happen if I took out the coffee or the medication entirely, but things are in a consistently good place, so I won't mess with it for now.

Before meditation, I would often be super exhausted about two hours before bed on weekdays, and randomly exhausted for whole days on weekends (though sometimes I had energy). Now, I don't notice a difference between weekdays and weekends.

My main hypothesis for this is that the practice of meditation, specifically the mastery of stage 2 (appreciating those aha moments of having forgotten the breath), made me realize that I was lost in daydreams constantly throughout the day. My mind was often thinking about a vastly scattered amount of things, and often it was doing so intensely (furrowed brow and everything). That's mentally exhausting.

Practicing stage 2 throughout the day has significantly curbed this habit. Especially valuable was the "meditative formula" (relax and look for joy; observe, let it come, let it be, and let it go). Don't get me wrong, I still think about random things, but now I have the tools to "practice intentionality", which is something I've wanted to be able to do for a long time.

I have also been able to develop a better relationship with my mind. Appreciating the aha moment of distraction has led me to appreciate it whenever my mind lets me know when I forgot to do something I meant to do, no matter how late. It's led to my mind being much more punctual about such reminders! Which is excellent for building a time-tracking habit, which I've successfully done.

Why I've Made This

The main goal of this post is to help people who, like me, wanted to get into meditation but didn't really "get it". My first introduction to meditation was in high school. I was told to sit upright and count up to ten and back down from ten.

I tried this, I wasn't very good at it. It felt like something could be useful about it but I couldn't place it. I abandoned it.

Years and years later, I tried this app called Headspace. I went through the first 10 sessions (they were the free bits). And... I noticed some neat things, but it didn't really click why I should do it.

I ended up feeling like maybe I was getting the same thing as meditation out of running and other exercise. Maybe the many hours I manage to get away from screens and other major distractions provided a "natural meditation". Maybe that's why I "didn't get" meditation, because I was doing it already naturally.

There was some truth to this feeling, but meditation goes deeper. Meditation is training the mind, not simply letting it be free to roam. Perhaps those natural habits have given my mind a lot of free strength training, but that power was raw and scattered. Meditation tempers it. Which is exactly what my ADHD mind needs, even after a bit of medication.