Before I jump into specific meditation techniques (which I will cover in a separate post), I will explain some general meta-principles of meditating that I think hold back a lot of people from enjoying its benefits, especially people with a more analytical bent. I strongly recommend reading this before reading my post on the specific techniques you can use since if you are missing the meta-principles, you will prematurely dismiss or lose interest in some very useful methods.
You are probably doing it wrong
I think one of the most pernicious ideas floating around in meditation circles is that you can’t meditate incorrectly. As long as you’re on the mat, you’re good. I think the motivation for telling this to students is that it solves a problem that many people have, which is beating themselves up or getting stressed when their mind inevitably wanders. However, there are better ways of solving the problem that don’t involve meddling with your map of the world.
You can definitely meditate incorrectly. This is part of why I didn’t meditate for the longest time. I tried it off and on and, I definitely didn’t encounter any feelings of peace and joy. More like boredom and frustration. A friend of mine even said, “Just meditate for thirty minutes daily for thirty days. I guarantee you’ll be feeling the benefits by then.” I did, and felt nothing. I felt like I had proven my friend wrong.
Fortunately, I tried again and discovered what I had been doing wrong. Hopefully, this guide will help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Find the right teacher for you
I mean teacher in the broadest sense. There’s no need to find an in-person mentor if you can’t find or afford one. I have mostly learned through reading books, watching lectures on YouTube, and listening to podcasts. Buddhist monks are rather unattached to material goods, so there’s an abundance of free materials available.
The key here is to find resources that work for you. Some people may like the more clinical and pragmatic approach of the mindfulness-based stress reduction crowd. Others may like the more light-hearted and logical approach of Chade-Men Tang, a Googler who writes and speaks about the topic. You may like the more step-by-step and philosophical approach of The Mind Illuminated. You may even prefer the more paradoxical teachings of Zen. Explore the options. There are many flavors of meditation. Don’t feel that you “should” like one over the other. Just sample around and see what you like. I have some recommendations at the end of the article of which have worked for me or that I’ve seen work for others.
Theory matters, so learn continuously
Probably the single biggest reason that I didn’t get the results my friend promised me before was that I didn’t learn enough. I watched one YouTube guide on how to meditate, focused on my breath, and that’s all. That would be like watching a single YouTube guide on elementary math and then trying to do statistical analyses on a dataset. You should complement your practice with theory, otherwise you will continuously do things wrong and your progress will be greatly hampered. Meditation in particular is prone to this mistake because it’s not like so many other skills, where an expert can easily check your work and give you constructive feedback. Nobody else knows what’s going on in your mind, and especially when you start getting the cool fireworks as you progress, they’re extremely difficult to describe. The best you can do is learn from people for whom it seems to be working and listen to what they say they’re doing and how it feels for them.
My method is to have a meditation session first thing in the morning, and for the first 25-50% of the session, I read from a book on the topic. This makes it a lot easier to apply what I learn and often just reading about the techniques is enough to put me in a more meditative state.
In addition, study the texts in the old school way. Read and reread your favorite books. A lot of meditation isn’t just about understanding the ideas, but remembering to apply them. Re-reading will remind you of the important skills you may have forgotten or let slide.
Try to understand what they’re getting at, not their literal words
A very frequent frustration among rational people reading meditation content is the apparent insanity of the things they say. For example, they may say, “you are the universe” or “you are fundamentally love”. All of these can make a lot more sense though if you see that they are making statements about their felt experiences. Now, they may be also making statements about how the world is, but you should understand this like you would the people who’ve taken drugs and say they “spoke to a spirit”. They may believe that the experience was the literal truth, but you know that it’s more like if you take that drug you will feel like you are speaking to spirits. There is information there. It does tell you about what the drug trip will most likely feel like. Likewise, with “you are the universe”, you obviously do not grow to contain the whole universe, but it might be that if you meditate, you might feel that way. I have definitely had that feeling multiple times through meditating, and it is an exceptionally pleasant experience. So if you ever encounter a strange or implausible claim, see how it looks from this perspective.
Put a lot of effort into making it a habit
Meditation is like exercise - it only works if you do it consistently. It is not a one-off pill you can take and then feel happier for the rest of your life. Few things are. Figure out how to make it a habit. Problem-solve in advance for things that will prevent you from meditating, such as being tired or not having enough time. Use commitment devices, like telling your friends or using Beeminder or Stickk. Put in in Habitica. Find a person you will meditate with once a week, where you’ll both ask each other how your previous week went. Set a daily alarm for when you want to practice. Attach certain activities to active meditation, such as cleaning the house, waiting for a tab to load, or during a commute. Start your practice with something that you find easily enjoyable, such as reading, chiming a bell, listening to peaceful music, lighting a candle, or yoga, such that you associate the practice with happiness instead of boredom. Whatever you do, don’t just rely on willpower. In fact, right now, if you think that you want to do this, stop reading and take a minute to implement some of the suggestions above. Practice without theory is wasted effort, but so is theory without practice.
Resources and books
The Parable of the Boy Who Cried 5% Chance of Wolf
The most important lesson I learned after ten years in EA
Why fun writing can save lives
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Nonlinear, Charity Entrepreneurship, and Charity Science Health