The Dos and Don’ts of Meditation

Despite the surge of interest in meditation, misinformation about the basics of learning to meditate is still abundant. This article addresses some of the most common questions about meditation.   

How long should my meditation sessions be?

  • Do:Start meditation in brief sessions of a few minutes, if possible 2-3 times a day and gradually build up to longer sessions
  • Don’t:Start your meditation practice by going on an intensive silent retreat. For many beginners even a few hours of such intensive meditation might be psychologically and/or physically challenging and possibly increase the likelihood of adverse effects.

How do I know if my meditation teacher is qualified?

  • Do:Check qualifications of your meditation teacher including length of their personal meditation practice experience and teaching experience, their meditation training, their teachers, lineage of the teachers they follow etc. Ask questions about practice accomplishments of teachers in the tradition you are interested in. In this way you can find out about the goals and path of practice progression in the meditation tradition as well as expected qualifications of teachers. For ‘non-secular’ (traditional) meditation 5 years of initial regular meditation practice and training is often the very minimal requirement.
  • Don’t:Sign up for a course without knowing anything about your meditation teacher’s qualifications. Be cautious about teachers who have only done an 8-week course or one or two retreats, or those who do not have regular personal meditation practice.

How long will it take for me to experience the benefits of meditation?

  • Do:Understand that meditation just like any skill requires continued practice, it is not a quick fix. Some basic effects of meditation such as feeling more calm can be felt soon after a short initial practice, but these effects are often brief and transient. With longer-term (and right) practice the effects of meditation translate into how you feel and think both within and outside of meditation sessions. The specific effects depend on a variety of factors such as the type of meditation practice, your motivation, amount and quality of the practice etc.
  • Don’t: Believe claims that you will find ultimate peace after a few minutes or a few sessions of meditation. Some research shows that even 10 minutes of practice a day for 16 weeks can beneficial for our attention. But for any meditation effects to be sustained, the practice needs to be regular and continued. That holds for any brain changes too. Meditation can change the brain, but discontinuation of meditation practice likely reverses many of the changes as with other skills (even though no meditation-specific research investigated this yet).

Which meditation type is right for me?

  • Do:There are many different meditation types – visualization-based meditation, mindfulness-based meditation, compassion meditation, mantra meditation, thinking meditation, movement meditation etc. Explore your motivation for learning meditation — if you want to learn to cope better with stress or anxiety a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) or a self-compassion course might be right for you. If you are exploring questions about meaning and purpose traditional contemplative training in the various religious traditions would be appropriate.
  • Don’t:Assume that all meditation involves sitting quietly on the cushion with your eyes closed. Some meditations involve movement, others active thinking or visualization. Some meditation types discourage meditating with eyes closed to support transfer of meditative states into everyday activities. With longer-term meditation training the type of meditation that suits you may shift as does your motivation for engaging in meditation practice.

When to start meditating?

  • Do:Check with your meditation teacher if it is the right time for you to start with meditation. Severe mental illness or acute life crises are typically considered contraindications for starting MBSR or MBCT training. This is because practices such as mindfulness may increase your awareness of the difficulties and thus increase distress if not worked with skilfully.  Some experienced meditation teachers offer individual meditation training for those with severe mental health challenges or experiencing very difficult time in their lives.
  • Don’t:Assume that meditation will solve all your difficulties as soon as you start practicing. Meditation will likely make you more aware of your unhealthy mental habits and behaviour. Meditation practice can also offer some more adaptive ways of working with these.

What about all the reports on the amazing effects of meditation on health and the brain?

  • Do:Cautiously explore reports about effects of meditation on health, well-being and the brain and look for balanced information. Over the last 15 years the amount of research on meditation increased by thousands of studies. Some rigorous research showed, for example, that MBCT can be helpful in recurrent depression. Other research shows moderate effects of mindfulness-based training on reductions in stress. Studies also indicate that meditation can change the brain, even though we still know very little about what those changes mean and how brain changes with meditation long-term. Know that reports in the media often exaggerate reporting of the findings either towards very positive or very negative to catch public’s attention.
  • Don’t:Rely on flashy claims about proven and validated effects of meditation training and be cautious especially if the meditation training is very short.  Similarly, beware of exaggerated critical claims about meditation. Meditation research is a relatively new field and much more research is needed for us to understand the effects of meditation. Even with rigorous studies, one study is never enough to ‘prove’ that meditation, or any other approach, has certain effects. Look out for balanced reports on meditation and remember that there is no perfect research study, every study has some limitations for further research to explore.