Starting to practice

You gotta start somewhere. Photo by Pixabay

A question came up last week at the secret meditation group: What’s a good place to start my mindfulness practice? Most of the following conversation was about platforms, books, tools. There are a thousand fancy mindfulness apps and a hundred places to access guided meditations and everybody has their favorite.

Another question came up in a continuous improvement training session I was leading the week before: What’s a good place to start with continuous improvement? I had a better answer for that one. My answer was: you start where you are, with what you have, and you start today.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to respond to the meditation question with the same answer, like this:

Q: What’s a good place to start my mindfulness practice?
A: You start where you are, with what you have, and you start today.


Lawyers practice law. Doctors practice medicine. Humans (can) practice mindfulness.

What’s wrapped up in that little word, practice? For me, there are three things:

  1. Practice entails humility. There’s always room for improvement. Practice, in this sense, is not about making perfect but about knowing that you’ll be done when you’re dead.
  2. Practice is a discipline. You have to make time for it, and develop structures and supports to help make it happen.
  3. Practice is a habit. Mindfulness is habit-forming, in particular because the objects of meditation are things we always carry around with us (our breath, our awareness of sounds and sights, thoughts clambering up out of the darkness).

Don’t create a practice that depends on little gizmos like bells, statues, or guided meditations. You gotta be able to take your practice with you. Use these things to set the scene or access instruction, but remember: they’re the pizza box, not the pizza.

Instead, look for resources that help you inspect what it’s like to be you, and become aware of the processes and piles of chaotic activity you call your “self”. The mystery is there for you to access and take comfort in anytime.

The mystery

“We built a world of altars because we could never put the mystery into words. We tried to make the mystery human, we tried to lock it into shape, we made sacrifices to it, we sang its poetry and then we left the buildings empty and walked away. We don’t talk about the mystery anymore, not where I come from, but nothing has changed in the world except us.”
Paul Kingsnorth, Beast


Find a good teacher and learn from them using the media that works best for you. The best teachers give resources that help you understand:

  • what the activity of meditation is,
  • how to try it yourself, and
  • what it might be like to succeed (or fail) in the activity.

Either of the following will help you begin a practice of mindfulness meditation from a secular, no-bullshit stance. Nothing to believe in, but a whole bunch of things to try.

If you want a book…

…try Diana Winston‘s “The Little Book of Being” (excerpt available here).

If you want guided meditations…

…get the Waking Up course from Sam Harris.

Start where you are, with what you have; start today.