OK, so you’ve tried mindfulness.. Maybe you’ve listened to a Calm App meditation or attended a therapy session using meditation. You either said “wow this does something!!” Or, “what was that supposed to do?” Regardless, you’re at a point where it’s time to deepen your practice.
Meditation is simultaneously a tool and nothing at all. You relax into it, you concentrate, but you can’t expect to go anywhere or get anything back, at least right away. Sometimes the meditator generates a pleasant feeling, but many times she leaves wondering, “did that have any effect at all? I’m supposed to be Calm!!” The most impressive differences in meditators' brains were seen with long-term practice, including thicker cortical regions for perceptual brain maps (Lazar et al., 2005). Brain imaging showed that meditators who practiced from 7-9 years around 4-6 hours per week had more gray matter dedicated to what brain scientists think involves taking information in clearly. For these meditators, it all started somewhere, and it can for you too. In one study, brain areas with beginning meditators were shown to be different after only 8 weeks of daily meditation and mindfulness practice1 (Hölzel et al., 2011). One of these brain areas included the hippocampus increasing density – which is the exact opposite of what happens in worsening anxiety and depression! The hippocampus is tied to forming long-term memories and emotion regulation.
Don’t jump into this ancient tradition alone; allow the modern masters to guide you on your trek to emotional freedom!
1. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
I love Jon Kabat-Zinn because of his conciseness. He avoids verbosity in favor of immediate instructions. I use this book often in therapy when teaching meditation because he expels common myths quickly and easily. The book is divided into parts – an introduction/rationale for meditating, and examples of meditations to try. Several of the meditations are directly used in evidence-based therapeutic practices such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (Kabat-Zinn’s claim to fame) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. However, like many books here, there’s no need to read in order. Flip to a random page, read Kabat-Zinn’s insights for two minutes, and you may be inspired to try a new meditation.
2. The Sun My Heart by Thich Nhat Hanh
Open any Thich Nhat Hanh book to experience the warm feeling of a kind and loving story. Like many meditation teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh explores themes of suffering and the overcoming of unnecessary emotional pain. He describes people who have endured intense and life-threatening trauma and survived post-traumatic growth. One strength of this book is its constant return to the concept of interdependence. Essentially, all things are connected (hence the title). In meditative practices, we focus on interdependence because people often ignore the possibility in favor of seeing ourselves as independent beings. There are many benefits to seeing the world through the concept of interdependence rather than independent arising – and if you’re curious, be sure to check out the book!
“Understanding is not an accumulation of knowledge. To the contrary, it is the result of the struggle to become free of knowledge.”
- TNH, The Sun My Heart, 1988
Main strength: easy to read. Salzberg explores research-based changes that result from meditation. A CD is also included with some great guided meditations. I see guided meditations like sketching with tracing paper. Tracing paper can help students gain confidence when first learning how to draw. If you’re truly first starting, this book is a great place. The primary method of meditation taught is concentration (“samadhi”) meditation, which is arguably the first step towards a larger meditation practice.
4. Peace is in Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh
If you have a Bachelor’s Degree in liberal arts, there is a good chance you’ve read this already. This book is overwhelmingly simple and elegant - and popular! Thich Nhat Hanh lays out some formal practices, but really dives deep into the concept of “gathas” or anchoring words we can use to focus our attention. The book includes instructions on doing the dishes, laundry, and other chores with gratitude, pleasantness, and mindful attention. A must-have for anyone serious about meditation.
5. YouTube search “Concentration Meditation” “Counting Meditation” “Body Scan” or “Thought Defusion Meditation”
Not everyone has time to sit down with a book or even the funds to purchase an app. There are still robust options for you. YouTube is a haven for free, guided meditations from trusted and untrusted sources. One quick tip is to watch out for meditations that ask you to “shut off your mind” “turn off your thoughts” or suppress your thinking/emotions in any other way. These people are not in tune with the spirit of mindfulness and have no business creating meditations. That being said – one trustworthy source is the Calm App’s channel. They offer many free meditations. If you’re interested in the authors listed above, their meditations can also be found on YouTube for free. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Calm and Ease meditation is especially simple, easy to memorize, and a great relaxation strategy.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B. T., Dusek, J. A., Benson, H., Rauch, S. L., Moore, C. I., & Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893–1897. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
1 Some extra factors besides meditation this group was exposed to include the use of social interaction, gentle stretching, and additional informal meditation practices. It’s impossible to relate these changes to formal sitting meditation alone.