Over the past twenty years that I’ve been meditating, I’ve learned many things. I’ve learned about the practice, I’ve learned how meditation can benefit us in life, and I’ve discovered many things about my own mind.

Twenty years of meditation has totally changed my idea of the practice.

When I started meditating, aged 18, I thought meditation was just about sitting still and focusing on the breath. But there is infinitely more to it than that. If your new to meditation, you may have only just glimpsed the surface of this oceanic practice. That’s why I’m writing this.

In this guide I’ll share with you my top insights about meditation, how my view of meditation has changed, and what you need to know to get the most out of your meditation sessions.

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What I Now Know About Meditation

 1: The Single Most Important Skill

Many people think that the most important skill that you need for meditation is the ability to focus. That’s true to a degree. You won’t get far in meditation if you cannot concentrate. But there is a more important skill.

The single most important skill in meditation is this: Knowing how to use different techniques.

Different meditation techniques offer hugely different benefits. That’s why you need to know what the effects of different techniques are. You need to be able to diagnose your own mind and then choose the best meditation for any given situation. Like if you’re feeling lonely, you need to do Loving Kindness. Or if you’re feeling angry, you should do Anapanasati. Or if you have “Monkey Mind” you should do Samatha or Trataka.

That’s why I advise you to do this: Learn about the different types of meditation and their effects. That way you can pick the best meditation for whatever state of mind you’re in.

2: You cannot beat PROPER meditation (e.g. the apps don’t work)

I swill say this until I am blue in the face: You cannot beat proper meditation. [READ: How to meditate properly at home]

What do I mean by “Proper meditation”

“Proper meditation” means performing a traditional technique (like Zen or Bhakti, for instance). It means performing that meditation for a minimum of twenty minutes, using the proper posture and breathing techniques.

Now, I know, Andy Pudicombe tells you that Headspace will heal your mind. Bullshit. Apps will never be as effective as proper meditation (research from Harvard has already proven this).

It’s sad that meditation has become too commercial. Today, when people say they are meditating they actually mean, “I lie down in bed and listen to a relaxing recording”.  That it not meditation. And you deserve better.

If you think you’re meditating by listening to recordings, think again. You will never get as much out of any recording as you will get from a proper, traditional meditation technique.

Let’s make a rule: When you meditate, your phone is nowhere in sight!

3: Meditation by itself is not enough

This might sound like a funny thing for a meditation teacher to say, but meditation by itself is not enough. Although there are huge, staggering, life-changing benefits of meditation, it is not a cure-all.

If you want to enjoy optimum mental health, you also need to consider other aspects. You still need to make sure that you’re getting exercise, eating healthy, not spending your entire life on your phone or laptop, spending time with friends, and generally taking care of yourself.

Don’t get me wrong. Meditation is an utterly wonderful practice. It is, in my opinion, the number one form of exercise you can do for your mind. But it is not a cure-all, and it should be complemented with other healthy habits.

4: Everyone can meditate, but some people shouldn’t

I could fill a phone book with people who tell me that they can’t meditate. And those people are all categorically wrong. Yes, you can meditate. I absolutely promise you that you can meditate.

But it is interesting that so many people think they can’t.

Why do people think they can’t meditate? I believe it’s because they have preconceived ideas about themselves. They think they have zero focus. They think they’re too busy. They think their thoughts are unstoppable. But they are wrong.

If you think you can’t meditate you either a) have never had proper instruction, or b) have had bad instruction.

There are literally thousands of different meditation techniques in the world. They range from breathing techniques to movement methods like Qigong, to visualizations, to mantras, and so on. I promise you there is at least one form of meditation that you can do successfully.

That said, even though everyone can meditate, not everybody should. There are some people for whom meditation is not suitable, because there are risks and side effects of meditation.

The number one example of this is people with Epilepsy (because meditation can cause seizures in epileptics). That’s why, if you do have a mental health condition, you would be wise to consult your healthcare professional before you start meditating. In 99.9% of cases, your healthcare professional will tell you that you are fine to meditate. But it is better to be safe than sorry.

5: Sometimes, meditating on terrible things is a wonderful idea

Here is one of the ways in which the 21st Century is wrong about meditation. In the 21st Century we believe that we should only meditate on relaxing things (the breath, music, crystals, etc). And that’s fine if you just want to relax. But it is not the ultimate purpose of meditation.

There is a reason why Buddha meditated on different kinds of decaying corpses (check my guide to Samatha for more on this). The reason is that when we meditate on terrifying, disgusting, or disturbing things, we train the mind to be calm in bad situations.

Now, to get things straight, I am not telling you to find a corpse and meditate on it. But I am suggesting that if you can meditate in uncomfortable situations, you will greatly strengthen your mind. I personally do this by meditating in freezing cold showers or baths (do not do thyis if you have a heart condition), and by meditating in loud environments where it’s very hard to focus (this trains my mind to be calm regardless of external circumstances).

Point is: Meditation is not just for relaxation. It’s also used to train the mind. And just like at the gym, sometimes you need to challenge yourself if you want to grow stronger.

6: The Ever-Swinging Pendulum

There is a pendulum in the mind that is always swinging from one side to another. The pendulum swings from a place called “Zen” to a place called “Lost”. When we have Zen we are aware but calm, we can see our thoughts and feelings but we are not reactive to them, we are aware of the present moment but not lost in it.

When we are in the “Lost” zone, the mind is trapped in some object or some mood or thought that is preventing us from seeing clearly. For instance, you might have a thought on your mind that is preventing you from being mindful. Or you might be lost in the material world or in a certain mood.

The mind is always varying between degrees of mindfulness and mindlessness. It’s a very good idea to occasionally ask yourself, “Where am I on the scale from mindful to mindless?” If you feel like you’re trapped in mindlessness, that’s when you really need to meditate.

7: Breathing with the mind

The easiest way to maintain your mindfulness is to always be aware of your breath. You don’t have to focus on your breath 100%. You can keep part of your awareness on your breath while you’re still doing other things.

Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn said, “Feelings come and go like clouds in a stormy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor”.

By always being aware of your breath, you will ensure that you live mindfully.

I think there’s a reason we always breathe, and it isn’t just to keep us alive physically; it’s also to keep us alive mentally, so that we maintain our mindfulness.

You always breathe with the body. Always breathe with the mind too.

These are some of the most important things I’ve learned from twenty years of meditation. I hope they guide you well.

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Written by Paul Harrison

Paul Harrison is a qualified meditation teacher and writer with more than 15 years experience in meditation and mindfulness. He studied meditation in Oxford, UK, and Hamilton Ontario Canada, and earned his degree at Staffordshire University. Paul has helped thousands of people to discover their true potential through mindfulness, yoga and meditation.