Apparently meditation is good for you.

We now take it for granted that mindfulness might help improve our leaky concentration, help us to manage stress, chronic pain and illness, insomnia, and all manner of mental health challenges. Meditation is a media and wellbeing darling, and it’s easy to see why. It’s an accessible intervention to prescribe to patients who can’t afford therapy, workers who can’t afford a holiday, and overwhelmed teachers with kids who can’t sit still. It sells apps, courses and retreats.

The truth is that the science around meditation is more cautious. Although the last few decades have seen the publication of a huge number of small studies indicating that a variety of meditation styles can be helpful for a range of challenges, surfing Google Scholar reveals that virtually every study is careful to point out limitations. In meta-analyses, authors routinely agree that although there’s good general evidence to support the claims made for meditation’s wellbeing benefits, the strength of findings is still small and hampered by real limits. Researchers pointed to issues such as small sample sizes, non-generalisable findings, and even a lack of agreement in the research field about what it was that was being studied.

In small studies, meditation has shown startling and impressive effects. There are literally hundreds of fascinating neuroscientific studies of the brains of long term meditators as well as of people who have completed shorter courses of study. Taken with a pinch of salt, the impacts of a dedicated meditation practice are likely to be impressive. But a major issue of making meditation work will be obvious to anyone who has tried it: if you want to use meditation to produce changes in your life, you need to meditate!

So this is what this post aims to do – to offer some hints and strategies to get you meditating – as long as you’re happy to take the big claims made for meditation with a pinch of salt – and in mind that meditation by itself isn’t a cure-all: We all need a range of strategies to stay well. But if you find a style and routine that works for you (and you’re doing it safely) a regular ‘sitting’ practice can be a powerful part of any ‘self righting’ toolkit, as well as being a useful resource for getting back in touch with yourself when you’re feeling lost.

My own experience has been that meditation has been profoundly helpful for developing a broader window of tolerance, for helping me cultivate the kind of self awareness that supports better emotion regulation, as well as being a way to get to know a body that for a long time was a difficult place to be. Meditation has also been a helpful ‘safe space’ to encounter parts of my experience that I was not okay with having (sometimes called the shadow). Self Compassion Meditation in particular was a valued companion during BIG healing.

The essence of meditation is that it’s radical and wild. Wild in the sense that an ocean current is wild: Un-possess-able but open to dive into – should you choose. Radical because it has the potential to up-end the assumptions we make about the way things are, and allow us to see what is. Just as it is.

The basic principle of self compassion meditation is that we be willing to make space for awareness of suffering and offer it friendly attention. That goes for the suffering of loved ones and strangers, animals and the biosphere, as well as for our own struggles, our own fuck ups, our own real real life. And then we take action. Kristin Neff calls this Fierce Self Compassion, and it’s a gorgeous slap in the face to learned helplessness and complacency.

There are a ton of great resources to help a new meditator (or someone whose skills have grown rusty) get motivated, and I have linked to a ton of them throughout the post. In fact I’m going to refrain from writing technical things about meditation simply because there are SO many experienced teachers who have said it, researched it and recorded it better than I ever could. Instead, I’ll pop down a bunch of the most helpful things I learned about meditation over the last few years of practice. This is not an exhaustive list, just a few nuggets gleaned from my own practice and study, as well as recordings of some really basic practices that you might like to try out if you’re brand new and want an overview of different styles.

Some things I learned that I hope you find helpful too

Spiritual Bypassing’ is a weird thing that matters even if you’re not ‘spiritual’

Spiritual Bypassing refers to a practice of using meditation to escape suffering or mask a difficult inner experience. This can actually kind of work as an avoidance strategy in the short term, which is why I mention it here. I recently heard an anecdote about a man who was extremely stressed out with young kids and a busy, high demand job. Realising he disliked the uptight and hostile man he had become, he got REALLY into meditation. He spent a couple of hours a day meditating – looking forward to coming home for his evening sit – and spent even more time learning about spiritual tradition, attending retreats and meetings and making new meditation friends, until he realised he was as stressed and hostile with his kids as ever – occasionally even becoming enraged when they interrupted his evening practice. This guy had effectively used meditation as a good-feeling avoidance strategy to mask his ordinary, real-life suffering, and as a consequence the natural frustration-management any parent cultivates, as well as the problem-solving and restructuring that needed to happen to make his work life bearable had been pushed aside in favour of transient good vibes (and blaming everyone else for his issues).

We have an idealised image of folks who dedicate themselves to meditative practice and teaching as somehow wiser and more ethical, but time and again we see the selfless activist who set up a school or a whole new tradition being exposed for appalling behaviours. The truth is that unless you’re making room for the difficult experiences that come up when you meditate, you’re using meditation to ‘bypass’ your not-so-shiny parts with feel-good ‘flow’, and you’re not actually getting the deep benefits of your practice.

As Jung said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

If you’re doing any version of Loving Kindness Meditation, keep in mind that you don’t need to have a really ‘clean’ or uncomplicated feeling toward a person to meditate on wishing good things for them.

In fact, making space for complexity, mess and saltiness in our most precious relationships goes to the heart of how to meditate!

When choosing someone to focus on for your ‘loved one’ prompts in the loving kindness meditation, don’t worry too much if you have complex feelings about them. If possible, don’t pick someone TOO complex, but in a world where we often have to deal with wounds to our attachment systems or overwhelming systemic things like racism or misogyny, it can be difficult to find even one person who feels genuinely ‘safe’*. Lots of people choose to meditate on the unconditional love of a pet when things are rough, and it’s not unheard of to focus your good wishes onto a mentor or even a deeply meaningful place. I have a little group of special people I draw from when I’m looking to “bring to mind someone I love” and let me tell you, not ONE of them is without a little ‘ick’. We all sometimes screw up, drop the ball or act in un-skillful ways. Sometimes I know that I’m the one who screwed something up – so my own ‘ick’ toward myself shows up when I think of my loved one! Accepting that you love your people (or pets) as they are is a really lovely practice in itself.

* Keep in mind that feeling safe and BEING safe are two different things. Especially when we’re dealing with trauma and disrupted attachment. You can definitely be objectively safe with someone and still have your fight-or-flight responses firing (and vice versa, but that’s for another time).

Plan to meditate most days.

It’s the things we do allll the time that get done. If you plan a two hour meditation on Sundays the chances of it actually happening are pretty low, but if you mosey out to the porch and meditate for 15 minutes when you walk in the door after work every day, then just walking in the door will trigger the pattern that ends up in a meditation! Think of this as being like brushing your teeth vs going to the dentist. Most of us brush our teeth most days. It just happens. We might not even remember doing it, but usually we’ll notice when we don’t. But going to the dentist is a big, huge hassle. Sure, you feel virtuous afterward and swear you’ll do it again in six months, but when six months rolls around it can be pretty easy to find an excuse… Which brings me to our next point…

Set up a routine!

Some people like to meditate in the mornings, as soon as they wake up. Some like meditating in the afternoon or evening to help transition between a tough workday and time with friends, family or just unwinding (Josh Korda, founder at DharmaPunx NYC and my personal favourite teacher does the latter). Some love a bit of ritual and find that making a dedicated space and treating it with care will be helpful, and others are happy to meditate in the car before work. You don’t even need to sit in a traditional meditation pose – the only important thing is whether it works for you!

Some useful questions to ask:

  • how long am I going to meditate? (keep reading for a tip)
  • Where will I do it?
  • Am I a ‘sit down’ meditator or would standing, walking, or doing a physical routine like tai chi help me focus more?
  • What time of day? Why? (to reset after work? to get set for the day?)
  • What style am I going to try? (again, tips below)
  • What might get in my way? How can I plan to solve that issue ahead of time?
  • Do I need anything to do this comfortably? Sitting cross-legged on a pillow is murder for the knees, and you might prefer a chair, or maybe you get a bit cold sitting still for so long, or get bothered by the noise of a busy household? Maybe you’re happy to meditate on the train after work, but need noise cancelling headphones to stay in the flow?
  • Can I make it a part of an existing routine? Maybe you have a comfy bathroom with a chair in it that you can sit in for 15 minutes after brushing your teeth at the end of the day? Maybe you stretch after a morning run, and could add an extra few minutes at the end to meditate? Perhaps getting to work 10 minutes early and using that time to meditate could become a natural process?

Identify why you want to meditate.

It can be tempting to meditate just because “I know I should”, but that’s not likely to be motivating in the long term. Finding a meaningful reason is likely to help a new habit stick.

  • Are you hoping to build up a skill set to help support mental health change?
  • Do you want to improve your concentration?
  • Are you a bit of a “seeker” and looking to explore your spiritual side?
  • Do you have some tough inner experiences (or life experiences) that need a safe ‘holding space’ so you can explore them in a measured way – with kindness?

Once you have a clear idea, you can google or ask around for a style of meditation that will suit your needs, and feel like a good match. Try just typing “best kind of meditation for (your chosen focus)” – and see what comes up.

Insight Timer is a good place to try out free guided meditations of many kinds once you have a sense of what you’re looking for.

There are a VAST number of meditative techniques and traditions. Not all of them will feel good for everyone!

I cannot emphasise the next sentence strongly enough: If you experience psychosis, depression or any kind of dissociative symptoms stay away from anything mystical or esoteric and immediately stop meditating if you’re getting an increase of symptoms. These practices can be pretty wacky in terms of how they can impact our brain and nervous system. In fact, there’s lots of evidence that some kinds of meditation can be actively bad for depression, psychosis, paranoia and dissociation. Even anxiety can be made worse if you’re tuning-in to your inner experience for the first time and don’t have proper support. If you feel bad or start getting symptoms, give it a rest for now! You can still meditate if you’re interested, but get some lessons or good advice on call to make sure it’s actually helpful.

If you’re in the right headspace for exploring you could try (among many others); Transcendental Meditation, Metta or Maitri (Loving-Kindness), Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), Mantras, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Self Compassion Meditation, walking meditation, yogic traditions, “insight” traditions, a wide variety of esoteric and religious practices and traditions, the American Recovery tradition (drawn from Tibetan Buddhism, but influenced by everything from punk rock to NA/ AA and neuroscience)*, or an open monitoring style. For each tradition and practice there’s a huge range of teachers!

We all have different temperaments and needs, it’s okay if one feels better than another.

* The Refuge Recovery movement in America (increasingly established across the world) has some awesome teachers and a refreshing attitude, but it has also been scarred by alleged unethical behaviour by its founder. The broader movement is exciting, but as with all things that ask you to be vulnerable – ALL meditation schools (and therapists) included – use caution and trust your spidey-senses if in doubt.

15 minutes might be the ideal length to meditate for beginners.

It’s long enough for the body to start discharge some of the stress chemicals even the most chilled of us have, as well as to enter a proper ‘flow’ state, but not long enough to be a barrier to ongoing practice.

Think of the last time you scrolled through social media for 15 minutes or longer. Put your meditation into that context. ANYONE can try returning their attention back to an ‘anchor’ (over and over) for 15 minutes at a time.

Find someone to ask questions!!!

Internet forums, meditation classes or half day retreats, short courses, regular drop-in meetings, books, podcasts, apps or even a mate who you know meditates!

If you’re wondering if you’re doing it right or a question keeps popping up, an answer can feel empowering, make your meditations more skilful, and also and make you more confident about your practice.


Like I mentioned above, certain mental health conditions can be made very much worse with meditation. If it’s not feeling okay, don’t push yourself. If you really want to continue but it’s feeling weird or bringing up difficult things, then talk to your therapist or go to a drop in class (Insight Meditation Melbourne is trauma and mental-health informed, and won’t make you sing devotional songs to Buddha) and ask the teacher about what’s coming up.

Even for folks who are having a straightforward experience of meditation, the experience can be made smoother by holding your attention lightly – as though you are riding down a rocky road and holding the handlebars in a loose grip – allowing your balance and the bike and the road to work together. Often when you relax a little and let your attention roll along as you observe it rolling, you’ll find a deeper flow.

And finally, try to be friendly and a bit kind to yourself, just as you are.

As Jack Kornfield said: “If your compassion does not include yourself it is incomplete.”