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How to Meditate: Best Advice from 3 Long-Time Meditators

Meditation Tips | Meditation for Beginners

Mindfulness has become such a popular topic that bloggers are writing about it non-stop.  Some develop online courses on the topic as well.  But, do they know what mindfulness or meditation really is?

I have a concern that the practice of meditation could be be diluted by well-intentioned, but inexperienced individuals. So I invited three authentic and accomplished meditators to share the joys and challenges of meditation with you.

I’m delighted to introduce you to Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel, Maureen Cooper, and Maia Duerr.  Collectively, these dedicated women represent nearly 100 years of meditation experience including several three-year retreats.  Yet, their responses are as fresh and relevant as any beginner’s mind.

Without further ado, let’s delve into the purpose of meditation, helpful ways to structure your practice, and how to work with some of the common obstacles that arise in meditation.

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel on Meditation

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel

Why do you meditate?  How does it help you?

I meditate because I have a longing to habituate my mind toward sanity. I often think of the traditional analogy of the untrained mind: it’s like a blind, limbless person riding a wild horse – you can’t rein it in. There’s no freedom in that.

We have so many preferences in term of what we want to experience. When I sit to practice sometimes I feel peaceful and sometimes my thoughts, emotions or sensations feel jagged and wild, sometimes painful and overexcited.

Due to the practice I don’t judge that or particularly see that as a problem. It is the expression of the natural vitality or rich energy of the mind. Without practice, I would do what we all seem to do: brace against the activity of the mind or get lost in the momentum of thoughts. There’s no grace in that – no sanity.

Through meditation I have become less intimidated by my mind – less naïve. I see that my thoughts and emotions are insubstantial and that makes me less reactive, more curious and appreciative toward this momentary experience I call my life.

What’s your daily practice look like?

I do formal practice every day. I get out of bed, make offerings to my shrine and then get to it. I get up early so nothing gets in my way. Then as I move about my day I continually remember my practice and think about the teachings and my teachers. I look for opportunities to practice Loving Kindness all day long. Contemplation is also important to me. I love the Middle Way [Buddhist] teachings – the logic of them.

What’s been your main challenge in meditation and how have you overcome it?

The main challenge comes when I forget to value everything that arises in my mind and life as a teaching. Sometimes I find myself subtly rejecting experiences, as if I were wishing I were someone else, somewhere else, having a different experience. When I remember not to judge my experience, I enjoy it so much. From the practice point of view, everything is useful. In this way everything becomes positive.


Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel has been practicing the Buddhist teachings for almost 30 years under the guidance of her teacher, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche. She is the author of The Power of an Open Question.


Maureen Cooper on Meditation

Maureen Cooper

Maureen Cooper

Why do you meditate?  How does it help you?

Even as a child I longed to understand how the world worked and to know something about why things were as they were. Over the years this longing brought me in contact with all kinds of interesting people and ideas but it was not until I started meditating that anything really made any lasting sense.

Meditation helped me to learn that how my mind is will determine how I see the world and the actions that I choose to engage in. It’s been over thirty years since I began to meditate and my main experience is of being made a gift of myself—of beginning to know how to handle myself through all my moods and challenges.

What’s your daily practice look like?

On waking up in the morning I like to take a moment to just connect with my breath before getting out of bed and starting the day. After showering and making tea is the time for sitting on the cushion and I am rigorous in not getting into too much other activity before my session. Before I begin I take a moment to think of people close to me, or having a hard time and to wish them well and after the session to include them in any benefit I experience—this can be extended to include any trouble spots featuring in the news.

During the day as I am working I like to take moments to return to my breath and to just pause in my activity. These are opportunities to connect with myself and to check how my mind is. This can be especially helpful when I am under pressure or have a lot on and it is all too easy to get carried away by worry and emotion.

What’s been your main challenge in meditation and how have you overcome it?

My experience of working to establish a stable meditation practice is that it does get easier the longer you keep trying. Current neurological research bears this out—the brain can change in response to our experience and so a habit become easier to maintain the more you practice it.

Once I got over the idea that meditation had to be done perfectly every time, and was something outside of myself that I had to ‘do’ things became much easier. Realizing that meditation is an on-going experience in working with your mind in any situation and any mood and that sometimes this would be fun and sometimes hard and sometimes just plain boring freed me from any notions of having to be a perfect meditator.


Maureen Cooper is the author of the recently published book, The Compassionate Mind Approach to Reducing Stress and the founder-director of Awareness in Action, a consultancy dedicated to introducing meditation and compassion into the workplace. To check out her blog visit Awareness In Action.


 Maia Duerr on Meditation

Maia Duerr

Maia Duerr

Why do you meditate?  How does it help you?

Meditation helps me stay awake to my life. While that sounds like such a simple thing, it is oh-so-hard to do!

What is “waking up” and why is it so important to me? Think of what happens when you drive a familiar route, perhaps the way you get to work each day. Have you ever noticed that you suddenly look up and discover that you’ve arrived at your destination and you have no recollection of what happened in the 30 minutes before you got there? You were on auto-pilot. Life can get like that too.

I’ve learned that the times I’ve been on autopilot are usually when I’ve made the worst ‘mistakes.’ I hesitate to call them “mistakes” because that implies I was aware of what I was doing. It’s more like I was not tuned into some pretty important dynamics — like a partner who was very unhappy with some of the choices I was making. And because of that, things fell apart — like that relationship.

So I meditate to stay more awake to what I am doing and how it impacts myself and other people. And the earth as well. I believe it becomes more possible to make choices that sustain our lives when we are in this place of “being awake.”

What’s your daily practice look like?

I try to anchor myself every day in the practice of zazen (sitting meditation). That’s fundamental for me! Sometimes I miss a day, but when I’m consistent in my practice it creates a kind of alchemy that cultivates awareness and creativity.

I also take mindful walks whenever I can in the beautiful area surrounding my home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’re up at 7000 feet, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos mountains. As I walk, I take in the changing light on the mountains and the incredibly expansive blue sky, as well as the creatures who live here (rabbits, coyotes, lizards, birds of all kinds). This helps to nourish me.

What’s been your main challenge in meditation and how have you overcome it?

The biggest challenge I’ve had in my meditation practice is keeping it going when I am not in crisis. Over the years it has become clear to me that meditation can literally save my life. When I’ve experienced loss of various kinds and felt deep grief, it is the medicine I go to for healing. But when life stabilizes again, I’m tempted to let it go. By focusing on the nourishment aspect of meditation and realizing that it helps me not only when I am in crisis but that it enhances my life when things are going well, I’ve been able to keep a more consistent practice.


Maia Duerr is a writer, anthropologist, ordained Buddhist chaplain, and longtime student of meditation. She loves to support people in their search for true freedom through her Liberated Life Project as well as her business, Five Directions Consulting.


The True Power of Meditation

There are hundreds of research articles on the benefits of meditation every year now.  Mindfulness, for example, has been shown to decrease stress, lower blood pressure, and boost the immune system, and that’s just for a start.

There’s nothing wrong with practicing meditation to gain positive results like those mentioned above.  At the same time, meditation is far more than a practical, self-help technique.  In fact, although mindfulness is essential, it’s simply the first step in meditation.

Most importantly, as we can see from these insightful responses, meditation is a way to train your mind to diminish negativity and enhance its natural goodness.  In so doing, you begin to taste genuine happiness and true freedom.  And from that space of clarity, compassion naturally arises.  Meditation then is the ultimate way to end suffering for ourselves, for others, for our world.

My heart-felt gratitude to Elizabeth, Maureen, and Maia for sharing their knowledge, experience, and insights into meditation with us today.


Thank you for your presence, I know your time is precious!  Don’t forget to sign up for my e-letter and get access to all the free self-development resources (e-books, mini-guides + worksheets) in the Always Well Within Library. May you be happy, well, and safe – always.  With love, Sandra

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19 Comments

  1. Jean Sampson

    I enjoyed this, Sandra, because meditation is the one thing that is lacking in my self care. When I have tried to meditate (other than walking meditations) I go right to sleep and that is that! I am so glad to hear that meditation does NOT have to be perfect! I hear about the incredible benefits of meditation, so I will keep on trying (and maybe get a little more sleep!).

    • Hi Jean,

      I’m glad you liked the article and feel encouraged.

      Maybe it will help to know that there are two main obstacles in meditation: agitation and dullness. The sleepiness would fall under the dullness category.

      Some traditional antidotes for dullness would include wearing lighter clothing, eating lighter food, keeping the window open for fresh air, or keeping a bright light on. You could also splash your face with cool water. Or any time you notice you are drifting off, alert yourself, breath out any stale air and breath in fresh air, and sit up straight (in a comfortable not rigid way).

      Naturally, if sleepiness is a challenge for you, it makes sense to try to meditate at times when you feel naturally awake rather than before bed, for example.

      Getting more sleep is a terrific idea too!

      It’s normal to face these kinds of challenges in meditation, but they can be overcome. Good luck!

  2. What a pleasant post! It is always wonderful to read how others perceive meditation. What really stands out for me is – the experience is always beneficial, and loved and helps stay calm and “awake”.
    For me, meditation is a prayer.
    Thank you, Sandra. I enjoyed reading this!

    • Dear Vidya,

      Thanks for underlining these positive qualities that arise from meditation. You definitely know! I also feel that prayer is very important. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Vidya!

  3. Hi Sandra,
    This is truly a unique experience…I felt I have spoken to three great personalities! I like the confession of Elizabeth that ‘rejecting experiences’ is a reality…even by such an expert! Maureen has very candidly admitted that we can meditate and still have no ‘notions to be a perfect meditator’. It inspires me! Maia Duerr’s experience resonates more with me. I too feel my creative juices flow freely when I try to meditate…sometimes I get my best ideas during such moments.

    Thanks for acquainting us with the expert opinions!

    • Dear Balroop,
      How wonderful! I’m so glad you felt you were able to connect with these special women.

      I agree it’s so helpful to see how the mind of a meditator can be after 20 or 30 years. Rejecting experiences arises from attachment and aversion, and we’ll all be subject to these two tendencies ideally to a lessening degree as we develop our practice of meditation.

      So I’m sure rejecting experiences happens much less often in the mind of a meditator like Elizabeth. However, anything can arise in the mind even for an experienced meditator. But, the key point is how we respond. Do we cling and become entangled or let go with amusement? So whatever arises actually becomes an opportunity that takes us close to a mind that is free.

      Most of us bring our neurosis right into meditation so in the beginning all those ideas of what we “should” be doing in meditation can really get in the way! But, it too is part of the learning process.

      I’m glad you especially connected with Maia’s description. It’s the same for me too. When my mind is open and spacious, creativity flows.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. Hi Sandra,

    I feel like the older I get the less I live on autopilot. I really don’t have chaos in my life unless I create it. Gone are the harried and busy times of when my children were at home. I’m currently practicing eating mindfully. Sometimes I wonder how it got so out of hand;) Love the wisdom on meditation and mindfulness.

    • Dear Tess, Age really brings maturity and wisdom, especially if you have spiritual focus in your life, doesn’t it! It’s just so exciting to hear that you don’t have chaos in your life unless you create it. You’ve really have a good handle on your mind and know how to use it for the best purposes.

      I find that eating mindfully is not so easy. Many people have told me that. I so admire you’re taking this on. Yes, there’s so much entertainment for the tongue (as one of my friends says) these days, it’s easy to wildly consume without much thought!

  5. A wonderful, wise, and inspiring post, Sandra.

    • Dear Charlotte,

      Thank you! I think so too and am so grateful to these women for sharing their inspiring wisdom.

  6. Thanks for sharing this on meditation, Sandra, a journey that has come and gone and come and gone for me so many times. These days, I use my yoga practice as moving meditation and it seems to serve me best. But what I’ve learned most about meditation is to observe the times when I need to get grounded and do what I need to get that grounded peaceful feeling before making hasty or poor decisions. Great resource. Thank you for being such a light on this path!

    • Dear Farnoosh,

      I think yoga is an excellent way to practice mindfulness meditation. It seems like a perfect fit for you since you are so in love with and devoted to your yoga practice.

      Noticing when we’re ungrounded is really bringing mindfulness into life. That’s the whole point of any practice on the cushion and this clarity can truly help us lead a more sensible and thus happier life!

      Thanks for these wonderful contributions to the conversation.

  7. What’s so great about this article for me Sandra is the concept that there is no one way. That we all are unique in the way we move and have our being in the world and it’s all good.

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful women with us. 🙂

    • Dear Elle,

      So true, we each need to work with our own mind and that is very individual! It feels like pure joy to share these wonderful women with my readers.

  8. Thank you Sandra for introducing three wonderful women who shared great insight about meditation.

    The thing that resonated with me most is that meditation doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s okay, no matter what.

    There is playfulness, curiosity and compassion to oneself, and ultimately the world, when we allow the thoughts and emotions to come up and consciously let them go without judgement. This for me is the ultimate freedom.

    The more I practice the more I realize it’s about letting go and flowing with what is.

    Thank you again for this beautiful dose of awakening.

    With love,
    Manal

    • You’re so welcome, Manal. I think this is a powerful insight > “There is playfulness, curiosity and compassion to oneself, and ultimately the world, when we allow the thoughts and emotions to come up and consciously let them go without judgement. This for me is the ultimate freedom.” I so agree!

      I think the challenge for most of us, especially in the beginning is that we bring all our “concepts” about how to meditate the right way into our practice. And that can bring a lot of tension instead of relaxation or the playful sense you describe.

      The “perfect” meditation is simply being aware whatever arises in the mind and not following after it. Even negative thoughts will arise, but if we don’t cling onto them they just dissolve and aren’t a problem.

      Thanks for your insightful response. You’ve give me something to think about too!

  9. I love seeing how different women start their days — kind of a Paris Reviews “Writers at Work” guide to meditation. I’m new to meditation and still struggle with consistency, but when I find it, the results are heartening. Thanks for a wonderful post, Sandra!

    • Hi Debra,
      What a great analogy! Yes, for me too, it’s so helpful to get a glimpse of how different people support their practice. It takes a little time to get the consistency part down for almost everyone. You’ll get there, I’m sure! I’m so glad you feel heartened by hearing these results.

  10. Dear Sandra,

    I have experienced a sea-change in my life after I began to do meditation on a regular basis. So, I LOVED reading these insights and tips provided by three inspiring women!

    Elizabeth’s views resonated with me because it is in sync with my experience with meditation. For instance, where she says, “he main challenge comes when I forget to value everything that arises in my mind and life as a teaching. Sometimes I find myself subtly rejecting experiences, as if I were wishing I were someone else, somewhere else, having a different experience. When I remember not to judge my experience, I enjoy it so much. From the practice point of view, everything is useful. In this way everything becomes positive.” This is so true and captures the essence and purpose of meditation.

    Request – Please continue with a series of Meditation related tips, experiences from inspiring figures as you have done in this post. That would be wonderfully inspiring for many of us.

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