One of the most common questions asked by sincere meditators is something like, “how do I take my practice deeper / to the next level?”
Of course, the specific direction will be a little different for a beginner versus a well-seasoned meditator, but for all experiences levels, the 10 suggestions on this page will provide a rough template for where to look.
If this is a question on your mind, I’d suggest picking one or two that seem especially resonant and focusing on those for a time. Also, feel free to bounce around this article and read only the parts that speak to you.
Before getting into the specific suggestions, it can be helpful to take a step back and consider what it even means to go deeper.
Table of Contents
- 1 What Does it Mean to Go Deep in Meditation?
- 2 Ten Ways To Go Deeper
- 2.1 Establish a Consistent Daily Meditation Practice
- 2.2 Meditate for Longer Stretches
- 2.3 Dive in Via a Residential Retreat
- 2.4 Refine your Method or Approach
- 2.5 Bring Mindfulness into Daily Life
- 2.6 Consider that Awakening Practice isn’t just about Meditation/Mindfulness!
- 2.7 Get Support via a Community
- 2.8 Get Support via a Teacher
- 2.9 Commit to a Particular Tradition/Lineage
- 2.10 Study: Courses, Guided Meditations, Talks, and Readings
- 3 Bonus: When You’re Ready to Go All-in
What Does it Mean to Go Deep in Meditation?
On a very broad level, meditation means cultivating wholesome states of mind, such as patience, kindness, joy, mindfulness, concentration, equanimity and wisdom, among others. In turn, going deep means embodying any of these wholesome qualities more fully and consistently.
On a more specific level, the most profound depths of meditation are said to be developing these wholesome qualities, especially a steady mindfulness and a clear-seeing wisdom, so as to experience “liberation through non-clinging,” aka awakening.
In more everyday language, the great Ajahn Chah put it like this: “If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will have complete peace.” In other words, going deep means moving in the direction of awakening, liberation through non-clinging, complete peace, or any number of similar descriptions.
What follows are suggestions that bring about this depth not just “on the cushion,” but in every corner of our lives.
They will help you identify the next steps, expose blind spots, get past plateaus or stuck-points, and, ultimately, harness mindfulness & wisdom towards letting go on deeper and deeper levels. Of course, as in #6 further below, this process also includes engaged & compassionate action.
Ten Ways To Go Deeper
Establish a Consistent Daily Meditation Practice
If you don’t meditate every day, start now, perhaps trying the two-minute rule, meditating for two minutes a day so as to solidify the skill of “getting started.” Depth tends to unfold over the long run, and simply keeping up the practice, day after day, year after year, through both peaks and valleys, is the absolute foundation.
Meditate for Longer Stretches
In the prior section, I suggested meditating for two minutes a day so as to develop consistency. However, if consistency isn’t an issue for you, an easy way to go deeper is to start meditating for longer periods.
It’s helpful to know that as you increase your meditation time, you are essentially dropping into deeper layers of your subconscious mind. Sometimes this can be very pleasant, like entering into deeper concentration & stillness; however, other times it may be very unpleasant, like feeling a palpable restlessness or irritability.
People often get tripped up when their longer meditations are on the unpleasant side, but from the perspective of depth, even this is a good thing, as it means you’re uncovering deeper layers of mind, which gives you the opportunity to be present with them, see them more clearly, and let go of your reactivity around them.
It’s worth saying there really is no “correct” amount of time to meditate. If the only thing in your life you care about is awakening, you’re probably going to meditate for many hours a day. If you’re just looking for a little dose of sanity, 10 minutes will probably do the trick. However, as a general prompt, here are four zones of meditation times that tend to have different impacts.
- Around 5 to 10 minutes.
- Around 20 to 30 minutes.
- Around 45 to 60 minutes.
- Around 90 to 120 minutes.
Whichever one you’re in, see if you can slowly inch your way into the next zone, not just for a one-off meditation, but for your consistent practice.
Dive in Via a Residential Retreat
I’ve previously written about why go on a retreat, and here’s an article with a ton of specific places to go. Personally, even though I had been casually meditating for years, I don’t feel like my meditation practice really started until I went on my first retreat — spending several days in a row with the sole focus of being present was easily one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve had.
Of everything on this list, this is easily my #1 recommendation for the balance of expediency & reliability of going deep. As a note, basically no one, myself included, casually finds the time to go on a retreat; rather, they make the time. It’s worth it.
Refine your Method or Approach
For newer meditations, the first milestone I suggest is to develop a “homebase” practice, where you pick a technique that is relatively easeful and obvious, and use that method at least 75% of the time, if not 100%. In other words, rather than constantly switching up your technique whenever you get frustrated, bored, or scattered, you stick with your homebase — sure, you might bring in some extra touches in challenging moments, but for the most part, you stick with your homebase. This tends to pave the way for greater concentration, as well as a greater understanding of how your mind works.
At a little more intermediate level, it’s helpful to spend an extended period of time with a particular teacher or lineage’s approach to a given method; for example, even though five different teachers may all teach mindfulness of breathing, they often have notably different points of emphasis and focus. In turn, to get the most out of the method, it’s helpful to really give yourself to that tradition, as in #9.
It’s also essential to learn to identify & skillfully work with obstacles. As a starting point, you could explore questions like, “what gets in the way of me being continuously mindful with a kind, equanimous attitude?” What you might see is that a lot of your answers come back to “the five hindrances” — craving, aversion, restlessness, sloth & torpor, and doubt. Different teachers & traditions have varied approaches to working with obstacles/hindrances, and it’s helpful to learn a few angles.
On the flip side of obstacles are qualities or themes of practice that are helpful to intentionally develop. Below are some of the most transformative and essential themes, which are absolutely worth spending time refining:
- Establishing the right attitude (page 21), which is a way of meditating that allows you to accept, acknowledge, and observe whatever is happening – whether pleasant or unpleasant – in a relaxed and alert way.
- Using samatha meditation to develop solid concentration that culminates in deep states of meditative absorption.
- Developing the heart with loving-kindness meditation or compassion practices.
- Deepening insight & wisdom into the three characteristics of stress, not-self, and inconstancy — it’s said that clearly seeing these three things is what directly leads to awakening.
Several of the best ways to learn how to refine your method are included in this list, such as going on a retreat, getting support via a teacher and/or community, and study (especially courses & guided meditations).
Bring Mindfulness into Daily Life
You may formally meditate for an hour a day, but you’re awake for another 15 hours — how do you really expect to “go deep” until you start to bring the meditative mindset into the rest of the day?
In turn, even if it’s not your primary practice, it can be really helpful to be familiar with open awareness meditation, eyes open meditation, mindfulness of mind, and movement meditation (i.e. Qi Gong or basic walking meditation), as these carry over really well to more natural, daily life settings.
Also, a lot of daily life meditation revolves around our mindset — e.g. establishing a relaxed, engaged attitude and noticing across the day when you veer out of that (like in this meditation). As a concrete example, my teacher sometimes talked about the practice of 0-1-0, where 0 equals a state of non-reactivity and ease, and 10 is a state of intense stress or reactivity. He said to monitor your number across the day, and whenever you notice your number increase, like from 0 to 1, or 4 to 6, harness your meditative skills (i.e. take a deep breath, leave the room, shift your attitude, etc.) to bring your number back down. The 0-1-0 practice was part of the inspiration for one of my favorite guided meditations I’ve recorded.
Here are two specific exercises I often recommend to bring more mindfulness into the day:
- Mindful Moments with Habit Stacking. Pick one habit you naturally do two to eight times a day, like using the restroom, brushing your teeth, sitting in a chair, or putting your shoes on. Immediately after you do the natural habit, “stack” the new habit of taking one deep breath on top of it. Using the restroom example, if you did this every time, that’s roughly 7 extra deep breaths a day, 50 deep breaths a week, and 2,500 a year — added together, they form a tapestry of mindfulness that can start to make a huge difference.
- Mindful activities. Pick one activity you do semi-regularly that doesn’t involve much thinking, like washing dishes, doing laundry, sweeping, driving, showering, cooking, walking, or brushing your teeth. Set the intention that for one week, you will put the screens away when you do this activity, and will make an effort to be present throughout the activity. I find it helpful to have an anchor, like feeling the body, listening to sounds, or focusing on sensations involved in the activity, like the toothbrush on my teeth.
The more you engage in all of these daily life suggestions, moments of mindfulness & the meditative attitude start to happen more spontaneously and naturally. You might find yourself motivated to turn more and more of your life into a meditation. It’s very possible & absolutely worthwhile to be mindful during every single activity of the day, even socializing and using the phone (although I do recommend putting away the phone as much as possible!).
So as to not be overwhelmed with options, if you’d like to work on mindfulness in daily life, I’d encourage you to pick just one of the above suggestions and focus on that for a week before adding in anything else.
Consider that Awakening Practice isn’t just about Meditation/Mindfulness!
In the intro, I discussed depth as ultimately being about awakening — a process of developing wholesome qualities that helps us to let go at deeper and deeper levels of heart & mind. In the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path to awakening, while mindfulness & meditation is certainly an integral part, wise behavior constitutes three of the eight parts. In turn, here is a shortlist of classically recommended behavioral practices:
- Maintaining the five precepts (see Thich Nhat Hanh’s variation for an even more transformative approach to wise & compassionate behavior)
- Taking on generosity as a practice
- Prioritizing integrity above all else
- Practicing wise consumption, relationships, money-making, sexuality, eating, and so on
Curiously, it actually takes a lot of mindfulness and inner resolve to embody these behaviors at a high level. Doing any of them consistently will take you quite deep.
Get Support via a Community
In my observations, hardly anyone maintains a long-term practice in total isolation. It’s very helpful to receive support, inspiration, and guidance from others. We’re able to ask questions, get feedback, stimulate interest, and uncover blind spots we didn’t even realize we had. It also makes the journey much more enjoyable!
While a “community” could mean a regular dharma discussion with a friend or meditating with your partner, I would suggest finding an active practice community, either online or in-person, that offers ongoing teachings & ways to interact with others.
Here is an essay on what to look for in communities. To find one near you, you could start with a simple google search, like “meditation groups portland” or “Buddhist communities Chicago.”
Get Support via a Teacher
When asked if it was necessary to have a teacher, the Dalai Lama responded, “no, it’s not necessary, but it can sure save you a lot of time.”
While it can be great to have a teacher whose work you follow, like reading their books and listening to all their talks, I’m specifically recommending finding a teacher with whom you can have a personal relationship and can give you individualized feedback. The ideal is to be able to meet with them 1-on-1 at least periodically, but group sessions can also work.
As for where to find teachers, you can often meet them through finding a community or going on a retreat. Other strategies involve getting creative with Google searches, perusing online forums, signing up for coaching on the 10% Happier app, or checking out the different teachers at reputable retreat centers. One of the crucial parts of finding a teacher is often just taking initiative. Here are some personal examples:
- With my primary teacher, Sayadaw U Tejaniya, I initially read about him on someone’s blog, which led to me reading his book, which led to me flying to Myanmar and going to his monastery.
- With one teacher, I asked them during our 1-on-1 meeting on a retreat if they would mentor me, like meeting every month or two on Skype.
- With another teacher, I applied to a one-year mentorship program they were leading that I found on their website.
- With my first teacher, they taught a weekly class at a local Yoga Studio, and I ended up going every week for over a year. We never had any 1-on-1’s, but in the group sessions, I asked many questions, was inspired by their embodiment of the teachings, and benefited tremendously from their guidance.
- Another handful of humans, some of whom didn’t even wear the title of teacher, I informally took on as teachers/mentors/guides for anywhere from a few days to a few years, and “found” them mostly through being hungry for guidance and keeping an eye out for people who were further along than myself.
Commit to a Particular Tradition/Lineage
Early on in our practice, it can be helpful to study with a variety of teachers, traditions, and practices. However, at some point, taking in so many diverse influences becomes more of an obstacle than an aid. To really get the nectar of spiritual practice, it’s helpful to dive into a particular path and trust what it suggests.
The classic metaphor is of someone who keeps digging holes in a large field, hoping to strike water so they can build a well; but, they dig every hole only 6-feet, then give up and go another dig 6-foot hole somewhere else. They repeat this over and over, not realizing that a big aquifer was 10-feet below, covering the entire field. In other words, if they had only dug one hole 10 feet, they would have struck water, but instead, they are burnt out, after unsuccessfully digging dozens of 6-foot holes.
In terms of which tradition or lineage to choose, a safe recommendation is to go for the time-tested traditions, such as Buddhism, Yoga, or Taoism, as opposed to whatever the latest self-proclaimed guru is saying. In practice, we usually find one that resonates after a bit of exploration and trial & error.
Study: Courses, Guided Meditations, Talks, and Readings
While going on retreats (#3), getting support via a community (#7) or a teacher (#8), or going all-in on living at a spiritual center (#bonus) can often give us all the direction we need, many people also find it helpful to bring in some other forms of study.
Importantly, the point of study isn’t to fill our brains with good ideas, but rather to take in guidance and perspectives that help us dive more fully into our actual practice. In that spirit, here are a few forms of study that can be incredibly helpful:
- Guided Meditations: the following will open your mind to new possibilities, such as my modest collection, Gil Fronsdal’s 600+ guided meditation collection, B. Alan Wallace’s 48 meditation set (I especially liked the first 20 or so), or Patrick Kearney’s AM sessions. You could also use an app, like 10% Happier or Insight Timer, or search around the internet for meditations on specific themes, or by specific teachers.
- Courses: in-person with a community/teacher is awesome, but doing self-guided courses can also be powerful, like these ones.
- Books: here is my ultimate resource guide with books for basically every stage of practice. The #1 book I recommend to people is Gil Fronsdal’s, The Issue at Hand.
- Talks: Dharmaseed and Audiodharma both have thousands of dharma talks on basically every topic imaginable. I’d recommend either searching them thematically, like “patience,” or by teacher, like “Joseph Goldstein.” Podcasts can also be great too.
As for where to begin with study, I’d suggest just picking one of the above and hanging with it for a while, like a single book, a single course, or one particular teacher’s guided meditations.
Remember — study isn’t necessary, it’s just an aid, so use it to the degree it helps inspire you to practice or opens you to new possibilities.
Bonus: When You’re Ready to Go All-in
Live at a Spiritual Center for a Few Months or Years
I’m adding this one as a Bonus Category, as it isn’t all that realistic for a lot of people; however, it’s easily the most impactful of everything on this list.
Basically, if your top priority in life is spiritual practice, if you’re on fire for meditation, or if you want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, I’d suggest spending some time reflecting on this one — if you’re on the fence, let this post be a little nudge to go for it!
Personally, I initially did this at the Upaya Zen Center for four months, in an environment that balanced deep practice with communal living and a moderate amount of mindful work. Later on, I spent two years at the Shwe Oo Min Monastery, where I did pretty much nothing but meditate, all day every day. Both of these were incredibly transformative in their own way.
There are so many spiritual centers out there to do this, at varying costs, and with varying degrees of responsibility; however, below is a short list to get you started. If you’re really interested in this option, I’d suggest getting a sense of which lineages appeal most to you, and letting this list merely be a launching point for your own investigation.
- Theravada Buddhism: Insight Retreat Center (probably my #1 recommendation on this list), Insight Meditation Society, Ajahn Chah Monasteries, the Mettā Forest Monastery, or a number of places in Asia.
- Zen Buddhism: Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Great Vow Zen Monastery (in Oregon), Upaya Zen Center, Crestone Mountain Zen Center, Mt Baldy Zen Center.
- Yoga: Hridaya Yoga, Yoga Forest, Neem Karoli Baba Ashram.
- Vajrayana Buddhism: Padmasambhava Buddhist Center, Shambala Mountain Center.