Contemplative Neurosciences Research

Starting a Meditation Practice

Brigham and Women's Hospital

There are many forms of meditation. You may be wondering where to start. Here, I provide my own personal perspective and provide conceptual models that propose to demonstrate how the most common practices function to transform your mind and brain.

My personal practice began with samatha and vipassana meditation (styles that come from Theravada and mostly the Burmese lineage holders). Samatha is translated as “taming the mind” and vipassana is translated as “insight” and is often referred to as “mindfulness” meditation. The specific types of meditation practices that are involved in these contemporary settings include 1. Focused Attention and 2. Open Monitoring, respectively.

Focused attention can be trained on any object (e.g., a mantra, a diety, or a flame), but in the case of samatha, the focus is on the breath. Focus on the breath and nothing else helps to stabilize the mind (bring it to stillness). Similarly to a mantra meditation, focusing on one object is thought to be helpful – mostly because it does not allow many other distractions to arise.

Open monitoring (OM) typically builds upon the stability of attention you have cultivated in FA practice. It directs your attention to any object that arises and allows you take inventory, without reacting or intentionally following any one train of thought – just let it rise and pass.

Focused Attention

Open Monitoring

Loving Kindness

Guided Practices to Try




Loving Kindness Meditation – 10 MIN – Diana Winston

Sample some more guided practices in FA, OM, and Loving Kindness practices HERE


There are many teachers out in our communities – some better than others, some come directly from a lineage of rigorous scholarship and experiential practice.
SN Goenka was one of the first teachers in India to widely spread the teachings of Vipassana (He died recently- but his teachings live on)
Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein,  and Jack Kornfield are teachers that brought many of the teachings from Vipassana and Burmese styles of noting and labeling practice to North America. Check out the Insight Meditation Center (Barre, MA) or Spirit Rock (Marin County, CA) for teachings along these traditions.
How Do these Meditation Practices Work? Dr. Vago and the FNL have worked to create system-based models that identify the cognitive, psychological, and neural mechanisms by which these meditation practices function.


IMS is one of the Western world’s oldest and most-respected meditation retreat centers dedicated to providing a spiritual refuge for all who seek freedom of mind and heart. Experienced teachers offer guidance in Buddhist meditations known as vipassana (insight) and metta (lovingkindness). While the context is the Buddha’s teachings, these practices are universal. The retreat facilities are set on 240 secluded wooded acres in the quiet countryside of central Massachusetts.

Spirit Rock Meditation Center is dedicated to the teachings of the Buddha as presented in the vipassana tradition. The practice of mindful awareness, called Insight meditation, is at the heart of all the activities at Spirit Rock. We provide silent meditation retreats, as well as classes, trainings, and Dharma study opportunities for new and experienced students from diverse backgrounds with a willingness to develop their own practice. Spirit Rock is located in Marin County, CA.

Natural Dharma Fellowship is a Buddhist community that supports the cultivation of contemplative and ethical practices for a better world. We believe that the inner development of compassion and wisdom facilitates authentic transformation in our workplace, family, relationships, community and society as a whole. Our non-profit organization, founded by Lama Willa Miller, supports a robust transmission of traditional Buddhist lineage teachings and also encourages an active and ongoing integration of these teachings into the many contexts of modern life. Our programs—including retreats for activists, caregivers, educators, writers, artists, couples, and families—take place primarily (but not exclusively) at our retreat center Wonderwell Mountain Refuge in the mountains and lakes regions of New Hampshire, USA.

The Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy (IMP) is a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and training of mental health professionals interested in the integration of mindfulness meditation and psychotherapy, for the purpose of enhancing the therapy relationship, the quality of clinical interventions, and the well-being of the therapist.

Upaya Zen Center offers daily Zen meditation, weekly dharma talks, and programs on Buddhist teachings, art, neuroscience, and social engagement. We also offer professional training for end-of-life-care and Buddhist chaplaincy.

For integration of study and practice – learning the dharma through practice. Learning practice through dharma.


This list of retreat centers is not meant to be exclusive. 


Finding a teacher that is right for you is really personal preference. You may like the sound of one teacher’s voice and not another. You may simply gravitate towards a teacher for some other practical reason – but most importantly I would encourage you to develop a relationship with one teacher after sampling a few – it is important for that teacher to develop a relationship with you as well – so that your progress can be monitored and that someone is there to support you when difficult thoughts/emotions arise (and they likely will).

I practiced some Zen, but later became more interested in Tibetan styles of Dzogchen and Mahamudra practice. These involve cultivating deeper states of non-dual awareness – where there is no subject-object distinction. Check out UPAYA Zen center for an experience with Zen. My teachers in the Tibetan traditions have been the Dalai Lama, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

I also like the Tergar Group – This group provides Tibetan Mahamudra teachings by one of my favorite  teachers, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. They now have online courses!! One can start with “Joy of Living” and work your way up. The teachings do get very subtle and profound. Learn about Tergar [Link]

Another option may be western teachers who provide a bit of a mix that a lot of people love. I work with a teacher named Shinzen Young. Shinzen has a style of noting and labeling experience that is very easy.. Shinzen Young has an ongoing community of people who learn through “online retreats” and teleconferences.

Another “online” resource is the Buddhist Geeks life retreat. Check them out…they are based out of Boulder and have some good Western teachers


Some good mobile apps also exist. The one’s most commonly used:





Calm – Calm is actually paired with an EEG headband (The Muse) you can purchase from Interaxon. It can be most effectively used for biofeedback when paired together. There is not a lot of data to support this biofeedback mechanism yet, but there is a lot of interest.

Here is a review of the top meditation apps [Link]

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