Although it’s possible to maintain a mindfulness practice on your own once you have attained a certain stage of practice, in the early years you will need a teacher. Despite the simplicity of the practice, it is almost impossible to stay on the path without ongoing guidance and support. This is because your neural pathways for cognitive fusion or entanglement with your thinking processes have been reinforced since childhood; it takes a teacher to intercede in this entanglement by repeatedly offering alternatives to it.
The two best ways to get started are to attend a one-day introductory workshop at a Buddhist meditation center such as Spirit Rock, or with a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. MBSR classes are a wonderful entry point to the practice and are offered in almost every major city in the developed world. After you receive this initial instruction, residential retreats are usually the best way to deepen your practice. You can begin with a weekend retreat and then move on to longer ones.
Some people are able to create their own solitary retreats instead of taking part in an organized one. I know one physician who spends his vacation time camping in the desert and practicing mindfulness, far from any sign of civilization, and it works for him. The advantages of organized retreats, however, include the guidance of an experienced teacher and the support of going through the process in community with others.
Both options, group and solitary retreats, give you an extended, uninterrupted time away from all the distractions of daily life. Solitary retreats should be free of contact with all forms of media including email and social media. This allows you to come face-to-face with the workings of your mind, including all your thoughts, sensations, and emotions, in ways that are not possible through a brief daily sitting meditation practice.
The single most important mindfulness practice, however, also happens to be the most difficult one. This is the informal practice of mind watching as you go through your day—every day. Your formal sitting meditation practice and retreats make it possible to persevere with this daily informal mind watching because when you sit formally, you do it in a quiet environment you have designated for that purpose. This makes it easier to create and reinforce the neural pathways associated with the ability to observe cognitive and emotional processes. I will have more to say on the distinction between formal and informal practice in a future post.