Iddo Oberski runs a site for those beginning to learn meditation (www.Meditation-for-beginners.net). His site is a great resource, featuring loads of articles that will teach any new-comer how to get started with learning meditation. Iddo is originally from Amsterdam but has lived in Edinburgh since 1988. He’s been involved in various approaches to meditation for more than 20 years and says he’s found immense personal benefits in terms of health, dealing with life's challenges and spirituality.
(1) What do you think are the best benefits of meditation?
Most people get involved in meditation for one of two reasons: they would like to heal in some way, either psychologically or physically, or they have come to a point in their life where they are looking for answers to very deep, ultimate questions (Who am I? What is the purpose of my life? etc). But even this second reason comes forth from a desire for a kind of healing. After all, where do those questions come from in the first place? There may be a sense of feeling lost or confused or a hunger for deep knowledge. So, really there is only one benefit of meditation: healing, getting whole in every sense of the word. This to me is the most important benefit of meditation.
(2) Is it hard for most people to learn?
It is sometimes said that meditation is simple, but not easy. But really everyone can learn to meditate quite easily. That does not mean that they will have immediate benefits, like you may get from a pill or from surgery (though I don't think there are any pills that help you understand who you are; and most pills treat symptoms and not causes). I guess what can be difficult about meditation is that it is not always clear if we're doing it 'right'. This is because there are usually no immediate benefits, so no immediate feedback on how we're doing. But ironically, one of the whole points of meditation, at least of some types of meditations, is exactly to let go of such expectations and come back to simply being in the here and now. That's healing, irrespective of whether there also is a level of physical healing. As I wrote on the home page of my site, the most important approach to meditation is to simply do it!
(3) What's the best piece of advice you would give to beginners?
Well, I have just said it: do it and start simple. Begin with a short awareness meditation, focusing on your own breathing, or your own body sensations. It is much better to meditate daily for 5 minutes, than weekly for an hour.
(4) How long does it usually take to learn?
Everyone is different and I am not sure it is wise to raise any kind of expectation about this. If you take 5 minutes out of your day, every day and in those five minutes you manage to really focus your mind just on your breathing, then that's it, you're doing it. If you spend every time day dreaming about your work or family, then you will need to use your conscious awarenss, when it re-emerges from the day dream, to bring your focus back to the breathing. Again, you're doing it. Whatever you experience, you gently guide your awareness back to the breathing. No need to judge whether you are doing it right or wrong. Fact is you are doing it. You are breathing. You are taking the daily 5 minutes. That simple decision to meditate is in some ways more important than the meditation itself. This decision comes completely out of your own free will and is therefore a truly moral deed for good, in you and in the world. As Woody Allen apparently once said (though not about meditation): 80% of success is turning up!
(5) How often do you need to meditate for it to be effective?
As with learning to play a musical instrument or any new skill, often and little tends to be better than sometimes and a lot. So I would recommend meditating every day. Once you have experienced how meditation affects you, then you may discover that the real challenge begins: to keep it up. There is something very deceptive I think about learning anything. In my experience at least, in the beginning, when everything is still exciting and new, I make good progress. Then comes a time where I lose track of any progress and it seems as if there is none. This is the danger zone where it is very easy to give up altogether. "Yeah, meditation, I tried it for a few weeks, but then nothing happened, so I gave it up". Trust that continuing your practice will be much more beneficial than stopping it. At first it may not seem like it, but after a while, sometimes years, you suddenly realise that something is missing in your life and then pick it up again. So to sum it all up: Start, keep it simple and keep at it.