For such a simple practice as meditation, there are countless approaches, techniques, and schools of practice which can quickly overwhelm the beginner. It is not so much that one is better than the other (although some may say otherwise) but that we may find one method more resonant with our personality and lifestyle than another. So at some point, it is a good idea to explore the various options to see what you personally find most useful and enjoyable.
However, if you are just getting started there is no need to complicate things. This guide cuts out all the frills and fancy terms (when possible) and gets right to the point. Work with this for a few months, ideally daily, to develop the foundational skills and habits. Later you can always expand your practice as you see fit.
What is Meditation
When you think of meditation perhaps you think of it as being in a state of complete inner silence and peace. Certainly that would be an ideal state of mind, and while meditation may help bring us moments like that, it is not, as it turns out what meditation actually is!
Meditation is not a passive state but rather the active practice of turning one’s attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment. This is an important distinction, and here’s why. If you approach meditation as a state of inner silence then you will find yourself constantly fighting with yourself, and view your sessions as failures. Trying to silence the mind is the best way to create more inner noise and stress! Once you realize that meditation is the process of catching and correcting distracting thoughts, and learning to remain detached from them, your sessions will be successful whether it went smoothly or not.
There are countless studies I could site on the benefits of mediation and why you should be doing it daily, and I’ll list a few since it may help encourage you. But before I do I want to say something that may seem weird to say…
Do not meditate to gain any of the benefits of meditation.
What I mean by this is that the more you focus on an objective of mediation, the more you sabotage your efforts. The benefits of meditation will happen naturally in the course of consistent practice, but when you fixate on objectives you will find it proves a distraction. You will start looking for results, and questioning if you are doing it correctly. Instead, meditate simply to meditate. Focus on the practice, not the goals. In the long run you will get to those results faster!
That said, here are a few benefits to enjoy from your dedicated practice:
- Decreases depression, stress and anxiety
- Improves learning, memory and self-awareness
- Helps reduce alcohol and substance abuse and deal with addictive habits.
- Improves focus, attention and ability to work under stress
- Improves information processing and decision making
- Builds resilience and emotional intelligence
- Helps better deal with pain
- Improves mood and psychological well-being
- Fosters creativity
- Increases awareness of your unconscious mind and its influences
- Improves health (lower blood pressure, decrease inflammation)
- Improves empathy and positive relationships
How to Meditate
It does not take much to meditate. Let’s explore the main points…
What Do I Need To Get Started?
There are plenty of props out there that can enhance the experience but let’s keep this real and to the point. You need very little meditate.
All you need is somewhere (ideally quiet) to sit. While there are forms of standing and moving meditation, let’s start with the traditional seated meditation. It does not need to be a fancy zafu (round pillow popular in meditation classes). Work with what is comfortable and available to you. I like to use a kneeling bench when I am at home, otherwise I find a comfortable chair in which I can sit up straight. A friend of mine can sit in perfect posture on the floor with legs crossed like a yogi – I cannot. Avoid overly comfortable chairs where you sink into cushions. You want your back to be straight. You can also lie down, but you may run the risk of more easily falling asleep, so sitting is a little safer.
Some like to listen to music or nature sounds during meditation. Personally I find this distracting and only use when I am in a distracting environment like a train. This is ultimately a personal choice but if you choose to have background sound, choose something that creates an ambient atmosphere without demanding your attention. Some ideas include:
- Instrumental music (search on sites like YouTube for “music for meditation” for examples. Something without vocals and a simple flow works best. If you find yourself following the music instead of meditating then it is probably not a good pick, or the volume is too high. With music you want the ambiance without the distraction.
- Binaural beats. I find these very useful when I study as well as when I meditate. You can find this on YouTube as well. For proper effect you need earplugs since each side has a slightly different frequency and it is the auditory illusion perceived that makes it effective.
- Nature sounds make great ambient backgrounds if not too distracting.
- White and other color noise. YouTube has plenty of these and there are also apps that can generate this on smart phones. Brown noise seems to be best geared to meditation, but it’s a personal preference.
There is no need for special clothing but you do want to be comfortable so take that into consideration. If you can take off your shoes, great, but not a game killer.
A timer is an important consideration. If you meditate without a timer you run the risk of constantly wondering if you have reached your goal. There are plenty of free and low cost meditation timers for smartphones which allow you to quickly set a time and have a gentle reminder when the session is done. Phones also have alarms and reminder features built in. At worse a simple kitchen timer will do just fine. Preferably a gentle reminder would be a better ending than a jarring alarm, but other than that it simply comes down to whatever you have available that will reliably get the job done.
Things like incense, bells, etc. are all props that can help create a relaxing atmosphere but are far from necessary. Feel free to enjoy them, but do not fixate on them.
When and How long to Meditate
Well, technically whenever and as much as you can, but that’s probably not a helpful answer.
First let’s tackle how long. This is a tricky topic since it is as much about consistency as it is length of time. Meditating an hour once a week is not going to be as effective as consistently meditating daily for five minutes.
Five to ten minutes a day is usually the suggested length for beginners. Twenty minutes tends to be the ideal goal to tap into all the benefits of meditation, but this may be difficult for beginners, and a challenge for those trying to develop the daily habit. You can go longer but after around 25 minutes their are not any notable continued benefits outside of feeling really nice. I notice in my own meditations that the first 10 minutes can be full of distractions and as I pass the 15 minute point my mind begins to quiet down and the meditation just feels very enjoyable.
Ultimately any amount of meditation is better than none so if you are just starting out, commit yourself to a set minimum time such as five minutes and stick with it best you can. If you have the time to do more during any given session then extend the time as you see fit. Pace yourself here. If you can barely sit still for 5 minutes try three minutes for a while and as you build stamina begin to increase one minute each week. This isn’t a race. Work within your comfort zone and then gradually challenge yourself to aim for improvement.
As for when, ideally you want to develop a daily practice. This is not always easy for the modern person, but with a little effort you will find it is harder in theory than practice.
There are certain times that are most ideal for meditation, such as just before breakfast, but these should not be considered the only windows of opportunity. Ultimately the best time to meditate is when you will actually put the time in to do it! I am embarrassed to admit how many times I skipped my meditation simply because I wanted it to be part of my morning routine and sometimes I had to rush to work. So while there may be ideal times – and it is definitely helpful to have a set time when developing a new habit – one must also have the flexibility and ingenuity to find time for it when the scheduled time is missed.
Additionally, spreading short meditations thought the day may be easier than one long session. For example while I still aim for a 20 minute morning meditation, I also have time on my train ride to work. It is not as comfortable as when I am home, but I play some nature sounds on my earbuds and make the best of it. If I am stressed I can sit in a park or find a quiet place like a library or church or temple (regardless of your affiliation these are usually open for all and will leave you in peace) for an impromptu meditation session.
Generally the mind is less distracted in mornings, and most distracted at the end of the day. This simply means its a little easier in the morning. When scheduling time for meditation try to avoid doing right after watching TV or eating a meal since that can increase distracting thoughts. Meditating before bed can help sleep come easier. But again, it is better to meditate at a less-than-ideal time than not at all. Make due with what you have to work with.
What Do I Actually Do?
So you have your snazzy meditation chair, a trusty timer and a desire to meditate. Great! Now what?
Let’s again keep it simple and too the point. Later you can always explore alternate methods.
As you prepare your space for mediation take advantage of this time to begin to become more relaxed, present and mindful. I like to think of this time as a simple preparatory ritual. I light some incense, mindfully lay out my mat and bench in silence and with purpose, etc. This gives you a nice transition point to quiet the mind and help reduce some of the distracting mental chatter bouncing around in your head.
Once you are comfortable a basic meditation session would flow as follows:
- Sit comfortably with spine straight.
- Slowly take a long deep breath in (through nose of you can) and exhale slowly through your mouth sort of like a relaxing sigh of relief. Do this a few times to help shift focus back to the here and now. If it helps, envision you are breathing out negativity and unnecessary tension with each exhale.
- Close your eyes (or keep barely open if needed) and fix your gaze on a point a few inches out from your nose. This is your default resting pose. When distracted, gently return to this pose.
- Allow your breath to flow naturally and relaxed. Take a slow deep breath in with the nose, becoming aware of the the feeling of the air as it enters the nose and fills the lungs. If it helps let the tip of he tongue rest lightly on the upper palate of your mouth.
- You don’t need to hold your breath per se, but become aware of the natural pause in the flow as your body shifts to begin the exhale.
- Slowly exhale through the mouth, letting and feeling the air flow smoothly up and completely out of your body.
- Again feel the natural pause this time as the body adjusts to inhale.
- In the process of doing this breathing, as thoughts and distractions begin to arise, silently acknowledged them and gently redirect your focus back to the point a few inches out from your nose and let your attention return to following the flow of breath through your body.
At first you may feel your breathing is forced since you are applying conscious attention, but as the meditation progresses your breathing will naturally slow down and deepen. The body knows how much air it needs and will adjust itself naturally if allowed to.
If you are a sloucher, use every breath in as a gentle lifting to bring you back to better posture. Don’t fixate on this, but take advantage of the natural lifting aspect to reduce that slump.
When your timer sounds the end of the session, take a moment to shift back to the world. Take a nice deep breath, flex your fingers, stretch, touch your face, yawn… whatever feels right.
That’s basically meditation in a nutshell. Try to be patient with yourself. Remember it’s not the lack of mental distractions that grades your meditation session. It’s all about making the needed reorientation back to the present. Some days it will come more easily than other days. This is only natural. But with consistency in practice you will find meditation will come more naturally, even on the bad days.
And finally, enjoy it! I absolutely love the calm, content feeling as I end my session. Let it linger. Bask in it. Meditation is enjoyable in and of itself, outside of all the added benefits it brings.
Here are a few simple variations that you may find useful. Don’t get too caught up in the mechanics, but feel free to experiment to see what resonates most for you.
- Controlled breathing. You can mentally count as you breath to more consciously control breath and offer a point of focus. There are a few formats but a very common one is the four-fold breath where you breath in to a count of 4, hold for a count of four, exhale to a count of four, hold to a count of four, etc. let the body naturally determine the pace.
- You can use a sort of mantra when you breathe. For example you may think “in” as you breath in and “out” as you exhale. Other combinations include “rising”/”falling” and “here”/”now.”
Again, try not to get too caught up in the technicalities. Find a technique that feels natural to you and run with it. As you progress you can always explore other techniques to find what works best for you. Ideally you want something that is not distracting but rather a simple focal point you can continually return to as the mind needs correcting.
Dealing with Distractions
In practicing meditation you will learn to become a detached observer. As thoughts and feelings well up from the unconscious, instead letting it pull your attention away, you will learn to acknowledge them and return focus back to the act of meditation. This will likely be difficult in the beginning since the mind wants to be heard. You will remember things to add to your to-do list, or think of better ways to meditate, or have some great intoxicating thought that pulls you into it’s embrace. You may get an itch that just needs to be scratched. Your brain is used to distractions (dare I say it is addicted to them) and it is more than capable of providing all the distraction it needs.
The important thing to remember is some days will be easier than others, and the number of distractions has no baring on the value of your session. It is not about decreasing inner distraction (although that is a natural side effect) but in consistently and actively redirecting your focus each time you loose it. Meditation is as much about the corrective process, as it is the silence in between.
Each time you consciously return your focus
you reinforce the benefits of meditation.