Meditation has been used by spiritual practitioners for thousands of years as a path to experience transcendent states of consciousness and liberation. And the modern science is discovering that a consistent meditation practice offers a wealth of benefits for physical and mental health.
Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety, depression, chronic stress, fatigue, irritability, and restless thinking. It can increase concentration, clarity, energy levels, access to feelings of happiness and contentment, cognition, creativity, and broadness of perspective. Physiologically meditation increases blood flow to the brain, which supports neurotransmitter production and synaptic firing. On a more subtle level, meditation has been shown to make it easier to experience the state of “flow,” being fully immersed at the moment, which meditators would probably call “presence.” Everyone from children who want better test results in school to aging grandparents fighting off Alzheimer’s can benefit from a meditation practice.
But while meditation sounds simple on the outside, if you are a beginner it can be challenging to know where to get started. This guide will help you begin a meditation practice of your own.
Set the Intention
As with many things in life, understanding why you are meditating is a helpful way to inspire and add depth to your practice. Are you meditating for the physical benefits like reduced stress, or because you want to be a better athlete or student? Are you interested in inner peace, or just want to make it less likely that you will get upset at your children’s behavior? There are no right or wrong answers here, just an opportunity to open to self-inquiry.
Then for each practice session, set a more immediate intention. Keep it simple at first, perhaps something like “I will focus on my breath,” or even just “gratitude.”
Find a Peaceful Place
While eventually, it is possible to meditate anywhere, having a quiet place to practice can make it easier to quiet your mind. Ideally, you want a peaceful room that is free of clutter and loud noises, where you will not be disturbed. Even though you will most likely meditate with your eyes closed, seeing your dirty laundry or pile of paperwork as you are sitting to begin your practice can make it that much harder to concentrate.
Many people like to create a dedicated meditation room, with their meditation cushions, natural lighting, minimal peaceful decor, and a small altar. Even a large closet can be transformed for this purpose. But even if you do not have a whole room, creating a peaceful meditation space somewhere in your home can support your practice greatly.
Move a Little
Meditation is a practice of physical and mental stillness, but if your body is stiff it can be a lot harder to be still. Many people find that some gentle movement like yoga, a short walk, dance, or simply stretching supports their meditation practice. This is especially true in the morning when we might be tired in addition to stiff, and prone to falling into “sleeping meditation.”
Make Yourself Comfortable
Next, it is important to set your body up to be as comfortable as possible while you are meditating. Meditation is facilitated by sitting upright, with the spine elongated and the hips comfortably supported. Most meditators sit in a cross-legged position on a meditation cushion or folded blanket. If it is uncomfortable or impossible for you to sit in a cross-legged position, there are meditation benches that elevate your hips even more and take some of the weight of your legs.
If even that position is inaccessible, you may sit in a chair. Just be sure to still maintain an upright posture, with your hips towards the edge of your chair and your feet flat and parallel on the floor or a pillow.
Part of being comfortable is the mental comfort not having to worry about ending at a certain time, especially if you are meditating in the morning before work. Eliminate the necessity of checking the time during your practice by using a timer with a peaceful bell tone. This can be a great way to help your mind be more comfortable with your practice. Stand alone meditation timers are available online, and there are apps available for most computers and smart phones. Just be sure to put your phone on airplane mode while you are meditating, whether you use a timer on it or not, so you are not disturbed by the outside world during your practice time.
Focus On Your Breath
Once you have given yourself space and time and set up your body, it is time to begin turning inward. The most basic instruction in any meditation practice is to focus on your breathing. Deep breathing has many benefits, on its own and in conjunction with meditation. And breathing deeply enhances meditation, making it easier to stay awake and focus the mind. It also helps bring the attention to the present moment, because while the imagination can travel far into the past and future, the breath only exists in the present.
Give Your Mind Something to Do
Our minds are incredibly powerful tools, responsible for our greatness as human beings. They are also intractable machines that easily run away with us, distracting us from what is really happening around and inside us. Attempting to meditate can be an exercise in frustration because of the distractibility of our minds. But giving your mind a simple task can help it be more relaxed and present.
For many people, it can be enough to just focus on the breath in an active way. Some people respond more to numbers, some to colors, and others words. One simple exercise is to silently count in your mind. You can count the number of breaths, starting over if you lose count. You can also count on each breath, counting up from one as you inhale, and counting down from whatever number you reached on the inhalation as you exhale.
If you are a more visual person, you can imagine a color on your breath, one color entering you as you inhale and another leaving you as you exhale. If you are a word person, repeating a silent phrase or mantra as you breathe can be helpful
Some people need an even more obvious point of focus. If your breath is not enough to keep you at the moment, you can have a candle, flower, peaceful photograph, or another visual object at eye level in front of you. This is when a meditation altar placed at about chest height can be especially helpful. Look at this object with a soft gaze, not staring hard, just having the eyes open enough to see the object.
Once you are settled into your posture and your breath, the hard part of your meditation begins. That hard part is accepting that there is nothing to achieve. While meditation offers many benefits, you are not going to “get” anything out of it. There is no success, no winning or loosing in meditation. That might seem obvious as you read this, but when we actually sit down to meditate this can be a challenging concept to wrap our minds around. Our minds are used to being in competition, to getting things right, to achieving. It can be easy to think that unless we feel a certain way during or after our meditation that it was not successful. That is a defense mechanism our minds employ to keep us from doing the very thing that would get us to stop letting our minds run the show – meditating.
Simply sitting on your meditation cushion or chair is a form of success. Even if your mind wanders the entire time and is never quiet, and you realize you just spent your meditation time balancing your check book when your timer rings. Even if you alternate between feeling annoyed and bored, or experience a rush of strong negative emotion, or it seems like “nothing happens.” Allow whatever occurs in your meditation to be as it is, and know that as long as you made space and time and sat down to meditate, you did it right.
How to begin a meditation practice
Do It Every Day
We thrive on consistency. It is not one or two meditation sessions or meditating a couple times per month, that provides the profound benefits. It is coming to our meditation practice every day, no matter what. Even if we don’t want to, or think we are too busy or think that it’s useless. Meditating every day is what makes it powerful, what boosts our energy and rewires our brains. Ten minutes of meditation every day is more effective than two hours of meditation every week or two.
Do It With Friends
While there is a preciousness to our solo practice time, meditating in a group can be profound, as well. It can also help us stay focused during the practice. And studies have shown that groups of people meditating can actually have a strong positive effect on the surrounding environment.
If your friends or loved ones are open to the idea, have regular group meditations with them. Schools and businesses all over the world are beginning to include meditation as a stress relief tactic and learning tool, so you might be able to convince your administrator or employer to start a program. But even just meditating with your partner can be a wonderful way to support your own practice and strengthen the relationship.
Once you have explored it on your own a bit, look into the many resources available to support meditation practice. There are meditation centers of various traditions in towns all over the world, many of which offer beginner’s courses or open meditation times. There are books on every type of mediation possible, from simple to complex. If you are a digital person, there are countless apps and audio recordings of guided meditations and other supportive recordings to help you stay focused on an entire meditation session, and most are free.
Meditation offers countless benefits to our overall health and wellbeing. To get the benefits, however, we have to practice. Meditation is simple, but it requires consistency and dedication to be effective. Follow these steps to begin to experience the benefits of this ancient practice for yourself.