If you haven’t done much meditating, it might seem like a bit of a grey area to you — something you want to do but don’t know much about.
Is it difficult to do? How do you control your mind? (spoiler: you don’t) Does it take a lot of discipline? Do I need to do it with a class? Where and how do I do it? Why should I do it? Will it take hours? Is it for people who are into Eastern spirituality?
Let’s take a look at what meditation is, why it’s a good thing (whether you’re spiritual or not), how to get started, and other beginner questions.
The goal of this article isn’t to tell you everything possible about meditation, or to give you an authoritative definition of meditation and how it’s done … it’s simply to answer beginner questions and help you get started.
What and Why
What is meditation? That’s actually a very complicated question, as the word could have lots of different meanings and it’s practiced in many different ways. We’ll keep it simple, and pick one definition and type of practice (with the understanding that there are lots of other good answers): it’s practicing mindfulness.
Meditation, as we’ll practice here at I Love Myself, is sitting meditation — though you can easily practice it while walking or doing the dishes or taking a shower, I find it best to start with simply sitting. That eliminates a lot of complicated distractions, so you can start as simply as possible. Once you get good at sitting meditation, you should expand it to other things like walking and running and doing everyday activities.
When we do sitting meditation, the form doesn’t matter very much. That’s not true of certain types of meditation, like Zen meditation, but we’re simplifying and trying to get to the essential practice. So we sit, and we practice mindfulness. That can take different forms: we can focus on our breathing, as it goes in or our (the most common form we’ll practice). We might think of a motto to say (in our minds) as we breathe, such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Breathing in, I relax my body … breathing out, I smile.” But in the end, we’re practicing mindfulness.
Why practice mindfulness through meditation? Actually, there are lots of great reasons. Here are a few (read about research on meditation for more):
- It relieves stress and helps you to relax.
- When you practice mindfulness, you can carry it out to everyday life.
- Mindfulness helps you to savor life, change habits, live simply and slowly, be present in everything you do.
- Meditation has been shown to have mental benefits, such as improved focus, happiness, memory, self-control, academic performance and more.
- Some research on meditation has indicated that it may have other health benefits, including improved metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and more.
Those are just the highlights. Actually, some of the best benefits of meditation are hard to define — you begin to understand yourself better, for example, and form a self-awareness level you’ve never had before.
Most simply, sitting for just a few minutes of meditation is an oasis of calm and relaxation that we rarely find in our lives these days. And that, in itself, is enough.
How to Meditate
As I said above, there are lots and lots of ways to meditate. We’re not going to learn even a fraction of them. We’re going to learn a simplified method, designed to be easiest for beginners. You can practice another method if that’s better for you, but here’s what I recommend:
1. Find a quiet spot. Sometimes early morning is best, before others in your house might be awake and making lots of noise. Others might find a spot in a park or on the beach or some other soothing setting. It really doesn’t matter where — as long as you can sit without being bothered for a few minutes.
2. Sit comfortably. Don’t fuss too much about how you sit, what you wear, what you sit on, etc. I personally like to sit on a pillow on the floor, with my back leaning against a wall, because I’m very inflexible. Others who can sit cross-legged comfortably might do that instead. Still others can sit on a chair or couch if sitting on the floor is uncomfortable. Zen practitioners often use a zafu, a round cushion filled with kapok or buckwheat. Don’t go out and buy one if you don’t already have one. Any cushion or pillow will do, and some people can sit on a bare floor comfortably.
3. Start with just a few minutes. This is really important. Most people will think they can meditate for 15-30 minutes, and they can. But this is not a test of how strong you are at staying in meditation — we are trying to form a longer-lasting habit. And to do that, we want to start with just a few minutes. Even 3-4 minutes is perfect. You’ll find it much easier to start this way, and forming a habit with a small start like this is a method much more likely to succeed. You can expand to 7-10 minutes if you can do it for 7 straight days, then 15 minutes if you can do it for 14 straight days, then 20-25 minutes if you can stick to it for 21 straight days, and 30 if you can do a full month.
4. Focus on your breath. As you breathe in, follow your breath in through your nostrils, then into your throat, then into your lungs and belly. Sit straight, keep your eyes open but looking at the ground and with a soft focus. If you want to close your eyes, that’s fine. As you breathe out, follow your breath out back into the world. If it helps, count … one breath in, two breath out, three breath in, four breath out … when you get to 10, start over. If you lose track, start over. If you find your mind wandering (and you will), just pay attention to your mind wandering, then bring it gently back to your breath. Repeat this process for the few minutes you meditate. You won’t be very good at it at first, most likely, but you’ll get better with practice.
And that’s it. It’s a very simple practice.
Meditation Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How do I start?
A: The best way to start is simply, and very small. Most of us get too caught up in doing things perfectly, in all the little details, and so we complicate things so much that we never get started. The most important detail is starting. So start very small: just 2 minutes a day, every day, in a fairly quiet space, first thing in the morning.
Q: What is the best hour to meditate (early in the morning, evening or any time)?
A: This is really an individual thing, as people’s schedules and preferences will vary widely. However, I love the morning, and highly recommend it for a few reasons. First, that’s often best because later in the day we get busy and things like exercise and meditation often get pushed back. Second, morning tends to be quieter for many people, and more ideal. Third, it’s an amazing way to start your day. That said, it can be done at any time. The evening, when things might also be quiet, could be great — and a nice way to unwind after a tough day.
Q: How do you create the time when your day is already so busy?
A: Again, start very small. Just 2 minutes. If you don’t have 2 minutes, do 1. You should be able to find 1-2 minutes a day. Do it in the morning, before you get busy. If you still can’t find the time, cut back on one commitment this month to make space for it — email someone and say you can’t do the project/commitment because you’re too busy. And trust me, if you can’t find 1-2 minutes each day for meditation, you’re too busy.
Q: I have trouble with finding a set time and place every day.
A: I highly recommend that you pick one time and place each day — that’s the best way to create a habit. Pick a trigger in your morning or evening routine — something that’s already in your daily routine. That might be things like waking, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, drinking coffee, using the bathroom, eating dinner, arriving home, watching TV before bedtime, reading the newspaper, checking email, etc. Pick one of these things, and do the meditation habit for 5 minutes right after, without fail.
Q: Length of time — how much time is the minimum for effective meditation? How often should I do it?
A: Start with 2 minutes. Starting small is highly recommended for any new habit. As you gain traction, you can increase it little by little. This takes patience, but it’s very effective. I also recommend a daily habit, as opposed to twice a week, or just on weekdays.
Q: How do you find the right space within what you have? What conditions should the environment have?
A: Any space will do — clear some space on your floor, do it on your bed, or on your couch, in the middle of your kitchen. I prefer doing it when there aren’t others around, so try to find a place & time where that will work. It might be that you do it in the bathroom if necessary. If you can’t find that in your home, find a park or beach, but make sure it’s close by so you have no excuse for not doing it.
Q: How do you start creating the habit?
A: Start small, just 2 minutes a day. Pick a trigger that’s in your daily routine, and do it immediately after. Do it every day for a month. Enjoy the habit, and focus on how much you love it. Commit publicly. Use the accountability teams to motivate yourself.
Q: Do you need your eyes shut for it?
A: You can close your eyes. I recommend that your eyes be open, with your lids about half closed, with a soft focus on the ground a few feet in front of you. This, however, is a detail that is not incredibly important.
Q: How to start focusing — I just can’t grasp “sitting for X minutes/hrs”.
A: You get better with practice. Just start for 2 minutes, and increase each week if you’re successful that week. Pay attention to your breath, as it comes in and goes out. Don’t worry so much about “focusing” … you’ll get better at it. See next question. Also, don’t worry so much about the time — just start, and don’t worry about how long it will take. The length is not as important as doing it.
Q: How does one stop the mind from wandering?
A: Don’t worry about stopping the mind from wandering. Focus on your breath as it comes in and goes out. You can count breaths, one in and two out, three in and four out, to help you focus. Observe your thoughts as they wander — and they will. Don’t be bothered by this wandering — it’s natural. Just notice it, and gently return to the breath. You’ll get better with practice.
Q: About space, which place is better when you’re in a tight space with more people?
A: On your bed, in the bathroom, in the kitchen or living room when everyone is asleep. Or go outside to a park or beach that’s nearby. Not too far.
Q: How can I do meditation on the go?
A: I’d recommend starting with sitting meditation, at home or near your home, but eventually practice doing it on the go. On a train is great. In the car, it’s best to focus on your driving and the surroundings, which can be a form of meditation. Go for walks, and pay attention to your breathing, your thoughts, your steps, the ground in front of you.
Q: How do you set reasonable expectations for what the experience of meditation will be like?
A: Don’t have any expectations. Just go in with a “let’s see what happens” attitude. Experience the meditation, and pay attention to it, but don’t ask it to meet your expectations.
Q: My meditation problem is: I can’t do it with the kids around but after they’re in bed or if I get up early, I often fall asleep.
A: That’s OK. Get up just 10-20 minutes early, and just get started. If you’re sitting up (as opposed to lying down), it’ll be easier to stay awake. Keep your eyes open but with soft focus. If you fall asleep, just do it again the next day. You’ll get used to it.
Q: How do I keep the habit of meditation up?
A: Starting small (5 minutes a day) is a great way to get started, but it’s also a great way to keep things going. It’s hard to do a 30- or 60-minute habit for a month, but it’s much easier to do 5 minutes a day for an entire month. Committing publicly (announce it on Facebook, Twitter, blog, G+), and doing it with a group helps keep the motivation going.
Q: How to approach it from a non-religious point of view?
A: Meditation is simply mindfulness practice — you’re learning to live presently, mindfully. It can be a spiritual practice, but as we’re doing it here, it’s simply sitting and being mindful.
Q: How critical is the sitting posture (i.e. hands, feet, etc)?
A: It’s not that important. Zen meditation has certain forms that are recommended, but I don’t ask you to follow these exactly. Just sit, and pay attention to your breath. You can sit wherever is comfortable, in whatever form is comfortable. For example, I am very inflexible, so I sit with my back against the wall and in a not-very-cross-legged style. That works for me.