Since mentioning my experience with meditation on a recent Giant Bombcast, I’ve received a number of questions about the best way for beginners to start.
I should mention that I am by no means an expert, and if you’re having difficulty with depression you should see a professional. That said, I think the best teachers are often beginners, so here we go!
- The Short Answer
- If you’d rather read a book than this gigantic article, 10% Happier by Dan Harris is the perfect book for beginners. It’s got everything you need to start meditating, is packed with helpful tips and insight, and is hilarious to boot.
What is Meditation?
It’s a focus exercise. That’s all. Like any exercise, the more we do it the stronger we become. Just as we do bicep curls in the gym to build our arm muscles, we meditate to build the “focus muscles” of the brain.
But what does having ripped, glistening focus muscles allow us to do? How does this improve our lives?
To answer this question it helps to understand what a typical meditation session looks like:
Typically we sit with the back straight and eyes closed. We focus on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of the body. Inevitably, the mind will wander. When we realize our mind has wandered, we simply acknowledge that it has done so and return to the breath.
There is a key caveat to that last step: we acknowledge that the mind has wandered and we do so without beating ourselves up. It’s common when first starting to assume the objective is to maintain focus on the breath 100% of the time. Not only is this impossible, it’s not the point. The point is the returning part. Acknowledging thoughts and returning to the breath strengthens our ability to recognize what our mind is doing, and then to pause and redirect our attention.
Think about that for a second: to recognize what our mind is doing. Often we consider ourselves and our minds to be one and the same. But as anyone who has tried meditation has seen, the mind is a separate entity; it conjures up thoughts without provocation when we’re trying to concentrate on the breath. The mind, as it turns out, is kind of a jerk. Worse, because we so often fail to recognize this separation, we allow ourselves to be controlled by our minds. The mind will pull some emotion out of its bag of tricks and we immediately run with it, regardless of if the emotion is warranted.
By practicing meditation we learn to interrupt this automatic mind-to-self flow. Being consciously aware of what we’re experiencing in this way is known as mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
It’s kind of clumsy-sounding word, but its meaning is simple enough. Being mindful means making a gentle effort to be in the present moment. Once there, it’s much easier to utilize our newfound skills to not be yanked around by our minds.
Without mindfulness, if someone cuts us off in traffic, our mind signals “Hey! That should make me angry!” and we immediately become angry. With mindfulness, we have the awareness to recognize that the mind is throwing negative emotions at us. We can then decide whether to act on those emotions or simply acknowledge them and let them fade away, just as we do during meditation.
This for me was life-changing. You’re telling me I can just dismiss negative emotions? That I don’t have to keep ruminating on the same fears over and over again? All that stuff is a tremendous expenditure of energy. Imagine having all that mental capacity back!
Wait a Second…
Skeptics may be raising some red flags here. Dismissing all worries and negative emotions sounds 1) impossible and 2) irresponsible. If we didn’t worry about getting a job, how would we feed ourselves? Not all of us can (or want to) become monks and live in a monastery for the rest of our lives; we live in the real world, man. We have responsibilities.
I totally agree. Worrying, anger, fear; they all have places in our lives. They’re natural and can be quite useful. But what’s not useful is worrying about the same thing over and over, or being angry at someone for days. The mental habits we gain from meditation allow us to recognize these feelings and determine if they’re useful or not, and then choose the best course of action.
Let’s say you’ve just packed a suitcase for a trip, but you’re worried you’re going to forget something. You could spend all day worrying (causing yourself to be preoccupied at work, to be irritable with your friends, to eat dinner but not remember what it tasted like because your mind was too busy doing mental inventory), or you could take action. That action could be physical (Googling a travel checklist) or mental (realizing that you’ve done all you can do, and that worrying is only contributing to unhappiness). Without the wisdom that meditation and mindfulness bring, it’s dangerously easy for the mind to lead us around by the nose.
So let’s change that, shall we?
How to Meditate
Here I’ll go into a little more depth on the steps described above. To begin, I set a timer on my phone. If you’re a beginner, start with five minutes and work your way up as you become more comfortable. Quality is more important than duration.
1. Sit with the back straight and eyes closed.
You don’t need to sit in a cross-legged position or even on the ground. I use a chair and find that sitting on the edge of the seat makes it easier to keep my back straight (leaning against the back rest sometimes leads to me falling asleep).
My head is angled down slightly so that if my eyes were open they’d be looking at the ground about ten feet ahead of me. I then take a deep breath and let my expanding chest dictate how my back should align. I should be able to take a deep breath without changing posture. I picture my spine like a stack of coins, and feel my head resting on my neck resting on my spine resting on my hip bones resting on the chair, all in one big stack.
My feet are planted on the floor and angled slightly outward, in the most comfortable position possible. My hands are placed palm-down on top of my thighs, about three quarters of the way to my knees. My overall posture is comfortable but alert; I’ve got work to do.
2. Relax the eyes, jaw, shoulders, and belly.
We’re not getting ready for a nap, but that doesn’t mean we need to be tense all over. Some muscles need to remain engaged, like those in the abdomen and back that are holding us up, but the rest can relax.
3. Take three deep breaths, then let your body return to its normal breathing rhythm.
I find the three deep breaths useful in telling my mind, which is often still swirling with thoughts at this stage, that it’s time to meditate. With the deep breaths and the subsequent normal ones, pay close attention to the inhale, the exhale, and the pauses in between.
It’s important to note that meditation is not a breathing exercise; we’re not telling our body when to breathe, we’re simply allowing it to breathe on its own. This can sometimes be strangely difficult. Being aware of the breath without controlling it is kind of like realizing there’s a tongue in your mouth. I didn’t think about that before, but now I can’t not think about it. To get around this, I simply wait for the breath to come, and then feel it when it does.
4. Feel your body breathing.
Focus on where the breath is most noticeable, usually the nostrils, chest, or belly. Allow the location of your focus to change if another place becomes more noticeable.
When focusing on the breath, try to feel rather than analyze. This can be a tricky distinction. I sometimes feel the urge to use words to describe what the breath feels like, but this often leads to too much thinking so I try to avoid it. Instead (and this is my own weird concoction so please don’t feel like you have to use it), I imagine if a shape-shifting alien had just inhabited a human body, how would it regard this new sensation? “Hmm,” it would say. “Breathing feels like this.”
5. When (not if) the mind wanders, gently return the attention to the breath.
This is the meat of meditation, right here. Your mind will wander. After all, thinking is what the mind was made to do. The trick is to recognize that it has wandered. “That’s fine,” I tell myself. “That’s just my brain firing some synapses. But this is meditation time, so I’m going to return to feeling the breath.”
This can be initially quite difficult. It can feel like you’re focusing on the breath for literally one second before you’re off on some other tangent. Don’t worry. Even if you’ve spent 99% of your meditation time lost in thought, if you bring the mind back to the breath one second before your timer goes off, it’s a win.
Allow me to reiterate: do not beat yourself up over your mind wandering. (Also, don’t beat yourself up for beating yourself up over your mind wandering.) The mind isn’t getting in the way of our meditation practice, this is the practice.
What to Expect
In my experience, the first few days of meditating were tough, even at five minutes. But like literally everything, the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You’ll have good days, bad days, and strings thereof, but I’ve found that the longer I practice the shallower those low points become.
The most surprising thing to me was how quickly I saw changes in my life. I hesitate to mention this because it’s different for everyone, but after two weeks of five to ten minutes per day I noticed a significant change in my outlook on the world. I have subsequently felt more in control of my life than I ever have previously, and the confidence this has given me cannot be overstated.
I’m not saying you’re going to gain superpowers after five minutes of sitting, but in my experience meditation works remarkably fast when you put in the effort and stick with it.
Establishing a Repeatable Practice
Putting all the technique aside, the most important thing is establishing a schedule that you’ll stick to. Carve out a time in your day specifically for meditation (after breakfast is easiest for me), and do it every day. Frequency is more important than duration (and, in my opinion, more important than quality).
Start with five minutes. As Dan Harris says, “everybody has five minutes.” If you don’t, get up five minutes earlier. This is your happiness we’re talking about.
It’s important once you’ve established a sustainable practice to continue to expand your meditation knowledge. This is a new skill you’ve developed and there is much to learn. Fortunately, people have been doing this for thousands of years so there’s quite a bit of knowledge out there for you to reap the benefits of.
Books are great. I feverishly highlight and notate all my meditation books so I can easily re-skim them whenever I need a boost of inspiration.
- As mentioned above, 10% Happier by Dan Harris is a fantastic place to start. Harris does a great job of presenting all these weird theoretical concepts in a clear, concrete way. I’ve read it three times and still go back to it frequently.
- Real Happiness by Sharon Salzburg is similarly straightforward and is chiefly concerned with how meditation, when paired with compassion for others, can lead to an extraordinary boost in one’s own happiness.
- A great next-level book is Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor. Batchelor dives deep into the nuts and bolts of the concepts Harris and Salzburg introduce and does so without any of the flowery, off-putting prose common in most other meditation books.
Guided audio meditations are also helpful in expanding one’s repertoire and can be easier than sitting silently. I wouldn’t recommend doing guided meditations all the time, but it’s a good way to check and balance yourself.
- The apps 10% Happier and Headspace offer guided meditations and videos that I’ve found extremely useful. Both are paid, but each has a chunk of introductory lessons available for free.
- Dharma.org, AudioDharma.org, and DharmaSeed.org all have repositories of free guided meditations. I personally haven’t browsed them too much, but if you’re feeling adventurous I recommend this 40 minute one that goes WAY deep on the body, the mind, and the mortality thereof.
I can’t focus. I just can’t. What should I do?
Don’t worry. It happens to the best of us. If you’re new to this, just be patient; it’ll become easier. If you’ve been meditating for a while but you’re still having difficulty, you may be trying too hard. It’s important to remember that, to quote Jon Kabat-Zinn in 10% Happier:
“Meditation is not about feeling a certain way. It’s about feeling how you feel.”
Try this: instead of focusing on the breath and trying to block everything else out, open your awareness to everything you’re experiencing. Mentally assume a ready stance and note anything that comes up, like a hockey goalie blocking shot after shot. “Planning. Doubt. Discomfort. Cold.” If you get stuck on one, try not to think about it, but instead keep noting it. “Worry. Worry. Worry.” It will fade, or your mind will come up with something else. Eventually you’ll have blocked all the shots and will be looking at an empty ice rink.
From here, you can return to the breath. Or, if that seems to be triggering a cascade of thoughts, try just feeling the body. Feel the alignment of your spine stacked on the chair, the warmth of your hands on your legs, your feet pressing into the floor.
Other good visuals for mental noting:
- Dan Harris describes it as being behind a waterfall of thoughts.
- Andy Puddicombe of Headspace compares thoughts to cars driving by on a freeway or clouds in the sky.
- I often picture thoughts as waiters coming up to me with plates of undesirable food. I either politely refuse or wait for the waiter to walk away.
What if I can’t find a quiet place?
No problem. I live by a pretty busy street so I hear loud trucks and motorcycles all the time. Sounds are just more things to note and let happen, just as we do with thoughts. I find it easiest to maintain focus by not imaging what is making the sound, but simply noting “sound,” or “hearing.”
One of my biggest personal successes came from when I was meditating on the bus (itself a great test for meditating with sound). A few seats down was a small child, screaming his head off. Normally this would have caused me great frustration. There isn’t much I dislike more than screaming children. But to me, at the time, it wasn’t a kid having a meltdown, it was simply sound. Waves moving air particles adjacent to my eardrums. It really had nothing to do with me. I wasn’t compelled to do anything about it. I was totally at ease. Let’s be clear: I still can’t stand screaming children, but meditation has definitely made them ever so slightly more tolerable.
How do I stop falling asleep?
Yep. Been there. This is one of the reasons I meditate after breakfast. Coffee!
If you’re not a caffeine junkie, try meditating standing up, or with your eyes open. I’ve meditated with my eyes open a number of times, and it can be just as effective as with them closed. Just try not to get distracted by looking at stuff. Pick a spot, and don’t forget to blink!
OH GOD THE ITCHING/SALIVA/GENERAL DISCOMFORT
Just as inevitable as the mind wandering is physical discomfort of some kind. Our bodies are used to constantly changing positions, so joint and muscle pain are common. I personally get a lot of itches.
I find the most success here by meeting the feeling head-on. Make it the object of your meditation. Focus on it. Watch it change. It doesn’t rule you, and it doesn’t have to freak you out. Note the associated feelings you get from it. “Hmm, that’s uncomfortable, and it looks like it’s causing me to tense up. I’m also kind of worried. Will this cause any lasting damage? Hmm, worrying. Thinking. Worrying.”
Now I’m no doctor so take this with a grain of salt: it won’t kill you. Note it until it disappears. If it really hurts then shift, but you’d be surprised how quickly pain can disappear once you stop trying to push it away and instead become curious about it.
An exception here is saliva. If my mouth gets too full (gross), I swallow, but I do so mindfully, feeling the sensation all the way through. It’s not a free pass; I try to stay focused the whole time.
This feels like a waste of time. Am I an irredeemable cynic?
Doubting the practice is so common that the Buddhists have a name for it: vicikiccha. Fortunately, like any other thought, this too can be noted and dismissed. “Hmm. Doubt.” But it’s totally understandable. After all, we’re just sitting and breathing. How can that possibly improve our lives in any way?
I’m no stranger to this feeling, which is part of the reason I wrote this article; to put it all together for myself. I often go back and read my notes when I’m feeling lost. It helps to remind myself of the point of all this, which is to have more control over my own life and happiness.
But I don’t keep meditating because I believe it will make me a happier person, I keep doing it because it already has, and I want to keep it going.
I’ve heard the same from many others. I’m not guaranteeing meditation will drastically change the life of everyone who tries it, but it’s an incredibly big return for such a small investment, so why not give it a shot?
If you made it to the end of this behemoth of an article, congratulations! I love talking about this stuff, so I’d love to hear from you about your experience whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned meditation veteran. I think it’d be fun to do a Q&A post where we pool our collective knowledge and share any tips and tricks we have. If you’ve got any of those or any questions, let me know here or on Twitter!