How to Meditate: A Beginner's Guide
Written by Christoffer Kaltenbrunner
Here's how to do mindfulness meditation:
- Find a quiet place where you will not get disturbed.
- Sit on a cushion, blanket, or chair with your back straight and your hands on your knees.
- Put your awareness on your breathing (don't try to control your breath).
- Whenever you lose focus, gently bring your awareness back to your breathing.
Meditate for five to ten minutes every day in the beginning. Increase the session time after some weeks of regular practice. Don't try to do too much too soon -- take it easy.
In recent years, meditation has gained more popularity in the West. One can say that meditation does to your mind what physical exercise does to your body. Many people practice meditation to reduce stress, feel calmer and be happier.
This is the definitive guide to meditation. It covers the benefits of meditation, how to sit, how to breathe, how long to meditate, walking meditation, mindfulness, as well as meditation tips when you get stuck.
What is Meditation and Why Bother?
Meditation is a technique in which the practitioner focuses on an object -- like his breathing, nostril, or a word -- and gently puts his awareness back whenever he loses focus. The goal is to see things as they really are and live a happier and more peaceful life.
We're often caught up in thoughts in our heads instead of being in the present moment. "I have so many things I need to do right now," "Why did I say THAT to my coworker yesterday?" or "I don't have time to relax." By practicing meditation, we let them pass away. In one way, meditation is a practice to learn to let go of the distracting thoughts, however, it takes some practice to master.
Meditation is common in many religions, where it's often used for self-realization and enlightenment. However, for the last decades, researchers have shown interest in the health benefits of regular meditation practice.
There's no secret that meditation reduces stress. For thousands of years, people have been practicing meditation and benefiting from its stress-reducing benefits. A study by researchers at the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows that mindfulness meditation programs can improve anxiety, depression, and pain1.
Additionally, many practitioners experience better attention and easier emotional regulation by practicing meditation daily.
There are many different types of meditation, for example:
- mindfulness meditation,
- transcendental meditation,
- loving-kindness meditation,
- vipassana meditation,
- walking meditation,
- yoga meditation, and
- guided meditation.
In this article, you'll learn how to do sitting mindfulness meditation. You'll also learn how to go deeper by practicing other types of meditation, like body scan meditation and walking meditation.
Let's dive right in.
Note: Meditation will not solve all your problems in life. It won't make you sexier, smarter, or a better person. If you're looking for a quick fix, meditation is not for you. On the other hand, if you're determined to practice every day, meditation can be a rewarding experience.
The Basics of Meditation
Before you start, find a quiet place where you will not get disturbed. (With some practice, you'll be able to meditate while you're commuting, but it's best to start out in silence.) Wear comfortable clothes. Come open-minded to your practice -- don't expect anything -- and bring a smile.
How to Sit
There are many different ways to sit. In his book,Mindfulness In Plain English, Bhante Gunaratura lists four different sitting postures in ascending order of preference:
- Native American style. Place your left foot under your right knee and your right foot under your left knee.
- Burmese style. Place your legs flat on the floor with one in front of the other. Your feet and knees should touch the floor.
- Half lotus. Place your left foot to the inside of your right thigh. Place your right foot on top of your left calf. Your knees should touch the floor.
- Full lotus. Place your left foot on your right thigh and your right foot on your left thigh. Your knees should touch the floor.
In these postures, sit on a cushion or a blanket. You don't need to buy an expensive meditation cushion. I often use a blanket which I fold up.
"What should I do with my hands?" you might wonder. There are several different choices:
- Hands on knees with palms down. Simply put your hands on your knees with your palms facing down. If you like, you can let the top of your index finger touch the top of your thumb.
- Hands on knees with palms up. Put your hands on your knees, but contrary to the one above, let your palms face up. In this position, the top of your index finger should touch the top of your thumb and the other fingers should be straight.
- Zen style. This hand position is called Hokkaijoin in Japanese, which means Cosmic Mudra. It's common among Zen monks practicing zazen (Zen meditation). Put your left hand on your right hand, palms facing upwards. Let your thumbs touch each other. Your wrists should touch your thighs.
Choose the one that is most comfortable for you. Make sure you don't tense your body, but instead relax your arms and shoulders.
Don't look at anything particular. Fix your eyes at a point in front of you or keep your eyes closed. If you keep your eyes closed, it's easier to calm down, but it can also make you sleepy. To avoid falling asleep during meditation, try to open your eyes a little, so they are half-closed.
Note: If sitting on the floor is not feasible for you, use a chair instead. Place your feet on the floor and your hands on your knees. Relax your arms.
How to Breathe
Once you sit in the right posture, give your body some time to tune in.
Become aware of your surroundings and your whole body. Take a moment to become aware of the thoughts in your head.
When you are ready, bring your attention to your breathing. You should not control your breathing, only be mindful of it. Perhaps it's quick? Or perhaps it's hollow? It can be whatever.
Follow your breathing through your nose. How does it feel? When you become aware of your breath, feel how your mind slows down. When your mind slows down, your body becomes relaxed.
Whatever sensation you experience during meditation, note it without judging, and bring your attention back to the present. When we're not judging, we can see things as they really are. Remember, thoughts are not facts.
How Long To Meditate
Many seasoned practitioners recommend beginners to sit for 20 minutes. I believe it is too long for most people. For beginners with no prior experience of meditation, I recommend sitting for five minutes a day. Keep the bar so low you can't fail. It will give you the momentum you need to go deeper.
After a few weeks of regular practice, you can begin to increase the time. If you want to meditate for more than 20 minutes, alternate between sitting and walking meditation.
I don't recommend using a timer. Sit until you know your session has ended.
What To Do When You Lose Focus
When your mind wanders, be aware that it has and gently bring it back to your breathing.
If you've never meditated before, you might be surprised by how often you'll become distracted. That's normal and nothing to worry about. Commonly, new practitioners judge the thoughts and feelings that come up during meditation, however, you should not. It doesn't matter what thoughts you think or what emotions you feel during meditation. Note that it happened, then put your awareness back to your breathing. Thoughts and feelings don't define you as a human being (but they are fully human), so don't let them interfere with your practice.
The biggest mistake I did when I started to meditate was that I got mad at myself every time my mind wandered. "Why can't you even focus on your breathing? " I told myself. It took some time until I realized that meditation is not about never losing focus, but rather about bringing one's mind back whenever one loses focus. With some practice, you will find yourself losing focus less often.
I believe this idea can be applied to other parts of life as well. Whenever we get on the wrong track in life, we have to refocus.
Count Your Breaths
If you find that your mind has wandered, you can try to count your breaths to center your mind on your breathing.
First, try this:
- Empty your lungs, inhale, and mentally count "one."
- Exhale and mentally count "two" (empty your lungs).
- Continue to ten, then start over again.
Then, connect the inhalation with the exhalation (one big breath), like this:
- Empty your lungs and mentally count "one," then, inhale and exhale.
- Mentally count "two."
- Continue to ten.
Count your breaths until you have centered your mind on your breathing. When counting your breaths, don't try to control your breathing, just be aware of it.
More Meditation Exercises
In this section, I'll explain some more meditation exercises for you to try to go deeper into your practice.
To do a body scan, sit on a chair, or lie on the floor.
First, bring your attention to your feet. Be fully aware of every inch of your feet. Try to feel all of your toes. Feel the area between your feet and the floor.
Continue in this manner, feel your legs, back, stomach, chest, arms, hands, shoulders, neck, ears, nose, and eyelids.
Now, feel the area between your body and the floor/chair -- not just the body or just the floor/chair, but the space between. Feel the weight of your body.
When your mind wanders, note that it has and gently put it back.
How to Do Walking Meditation
Walking meditation is mindful walking.
To do walking meditation, first, let your body tune in to your surroundings. Become aware of your surroundings.
Then, put your focus on your body. If you find tension in your body, be fully aware of it and let it go. Relax your whole body.
Next, be aware of your breathing.
Slowly walk a few meters, where you are aware of every step you take. Be mindful of the contact between your feet and the ground. Turn around slowly and walk back.
Walk back and forth for about 10-20 minutes. Feel the natural rhythm of your steps and your breathing -- harmonized. You are fully present in the moment and one with yourself and your surroundings. Smile, and enjoy every step.
Note: In the beginning, you will probably look like a bit weird, so I suggest you find a private place where you can practice. However, you can practice walking meditation everywhere. The next time you're on your way, be aware of your walking instead of looking at your phone, doing a call or listening to music.
Mindfulness for Beginners
Mindfulness is about being aware of the present moment. It can be practiced everywhere, for example:
- when you're on the bus to work,
- if you're nervous for a presentation or important meeting,
- when you eat, or
- when you kiss someone you love.
To be present in every moment, we have to slow down. Only when we slow down, we can see the little things in life. Bring your attention to your breathing. Be aware of your feelings without judging. Watch them pass away. That's the way of life.
You can practice mindfulness in just two minutes with these two-minute mindfulness exercises.
Meditation Tips When You Get Stuck
Many new practitioners feel strange when meditating for the first time. It can feel awkward doing nothing, or your back may hurt.
These feelings are alright. It may take some time to get used to meditation, but when you do, you will want to do more of it.
Here are some tips for when you get stuck:
- Do it every day for at least a month. It takes time to form a new meditation habit. Stay committed and practice every day for at least a month. If you do, you'll see why it's worth it.
- Make time for meditation. There's a good idea to practice meditation at the same time every day. It's too easy to say, "I'll do it later," and then it doesn't get done. Make time for meditation in your day. You're not so busy you don't have enough time to meditate. Make meditation one of your top priorities.
- Embrace obstacles. It's nearly impossible to not come across obstacles in one's meditation journey. It can be a stressful period in your life or harmful thoughts in your mind. Let it rise and watch it pass away. The goal should not be not to have any obstacles, but to face every obstacle with compassion and awareness.
- Relax. Don't force your mind or body into something. Meditation is not forced concentration -- it's awareness of the present.
- Smile. Meditation is not something serious. You should take your practice seriously, but sitting is just sitting. Don't forget to smile!
- Don't overthink. You will gain experience with more training, so don't overthink -- just do. Bring a loving attitude to your sessions. Feel gratitude for being able to practice.
- Take your time. Meditation is not something you do for only a few weeks or months, and then you're done. It's a daily practice. Try to be present in the here and now instead of focusing on the future.
- Find a teacher. If you get stuck, a great teacher can help you. Find a teacher you feel comfortable around.
- Practise with others. Form a group with some friends and practice meditation together. Practicing meditation with others can be an enjoyable experience.
- Restart. Sometimes things happen in life, and we have to restart. That's how it is. Take a short break from meditation and then start over again.
A Note on Special Moments
At the beginning of your meditation journey, you will experience what I call "special moments," that is, overwhelming feelings during meditation.
When you experience it, let it rise. Eventually, it will pass away. Be aware of the feeling. Special moments become rare with more practice.
In my meditation practice, I've experienced some special moments. During one of my first yin yoga and meditation sessions, I started crying at the end. I got overwhelmed with gratitude, and suddenly the tears were streaming down my face. I got an emotional discharge. After the session, it felt like a weight was taken off my shoulders.
Special moments become rare with more practice.
Frequently Asked Questions
How Long Should Beginners Meditate?
A beginner should practice for 10 minutes every day during the first couple of weeks. After that, increase the time little by little each week.
What Is the Purpose of Meditation?
The purpose of meditation is to see things as they really are, without human-made attributes.
However, some people meditate for spirituality, others because it make them feel happier. There are no rights or wrongs. Try meditation for yourself to see what purpose it serves in your life.
When Is the Best Time to Meditate?
The best time to meditate is whatever time works best for you.
It's not important what time you meditate, but that you practice every day. That being said, it's recommended to start your day with a morning meditation session. Additionally, you can enjoy an evening meditation session too.
How Do I Deal with Pain During Meditation?
It's common for beginners to get a hurting back or legs during meditation. You probably experience pain due to inexperience, which means that the pain will disappear after some days of practicdon't want toe.
However, since it can make it harder to meditate, here are some tips for coping with pain during meditation:
- Become aware of the pain. You can use the pain as an object for your session. Move your awareness away from your breathing and focus on the pain instead.
- Slowly change position. If you really have to, you can change posture -- but make sure you do it slowly and mindfully.
How Can I Find Time to Meditate?
"I know that meditation is good for me, but how can I find time for it?"
Here are some great tips if you struggle to find time for meditation:
- Be mindful right now. You don't need to meditate for hours each day to live more mindfully. You can be mindful in every moment (though this takes some practice). Take one minute right now to be aware of your breathing and relax your body.
- Think about the benefits. Thinking about the results of doing something can make you more motivated to commit to it. How would you benefit from daily meditation?
- Make time for it. Sometimes the only way to find time for something is to make time for it. Chose a time every day to meditate -- for example in the morning, after work, or at a specific time -- and write it down in your calendar. Don't plan something else at that time -- commit to your practice.
If you're struggling with finding time for meditation, consider incorporating micro mindfulness into your everyday life.
Published on 2020-02-26. Last updated 2020-07-15.