Beginner’s Guide To Meditation

The ultimate conclusion of most of my writings on meditation has that meditation is never a bad idea. It can only improve your level of mindfulness and has numerous other mental and physical benefits, many of which are supported by clinical studies. I’ve written about why you should meditate, but haven’t really gone into the details of how to meditate. There are tons of ways to meditate, and you can experiment with what fits you best.

I’ll be posting guides to different types of meditation in the future, but today we’ll just start with a basic mindfulness meditation, similar to traditional Zen meditation (“zazen”) but with a few slight variations. I encourage you to give this a shot. You can start with just a few minutes a day. You can extend the duration slowly over time. Rushing and starting a 20 minute daily meditation without the aid of a class or teacher will likely intimidate you and might turn you off to meditation. That’s what we want to avoid. So, just try this for a few minutes a day. Don’t think about results or purpose, just appreciate your time meditating for what it is.

The great thing about this meditation is it’s simple enough to do anywhere. You can be sitting in your car (parked, of course), on your lunch break at work, about to go to bed or outside in the sun (my personal favorite). When you first start meditating, your mind will be particularly sensitive to distractions. Try to find a place the minimizes them.

Many people start meditating by sitting in a chair. This is fine; if you have back issues or just feel like leaning on something, that’s okay. However, meditation is traditionally practiced sitting straight up. There’s the cross-legged position, the half-lotus, and the lotus. I’ve been meditating for years and if I attempt the lotus position I feel as if I will snap into ten pieces.
It’s not necessary to force your body into a weird contortion just to meditate. Risking hurting yourself is totally counterproductive, so do what works and what is comfortable for you when you’re first starting out. Some people sit on their knees, other cross-legged; there are even walking meditations and laying-down meditations. Whatever works for you.

One of the ways this basic mindfulness meditation differs from Zazen is in the eyes. In Zazen, the eyes are kept slightly open, the goal being that you’re experiencing the real world as meditation. Eventually, I’ll write a Zazen guide in which I outline this practice in better detail. But, for this meditation, your eyes should be closed.

This is sort-of weird, but I found when I first started meditating that I became distracted by swallowing. There’s a great way to prevent this, which ever meditation instructor I’ve had has recommended. If you rest the tip of your tongue against the back of your top front teeth, and close your mouth, you won’t have to worry about swallowing while meditating, and you can breathe through your nose freely.

Breathing through your mouth while meditating is not recommended. But, if you have congestion or nasal issues, don’t force yourself to suffer through breathing through your nose. This type of meditation, like most others, is not supposed to lead to hyperventilating or passing out.

This is the key ingredient in just about every meditation. The breath. Counting your breath is a way of centering and anchoring the mind. Your breath is constant, so focusing on it will provide you with constant mindfulness. When you meditate, breath as you normally would but just slightly deeper.
When you start, make sure you’re not out of breath. Give yourself 30 seconds or a minute and catch your breath, and then begin counting. As you inhale, count one. Exhale; count two. Inhale, three; exhale, four. Once you exhale on ten, go back to one. If you stray and find yourself counting to 20, just bring yourself back to one.

Inevitably, as you meditate and count your breath, thoughts will pop into your head. You may be surprised by how vivid and interesting they might be. Don’t let that fool you into becoming distracted. Don’t force thoughts away, just let them float by and continue counting your breath.

When you first start, one of the thoughts you may have is, “What the hell is this all about? Why am I doing this?” This is just another one of the distracting thoughts. When your subconscious starts acting up, just go back to the breath.
This itself is actually the very purpose of meditation: embracing purposelessness. In focusing on mindfulness and not giving our thoughts power, you’re cultivating a sense of calm. After a while, you’ll find this attitude carries into your daily life. Problems will bother you less and you’ll be able to deal skillfully with what you would have once considered chaotic situations.

Thanks for reading, and check out these books on meditation:
Still the Mind, an Introduction to Meditation by Alan WattsThe Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh

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