When I wanted to learn how to meditate, I took to the internet. There, I encountered a myriad of articles and videos that spoke more about the benefits of meditation than the practice of doing such. This piece is my attempt to deliver a concise tutorial on how to get started meditating today — no apps, no books, no expensive lessons required.
I’ll break this into two parts — firstly, the barebones essential instructions in eight easy-to-follow steps, and secondly, my own recommendations regarding those eight steps. These steps should take one minute to read. Start your timers…now.
- Find a timer without an annoying end buzzer.
- Find a comfortable seat where you can maintain good posture.
- Place your feet, legs, arms, and hands in a position where they will remain comfortable for 10 or so minutes.
- Start the timer for the duration you would like to meditate.
- Close your eyes.
- Bring your full focus to your breath as you inhale and exhale from your nostrils.
- Do not change your breathing, but simply focus on the inhale and exhale of your body’s natural patterns.
- When you attempt to focus solely on your breath, your thoughts will mutiny. Your mind will try it’s hardest to wander and daydream. This is fine, but when you first notice that you are daydreaming or thinking about anything besides your breathing, make a mental note — “that’s a thought” or “I’m drifting” — and return your focus to your breath.
That’s it. With these steps, you should be able to start meditating.
Additional Tips for Each Step
- Don’t feel that your timer has to be an expensive meditation application. It should simply be anything that won’t startle you from a focused, relaxed state. I personally like the timer in an application called “Strive Minutes” (no paid endorsement), though there are many free options that provide a similar experience. The soft gong sounds don’t startle me out of a meditative state. You can also track your meditation sessions with this application to help make meditation a regular habit.
- I prefer sitting with my back not touching a seat. I used to sit cross-legged on the floor just to keep my cat from jumping into my lap and startling me (that happened a few times). Now, I like meditating while sitting on my solid-wood bench-like coffee table. While you could realistically meditate while lying down, I find that sitting with good posture helps with focus. Lying down or sitting on a couch may just put you to sleep.
- The position of your arms can vary, but they should be situated in a way where they won’t be on your mind. If your hands are touching, they can become clammy and distracting. If your legs are crossed, they could fall asleep and tingle. If sitting on a bench or seat, I prefer keeping my legs uncrossed, shoulder-width apart, with my feet flat on the floor. I position arms with my forearms resting on my lap without leaning on them.
- The duration of time depends on your preference, but keep in mind that any amount of time counts. I personally meditate for 10 minutes every day, but even a single minute is a good start. Start small and increase your sessions as you feel necessary.
- Some like to use eye masks, but I find them to be yet another distraction. They can also mess with my circadian rhythms (tricking my brain into believing its night) and leave me feeling drowsy.
- Internalize the coolness of the air entering your nostrils on the inhale. Actively feel the warmth of the air exiting on the exhale. I try to feel the icy freshness of the air and imagine it nearly leaving my nose hairs as icicles — like I’m taking a deep nasal breath while chewing icy-mint gum on a blustery winter’s day. In reverse, I like to imagine the warm exhale as luxurious, like a warm shower on a chilling morning — the feeling of breathing air in a sauna. Instead of “in, out, in, out”, I think “cool, warm, cool, warm…”
- It’s ok to take deeper inhales and release longer exhales in order to intensify your focus on the “cool, warm, cool, warm…”, but that can leave you lightheaded if you do so too much. That’s why I recommend just focusing on the cool and warmth as they occur naturally. **Later added recommendation: One technique I’ve found beneficial for remaining focus on the breath is by understanding that the air of every breath is going to feel slightly different in your nose, mouth, throat, etc. Really try to feel the differences in every breath - whether one is cooler, sharper, if it flutters, etc.
- Don’t be upset with yourself for your mind wandering. This will happen for absolutely everyone, just like distractions in real life will always occur. What you want to work on is shortening the time it takes for you to realize that you’ve drifted away. Once you’re aware of your drift, acknowledge the drift, and return to the “cool, warm, cool, warm…” of your breathing.
What is Happening?
This particular style of Mindfulness Meditation is like weight-training for your attention span. When you lift weights with your body, your muscles are competing against the gravitation pull of the earth. When you’re practicing Mindfulness Meditation, your focus of the moment is competing against the gravitational pull of your thoughts. This style of Mindfulness Meditation aims to train your brain not necessary on the length of pure focus, but rather to be able to return focus in less time and with less effort.
What is the Sign of a Successful Meditation Session?
Mindfulness Meditation is not like walking an ice-covered tight rope — where making it to the other side without falling is impossible. It is more like practicing tight rope walking while people are aggressively shaking the guide wires — something some tight roper walkers practice to prepare them to walk in a tight rope under poor conditions. In the same way, Mindfulness Meditation is training your attention span to regroup more quickly and efficiently with every aggressive tug at your mental guide wires.
Will you ever be able to make it through a meditation session without ever falling off of “cool, warm, cool, warm…” train? Probably not. You will likely always drift. However, your success criteria should not be how many times you drift, but how times you notice that you are drifting. Even drifting every two seconds and course-correcting every time for 10 minutes would be a more productive meditation session than one 10-minute drift that ends with your timer.
The following is an example of what my internal dialogue sounds like during an average meditation session:
Cool…warm….ice cool…sauna warm….can’t wait to get in the shower. Man, that workout left me a sweaty mess…Oops, I’m drifting. Cool…warm…cool….warm….cool…is my cat rubbing against my leg? I’m drifting. Cool…warm…cool…warm…I hear my cat-err-I’m drifting. Cool….warm…cool…warm…cool….warm…cool…warm…cool…warm…cool….wow, I’ve gone a long time without drifting. Wait, crap, that was a drift, too. Cool….warm…cool…warm….cool….is that timer still running? This feels like way more than 10 minutes. Driting again. Cool….warm…cool…warm…Hey, remember to relax your face — you’re all tense. Drifting. Cool…warm…cool…
This piece is largely based on wisdom I learned from reading Dan Harris’ book Meditation For Fidgety Skeptics.
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