A Beginner's Guide to Meditation
Meditation can seem like a very elusive concept. A lot of misunderstanding surrounds the practice and can lead to avoidance because of discomfort or befuddlement about what meditation is and how to do it.
There are many different approaches to meditation, but starting with a few simple techniques can help ease you in to the practice. Meditation is easy, relaxing, and can greatly improve your quality of life. However, because of the wide misconceptions, perhaps it is best to begin with what meditation is not.
Meditation is Not Clearing Your Mind of All Thought
This is actually an impossible thing to do. Our minds will always be occupying themselves with something. Meditation simply allows you to become aware of the things you are thinking and focus on what you want to be thinking about. Training yourself to focus on your breathing gives your busy mind something to do as your body is calming down and giving you all of those wonderful health benefits that slow breathing gives us. Your mind will inevitably wander, but simply bring it back to the breath without self-judgment.
Meditation is not Synonymous with Religion
Though meditation has historically and currently been used in religious practice, it is not an intrinsically religious thing to do. Meditation is about becoming mindful about your own body, thoughts, and feelings, and your practice need not be connected to any other outside belief system at all. The benefits of mindfulness meditation have also been promoted by those who play a more secular role in society, such as scientists, psychologists, and doctors. Experiencing a higher quality of life is not restricted to members of a certain belief system, but is possible and available to all.
Common Practices for Beginners
There are many ways to practice meditation, and as you become more experienced, your practice will expand. However, to begin, you need only practice for a few minutes at a time, gradually building up your focus and stamina.
Start by finding a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit with your legs loosely crossed and your spine straight, your chin level with the floor. Close your eyes, allowing the muscles in your face to relax. Now take a deep breath…
Notice the air pulling through your lungs. Notice how your body naturally breaths. Let yourself breath naturally, not trying to force anything, noticing where the breath naturally begins, and where it naturally ends. Now take a deep inhale, all the way to the end. Now exhale, all the way out. Do this several more times, observing your body each time.
Observe the thoughts and feeling you are having while breathing. If you find your thoughts have strayed, gently bring yourself back to your breath. It does not matter how many times you have to do this in a session. You are not failing. What is important is not that your thoughts have strayed, but that you have brought them back. Over time, you will become less easily distracted and will be able to focus for more extended periods of time.
You will begin noticing patterns to your thoughts, certain ways you respond. Recognizing these patterns becomes incredibly helpful outside of meditation because you become more aware of yourself and can choose your responses where before you may have been responding out of habit. Mindfulness helps us take great leaps towards the people we want to be simply by slowing down, being still, and re-directing ourselves in the direction we actually want to go.
In our American culture, most things are set up to be competitive in nature. There is a good, a better, and a best. There are ways most people do most things, and straying from those guidelines can result in social disapproval, so we’ve trained ourselves throughout life to stay inside the safe lines and do as society tells us.
This sets up a judging mind inside of us where everything is deemed to be either “good” or “bad.” We label the most benign things as either “good” or “bad” when in reality, most things are neither. They simply are. In meditation, we call the recognition that things are neither good nor bad “non-judgment.”
It’s important as you begin to have the non-judging mind with yourself. You may begin to have thoughts like, “I am not doing this right," “I look silly,” “I am uncomfortable,” or “This is doing nothing for me.” Having these thoughts is okay. Simply notice that they are there. Don’t give them a label, don’t allow them a foothold in your mind. Acknowledge they are there and then let them go. You are not competing with anyone. You are doing nothing right or wrong. You simply are.
If you have a very busy schedule and simply cannot fathom taking even 5 minutes out of your day to find somewhere to meditate, box breathing is an excellent solution for you. It can be done anywhere at any time, and includes 4 simple steps:
(1) Inhale for a slow count of 4 seconds
(2) At the end of the inhale, hold your breath for 4 seconds
(3) Exhale for 4 seconds
(4) Hold your breath at the end of the exhale for 4 seconds and repeat.
You will instantly feel calmer after completing the cycle only once. Counting helps you stay focused and box breathing can instantly calm you in any stressful situation. The next time you are about to have a difficult conversation, a job interview, or are simply feeling very anxious, take a few seconds to calm yourself with box breathing.
If you’d like a little more guidance to your practice, there are scores of resources available. Phone apps can be a big help. One in particular is an app called Calm. It is initially a free download and includes many different types of meditations, guiding your through every step and helping you learn to focus on different aspects of growth throughout your practice. If you like the app, you can upgrade to a paid plan at any time and get access to even more guided meditations. Paid plans are available annually or by the month.
Group Meditation Classes
Many yoga studios will offer free or very inexpensive group meditation sessions for beginners. Look around in your area to see what’s available, and if you find yourself drawn to a certain class, buy yourself a yoga mat and give it a try. The added benefit of a real-life guide and group may give you the extra nudge you need to get started in meditation.