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You might think of a monk in orange robes, sitting lotus style on the floor for hours on end, mind perfectly still and at peace. It’s a lovely image, and a worthy ideal. Who couldn’t use a bit more inner peace?
But when we sit down and try it for ourselves, our experience is very different. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. After just a few minutes (if you even manage to hang in there that long), your back starts hurting, your joints ache, your muscles get sore and tense.
And a quiet mind? Forget about it. Your thoughts are racing like a pack of greyhounds. You’re obsessively analyzing a conversation from earlier today, and going over your list of things to do tomorrow, pausing every so often to ask yourself, “Am I doing this right? I sure don’t feel at peace…“
I know that’s how I felt the first time I tried meditation, more than twelve years ago. I didn’t know how to meditate properly, and I felt ridiculous trying. But I kept at it. And eventually I worked through my discomfort, and developed a practice that worked for me.
I even started a meditation group to help others learn the art of meditation and reap the benefits in their own lives.
Over the years I have heard the same comments from many people new to meditation. They’re not sure how to do it. They’re frustrated because they can’t stop thinking. They get discouraged and give up because of how easily they get distracted.
Much of this frustration and confusion comes from our modern information overload. Ask Google, “how do you meditate?” and you will find dozens of classes and books on the subject, all teaching different styles and techniques. With all the varied — sometimes conflicting — instructions, it’s hard to know where to begin.
There is no one, “right way” to meditate. But there are definitely some methods that are easier than others. And when you’re learning any new skill, it’s best to keep things simple, right?
So here is a basic meditation technique for beginners, broken down into 5 easy steps:
1. Prepare Your Space
Find a place where you can enjoy some quiet solitude. With practice, you will find it easy to meditate anywhere, even if it is noisy and busy. But when you are first learning, it is better to be alone, and free from distractions.
I love to meditate outdoors, where I can listen to the sound of the wind and the singing of the birds. But that might not work for you if you live in a bustling urban area, or if the temperature is twenty below zero.
If you opt for an indoor location, take a minute to prepare the space. It will be easier to relax if the area is clean and tidy, not jumbled and disorganized. Some people like to turn off the lights, burn some incense, light a candle, etc. Do whatever helps you to get “in the mood.”
2. Set A Timer
This is crucial. In the beginning, the urge to give up and go do something else can be overwhelming. If you don’t commit to meditating for a set amount of time, the odds are you’ll quit before you give it a fair chance.
So get a timer or stopwatch, or just set the alarm on your phone (be sure to choose a soft and soothing tone, rather than a harsh, screeching one). Decide how long you are willing to practice; it can be as short as 5 – 10 minutes, but you will reach a much deeper state of relaxation if you give yourself more time. I personally recommend you start with 20 minutes.
Then make a commitment to yourself to practice until the time is up — no matter what. Distractions will happen. Your phone might ring, your pet may come begging for attention, etc. Most of all, your restless mind will come up with an endless list of things you could be doing instead.
Don’t fall for it! You’re better than that. You can do this.
3. Settle In
Find a comfortable sitting position. It’s not necessary to fold your legs a certain way, pinch your middle finger and thumb together, or assume any bizarre and unnatural posture. What matters is that you sit upright and keep your spine straight, but relaxed. Stay loose, not rigid.
If you elect to sit on the floor, you might find it helpful to use a cushion (or two), in order to raise your behind and relieve pressure on your legs. Some people use a meditation bench. It’s perfectly okay to sit in a chair, as long you sit upright and don’t slouch.
Once you find your comfort zone, it’s time to close your eyes and settle in…
4. Breathe and Relax
Pay attention to your breath. Feel the air as it flows in and out. Feel your chest and belly expand and contract. Each time you breathe out, let yourself relax more and more deeply. Little by little, release any tension that you feel in your body.
As we sit with our eyes closed, with nothing to keep us busy or distracted, we usually discover places that are tight and tense — especially our shoulders, legs and lower back; or the muscles around your eyes, your neck and jaw. Wherever you find yourself clenched up, just relax and release.
With every out breath, feel yourself relaxing more and more; sinking deeper and deeper into a calm state of rest.
5. Observe, Don’t Judge
You will find that it doesn’t take long for your mind to wander off somewhere. After a minute or two you will realize that you aren’t paying attention to your breath at all. Instead you’re thinking about an email that you need to answer, or what you’re going to make for dinner, or there is a memory or a movie scene running through your head on repeat, or… you get the picture.
That’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong, or that you can’t meditate. This is meditation!
As you sit and breathe and relax, thoughts will come and go. Don’t judge them as good or bad. Don’t judge yourself for thinking them. Whenever you notice that you’ve wandered off, just gently bring your focus back to your breath, to your body and your senses.
That’s all there is to it.
Meditation is really the practice of paying attention. Paying attention to what you see and hear, and how you feel; instead of getting lost in your head, carried away by thoughts, memories, daydreams, or whatever. It’s the practice of staying present, staying awake and at the helm.
And, like any skill, it gets easier — and more enjoyable — the more you do it. You don’t pick up an instrument for the first time and expect to play it perfectly. You can’t expect to sit down and meditate for the first time and be able to instantly quiet your thoughts, find inner peace or “enlightenment.”
But if you practice the steps above once or twice a day, I guarantee it will change your life for the better!
Meditation has many health benefits (such as lowering blood pressure and stress cortisol levels) that come with being more relaxed. It makes you more self-aware, which is key to succeeding in any kind of personal development.
It changes the way you respond to the people and circumstances in your life. It can improve the quality of your relationships, make you more focused and productive at work, and generally make you a more patient, calm and peaceful person.
But most of all it helps you be more present, here and now. It helps you truly feel and experience each moment, rather than going through life on autopilot, stressed out and distracted. And that’s the real secret of happiness: to savor each precious moment, and be content with what we have, instead of always looking for something else, something different, something more.
So try putting the steps above into practice, every day for two weeks. See what a difference it can make in such a short time. Find a meditation group near you to practice with. Have any questions, or tips of your own? Leave them in the comments below.
Thanks for reading, and happy meditating!