How to Meditate
A Practical Guide
I have written plenty about the benefits of meditation. Since starting my own meditative practice a few years ago, I have felt more at ease, more clear-headed, and more productive, in almost every aspect of my life. I find myself calmer and better prepared. I think meditation is something everyone should look into, as it could have a positive effect for basically everyone.
However, it’s hard to know where to start. Especially just when establishing your own practice, if you are practicing alone, it’s hard to know if you’re doing it “right”. There’s plenty of apps and videos on the subject, but how can you be sure? How should you sit? How should you feel?
Often, I hear about people who “tried it”, but became frustrated trying to sit (relatively) still for long stretches of time. This practice is like any practice: you have to ease into it.
All this, coupled with the misconceptions I often see online or hear in response to me talking about meditation, I decided to write this guide. I am not the most experienced instructor; far from it. This is not meant to be a comprehensive guide on meditation. For that, you should look to a dedicated teacher, for local practices, or for online courses like the ones offered by David Cain of Raptitude and Guy Armstrong. This is simply meant to be something to get you started, to experiment with it yourself, before deciding if you’d like to do more.
If I make any mistakes in the text below, please, reach out to me or leave a comment and I will do my best to correct the error. A few things before we get started:
Meditation is obviously closely related with teachings and philosophies of the Buddha, known as Buddhism. Buddhism is a great lifestyle, and a fascinating set of teachings. However, meditation is entirely possible to be conducted secularly, and you shouldn’t be afraid to do so. You don’t have to change religions or anything to get started.
Depending on the subset of Buddhism(like Zen Buddhism), it can be a bit more specific on the actual process of meditation. I’ll try and point out the divergent lines, but just be aware that they exist.
What is Meditation?
Often, when I talk about my own practice, I hear one of a few misunderstandings about what meditation is. A lot of this comes from some Hollywood idea of Tibetan Monks, humming in the mountains, or Shaolin Monks breaking bricks with their heads.
The main thing I hear about meditation is that it’s about blocking thoughts. Total isolation. In my experience, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Meditation is about having an acute awareness of your current experience (mindfulness), your thoughts, surroundings, emotions, and letting them all come and go. It is about removing the barrier between your self and your surroundings as possible. In a way, meditation is about the dissolution of the self.
In Buddhist thought, this mostly relates to the understanding that the self is only a construct, not an absolute. In a more secular practice, this is about the awareness of the present moment, being conscious of what’s happening in and around you. This is often referred to as mindfulness.
Meditation is a great way to become aware of this, but not the only way. Some Buddhists do walking meditation in addition to sitting meditation. There are also smaller practices to be aware of, like watching for transitions in life. This means being aware of some particular change, like the times when you go from sitting to standing, or the times you cross a threshold. Notice how it feels opening and walking through the door, feeling the change in pressure, the new smells, the way the sounds change.
I’m happy to talk about these concepts in more depth another time, but this is more about sitting meditation.
Guided meditation is great, especially for beginners. There’s plenty of great apps and recordings available to help. However, this article is about your own exploration and experimentation, without the use of aids.
How do I Meditate?
Find a nice quiet spot. This isn’t a spot devoid of noise, but especially just getting started, it’s easier to minimize it. It can be anywhere, your bedroom, a park, the bathroom floor; wherever you can sit calmly, relatively undisturbed for a few minutes a day. It’s great if you can set aside a space (e.g., “I will meditate on my bedroom floor for five minutes every day”) for your practice, but not essential.
Sit down. I prefer to sit on the floor. You can sit on a chair, or something comfortable. Buddhists will often sit on cushions, on top of mats, which is great if available, but not necessary. Your carpet / yoga mat / floor pillow works just fine.
In Buddhist thought, particularly Zen Buddhism, how you sit is the practice itself. This is referred to as “zazen”. The idea is that sitting in a full-lotus posture correctly, and simply observing, should use up all your physical and mental capacity, thereby freeing you from excess. This is difficult to do if you don’t have a background in stretching or athletics, so maybe try a half-lotus.
For a full-lotus, place your right ankle on your left thigh; then repeat with your left ankle onto your right thigh. If it’s more comfortable to do these reversed, that’s okay too. If this position causes discomfort, you can try the half-lotus, which as you might guess is only one ankle on your thigh. The other leg sits neatly beneath the other. These are recommended for Buddhist meditation, but if you want to sit crosslegged or on your knees, or another way, that’s okay.
From White Winds Zen Community.
Next come your hands. Place your right hand palm up in your lap. Then take your left hand and rest it in the palm of the right hand. Your fingertips should rest where the fingers begin on the opposite hand. Then, simply place the thumbs together. This should rest in your lap, close to your body.
Straighten your back. You should sit with your spine straight. Lower your chin just slightly so to extend the line of your spine through the top of your head.
In traditional Buddhist meditation, the eyes are left open, just slightly, in a resting awareness. The idea is to not try and eliminate one of your senses, but be aware of them and let them go. Often, practicing eyes-closed can lead to getting lost in your thoughts. Starting out, it’s okay to close the eyes if it helps you to concentrate. I started this way and found it to be useful to ease into the practice.
It’s good not to rush into meditating longer than you’re ready for. It’s okay if your first few sessions are only 3, 5, or 10 minutes long. Set a goal, and stick to it. I like the app Insight Timer to track this, but any clock will do. It’s better if the alarm is peaceful. You don’t want to be yanked out of the headspace you worked for.
Now that you’re sitting, take a few breaths. You don’t need to measure these against your other breaths, or try and make them calm. Just breath normally. Let your body return to the rhythm it wants. You know how to breath, just let it work on autopilot.
Go through your senses. What do you smell, hear, taste? If you have your eyes open slightly, what do you see? Feel your breath in your body. Feel the rising and falling sensation. As you exhale, feel the floor beneath you, the weight of your body. Don’t allow your posture to slack, just be aware of how you feel.
Notice how each part of your body feels, head to toe. Notice how you feel, your emotions and thoughts.
Some people, especially starting out, like to focus on a particular aspect. This can be a mantra, but most commonly for beginners is your breath. You can count your breath if you’d like, one for the inhale, two for the exhale, up to ten before starting over. If you get distracted, just return to the breath. If your mind wanders, let it go, and return to your breath.
As you’re winding down, start to familiarize yourself with your surroundings once more. Return to your senses, the space you’re meditating in. Listen to your surroundings, feel the weight of the floor.
Open your eyes normally once more. Before you get up, just sit in the moment for a little longer. Take it all in. How was the session? Good, bad? Did you enjoy it? How do you feel? This is the prime goal of meditation, creating an awareness that you can’t get otherwise, and carrying it throughout the day. Savor it.
As you stand up, be mindful of the transition, and move on.
There’s plenty of great apps out there. I started with guided meditation from Headspace. I also really like Insight Timer, which has different recordings, and a simple timer for your own sessions. There’s courses online offered by David Cain (Camp Calm), and one by Guy Armstrong that I’ve heard is good called “Emptiness”. He has a book of that title, too.
Hopefully you found this helpful, and will consider trying this out for yourself. Let me know if you found this interesting, and if you have any other questions or would like some more specific resources in the comments below, or via my contact page.