So you’ve chosen to start meditating. Or maybe you’ve just started and you’re feeling a bit lost or overwhelmed. Perhaps you even read my article “Five Benefits of Meditation” and you’re just dying to know more.
With all of the resources out there, it’s often hard to figure out how to just get started. Do you sit on the floor or in a chair? Do you chant a mantra or not? Do you focus on the breath or visualize something in your mind? There isn’t one objectively superior technique, so don’t get caught up in the particular labels like “Zen meditation” or “mindfulness meditation”. If you have the time, try different techniques. Hell, combine different techniques. This is your practice.
But chances are if you’re here, you’re thinking, Look, man. Just tell me how to do the damn thing. So before we dive right in, I’ll quickly note that my meditation practice is largely based on the techniques of the Headspace app and the book The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa, Matthew Immergut, and Jeremy Graves.
You may consider using a meditation app to take you through a guided meditation, provide some ambience, or time your session. If you’re new to meditating, I’d highly recommend trying a guided meditation app like Headspace, Calm, or Insight Timer. Once you’ve gotten more comfortable with the practice, you can start trying unguided sessions on your own.
Objects and Accessories
Apart from a place to sit, you don’t really need anything to meditate. I’ll list some things that may enhance your practice, though.
- A meditation cushion, yoga mat, or chair that allows you to sit straight - this ensures you are comfortable and have the best possible posture for your session
- An incense burner or oil diffuser - this is definitely an optional item, but beginners often find the scent helps them focus on the breath
- Headphones - if you’re using a meditation app or listening to ambience/music, headphones will help tune out any unwanted noise
- A timer - meditation apps often have timers built in, but if you’re doing an unguided session, consider using a timer to stay on track
- A notebook - it often helps to have a notebook nearby in case you want to jot down any thoughts at the end of your session
Ideally, the best place to meditate is somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed. This is often easier said than done, especially if you live with other people. Apart from this criterion, you can meditate anywhere–indoors or outdoors. I’ve even taken my meditation cushion into the washroom when I’ve had guests over.
I’d advise not meditating in bed or in darkness because of the increased risk of falling asleep. Similarly, don’t meditate anywhere that’s too bright. Even with eyes closed, bright light can be distracting.
In my article “Five Benefits of Meditation”, I briefly discussed the importance of making meditation a routine. Something that often makes this easier is to have a dedicated space for your meditation practice–a place that makes you feel relaxed and motivates you to continue meditating. For example, if you’re spiritual, you may choose to create a little altar upon which you can put incense, gems, and/or statues. For other people, you may choose a room with a large window so you can bathe yourself in sunlight while you meditate. I’ve set up my meditation cushion in front of my bookcase because that’s where I feel the most inspired.
All right! So you’ve gathered all of your tools and found a nice spot where no one will bother you. Now what? If you’ve chosen to do a guided meditation, the audio will take you through each step. But if you’ve chosen to meditate on your own, or if you’re just curious about what goes on under the surface, this is a good starting point. Depending on the length of your meditation, some steps might be shorter or longer. That being said, just consider this a template.
- Sit down.
- Take a few deep breaths.
- Start breathing normally.
- Don’t actively engage in thinking.
- Focus on your breathing until your session is finished.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? On the surface, it is. You’re not really doing anything, are you? But if I tell you not to think, what happens? Chances are you’ll probably think.
- Settle in
- If you’re in a chair, sit with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight. If you’re on the floor, a mat, or a cushion, sit with your legs crossed, your back straight, and your shoulders relaxed. Don’t worry about attempting the lotus position or anything fancy like that. Clasp your hands and place them in your lap.
- With your eyes open, gaze forward. Don’t focus on anything in particular–just rest your eyes on a particular point. Be aware of your periphery. What’s above that point? Below? To the sides?
- While gazing, take a few deep breaths. Inhale slowly through your nose, and exhale slowly through your mouth–it’s not the Wim Hof method. Your exhales should be loud enough that someone sitting next to you would be able to hear it. With each inhale, focus on your chest or belly rising. With each exhale, focus on your chest or belly softening. After 5-6 deep breaths, gently close your eyes and start breathing normally through your nose.
- Become aware of your senses
- Become aware of your physical sensations. Focus on the feeling of your body on the cushion or chair beneath you. Is your weight evenly distributed? Is the surface soft or hard? How about your legs and feet? How do they support your weight? Is the ground beneath you cool or warm? Don’t forget the feeling of your hands and arms in your lap. Where exactly are your hands resting?
- Become aware of the sounds around you. Don’t actively listen to the sounds around you–hear them. Let them become part of your soundscape. Perhaps you hear the dull drone of a fish tank pump, or maybe you hear the TV in another room. Whatever it is, don’t judge the sound or think about it. It’s there; let it be.
- Become aware of any tastes or smells. Maybe you just brushed your teeth and can still taste the mint on your tongue. Maybe your partner is cooking dinner in the kitchen and the smell of cooking garlic and onions is drifting into the room. Again, don’t judge the source of the smell or taste. It is what it is.
- Become aware of your body
- Do a quick mental check-in with your body. Are there any areas of pain or tension? Similarly, are there any areas that feel particularly relaxed? The idea isn’t to linger on these spots. You’re simply becoming aware of your body, and in particular the areas that more aggressively capture your attention.
- Take a minute or so and do a body scan. I’ll write more about body scans in a future article, but the idea is that you mentally “scan” your body from head to toe. This is similar to the previous step, but it’s much more thorough. Imagine a photocopier light illuminating each part of your body no matter how big or small. When was the last time you were actually aware of the tips of your ears or your little toe without stubbing it? This might sound weird, but sometimes it helps to ask yourself questions like, “Where are my eyelids?” before focusing on them and being aware of them. (Dislaimer: I haven’t misplaced my eyelids, don’t worry.)
- Become aware of your state of mind
- Become aware of any underlying mood or emotions. Did you wake up feeling energized and optimistic? Did you just have an argument with your partner? You might be feeling more than one emotion–try to parse them out label them.
- Be clear in your intent and motivation
- Why have you decided to meditate today? What’s your goal? Are you seeking ways to cope with depression or anxiety? Are you simply looking to bring a little more clarity and focus in your life? Don’t rush through this part because your intention might change from day to day.
- Is there anyone in your life who can benefit from your meditation practice? A partner? Friend? Family member? Meditation often makes us more compassionate and improves our communication skills, so think about people you interact with everyday.
- Reassure yourself
- Remind yourself that you don’t have to necessarily do anything. You don’t have to force a particular state of mind or fight with certain thoughts or emotions. All you have to do is take a step back and observe.
- Remind yourself that the only “bad” meditation session is the one that you didn’t do. In some sessions you will encounter distracting thoughts, and in others your mind will be clear. That’s okay! You showed up today, and you should be proud.
- Focus on your breath
- When people think of meditation, this is what they think about–not any of the stuff before this. Become aware of your breath. Where does it feel most prominent? Your chest? Belly? Nostrils? Are the breaths deep or shallow? Is there a particular rhythm? You don’t need to breathe in any particular way; let your body do that automatically. Just watch.
- Start to count your breaths. One with the inhale, two with the exhale. Once you get to ten, start over. If you lose your place, just start again.
- Our minds aren’t used to doing nothing, so we’ll often find ways to distract ourselves. Thoughts will likely start making their way into your awareness. In some cases, you will get stuck in a thought before you’ve even realized it. That’s totally normal. The important thing is that as soon as you’ve realized your mind has started to wander, acknowledge it and focus your attention back on the breath.
- Continue this process for as long as you want.
- Let go
- Let go of any attention you had on the breath and let your mind be free. Think whatever you want to think. Let your mind do its thing.
- Bring it back to your senses
- Become aware of the physical sensations again–your body on the chair/cushion, your feet on the ground, hands on the lap, etc.
- Become aware of any sounds, tastes, or smells. Don’t judge them–even if your dog farted.
- Slowly open your eyes and maintain a soft gaze forward. Don’t stand up right away. Stay there for a moment. Enjoy the feeling. Remember, you showed up!
- Set your intention
- Take a moment to think about what you’ll do next. You don’t have to think about your whole day, but it helps to be clear in your mind about your intention.
- Stand up slowly and continue your day. Try to hold on to that mindful intent for as long as you can.
It sounds like a lot, and it won’t come easy to you right away. You don’t go to the gym once expecting to become fit; it takes time and dedication. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, so give it the time and work it deserves.