Research is constantly finding additional positive health effects of mindful mediation on the modern mind and body, including stress reduction, better-quality sleep, and memory improvement. More immediately, it’s relaxing and invigorating in unparalleled ways. It’s a practice that is simple to start and enjoyable to perfect. Here is a guide to taking the first steps into mindfulness meditation, only one of a plethora of ways to practice meditation.
The practice of mindfulness meditation began over 2,500 years ago, as part of the ancient Indian Theravada tradition of Buddhism, designed to give its practitioners a glimpse of “reality” and control the crashing, turbulent waters of the mind. These days, mindfulness is still a great way to focus on the current moment of existence and change the way a practitioner deals with the moments of daily life.
“Mindfulness meditation is unique in that it is not directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are,” says Dr. Karen Kissel Wegela of Colorado’s Naropa University. “Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present; that is, it helps us be present with whatever is happening, no matter what it is.”
Our contemporary way of life is filled with more distractions than any previous generation. Smartphones present the ultimate diversion from the quiet, small, slow moments of life – begging for our attention every second of the day; our focus and patience have been hammered down to zero. Our brains have been trained to dart from message to e-mail to Facebook update to phone call. Mindfulness will help a practitioner end this cycle and focus on individual thoughts.
The good news is that you can meditate anywhere, anytime and for as long as you want. There is no such thing as “too little” mediation. While some people prefer meditating first thing in the morning, others like to meditate in the evening or before bed. In a 2011 study done at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness, amateurs were started off with approximately 30 minutes of meditation every day. With time and improved method, you should be able to handle hour-long daily meditations. If you find yourself stuck on timing in the beginning, feel free to use an alarm clock to time your sessions.
At the start, you should choose one place for meditation and return to that place each time. Turn off your phone and any other devices that could distract you. Many people like to dim the lights and meditate by candlelight.
There are several positions you can choose to use when meditating. The key is to feel stable and relaxed in whichever position you choose.
The lotus position (sitting cross-legged with your feet on top) is perhaps the most widespread and well-known position. Some people like to sit on a pillow for extra comfort. Alternatively, one can kneel, lie down, or sit in a chair with feet grounded. The Vipassana Fellowship advises beginner practitioners:
“The most essential thing is to sit with your back straight. The spine should be erect with the spinal vertebrae held like a stack of coins, one on top of the other. Your head should be held in line with the rest of the spine. All of this is done in a relaxed manner. No stiffness. You are not a wooden soldier, and there is no drill sergeant. There should be no muscular tension involved in keeping the back straight. Sit light and easy. The spine should be like a firm young tree growing out of soft ground. The rest of the body just hangs from it in a loose, relaxed manner. This is going to require a bit of experimentation on your part. We generally sit in tight, guarded postures when we are walking or talking and in sprawling postures when we are relaxing. Neither of those will do. But they are cultural habits and they can be relearned. Your objective is to achieve a posture in which you can sit for the entire session without moving at all. In the beginning, you will probably feel a bit odd to sit with the straight back. But you will get used to it. It takes practice, and an erect posture is very important. This is what is known in physiology as a position of arousal, and with it goes mental alertness. If you slouch, you are inviting drowsiness. What you sit on is equally important. You are going to need a chair or a cushion, depending on the posture you choose, and the firmness of the seat must be chosen with some care. Too soft a seat can put you right to sleep. Too hard can promote pain.”
It’s advisable to stretch your body before meditation, as it will increase your body’s state of relaxation and relieve tension.
Start off your meditation by doing focused breathing. Try taking 10 or more long, deep breaths, focusing on your inhalation and exhalation.
Many people wrongly believe that mindfulness involves destroying all thought in the brain, making it an empty slate. Rather, mindfulness is the practice of being hyper-focused on a single thought for a protracted period of time.
Successful mindfulness puts its practitioner in a state of focus on the present moment of existence, for as long as possible. The vehicle toward this goal is usually concentrating on breathing: a natural, passive activity.
Try to watch, feel and listen to each and every breath while meditating. Focus on each inhalation as it happens, and each exhalation as well. If you have stray thoughts – and you will – identify the moment of distraction and return to your focused breathing. Mindful Magazine describes:
“Very simple, very easy. In order to recognize your in-breath as in-breath, you have to bring your mind home to yourself. What is recognizing your in-breath is your mind, and the object of your mind – the object of your mindfulness – is the in-breath. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.
“So the object of your mindfulness is your breath, and you just focus your attention on it. Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath. When you do that, the mental discourse will stop. You don’t think anymore. You don’t have to make an effort to stop your thinking; you bring your attention to your in-breath and the mental discourse just stops. That is the miracle of the practice. You don’t think of the past anymore. You don’t think of the future. You don’t think of your projects, because you are focusing your attention, your mindfulness, on your breath.”
Adjust your breathing in terms of time and length to whatever makes you most comfortable. It is important that your in-breath/out-breath cycle be continuous and have no start or end points.
Your breath is only one option as a target for focused thinking. Alternatively, you could use a fixed point in the room, a word, or concept, like the well-known Hindu “Om.”
In the beginning, you might become annoyed with your own mind, which seems to refuse to be quieted. This is a common feeling. Many times, you will find that your mind has strayed from focus and started to think about upcoming plans or the past, perhaps your childhood. This is natural and not a cause for giving up. Bhante Gunaratana, a Vipassana meditation teacher and author, advises:
“What a bother. But this is what it is all about. These distractions are actually the whole point. The key is to learn to deal with these things. Learning to notice them without being trapped in them. That’s what we are here for. The mental wandering is unpleasant, to be sure. But it is the normal mode of operation of your mind. Don’t think of it as the enemy. It is just the simple reality. And if you want to change something, the first thing you have to do is see it the way it is.
“When you first sit down to concentrate on the breath, you will be struck by how incredibly busy the mind actually is. It jumps and jibbers. It veers and bucks. It chases itself around in constant circles. It chatters. It thinks. It fantasizes and daydreams. Don’t be upset about that. It’s natural. When your mind wanders from the subject of meditation, just observe the distraction mindfully.”
In reality, the only way to improve in meditation is to experience mind-wanderings and conquer them. With time and practice, your ability to stay focused for longer should improve. If you find that it is difficult for you to sit for 20 minutes, focused on a single thought – you are in very good company. Do not be startled if you find your mind is racing and buzzing more than you’ve ever noticed before; this is a byproduct of meditation. Practicing mindfulness reveals to us the nature of our own thinking process and allows us to change it. It’s only through meditation that we can work to quiet spasmodic minds we have let run wild until now.
Meditation sessions can be frustrating at the beginning. Aside from stray thoughts, you will most likely be disturbed by a bodily ache or pain, itch or outdoor noise. Whether a distraction is aural or physical, accept it, focus on it, avoid negative feelings, breathe on it for a moment, and then return to your focus. These added challenges to meditative practice will only help you master it.
This guide to beginning meditation is only a summary. You could read thousands of books about meditation, its history, goals, and practices. You could also join a meditation class to get personal coaching. Good luck in your new mindfulness practice!