There are many challenges to a meditation practice, including:
- Understanding what meditation is… and isn’t!
- Finding the right kind of meditation for your needs
- Learning how to meditate
- Starting a practice
- Sustaining a practice
We’ve created this page to help with some of the basics that should get you started, and build some foundational skills and tools that will help you continue once you do.
What Is Meditation and Why Do We Do It?
If you’re reading this, you’ve likely heard some buzz about meditation in the popular media, from a friend or co-worker, or someone who may be a meditator. And what you’ve heard or been told can cover a wide variety of accurate and inaccurate information, further complicated by a tremendous variety of meditation techniques, let alone finding what you find most helpful to your needs. We’ll start by talking about some of the concepts that are likely to be the most beneficial, regardless of your long term goals, ideological stance, or ideas you may already have about meditation.
It may be helpful to understand that there really are many different kinds of meditation, each with its own way of engaging the mind. Terms like “vipassana”, “jhana”, and “metta” may sound exotic, but simply refer to particular exercises of the mind that anyone can do.
That is one of the main concepts behind meditation: In the same way we can exercise the body to get it in better condition, we can exercise the mind. By practicing some of the skills you can learn quite easily, you can improve the functioning of your mind. Don’t be fooled, though. Even if the basic techniques are easy to learn, they can be very challenging to do, especially on a regular basis.
We should understand that “mind” is not the same as “brain”. The brain is certainly a biological component, one of the most critical and interesting in meditation, but mind is a much more broad term that refers to a personal process which perceives, recognizes, thinks, experiences, and reacts to stimulus. It’s a component of the processes that make up the wonderfully complex beings we are, but shouldn’t be entangled with or mistaken for being you. Volumes could and have been written about what mind is, but as an introduction to meditation that’s a good place to start!
So, meditation is a way we can exercise our minds, but to what end, what is the result or goal? After all, there’s no real point to doing an exercise if we don’t see any kind of result. Different kinds of meditation are associated with different effects, and your mileage may vary based on the duration and consistency of your practice. The scientific studies of the effects of meditation are also in their infancy, so while it’s an exciting time in the exploration of contemplative practices with modern tools and methods, there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
Based on the kind of meditation we do, the intention we set in our practice, and the effort we put into it, some commonly experienced outcomes are:
- Improved emotional regulation
- Increased tolerance of chronic pain
- Improved sleep
- Greater attention to detail
- Decreased stress levels
- Reduced occurrence of depression
Though there is a common perception that meditation may be good for relaxation but not much else, there is really much more benefit than what is equivalent to taking a vacation or a good long nap.
While many people experience wonderful benefits from meditating, no meditator feels blissful and alert all the time. You may experience a lot of restlessness and mental activity, and start thinking you’re having a bad meditation experience or are doing something wrong. But meditation isn’t about achieving any certain state, not even peacefulness and calm. It’s about learning to be with and observe your experience, just the way it is. Even if you recognize that you’ve become lost in thoughts or daydreams, just that act of noticing is the most powerful part of meditation.
What Kind of Meditation is Right For Me?
Certainly meditation is not a magic bullet, and it does not solve all problems. Serious emotional and mental problems are still best treated by seeking professional help, as meditation is no substitute for therapy. In the instances of such problems, meditation may or may not play a role in a portfolio of treatment options, which could include medication and ongoing therapy. Please seek professional help if you are experiencing chronic or severe emotional or mental problems, and if you’re interested in meditation as a component of your ongoing intervention, follow the guidance of your therapist.
If you’re simply interested in trying out meditation to see what it’s about, or to have some of the benefits listed above, the good news is that there is a general tendency for the various kinds of meditation to start with the same basic principles and techniques. Of course there is some variation, but the instructions here should be compatible with most types you may eventually want to practice. Once you have built a foundation of these basic skills, you can then develop a more in-depth exploration of:
- Concentration — samatha — can lead you into deep meditative states and experiences like the jhanas, which can positively impact our off-the-cushion mental state
- Insight — vipassana — can help us see through some of our misperceptions about the world and ourselves, so we can respond more skillfully to life’s events
- Loving Friendliness — metta — intentionally practicing mental states of kindness, which can help us in our social interactions
- … and many, many more!
Again, the instructions here will help you build a foundation of skills that will find application in many different meditation practices, wherever you should decide to focus your energies. You may want to try different techniques, and shift your practice to suit what’s happening in your life at that moment — it is not uncommon to do a mindfulness meditation one day, and a loving friendliness meditation another.
Starting a Meditation Practice — What To Do
Understand What We’re Doing
The benefits to meditation listed above occur because of what it is we’re doing in the practice. It’s not magic, it’s not blissing out, and it’s not pointless navel-gazing. Instead, we’re taking advantage of how our minds function in the natural world, capitalizing on the brain’s adaptability. This self-directed neuroplasticity is an amazing feature of meditation, that we can intentionally change both the functioning and even physical structure of the brain.
What is it that we do during meditation? Simply put, we’re doing a few basic things:
We’re bringing our attention to the present moment. By doing this, we start to loosen our tendency to lose focus on what’s going on around us and spend time in a past we can’t change, or a future that we can’t reliably depend on.
We observe what’s happening in that moment. This starts to weaken our habit of mistakenly identifying ourselves as our body, feelings, thoughts, or that which is going on around us.
We set aside judgment about what we observe. This helps us disengage from the narratives which often guide our actions, instead of us guiding our actions.
We can then narrow the focus of our attention to a single object, or widen it to encompass a variety of phenomenon, all still in the present moment. Whatever particular technique we use, we’re developing skills that help us respond better during the challenges of daily living, rather than reacting out of the usual habit patterns, likes, aversions, emotions, or train of thoughts.
Where and When
Set aside a location and time, perhaps somewhere quiet in your home, where you won’t be disturbed while you’re meditating. If you can find a spot that’s going to allow you to be physically comfortable, calm, where you can set aside the stresses of the day, that might be a good place to consider. Turn off your cell phone, and try to arrange with others in the house to let you have a little uninterrupted time to yourself. If folks can be quiet, too, it can help to have as few distractions as possible. You may want to have a timer, so something else can keep track of how long you meditate and you can focus on present moment awareness. Pick one that has a gentle, rather than jarring tone when the set time is up, to let you know this session’s set time is complete without startling you, and one that doesn’t tick or make any noise while you’re practicing.
Once you’ve got an understanding of the ideas of what you’re doing in meditation, your location is picked out, and you have a time when you can meditate undisturbed, the next step is to give it a try.
You don’t have to sit on a cushion, you can sit in a chair. If you do, it can help you remain alert by sitting forward, not leaning on the back rest, but fully alert, attentive, maintaining an upright posture. You can rest your hands in your lap, in a position that won’t cause tension in your shoulders or neck. Be sure to set your timer for whatever is a manageable, but reaching goal, and start it. If it’s your first time, ten minutes is a reasonable starting point.
It may be helpful for you to start with two things. First, set an intention for this session. That intention may be to put aside your stresses from the day, it may be to keep your attention on the object of your meditation, or to move your awareness through various places on your body. Second, relax and attend to the present moment, perhaps by taking three very slow, deep breaths, inviting your awareness to the sensation of the breath.
The breath is what you can start with. It is always there for you, even when you’re not meditating, and is a very useful way to develop attention in this simple activity in the present moment. You can direct your awareness to the sensation of air passing at the tip of your nose, or the expansion of your belly, whichever is easiest for you to notice and follow. Having an open and relaxed, inquisitive attitude about this simple physical process, being aware of the starting of the in-breath, through the entire duration of the inhale, up to the end, then switching to the out-breath, its arising, its duration, and completion. Then invite the attention afresh with the next breath, and the one after that, just observing the sensation.
At first we can easily get distracted by what seems like a new and increased number of thoughts, but they’re not new, we’re simply stepping back and noticing them perhaps for the first time in our lives. It’s not a problem, they’ve always been there, and they not only lack substance, but each one arises and falls, just like the breath. They’re impermanent, coming and going, and you can start to build a skill in your meditation of just letting them be thoughts instead of powerful ideas upon which you have to act. Every moment, you have a choice, and meditation helps you begin to notice that and make the best choice you can.
If you lose track of the breath, that’s okay, and is in fact very normal and expected. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath. You’ll do this again and again, throughout the entire meditation session. This is what we mean by the practice.
It’s a simple idea that can be hard to implement, it’s a practice, not a perfect!
There are many ways to help apply your attention and sustain it. One way to do this is to count with each exhale, starting with one, put your full attention on the inhale, then count silently two to yourself on the next exhale, put your full attention on the next inhale… all the way to ten. After reaching ten, start again at one. Again, it’s perfectly normal and expected to lose count! Just kindly and gently return your attention to the breath, and start again at one.
As you continue with a regular meditation practice, over time you may be able to maintain an unbroken count to ten for the entire meditation session of ten minutes. If you can do that consistenly, consider increasing the amount of time you meditate to fifteen, twenty, or thirty minutes. Even if you can’t maintain the count to ten, if you can meditate for longer than ten minutes, try increasing the amount of time.
You can then consider challenging your attention by just counting to one. That may sound easy, but can be even harder than counting to ten! And eventually, drop the counting entirely from your meditation — it’s not about the count, it’s about developing your ability to apply and maintain your attention. Eventually your awareness of the breath can come more easily, and instead of having to continually bring it back, the thoughts can settle more quickly and consistently, so your attention is maintained without putting forth as much effort.
Meditation isn’t about the meditation itself, it’s about building a skill that we can take out into the world. We develop both concentration and awareness so we’re able to more frequently recognize what’s happening right now, make more intentional decisions about where our attention should be, and respond to daily situations in a more skillful way.
Sustaining a Meditation Practice — Keep It Going
One of the hardest things to do with meditation isn’t starting, it’s continuing to do the practice on a regular basis so you see the benefits mature. Even if you really like meditation while you’re doing it, the distractions and activities of managing our lives can derail our most sincere intention to practice. Here are some of the common reasons our daily meditation tends to fall away:
- Forgetting. The day gets busy, we have a very active life, and the thought of meditating doesn’t come to mind.
- Busyness. The day gets busy, we have a very active life, and though we thought about meditating, we didn’t have time.
- Aversion. We don’t like to meditate, so we stop.
- Boredom. There’s nothing interesting going on, so we stop.
- Discouragement. We didn’t get the expected results, so we stop.
- Doubt. We’re just not convinced this meditation stuff works.
The simple fact is that most of us will miss a day now and again, even if we have a pretty regular practice. That’s okay, it happens. In another page we’ll look at some ways you can more firmly establish your meditation practice and consistently maintain it, despite some of the challenges that arise.