I learned to meditate the hard way. One of those 10 day retreats that involved silence and a bed made of concrete and a room infested with ants and a bucket for bathing; in India, of course.
As the days progressed, we were moved out of the communal meditation hall into to our own, private meditation cell. Think of a prison cell but without any furniture. We were told to stay there until a bell rung several hours later.
The low point wasn’t even the cell time; it was getting punched in the vagina by a monkey who decided he wanted the banana I’d pilfered for an illicit mid-morning snack. I gave it up, obviously. I didn’t like the idea of what he might do with his teeth.
As I said, I learned to meditate the hard way. You can read all about it here.
I’m not telling you this to prove how tough I am. Quite the opposite. On some dark nights, I can still feel the pain of that punch in my private place.
No, I’m telling you this because mediation doesn’t need to be difficult. It’s actually very easy if you’re able to cut through all the noise and the bullshit and the courses and the books and the sales tactics and the blog posts by women wearing floaty white stuff, levitating with their legs folded into the shape of a pretzel, a look of serenity photoshopped onto their face.
I’m not that person. I’m the kind of person who is is eating a pretzel at the airport check-in desk, meditating so I don’t murder the group in front of me who have suddenly forgotten that they need their passports.
In this post I’m going to share with you some tips for how to meditate for beginners. They’re the kinds of tips you can use right now and won’t take more than 10 minutes because, let’s face it, who has hours to sit and meditate all day?
I’m going to cover what is meditation, and how to meditate for beginners, in 5 easy steps.
But first, let’s cover an often asked question.
Let’s face it, you’re probably here because you’re sick and tired of the repeated message to meditate. It’s on pretty much every wellness list out there:
- suffering depression, meditate
- anxious, meditate
- work stress, meditate
- can’t sleep, meditate
- personal stress, meditate
- recovering from illness, meditate
- trying to prevent illness, meditate
- weight loss, meditate
- fertility issues, meditate
- trying not to kill the group in front of you at the airport, meditate (source: My Messy Middle).
Why meditate, according to the scientists
So, you’re wondering what all the fuss is about and whether meditation can deliver everything it promises.
The answer is a whole blog topic in itself and, frankly, there are much better qualified people who can tell you the myriad health benefits of meditating. I’m talking about actual, qualified health professionals who didn’t buy their med-creds on the Inter-web.
If you want to read about why you should meditate, you can read about the science-based benefits of meditation here.
Why meditate, according to me
My personal experience is that meditation has helped me a lot. It’s helped me cope better with stress and anxiety, work worries, sleep issues, negative thought loops, and has generally helped me be a calmer, less-reactive and therefore kinder person.
The catch – and there is one
Here’s what most of the medics won’t tell you – meditation is not a quick fix. Sure, an ’emergency’ meditation can dial my stress and anxiety down a notch but the deep benefits of meditation, the ability to deal more calmly with life, develops over time. I’ve been meditating regularly for over 10 years and I’m still not immune to rage or stress or sleep issues.
Please don’t click off in disappointment.
I know you didn’t really think that meditating for a few minutes for a few days was going to fix your life; in the same way swerving that one slice of cake isn’t going to make a dot of difference on the scales.
It’s the slow momentum of regular meditation practice that makes a difference, in the same way that swapping out your afternoon muffin for something healthy is what changes your weight. I’m telling you this upfront so you can approach meditation as healthy habit that you adopt over the long-term, even if there ends up being natural peaks and troughs in how regularly you practice. Sometimes a whole month of stress goes by and I’ve barely meditated for a minute.
If you’re not quite ready to commit to a regular meditation practice, I defer to the Dalai Lama: sleep if the best meditation. If your need a quick fix, get more sleep. I’m serious. You can read more of my thoughts on sleep in this post here.
Me, meditating on my pizza in Italy
What is meditation?
The dictionary’s meditation definition
Getting technical, the definition of meditation is to:
“focus one’s mind for a period of time, in silence or with the aid of chanting, for religious or spiritual purposes or as a method of relaxation.”
Personally, I don’t think that quite cuts it. Why? First of all, plenty of people, including me, meditate for non-religious or spiritual purposes. As I’ve mentioned, I often meditate so the annoying shit that life flings at us doesn’t send me into a rage. I suppose you could call that for the purpose of relaxation but it doesn’t quite fit.
Also, meditation doesn’t necessarily need to be silent or include chanting. In a future post I’ll talk about the different ways you can meditate and as someone who is researching how to meditate for beginners, you’ll be delighted to know that meditation can be as simple as a walk in the park (literally), listening to music, dancing, watching a candle flicker or eating chocolate; that last one is NOT a joke.
A modern definition of meditation
If the dictionary definition doesn’t cut it, how would I (the non-expert but regular mediator) define meditation? Well, I tell my friends that meditation is simply paying attention.
Yes, it’s that simple.
And also that hard – because, let’s face it, 21st century humans have the attention span of an overstimulated monkey allowed to feast on the sweets at M&M World. I mean, how many times have you checked your messages while you’ve been reading this post on how to meditate? And have you really been reading it or just scrolling through the headings? It’s ok. I do it too.
But let’s be positive: it’s absolutely possible to strengthen our concentration muscle and once you’ve got the hang of doing that, the power of meditation is all yours. Cue: evil laugh.
Difference between mindfulness and meditation
A quick word on the difference between mindfulness and meditation. I’ve googled this over and over, over the years and every article I’ve read has a different distinction between the two practices, some articles saying they are very different, some saying they are exactly the same.
I say: who cares?
You could spend a lifetime getting sucked into the semantics of mindfulness versus meditation. I’ve undertaken programmes in both: the 100 hour meditation retreat in India and working through various mindfulness courses at home.
At their very essence, they both teach the same thing: to pay attention. Do that and should slowly start to see the benefits of meditation that have probably got you interested in the topic in the first place.
How to meditate in 5 Easy Steps
Now that I’ve yarned on for a while (I was improving your concentration, you’re welcome), it’s time to get into how to meditate. And I’m happy to report that you can get started right now. Wherever you are (I’m assuming you’re not driving or operating heavy machinery, like a cake whisk).
Here’s my guide to how to meditate in 5 easy steps.
1. Focus on your breathing
I’ve already alluded to the fact that there are many different kinds of meditation techniques but in this guide to how to meditate for beginners, I’ll start with the basic meditation method – focusing on the breathe.
This is by far one of the easiest ways to start meditating because breathing is something we’re always doing and we always have it with us. Yet, we very rarely pay attention to it, which makes it great for flexing that concentration/attention muscle.
But how do I sit or can I lie down for meditation? And do I need to cross my legs? Fair questions. My answer is that it doesn’t matter*. There is no such thing as how to meditate properly. As I’ve said, I mediate in airport queues, I meditate while listening to music, while I’m at my desk in my office, in the dentist waiting room, and, yes, I also meditate in my ‘yoga’ (spare) room, sat on a cushion, in silence with my legs crossed. The key when you’re starting to meditate is finding a way that works for you. If you need silence, go find a quiet space but if your back means you can’t sit on the floor comfortably, lie down. Just always go back to the golden rule of meditation: pay attention. Meditate in a time, place, position and environment that will make it easiest for you to tune in to your breathe.
* ignore the cliched main image of a woman meditating at the beginning of the post. I chose it because I like the colour pink. You do not, I repeat, do not, need a mountain to be able to meditate.
2. Don’t judge your breathe or try to change it
I call this the ‘but’ of meditation. Yes, pay attention to your breathe, but, don’t judge it or try to change it. In meditation you’ll often refer to this as ‘observing your breathe’ which can feel like a weird concept if you’re new to meditation. However, it’s no different to observing your toes without trying to move them or without passing judgement on the fact that you probably should get your ‘toe lashes’ waxed.
If your breathe is fast, that’s fine (mine usually gets quicker the second I pay attention to it, because it subconsciously thinks it’s being assessed). If it’s shallow or deep, doesn’t matter. Breathe but don’t judge it or try to change it.
Observing your breathe when you have anxiety: I have anxious tendencies and it may well be familial since my mum had regular, full-blown panic attacks. I know from having practised meditation with her (and trying to mediate when I’m in the middle of a spiral of anxious thoughts), that focusing on the breathe can make things feel worse. If that’s you, try counting instead. Count to 10 (doesn’t need to correspond with your breathe) and when you get to 10, start at 1 again.
3. Notice when you get distracted
It’s very common to get no further than a single breathe before your attention wanders off.
This is normal. In fact, it is 100% guaranteed and is all part of meditating.
You may have come here trying to figure out how to clear your mind for meditation. However, clearing your mind it both not the purpose of meditation and is also not possible, not unless you’re a Buddhist monk who’s been meditating since he was neonatal.
Clearing the mind is the biggest misconception of meditation and the thing that makes many people quit: they think that because they can’t clear their mind they’re somehow not meditating properly and that they’re failing; and we all know that thoughts of failure can quickly lead to quitting.
Don’t set yourself up for the fall. Having a busy mind is absolutely normal. This morning, I was making mental edits to this blog post while I was meditating.
Go back to the golden rule of meditation: pay attention. First, to your breathe and then, when you realise that you’re mentally planning what to have for dinner, pay attention to the fact that your mind has wandered.
Again, pay attention but don’t just yourself for your wandering mind. You haven’t blown it. In fact, you’ve succeeded because you’ve paid attention to the fact that your mind has wandered. Bravo. But don’t get up and crack open the bubbly just yet…
4. Go back to focusing on your breathe
When you realise your mind has wandered, return your focus to your breathe (or counting). Then, simply…
5. Repeat steps 1-4
In practical reality, mediation is a constant flip-flop between focusing on the breathe and then bringing your mind back to the breathe after it has wandered. Over and over – focus, drift, focus – is how you meditate.
How long should you meditate for? My advice is to start small – ten minutes a day kind of small. You wouldn’t lift those big heavy weights on your first visit to the gym. You’d start with some small dumbells and work your way up. Ten mins is your dumbells. Ten minutes is a chunk of time most of us can spare. Ten minutes is small enough to build a habit. You can progress from there. There are plenty of free apps out there with 10 minute guided meditations. I always tell my friends to try Calm.
So, that’s my beginners guide to meditation. If you’ve found this post useful, let me know in the comments below. Coming soon, I’ve got more mediation posts including How To Build A Meditation Habit and 10 Easy Types of Meditation You Can Try At Home. Sign up for my newsletter to get these posts straight into your inbox.