How to meditate

Meditation has a great deal to offer anyone who is prepared to put in a bit time and effort, but how do you go about it?  Well, the first thing to say is there is no single way, no 'right' way to meditate.  There are many different techniques, many different ideas, and many different 'aims' of meditation (as I said earlier I think in terms of four broad categories of meditation).  However, if it's something you've never tried and you're wondering where to start here are some simple ideas for a basic approach, based on what's worked for me over the years.

Full details after the jump.

First of all, setting –

Above all, make sure you're comfortable.  Some people believe that to meditate you 'have' to be in a particular position (sitting cross-legged, in a full lotus, hands in a particular position, etc.) I think you have to be in a position that is going to help you concentrate on what you're doing, not worrying that your knees are going to give out.  So just be comfortable – sitting with your back straight is advisable, just because it makes your breathing easier.  However, if you're more comfortable lying down, that's fine (although you do risk falling asleep).  You can even trying meditating standing up.  Use cushions to support yourself (nothing distracts from meditation like an aching back) and ensure you are warm enough and dressed comfortably.

Then, beginning –

I'm going to focus on concentration practice on this post, as I think it's probably the best place to start your meditation career.

Your object is simple: choose something on which you are going to set your focus, then keep it there.  Don't let your mind wander.  Don't let other thoughts intrude.

But what to concentrate on?  Well, what works 'best' varies from person to person, but the most commonly used focusses for concentration are:

  • A mantra – that is a word or phrase that you repeat to yourself over an over
  • An image – a symbol or a picture that you hold in your minds eye
  • A physical sensation – such as the feeling of your own breathing, or the sensation of your breath passing through your nostrils
  • An external object – typically a candle flame, often a person will close their eyes and continue to visualise it after a period

Our minds work differently and you may find that a steady visualisation is beyond you, where a mantra can hold your concentration easily.  The aim in all cases, however, is the same – keep your attention on what your are choosing to think about, to the exclusion of all else.  It's like drawing a line around the thoughts of a particular thing and saying 'my mind will not stray from within this line'.

It isn't easy, but it's possible.  I've found that people fail at meditate for two contradictory reasons – some assume that it will be so difficult that they could never succeed and therefore never try.  Others think it should be really easy and when they find they "can't do it" they become disheartened and stop trying.  Meditation can be done – but it does take quite a bit of focussed practice.  The chances of you succeeding in keeping your thoughts focussed for thirty minutes on your first try is practically zero.  In fact I've been doing this for years and if I've not been meditating regularly I count myself lucky if I can hold my attention firm for the duration of a single breath!

But, like so many things, it gets better with practice.  See also my post on the stage of meditation – on any given session it may take you some time to 'get there' so you have to be prepared to give yourself that time.

As with anything else in life – don't be harsh with yourself if you aren't doing too well.  Some day you might have a great session, the next day a terrible session – accept this. As you practice more regularly you will probably find that you have more good sessions and fewer bad – but the bad sessions will still happen.  If you've been particularly busy, stressed, worried or involved in something that's been really exciting you may find it very difficult to 'switch off' and meditate.  But it gets easier with practice.

What to expect –

At first your mind will probably leap and jump all over the place.  You may find yourself remembering random things that need your attention, thinking of what you were doing yesterday, planning for tomorrow.

In fact, let me give you a sense of what it's like being in my head on an average day when I try to start meditating:
"Right, time to meditate, time to think about my breath and only my breath… what time do I have to see my client tomorrow?  It's 2pm, so that means I'll have to make sure I've started lunch by 1pm,  so that'll give me enough time to…  Argh! Meditating!  Just my breath… 'You've been driving around town with the girl I love, and I'm like, f-' Argh!  Not singing, meditating!  Just the breath… "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife."  What?  Why is that even in my head?  Meditation.  Just my breath…"

My minds capacity for playing me pieces of music and repeating back film quotes whilst I'm trying to meditate never ceases to amaze me.  But it does slow and stop with time and my focus improves.  Eventually I can get my mind to settle for longer and longer periods, and then – magic! – it will settle and hold on to a single concept seemingly without effort.  And that feels terrific.

But… don't expect that to happen on your first session.  Or your second.  Or your third.  Meditation is a skill and it takes quite a lot of practice.  The results are great though.

As your meditation becomes more stable you will generally find yourself slipping away into what can be thought of as a trance.  This tends to feel good physically – often your body will feel warm and relaxed, feelings of 'bliss' are not uncommon.  You will reach a level of calm and ease which can be extremely pleasant.  You may even get 'vision' – vivid images coming to mind for no readily apparent reason.  Don't let these distract you – just stick with what you are doing and stay focussed.

Finally, ending –

When you start out I would suggest that a thirty minute period of meditation works about best – it gives you time to settle, but doesn't put too much pressure on you.  Some people use a timer to keep track of how long they've been meditating, so that it will ring and 'call them back' when they are done.  Personally this doesn't work for me as if I know an alarm is going to go off I find I keep waiting for it and expecting it, wondering how long I've got left, and that's a distraction.  I trust my own internal sense of time and find I'm alarmingly accurate at 'bringing myself back' at the time I've decided – often to the minute.

With more experience longer sessions will become appealing, so trust your judgement.  Don't 'rush' to re-emerge, particularly after a long session.  Slowly turn your awareness to the 'outside world' – notice any sounds in the background, think about where you are and what's around you, 'check in' with your body by moving your awareness from the top of your head downwards across your whole body.  Then, when you are fully aware of your surroundings, start to move – slowly and gently at first.  Rushing to 'come back' won't do you any harm but can give you a slight sense of vertigo or being a bit 'dislocated' from reality for a few minutes, so I recommend taking your time.

And really, that's it.  Meditation is about sitting and maintaining focus.  But it's a skill that takes practice, so do it in the circumstances that are as helpful to your success as possible.

3 Responses to "How to meditate"

  1. indiepixel says:

    lol Love your examples of where your mind goes. The most random thoughts will come the moment one tries to meditate!

  2. Ashlie says:

    I love those examples too. Our minds are madness lol
    I can appreciate your method here too. I think all the extra mumbo jumbo kooky methods are annoying even if they work. I would become more distracted trying to keep it all straight.
    This simple way works for me.

  3. Cosmo says:

    Just started looking into meditation and this was the first that appealed to me. No woo and no b.s. trying to claim privileged knowledge – seriously, I can't stand 'new age' mentality, though I'm more than open minded about studying subjective reality objectively so this was refreshing. Great site.

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