How to meditate: a beginner’s guide

Compared to monks or even long-term meditations, I am still a beginner myself than monks or even long-term meditations. In a sense, a meditator is always a beginner; the goal of meditation is to learn to keep a beginner’s mind.  Think of the Dunning-Kruger effect:

When you first start, your confidence skyrockets and before you know it, you are the best meditator that ever sat. Then, the mirror shatters, and you realize that you have completely missed the plot, and you are ready to start developing a meditative practice. 

By reading this guide, I hope that you will be able to develop your meditation practice and learn to keep a beginner’s mind, which I have written about in my previous post. You need to make a habit out of it, and the rest will come naturally. 

I assume you already want to make meditation a daily habit. I feel you. When I first got started, I was doing more sleeping than meditating. I still need to be careful about boredom and sleep creep in. 

To get started, you will need:

  • A timer
  • A quiet space
  • Something to sit on
Meditation timers

There are many free meditation timer apps available, but the one I have used since the beginning is Insight Timer. It is easy to navigate, highly flexible, has no ads and has sounds you can listen to if you are meditating in a loud environment. 

I know there are others, but this one works well for me, so I have never bothered to look. They also have free guided meditations if you want some help to get started. 

It doesn’t matter what you use so long as a gentle bell marks the end of your meditation. The last thing you want after a tranquil meditation is to hear the sound of your alarm clock. Those things are designed to be as irritating as possible. 

Where to sit

The easiest way to make meditation a habit is always to do it in the same place. If possible, reserve a particular space for meditating. You don’t need a private meditation chamber; most of us don’t have a room we can dedicate only to meditation. 

There are multiple ways to transform a regular space into a meditation space. If you always sit at the same chair at the dinner table, sit in someone else’s spot for your meditation, or simply turn the chair to face a different direction. The benefit of this simple step is that it changes your habit from difficult to easy, and this is how you can accomplish anything

Instead of having a meditation habit – a hard activity – you develop a turning the chair habit  – an easy activity. Experiment with different chairs or move the chair around the room until you find a location dedicated to meditation and easy to access.

When I was living in a hostel, I had a particular spot on the couch where I would sit every morning. As you can imagine, it’s hard to find an isolated place at a hostel, but it was perfect because it was always available at that time. 

Currently, I use a meditation bench on a yoga mat. Benches benefit from being comfortable while not requiring much time to set it up or storage space when not in use. I highly recommend investing in one of these if you succeed at making meditation a habit.

How to sit

There are five possible positions for seated meditation; in increasing levels of comfort, they are:

Full-Lotus

Most of the literature wants you to meditate in the lotus position. This position involves you sitting on a cushion and folding your legs into a pretzel with both your feet crossed in the folds of your knees.

Half-Lotus

For the half-lotus position, you have one leg in the fold of your knee and the other in front. This one can be more comfortable for some people, so feel free to try it. While I find this position comfortable for short periods, my legs go numb when I try to hold it for more than ten minutes, so I tend to avoid it for extended meditations. 

Kneeling

The kneeling position is my personal favourite. When you kneel on one of these benches, such as the lotus craft bench, the angle of the stool causes actively engages your back straightening your spin and making your posture automatically suitable. The downside of kneeling is that it requires buying or making a meditation bench which can be inhibitory if you are just getting started. [These are also referred to as prayer benches.]

Sitting

Sitting on a chair is the best way to start a meditation practice. It requires no special equipment or the flexibility to make a leg pretzel. This is the position I would recommend for getting started. Key things to keep in mind when sitting is that you want to keep your back straight and engaged, and this will allow you to maintain the position over an extended period and prevent falling asleep. 

It can be tempting to sit on the couch with your feet up under a blanket – I know – I’ve done it frequently, but you are more likely to get sleepy when you are too comfortable during your meditation. Similarly, if you are too uncomfortable, you will be distracted by your discomfort and unable to go deep into your meditation. 

Laying

Laying is the most comfortable position in which to meditate, and although I drew a stickman for it, I doubt you need to be explained how to lay down. Please note that Mr. Stickman has his knees bent. While this does show his nice curves, it also serves a purpose during the meditation. 

Having your knees bent while laying down makes the position slightly less comfortable, which helps you to stave off sleep. It is all about balance; you want a position you can hold for extended periods without being so comfortable as to get sleepy. 

Sleepiness happens – don’t fight it

In Michael Pollan’s book How to change your mind, he describes “flight instructions” that you should read before taking psychedelics. These instructions outline something significant: “if you see a door – go through it; if you see a window – go through it.” 

Why am I talking about psychedelics in a meditation blog? Well, they are both paths to spirituality and should be approached similarly. When you feel sleepy, you have two options: stop the meditation or become curious about sleepiness. 

If you are exhausted, there is no point in meditating, so try again at another time. Alternatively, when you are sleepy due to boredom, you can use this sleepiness as your object of focus and become curious about it. When you observe how it feels to be sleepy, how it affects your body, something mysterious happens: you stop being sleepy. 

A stimulated mind is an awake mind; when you become curious about your sleepiness, you are stimulating your mind, thus making you less sleepy. But, if this doesn’t work, then you should end the meditation and take a ten-minute nap instead. 

Work with the natural rhythms of your body. When you are tired and try to force meditation, it will not work unless it is a sleep-inducing meditation. You can make meditating a part of your nighttime routine but do a dulled-down version of it; focus less on your breath and more on relaxing every part of your body. Like the one discussed in this article.

When I was first starting my meditation practice, I experimented a lot, figuring out how long to meditate and when. I eventually settled on a half-hour as part of my morning routine. I have the most energy in the morning and like the flexibility that the meditation gives me, but you might be different. Experiment with meditating at other times, and you will find the time that works best for you. 

How long should you meditate?

How long you meditate depends on what you want to achieve. Some people sit for two hours a day. While I applaud them, two hours is too much for me. I occasionally experiment with longer meditations but usually limit it to a half-hour. 

According to Chris Bailey in How to Train your Mind, you gain nine minutes of productivity for every minute of meditation. According to him – if you meditate for one minute, you will be able to complete an hour and nine minutes of work in an hour. 

This effect is subject to the law of diminishing returns, with a maximum productivity return occurring with a half-hour meditation. The productivity gained from meditating is due to the clarity that one feels when one meditates regularly. It is easy to be distracted when meditating, but with practice, you learn to focus, which, when transferred to the rest of your life, allows you to stay on task boosting your productivity. 

Though I now do a daily half-hour, I started with much less. Start with what you feel comfortable even if it is only three or five minutes, and work your way up. It should always be a slight challenge to sit for your chosen amount of time. 

If you feel that the bell rings too early, make it longer. If you are always cutting it short, then shorten it a bit. But be consistent and do it every day. 

The process of meditation

Meditating is easy, right? You need to think: “breath in,” “breath out.” That’s it!. It would be great to close your eyes and think “breath in” and “breath out” for the duration of your meditation, but that is extremely hard. 

Instead, there are steps you can take during your meditation to make it easier and more enjoyable. These include: 

Listening to your surroundings, smelling your environment, scanning your body, attentive breathing, listing gratitudes, wishing well to yourself and others can be meditations in and of themselves (aside from closing your eyes, that would be a brief meditation).

If you want to do them as stand-alone meditations – you can – I won’t stop you. But I have found that it can be helpful to give yourself some checkpoints when getting started. 

When running a marathon, you don’t think about the total distance the whole time; that would be demoralizing. Instead, you give yourself checkpoints, be it 1 km,  5 km, 10 km, halfway, or specific landmarks if you are familiar with your route. Breaking it down this way helps to make it more manageable. 

Do the same with your meditation, either with additional bells to let you know when to transition or simply by going at a rate that feels right. There is much more to meditation than I can cover in one blog post – considering that numerous books are written on the subject. I hope you can use this to get started and if you have any questions, please contact me. I would be happy to help you.

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