It can be frustrating trying to find clear, concrete, instructions on how to meditate and to make sure that what you are doing is effective, not wasting the tiny slot we can squeeze into our busy daily lives. It took me a while to make sense of the whole landscape and I wish that I had reached out to a teacher early on but to be honest finding a good teacher (who will speak to you for free) is not obvious either. Also, not knowing much about meditation, it was impossible to figure out what a ‘good’ teacher actually looks like. Two years later, I feel comfortable sharing some of what I have learnt and hopefully help anyone who would like to get started but is not sure how.
The key thing to know is that the process that unfolds during meditation is something that your mind and body naturally knows how to do. You just need to get yourself into the right state to allow this to happen. A bit like falling asleep, you don’t really know how you do it, but you lie down in bed, relax, close your eyes, etc. and get all the conditions just right for your body to fall asleep. Meditation is similar, the practices are aiming to get your mind and body into the right conditions for meditation to occur.
This is actually quite a liberating realisation since all you then have to do is dutifully follow the instructions and observe what happens, this doesn’t require you to interpret or understand the process. However, unlike sleep, to get your mind into the right state for meditation takes serious effort and perseverance. Meditation is not about sitting on the cushion and relaxing (although it will help you feel relaxed), it requires a continuous force of will to keep your attention on the meditation object. Since you are leveraging your brain’s plasticity to rewire it, the more effort and will power you employ, the faster this will happen. There is a balance here to be struck which is very important, meditation takes will power but should never feel like a chore or something you are straining to do. During the practice, cultivate a positive, excited, open and joyful state of mind. Smiling gently can help this as well as generally keeping your body and face relaxed. Your attention should be as focused as possible without creating any tension, stay positive and above all, be kind to yourself. Meditation should make you feel good, not frustrated!
Focused attention on the breath
The instructions below are for a breath focused attention practice, which is one of the most common and oldest practices and is the practice I recommend starting with. I say this because this practice will strengthen your ability to keep your attention on a single object which will have immediate positive impacts in your life and is an important foundation for other meditation practices. This incredibly simple (but not easy!) practice is all you will need for quite a long time.
When I started meditating I couldn’t believe how difficult it is to continuously direct your attention with control. We have the impression of being in control of our minds, but as soon as we sit down and try to put this into action it becomes very clear that we are going along for the ride more than we realise.
Many traditions will teach you that this or that way of sitting, lying down or standing is the only way to meditate. Whilst there are some benefits of being able to sit in these traditional postures, they are not at all necessary for you to meditate. The trick is to sit in a position that keeps your spine naturally straight and that is comfortable for long periods. Sitting on the edge of a chair works well, or cross legged with your bum on a cushion (like this one) and legs on the ground. Lying down can also be a great meditation posture, if you can avoid falling asleep. Most people find that difficult which is why it isn’t usually recommended, but if you can lie down and stay focused then go for it!
See if you can balance your posture so that it requires minimal muscular effort to maintain, your spine should follow it’s natural ‘S’ shape. Some people will find it difficult to sit comfortably, especially as you increase your meditation time. If that’s the case I recommend taking up yoga which will help loosen the muscles which are keeping you from sitting naturally. (In fact, the original purpose of hatha yoga was to teach you how to sit well for meditation!).
Sitting comfortably will reduce the distractions of pain in your body, make you less adverse to practicing and help your mind get into a meditative state. Don’t worry if you’re not comfortable to begin with, over time the practice will guide you into a more natural position as you relax your body.
What to do
Begin your session by gently closing your eyes and taking a few moments to consciously relax your body as much as you can (without falling over). Let go of any tension hiding in your muscles that was going unnoticed. Breathe naturally from the belly.
It is a great idea to then take a moment to reaffirm to yourself your intention to meditate; that you are going to do your best to keep your attention focussed during this time. Remind yourself that you have set aside this time to meditate and that nothing else has to be resolved or dealt with. Make a little promise to yourself that you are going to do your best to continue for the entire length of the session despite how restless/bored future-you may feel. I find that this is the number one thing that improves the quality of a sit and helps getting into the practice more quickly. It can also help to remind yourself why you are meditating; whether it’s to reduce stress, to learn more about yourself, to gain better control over your mind, be a better person for the people around you or even to reach enlightenment. Knowing why you are sitting down will motivate you and help unify your mind around the intention to meditate.
With this resolve in mind, gradually bring your attention to the feeling of air coming in and out of your nose and do your best to be aware of each sensation that constitutes a breath. At every instant, try to have the feeling of the breath at the nostrils be at the forefront of your mind.
Let your breathing occur naturally without controlling it, instead just watch the breath come and go as if you were inside a cave, separate from the rain you are watching outside. If you find yourself controlling the breath, a good trick is to fully exhale, then relax and watch as your body naturally inhales by itself without you deciding to.
Inevitably, thoughts will come in and take your attention away which is to be expected and totally normal. It is noticing when your attention wonders and then bringing it back to the breath which does the work in meditation. Do not make the mistake of being annoyed at yourself when you notice this. Instead, give yourself a mental high-five every time you notice and gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This process will feel a bit like standing on a train platform with the intention of staying put and then suddenly finding yourself on a train having already traveled several miles. The goal is to stay on the platform and not let your trains of thought take you away. However, don’t try to suppress your thoughts, it’s basically impossible and will start to feel like you’re fighting against yourself. Instead just watch the train go by the platform (labelling it with a word like memory, planning, thinking, etc. can help you stay separate from the content which risks carrying you away) and keep your attention on the breath.
Pro tip: Counting your breaths at the end of each exhale can help anchor your attention. How far you get before forgetting what number you were at can be a good indicator of your state of mind. When you reach 10, start again from 1 and repeat until you feel confident that you no longer need the anchor.
All you need to do is ‘simply’ repeat this process of noticing and bringing the attention back and over time you will observe a number of benefits. The most obvious is the ability to keep your focus and attention on one thing and not be as affected by distractions. You will also notice a reduced tendency to let your thoughts and actions be carried away by your emotions. Maybe next time someone cuts you off in the car, instead of getting frustrated and arriving at work in a bad mood, you’ll simply see the train go by the station and remain calm.
How long for?
Since you are rewiring your brain, the longer the better to be totally honest. However, to begin with, sitting for more than 10 minutes can feel like torture and can be frustrating enough to stop you from wanting to meditate again. The most important (and often most difficult) thing is to establish a regular practice. So even if it’s only 5 minutes, if you can set aside a bit of time everyday, you’ve overcome the most challenging part. Having a space set up that is only for meditation can help, in the same way that your body associates your bed with sleep, a consistent mediation space can help you get into the right mindset more easily.
The benefits you will start to see from your practice will make getting yourself to do it easier over time. So perseverance is key when starting out! Slowly, you will naturally increase the time. Reaching 20 minutes is a great accomplishment if you can do that everyday and increasing to 45 minutes will mean you will notice benefits more quickly.
I recommend using a meditation timer (check out Insight Timer) so you don’t have an excuse to distract yourself by looking at the time. Also, regular bells (e.g. every 10min) can be a good way to remind you that you’re meant to meditating.
Difficult, but valuable, experiences
As you continue to focus your mind on the breath, you may experience a number of interesting phenomena including strange or difficult thoughts and emotions or sensations moving around your body. These are not always talked about but I think they are important to be aware of, so that when your ‘demons’ start bubbling to the surface or you feel any strong bodily sensations, they don’t freak you out.
For the most part, the best advice is to simply observe what is arising whilst maintaining a strong sense of compassion towards yourself and continue practicing if you can without getting distracted. Concentration practices can sometimes bring to the surface deep emotions and long-held memories. Often these are things that are hanging around at the back of your mind even if you don’t notice them. It can be a memory of a bad event or an action that has created guilt, which you are still holding onto in some way. These are usually things we would rather not think about and that are being consciously or subconsciously repressed. Focusing on the breath distracts this repression and skeletons are sometimes set free.
These moments should be seen a great gift and a fantastic opportunity to lighten the emotional load weighing you down. The trick is to do your best to welcome it, observe it in a detached and compassionate way, let the emotions run their course, then let it go and return to the breath. Try to avoid getting sucked into the content of the thought – self-compassion and forgiveness are key.
Sometimes the release of a difficult emotion can have a physical aspect associated to it, as if your body is holding onto it. In those cases, it can be helpful to move your awareness to the physical sensation and focus on releasing the tension. This can help you avoid getting carried away in the content of the emotion. It can feel as if you were unknowingly clenching a hot coal in your hand and meditation slowly allowed you to notice this and release the coal that was causing you pain unnecessarily.
With that disclaimer out of the way, I hope these instructions have been helpful and wish you all the best in establishing your own practice. If you’re still skeptical, remember that these practices have been around for a very long time because they work, but of course don’t take my word for it, go and see for yourself!
Thank you for reading this far! If you have any questions or can think of any important points I have missed, please put them in the comments below. If you’re looking for even more detailed instructions and guidance, absolutely check out The Mind Illuminated by John Yates (aka Culadasa) which breaks down all the obstacles you can encounter and strategies for overcoming them.
TLDR: Smile and sit comfortably with your spine straight, focus on the feeling breath at your nose and bring your awareness back each time your mind wanders. Continue for 10-45min. If any difficult feelings come up, use self compassion to let them go and continue practicing. Enjoy!