After I posted the results for my 30 day meditation challenge, several readers have asked me for a guide on how to get started themselves.
So here’s a quick guide that includes all the things I would have wanted and needed to know when I was starting out meditating, including the basics of meditation, common beginner’s mistakes and how to make the meditation habit stick.
1. The Basics of Meditation
Meditation might be new and foreign to you, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. With these simple guidelines, you can be meditating in just a few minutes.
- Find a comfortable spot in a place that’s relatively peaceful and quiet. Sit on the floor, on a cushion or on a chair with your hands in your lap. Don’t slouch, just sit normally. The key is to find a position that’s comfortable for you.
- If some part of you itches, now is the time to scratch it. Once the meditation period starts, the objective is to stay physically completely still throughout and you are to leave any itch you may develop alone.
- You are now ready to meditate. Set a timer for 10 minutes and close your eyes or focus on a spot in front of you (I prefer eyes closed). Breathe normally, and all you need to do is just be aware of your own breathing. That’s all.
- Within 10-20 seconds (or even less!), you’ll probably notice your first thoughts appear. This is not only normal, it’s inevitable. Just make a quick mental note that you’re thinking, let go of the thought and redirect your focus back on your breathing.
- Continue focusing on your breathing until your timer goes off.
As you can see, meditation really is a profoundly simple exercise. For those impatient to try meditation, you can try it right now, but I would strongly encourage you to read the following parts about common mistakes and how to make the habit stick before you dive in.
2. Avoid These Rookie Mistakes
Although meditation is a profoundly simple exercise, sometimes its simplicity belies the many pitfalls practitioners often face when they are first getting started.
Here’s a brief list of the most common pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Don’t Regulate Your Breathing
A common beginner’s mistake is to regulate your breathing instead of just observing it. In the beginning, when I focused on my breathing, I’d subconsciously start controlling and accentuating each breath. If you catch yourself regulating your breathing, just relax and let go of any need to control it. Try not to force your breathing; let it happen naturally with you merely an observer of the process.
“Am I doing it exactly right?”
When you are first getting started in meditation, it may be hard to know if you are doing everything exactly the way it should be done. For many, this causes feelings of self doubt and frustration. If you aren’t doing it exactly the way it should be done, then surely you are at least in part failing at it, right? Wrong. Any technique someone describes to you will initially feel alien and difficult when you first try it out, so don’t worry if you aren’t sure how everything is supposed to go. In the beginning, all you need to do is focus on your breathing, and every time your mind wanders elsewhere (and it will), just bring it back. Over and over again. The rest will take care of itself.
A Tense Body Makes a Tense Mind
One of the most common obstacles to relaxing our minds in meditation is that our body may still be tense. Since the mind and the body are connected, a tense body will keep the mind from achieving an optimal state of relaxation.
Luckily, there’s a quick way to get your body relaxed before you start your meditation. After you sit down in the position in which you will meditate (but before starting the actual meditation), take a moment to make sure every part of your body is relaxed. Start by focusing on your head and neck. Move them around a little bit to make sure they are relaxed. Then move down to your back, chest and arms, and keep going until you finally relax your ankles and feet. The whole process shouldn’t take more than a minute.
Your Mind Will Wander, And It’s Ok
Many beginners get frustrated when they don’t seem to be able to focus on their breathing all that well. It makes them feel that every time their mind wanders, they are somehow failing at meditation and that makes them feel frustrated, dejected or angry.
This way of thinking misses a very important point about meditation: it’s not about being able to focus perfectly; it’s about correcting the focus by returning back to the breathing every time the mind wanders elsewhere. This process of not allowing your mind to roam free and wild is your main concern.
It doesn’t matter if your mind wanders 5 times or 100 times during the 10 minutes. What matters is that you bring it back to your breathing each time. Over time, you’ll get better at it, and that means your focus as well as your ability to concentrate and control your mind are improving.
3. How to Make Meditation a Habit (And Not Just a One Week Fling)
Here’s the part that most meditation guides skip, and it’s why I failed the first half a dozen times I tried to start meditating: in order to get the meditation habit to stick, you need to find something pleasurable in it.
The ultimate pitfall for any beginning meditator is to focus on the time left on the clock. If you meditate with the objective of trying to survive meditation for 10 minutes (or whatever amount of time you’ve designated for yourself), I promise you will not have a very enjoyable experience. Your mind will be constantly impatient and anxious instead of relaxing in the moment, and when the 10 minutes is over, you’ll be tired and relieved rather than focused and relaxed.
The most effective way to make meditation an enjoyable experience is to start thinking about it in a way that makes it seem fun and enjoyable as opposed to just another thing you need to do every day.
To help you find something to look forward to in each meditation session, here are a few suggestions on how to approach them:
- Think of meditation as a warm bath for the mind or a small vacation from the chaos of your thoughts. I often use this image when I notice myself being a bit too intense for the meditation and needing to relax a bit more.
- Another popular way of thinking about meditation is to think of it as defragging your personal hard drive so that it will be able to think faster and more clearly throughout the day. After all, it’s true.
- You can also think about the fact that the practice of meditation has been shown to strengthen the prefrontal cortex of your brain. Yes, that’s the prefrontal cortex that controls your impulses and will-power, thus making you almost instantly more resistant to bumps in your road.
I hope this guide is helpful in starting your new meditation habit and sticking to it. Let me know if you have any other tips that will make meditation easier and more fun in the beginning!