The Practice of Meditation: A Beginner’s Guide
The advantages of meditation are numerous, with the most commonly researched benefits being reduced stress, decreased anxiety, increased focus, improved sleep and emotional well-being.
While meditation is involved in many different spiritual practices and traditions throughout the world, there are two main types commonly practiced in Buddhism. There is a type of meditation that involves stopping, focusing and calming—samatha meditation, and there is a type that involves looking deeply and cultivating insight—vipassana meditation. The practice of stopping and calming is the most foundational practice of Buddhist meditation, and that is our goal today.
The most basic way to begin a meditation practice is to focus on our breathing. Focusing on the breath is simple and easily accessible. Our breath is free, we can take it anywhere with us, and we do not need to have any spiritual or religious affiliation to practice breath meditation.
A basic, beginners guide to breath meditation:
- Find a quiet, peaceful environment where you won’t be disturbed.
- Take a seated posture. This can be sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion, a pillow or a yoga block, or it can be sitting upright in a chair.
If you’re in a chair, make sure that your feet are flat on the ground. Your hands can be resting on your lap. It is important to keep an upright back, with your chest open, so that you can be alert but also relaxed. We do not want our back to be slouched or our chest to be caved in, lest we fall asleep. This same posture applies when sitting cross-legged on a cushion, except you’ll want to generally have both knees touching the ground (or close to it).
Some prefer to keep their eyes gently open, while others prefer to have them closed for a more introspective meditation. If you are feeling sleepy, it may be best to keep your eyes open. If you’re feeling overstimulated, it may be calming to keep them closed.
- Next, simply notice your breath, saying to yourself: “Breathing in, I am aware I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware I am breathing out.”
- Continue as long as you’d like.
Some like to continue like this, while others prefer to count their breath for a more active meditation. To do this, when you breathe in, silently count “one.” Breathing out, count “one.” In, ”two,” out, “two.” Continue like this until you reach 10, and then start over.
If you lose track of the number you’re on, that’s okay. Once you become aware that you’ve lost track, simply start back at zero.The goal is not to count your breath perfectly, but simply to notice when your mind is wandering and bring it back to focus on your breathing.
A few common questions:
- How long is long enough for a meditation session?
- Am I meditating correctly?
- Should I stop thinking when I meditate?
This is a common misconception. It’s actually impossible to stop thinking—if we did, we would be brain-dead. Because the function of our brain is to think, the actual aim of meditation is not to stop thinking, but to refocus our thoughts. When our mind wanders (and it will wander), the actual act of meditation is noticing and reeling it back to your point of focus—without judgement. Imagine this “reeling back” to be the mental weight lifting for your brain.
- What is the right way to establish a regular meditation practice?
Imagine a jar filled with muddy water. The jar has been shaken, and the dirt and sediment is floating around in the water, making it cloudy and brown so we can’t see through it. If you can set the jar on the counter for five or ten minutes, the mud and sediment will settle down to the bottom, leaving the water on top beautifully, crystal clear.
Imagine that this jar is us as we run around our daily lives doing all the things we need to do. If we constantly kept on running, our mind would be brown and murky…things would constantly be kicked up.
Meditation is the act of becoming still long enough to allow our mind to settle down and become crystal clear. Cultivating a daily meditation practice, or as often as you can manage, can be a beautiful way for us to regularly experience clarity within ourselves.
So, any way you can manage to include meditation into your life—whether that means downloading an app, setting a daily reminder on your phone or asking a friend to hold you accountable—is the right way.
If you could use the support of our master’s-level clinicians in learning how to meditate, gaining greater awareness of your thoughts and emotions or simply reaching your mental health and wellness goals, please contact our client care team confidentially.