Something I keep hearing from friends when they find out I meditate is that it’s not for them because they “can’t clear their mind.” The thing is, that’s not really what you’re trying to do. Our brains are machines designed to generate thoughts, there’s no use trying to stop it. The purpose of meditation isn’t to stop thinking; it’s to change the relationship you have with your thoughts and feelings.
The way you get there is by regularly practicing being present with those thoughts and feelings so that you can learn to let them go when they arise. Most of the time when we encounter feelings we don’t like we want to get away from it as quickly as possible. Someone who is practicing mindfulness might try to stay with that feeling, understand what it is, and then gently let it go. When we haven’t been practicing mindfulness, it appears that emotions are something happening to us that we can’t control. We tend to embody the thing that we’re feeling right now instead of recognizing it for what it is or ever examining it.
Learning to relate to ourselves in this way isn’t easy, and it isn’t particularly fast either. It does, however, have the chance to make a lasting and positive impact on our personalities and lives. If there are two things I’ve discovered so far that help the most, it’s first to be always gentle with yourself, and second to be consistent in your practice.
Learning to be gentle with other people is important too, but you have to start with yourself. That means no negative self-talk, and not getting upset with yourself if meditation was hard today or you let yourself get caught up in emotion. The only way to do meditation wrong is not to do it. Any day that you sit is a good day, and if you missed a day, that’s okay too. Start fresh tomorrow. Being hard on yourself is never going to fix what’s already happened, and it’s not going to encourage you to continue either, so don’t do it. Instead, use it as a chance to do better the next time by understanding what happened.
Remember: this is supposed to be hard. If developing mindfulness were natural, you wouldn’t need to sit, because you’d already have it. Weirdly, you do already have everything you need to be mindful, but getting in touch with that in a different story.
Being consistent is also incredibly valuable. As best you can, try to sit every day. Meditation has made the most significant impact on me when I’m the most consistent. There are days I’m able to sit for forty minutes, and there are days that I only get ten, but I do make sure that it happens every day. Some days my mind goes crazy, and sometimes I sort of lose awareness and drift off, but I do sit, and over time I’m making progress. That’s all that matters. It’s a lifelong process. What happens one day or the next isn’t what matters. What matters is coming back it over and over again for weeks, months, years, and decades.
If you want to start meditating, and you’re not sure how, I can tell you what’s been working for me, but please remember I am not an expert by any means. I do have some recommendations:
You don’t need to pay for a guided meditation app. If you want an app for timing that syncs with Apple Health and tracks your progress, get Insight Timer. It’s free, there are some community features I like, and it works well.
Read some books. Learning about the philosophy behind this stuff helps deepen your practice and keeps you motivated. If you’re looking for a short one to start, try Sit Like a Buddha by Lodro Rinzler. It’s specifically about getting started establishing a meditation practice. I also like Alan Watts quite a bit and think The Wisdom of Insecurity is a great place to start. Zen Mind, Beginners Mind is one that I read a couple of years ago, probably didn’t understand that well, and need to read again.
Basic Meditation Instructions
While keeping in mind that you should get your information from someone who’s qualified to teach, here’s the straightforward meditation practice that I do (the same one you’ll learn in Sit Like a Buddha):
- Sit crossed legged on the floor using a cushion to elevate your pelvis slightly above your hips. If that's not comfortable, use a chair.
- Sit up with your back straight, and tilt your head forward slightly. If it helps, imagine a chain pulling you up from the crown of your head and then releasing you your spine stacks up. If you're in a chair, try not to rest against the back if it.
- Gaze a few feet in front of you with your eyes open. The term people use here for your gaze is “soft focus.” You don't want to go cross-eyed, but you're also not boring a hole in the floor. Just be relaxed.
- Place the tip of your tongue against your front teeth, and relax your jaw, so your mouth is slightly open.
- Rest your hands comfortably on your legs.
- Start your timer. Begin by focusing on your breath wherever you feel it -- nostrils, the expansion of your stomach or chest, etc. You want to get into the physical sensation of breathing.
- Continue to breathe naturally. Try to stay with that. If you catch yourself following a thought, recognize it, say the word “thinking” to yourself in your head, and gently let it go. If it keeps happening, that's okay, don't be hard on yourself. If it helps you, try counting with every out breath up to seven, and then start over.
- Continue until the time is up.
That’s all. It doesn’t need to be complicated; you just have to do it every day. Try to get up to twenty minutes, but if ten is more comfortable to start, do that. If ten is too hard, try five and work your way up. It will get easier.