Meditation: A Beginner’s Guide
I’ve spoken to quite a few people who tell me they’d love to meditate if only they knew how. They assume there’s some trick to it, or they worry they’ll fall asleep if they sit still for too long. They compare their bumbling limbs and inability to stay still to the Zen masters in Hollywood movies – those personifications of ease and grace and calm – and judge themselves inferior. And while it is true that meditation, like most things, is perfected with practice over time, and that some proper technique is helpful, in its essence it’s as simple as breathing in and out.
SEE ALSO: Finding Spirituality In The Soil
Position Your Body
Start with positioning your body. Already at this stage, it can be disheartening to realize that you can’t quite get your legs into the ‘proper’ meditation pose, in which both feet must somehow rest on your thighs. I’ve never been able to do it, no matter how hard I jerk and twist and almost dislocate my limbs. Don’t worry if you can’t do it either; there’s no one way to meditate. The reason you’ve seen so many people do it like that is that it takes the weight off their ankles so that they can sit for long periods of time. The important thing is to find a position that works for you, in other words, one that won’t become unbearable after ten minutes and make you start fidgeting and rearranging yourself.
I like using a meditation cushion (which is a worthwhile investment if you’re looking to meditate regularly), sitting down on it but with my knees resting on the floor ahead of me, so that it looks like I’m kneeling. The cushion takes the weight off my body, which stops my legs from aching or going numb, and the position keeps my back straight, which eases the flow of air.
Relax and Breathe
Once you’ve found a comfortable position and your back is straight, you can begin meditating. You might want to close your eyes, but this is not necessary. Though I usually meditate eyes closed, I sometimes find that keeping them open helps me stay grounded and stops my mind from drifting. Let your arms rest on your thighs or between your legs, with your palms upturned and your thumb and forefinger touching lightly, but not clenching or clasping. Leave your mouth slightly open to relax your jaw.
Inhale, slowly and deeply. Do not suck or gasp at the air, or try to force your breathing in any way, as this will make your body tense. Rather, take your time and notice the air entering your body and filling your lungs. Notice how good it feels to be alive and breathing. Feel your stomach rise. Hold the air inside you for a moment, and then exhale gently, feeling your stomach fall and the air leave your body. Do this again, breathing in, holding it, and breathing out. Listen to the sound of the air flowing in and out of you.
Feel your body ease as you exhale. You might find that meditating to music helps you stay in the zone — YouTube and Spotify have excellent playlists and soundtracks for meditating. Or it might help to repeat a phrase or mantra in your head. I recommend one by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: as you inhale, say to yourself “I know that I am breathing in”, and as you exhale, “I know that I am breathing out”. This will help to keep your mind clear and focused.
Let Your Thoughts Wander
If your thoughts start to drift after a while, don’t let this frustrate you. Nobody meditates perfectly the first time any more than one plays a perfect concerto the first time they sit at a piano. Meditation is a skill that requires practice. And, just as with practicing any other skill, you will have good and bad days. Some days you will barely manage a few in and out breaths before some niggling worry creeps into your conscious mind. Other days you’ll be able to go for a long time with no distractions. Some days you’ll find it just doesn’t work.
You’re tired, stressed, your head is full, and just when you think you’ve found the perfect time to sit and meditate, you close your eyes and find yourself thinking about emails, deadlines, taking out the rubbish, feeding the cat — anything except breathing in and out. When you find your mind wandering like this, accept it as a natural part of meditation. Don’t contend with unwelcome thoughts; let them into your conscious mind, acknowledge them, and then let them float on without following them further. Place yourself back in the present moment by saying to yourself, “I am aware that my thoughts are beginning to drift”, just as you were aware of breathing in and out. Then focus once again on your breathing. This is easier said than done, but with regular practice, you will find that you become better at controlling your thoughts and clearing your mind.
Above all, enjoy yourself. Meditation shouldn’t feel like a chore. Don’t worry if you don’t feel enlightened after one session, or even after five or ten or fifty sessions. That shouldn’t be your aim, to begin with. Meditation is about grounding yourself in the present, and you can do this simply by being aware of your breathing. After some time, you might notice some benefits after meditating regularly. Meditation has been shown to improve sleep and memory, reduce stress, aid the immune system and strengthen the synapses in your brain. I’ve found that after meditating I am better in social situations, more able to relax and devote my full attention to the people around me.
You’ll find, as I do, that the central aim of meditation — being present — can be applied to everyday matters in this way. This is known as ‘mindfulness’: being invested in what is happening right here, right now without reservation or restraint. Hopefully, over time, finding time to meditate and practicing mindfulness will enrich your daily life by gradually de-cluttering your waking mind until what remains is, simply, the most fundamental fact of existence: I am.
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