Meditation for beginners is not as daunting as you may think.
A few simple meditation exercises will get you on your way. We’ll keep out any dogma or religious iconography and focus on what’s most important when learning meditation techniques: mindfulness and focus.
What are the benefits of meditation?
“I feel calmer.” “I handle stress better.” “I’m generally happier.” These may be some of the subjective statements you might hear from people who meditate regularly. But what about something more concrete? I think this is a particularly good description of the benefits:
“Neuroscientists have found that meditators shift their brain activity to different areas of the cortex – brain waves in the stress-prone right frontal cortex move to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. There is also less activity in the amygdala, where the brain processes fear.”
– from Psychology Today
Some good, science based information that ought to inspire some learning how to meditate. The next logical question is, how long did the participants in that study have to practice before those benefits were realized. Only eight weeks. That’s a very short amount of time to get such great benefits.
How long have you been running around stressed and exhausted?
Is it more than eight weeks? I’ll bet it has been! If you can reduce your levels of stress and anxiety; if you can increase your calm and your ability to reduce feelings of fear; and if you can do this all in only 8 short weeks, doesn’t this sound like a great practice to start?
Starting is easy. Just sit down and breathe.
It may sound totally cliched or even corny that breathing is meditating, but that is quite literally the exact directions for the first, foundational and most important meditation for beginners.
Start by sitting in a comfortable position. What you find a “comfortable position” doesn’t matter. Sure, when you see pictures of people meditating, they’re sitting on the ground in a cross legged position. And that is good and in the deeper practices of meditation there are benefits to sitting in what’s called the “Vajra” posture. But what if you’re at work sitting at a desk? Can’t you meditate there? Yes! You absolutely can. So don’t get hung up on your seated position. Just make sure you’ve got about 10 minutes of uninterrupted time and that you can stay in the position comfortable for those 10 minutes.
I don’t recommend closing your eyes. Again, this is something you see a lot in modern pictures of people meditating. But in the most accomplished of Tibetan meditators, eyes remain open. The Vajra posture I mentioned earlier is specifically with the eyes open. Having the eyes open in meditation for beginners could actually be a little challenging, but closing your eyes tends to lead to more, not less, mental distraction and a feeling of sleepiness in beginners. Ultimately, you want to keep your gaze soft, kind of unfocused. In the beginning however, it may help to have an object of focus for the eyes, and that’s fine. If you find your eyes wandering all over the place, place something in front of yourself, but below the level of the nose, to gaze at.
Then… breathe. All nasal breathing, please. Count 21 exhales. As you do, focus on the feeling of the air on the tip of your nose.
A very important detail about breathing in shamatha/mindfulness meditation is to not affect your breathing. If you feel like you’re not breathing “properly”, it doesn’t matter. Just. Breathe. Also, don’t add anything else to your meditation. Don’t worry about timing your breathing or adding any other breathing exercise concepts. Just. Breathe. Count your breaths, but don’t affect them.
Congratulations! You’re now a meditator.
Wasn’t that easy? Not daunting at all. No weirdness. Nothing exotic. After all, if meditation for beginners was too difficult, how many people would ever move beyond step 1?
Do you want to advance your practice? After you count 21 breaths, shake yourself out, look around a little bit, then do it again.
Even though I do semi-advanced and specifically Buddhist meditation practices, I do this very basic meditation multiple times a week and I’ll do three cycles of 21 breaths. It’s the root and foundation of all practices and it’s always good to strengthen your foundation.