"Meditation is all about the pursuit of nothingness. It's like the ultimate rest. It's better than the best sleep you've ever had. It's a quieting of the mind. It sharpens everything, especially your appreciation of your surroundings. It keeps life fresh."
"There are techniques of Buddhism, such as meditation, that anyone can adopt."
- The Dalai Lama
"Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work."
- Thich Nhat Hanh
Get the How to Meditate for Beginners PDF (the complete guide in a beautiful PDF format) free by entering your name and email below:
- What is Meditation?
- Why Should I Meditate?
- How to Meditate
- Walking Meditation
- Other Forms of Meditation
- What's the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Additional Resources
What is Meditation?
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and by people all across the world. There are many different forms of meditation and so it can seem difficult to nail down exactly what meditation really is. But, ultimately, they all come down to one major idea:
A mental technique characterized by absorption of the mind on an object (either mental or physical) and used to develop or maintain a state of mind.
When I say absorption, I mean primarily the mind becoming completely and utterly concentrated or focused on that particular object or objects. It's that absorption which is the central characteristic of meditation. No matter what form of meditation, this complete absorption of the mind on something is there.
Also, you don't even have to be sitting down to meditate. Mindfulness, the central component nearly of all Buddhist meditation techniques and schools, particularly Zen and Vipassana, is essentially keeping one's attention alive to the present moment.
For that reason, mindfulness can be done anywhere and at any time. Sitting, walking, driving, eating, and cleaning are all great examples of effective mindfulness activities. Simply practicing mindfulness is itself a form of meditation.
That isn't to say that anything can replace sitting in meditation though. "Sitting meditation", as the simple practice of sitting and practicing meditation is typically called, is the most concentrated of meditative exercises. Sitting meditation allows the practitioner to attain the highest state of absorption, or the deepest states of meditation (simply put, it's more effective), and is therefore practiced more than anything else.
How to Meditate for Beginners will cover the most basic and fundamental of all meditation practices: the practice of mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness meditation is a form of Buddhist meditation, having originated more than 2,500 years ago with the Buddha in the area around India and Nepal, and it has remained the central meditation practice for all Buddhists up to the modern day (Buddhist meditation techniques being the most popular, well-known, and highly developed of all meditative practices).
To learn more about mindfulness, read What is Mindfulness? A Guide to Mindfulness Meditation.
Why Should I Meditate?
So, why should you even bother meditating? Meditation is the practice of looking deeply. Looking deeply into ourselves and the world around us. Overall, it allows us to realize the fundamental ingredients for peace and happiness.
Meditation essentially has two major purposes:
- Complete Rest and Relaxation - A full recharge of the body. A fully rested and totally peaceful state beyond what sleep can give us.
- Deep Insight - Once complete rest and relaxation is attained, the realization of wisdom (receiving insight) is the next stage. This is the ultimate purpose of meditation and what leads to discovering true peace, happiness and freedom.
The benefits of meditation are vast, to say the least. The major benefit is as the master tool in the practice of attaining true peace and happiness. This is because meditation is both the practice of receiving deep insight and total rest, both which help contribute greatly to our continued peace and happiness.
On top of that, scientific research has begun showing other benefits as well, making it invaluable for optimum health and overall mental and physical performance.
1. Total Rest
This first benefit is why meditation is becoming increasingly popular in the West. I love this explanation by Thich Nhat Hanh in The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation on the restful qualities of meditation:
Why should you meditate? First of all, because each of us needs to realize total rest. Even a night of sleep doesn’t provide total rest. Twisting and turning, the facial muscles tense, all the while dreaming—hardly rest! Nor is lying down to rest when you still feel restless and twist and turn.
...It is possible to find total rest in a sitting position, and in turn to advance deeper in meditation in order to resolve the worries and troubles that upset and block your consciousness.
Meditation provides for us the feeling of total rest and relaxation that so many of us crave but can't seem to get no matter what we try. Sitting down to watch TV at the end of a long day, sleeping in, taking a day just to be lazy and do nothing. We try so many different things and yet none of them really make us feel 100% fully rested.
This is because the problem exists primarily in our minds. We therefore need to use a technique that recharges our minds, not just our bodies. This is the practice of meditation.
After a session your mind is quieter and at greater peace. With continued practice, chronic stress and anxiety gradually disappears until all that's left is peace and happiness.
This is a major benefit of meditation in our modern society. We're always rushing around. Trying to get more done, in less time and better than the last time we did it.
We need to have (at least) a moment to ourselves every day in order to help us achieve total rest and relaxation. This simple practice allows us to do that.
But meditation has a much deeper purpose. Meditation can give rise to deep insights about the true nature of yourself and the world around you.
Insight means wisdom gained through direct (personal) experience and is a sort of realization one receives through practice. Thich Nhat Hanh had this to say:
Someone might well ask: is relaxation then the only goal of meditation? In fact the goal of meditation goes much deeper than that.
While relaxation is the necessary point of departure, once one has realized relaxation, it is possible to realize a tranquil heart and clear mind. To realize a tranquil heart and clear mind is to have gone far along the path of meditation.
The insight one receives as a result of meditative practice leads to true peace and happiness. But not just peace and happiness- freedom. Receiving deep insight into the true nature of things frees you from attachment and suffering. This is true freedom. Unbreakable freedom.
Examples of insights you can receive from practice are the insight of a deep-seated sadness, hatred, or fear. And more than just a practice which allows you to notice things, through regular practice the mind can then heal itself of this sadness or fear. This is part of why a regular practice can bring you such peace and happiness.
What other kinds of insights can you receive? They all essentially come together under the umbrella of realizing, or coming back in touch with, your true nature. I won't go into this part in too much detail because it's beyond the scope of the How to Meditate for Beginners guide, but if you'd like to read (or listen) more on this you can check out Episode #1 of the Zen for Everyday Life podcast: How to Be Yourself in Every Moment.
Wiping away all illusions to connect with the ultimate in some sense (whatever you consider the ultimate to be), this is ultimately what a spiritual practice is. And meditation is the cornerstone of all spiritual practice.
3. Additional Benefits of Meditation and the Scientific Research on Meditation:
Over the past twenty years, researchers have discovered a number of benefits linked to the practice of meditation. Such as:
- Improve your focus and concentration
- Lower stress and anxiety
- Improve creativity
- Increase empathy and compassion
- Improve memory
- Reduce the decline of cognitive functioning from aging
It's also been linked to large amounts of grey matter, which increases positive emotion and improves emotional stability
You can read more about the scientific benefits of meditation below: Scientific Benefits of Meditation – 76 Things You Might Be Missing Out On at Liveanddare.com 20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today at Psychologytoday.com
How to Meditate
So, now we know what meditation is and why we should be practicing it regularly. But how do we actually do it?
As this is a primarily beginners guide, I'll be focusing on the most fundamental of meditation techniques: mindful breathing.
But, I'll also take a moment to cover another nourishing mindfulness practice: walking meditation. Plus, I'll quickly cover a few other prominent Buddhist meditation techniques and other mindfulness techniques for you to explore.
Mindful Breathing Meditation
Mindfulness' popularity has exploded over the past decade. Nowadays, the likelihood is if you hear that someone you know is meditating, they're practicing mindful breathing. These are the basic instructions for practicing mindful breathing:
1. Find a comfortable sitting position
First, find a quiet place where you won’t be interrupted. You can then take one of a number of different positions. For simplicity sake, shoot for starting with the half lotus, alternating legs, and then move on to the full lotus.
If you're unable to sit in the full or half lotus position then simply sit in a chair as described below. Here are sitting instructions:
- Full lotus: The full lotus position makes your body into a tripod, making it by far the most stable or sitting positions. To sit in the full lotus position, sit down in a typical cross-legged position. Now, take your left leg and place it on top of your right thigh. Next, take your right leg and place it on top of you left thigh. This lifting of the second leg will be very difficult at first, which is why I suggest starting with the half lotus.
- Half lotus: In order to sit in the half lotus position, just place your left leg over your right thigh (or right leg over your left thigh). You should alternate regularly with the right leg on the left thigh. Eventually, with practice, it will become comfortable.
- Or sit in a chair: If neither of these is possible you can also sit in a chair. Make sure to plant your feet to the ground and sit with your back straight. You can place a pillow or a zafu between your lower back and the back of the chair to keep your back straight here as well.
No matter what position you sit in, make sure to use a cushion of some kind if at all possible. I'd suggest sitting on a firm pillow or a zafu (I've included a link to the exact one I use in the resources section at the end of this guide).
Just sit on the last third or so of the zafu in order straighten your back and bring both knees to the floor, creating the tripod. If you don't do this one knee will stick up slightly while you're in the full or half lotus position, sacrificing some stability.
Once you've found a comfortable and effective sitting position for you:
- Loosen up: Now that you're in your seated position, relax. Take a few deep breaths. Stretch your back, neck, shoulders and arms a bit. Loosen the muscles in your face by forming a half-smile and take a few deep breaths. Feel all of the tension roll off your body.
- Adopt proper posture: This is very important. Improper posture can cause you back pain, obstruct your breathing and even effect your concentration so make sure to take the time to perfect the proper sitting posture. Your back and neck should be straight with the top of your head pointed towards the sky. Let your stomach relax. If you tilt your chin downward slightly (one inch) you will gain greater stability as well.
- Rest your hands: Depending on the tradition, different hand positions are used in Buddhist meditation. For now, don't worry about any of that and simply place your hands on your lap, palms up, one on top of the other.
- Eyes half-closed or closed: Look down a couple of feet in front of you and then let your eyelids drop naturally. They should end up about half to two-thirds the way shut. The reason you keep your eyes partially open is so as to not invite lethargy and doze off. You look down because it helps your eyelids lower naturally which also keeps you from blinking as often. Alternatively, if this feels funny or if you're having a hard time concentrating, you can simply close your eyes.
2. Be mindful of the breath:
Now that you have the proper positioning and posture established, you're ready to begin meditating:
- Be mindful of your in breath and out breath: Close your mouth and breathe in and out through your nose. If a cold or some other condition makes this uncomfortable then it's OK to breathe through your mouth. Breathe in, breathe out. Put complete focus on your breath….Your breath is your object of concentration (the thing you attempt to concentrate on). Do not attempt to control your breath, simply observe it silently. Your silent observation will slowly begin to calm your breathing naturally.
- Count each inhalation and exhalation: Inhale…one. Exhale….two. Count the number at the end each inhale and exhale. Count to 10 like this. If a thought distracts you, start the 10 count over from 1. When you get to 10, start over and attempt to count to 10 again.
- Count until your mind calms: Do this for as many weeks or months as it takes until you can count to 10 repeatedly with little effort. Then count each inhale + exhale as one. Then, when that becomes easy, stop counting and simply follow your breath. Don’t rush this step, progress slowly. You are building your power of concentration, which in Zen is called "joriki".
3. Acknowledge + Return:
That's essentially the entire practice of mindful breathing meditation. The only problem is, our overactive monkey minds aren't so quiet to allow us to focus on one point indefinitely, or even for more than a few seconds, are they? If you haven't noticed this yet, you will when you begin meditating.
So, what do you do when you're trying to concentrate on your breath while thoughts of dinner, the bills, and yesterday's argument keep arising in your mind? Here's the remaining instructions:
- Gently acknowledge any thoughts and impulses: Thoughts will come, do not push them away. This is a good thing, it means you're becoming more mindful. Meditation is acceptance, not avoidance. You want those things to rise to the surface during meditation because that is when the real healing will begin. Fear, anger and stress will rise to the surface so that you can let it run its course and dissipate.
- Bring your focus back to your breath: Imagine the thought, feeling, or sensation floating passed you like a cloud in the sky, then return back to your breath. This will be difficult at first and you’ll lose focus constantly (every few seconds). Don't become frustrated when your mind drifts, know that it's a normal part of the process. Keep at it, after a while your mind will begin to grow quieter and you will start gaining control over your it. It may take a few weeks or even months to begin noticing significant improvement, but typically you'll start seeing a difference within just your first week or two.
Like ripples in a pond dissipating, as your monkey mind becomes quieter you will begin to see everything around you more clearly. You will feel more and more connected to the world around you and discover a gradually deeper sense of peace.
Some days it will feel easy to sit and some days you'll feel as though a battle is being waged within you. No matter what happens know that it's just a part of the process.
There is no failing at meditation, only you making your best effort. If you do that, you'll see the incredible value of the practice and be better off for it.
How long should you meditate?
So, how long should you meditate for? This is arguably just as important as anything else we've covered, because the single most important effort is to make meditation a daily practice.
My general advice is to meditate for 5-10 minutes, once or twice a day, in the beginning. But, if you're experiencing any form of resistance to sitting (you're making excuses why you can't or shouldn't sit today), then simply make the commitment to sit in meditation for 60 seconds.
That might sounds crazy, but it works. And remember, the most important effort in the beginning is to make meditation a daily habit. For more information on how to make meditation into a consistent daily practice, check out this guide: 5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit.
Increase your sessions by about 5 minutes at a time whenever you feel comfortable. You should feel gradually able to sit down for longer and longer periods. Work your way up to whatever timetable is best for you, but if you'd like a recommendation I'd say somewhere around two 30-45 minute sessions per day. And there should be no reason why you can't do at least one 20 minute session per day.
Lastly, in the beginning you might find yourself counting the minutes waiting for your meditation to be over. This is the wrong mentality. I used to sit down and eventually grow twitchy and fidgety when I knew my session was almost over. If this is happening to you, try not setting a timer for a while. Just sit.
If you're too conditioned to "get results" in everything you do then a timer during meditation can be counterproductive at first because all you'll want to do is think "check! That's off my list..." There's no benefit in that and meditation doesn't work that way. Just sit.
After a while this feeling will disappear and instead you'll notice yourself feeling like you could sit forever. And it will feel wonderful.
The practice of walking meditation is exactly what it sounds like, walking in meditation, and it's essentially just walking mindfully in a specific way.
Walking meditation has been done by people of various spiritual traditions for possibly as long as sitting meditation, and it's the second most common of all Buddhist meditation techniques.
Walking meditation is a simple but very nourishing practice. I love walking meditation because you can do it throughout your day. When you're walking in your home, from your car to work or vice versa, running errands, or simply when going for a short walk outside. Anywhere you walk you can practice walking meditation.
How to Practice Walking Meditation
These are the most common and basic walking meditation instructions:
- Decide where you're walking to: Fix your sights on a location in front of you such as your car, a building, the end of a room or street or a tree. Wherever it is, you want to walk with mindfulness and purpose. Know that is where you're walking.
- Match your steps with your breath: Breathe naturally, see how many slow steps you take for each natural inhale and exhale. You can say "in" for each step on inhale and "out" for each step on exhale. So "in, in, in" on inhale if you take 3 steps and "out, out, out" on exhale for 3 more. You can also say a phrase that calms you if you prefer. In that case, just match the number of steps you're taking with syllables. So 3 steps could be "be-at-peace".
- Be mindful of your steps: This is mindfulness meditation in action, so your point of concentration will be your steps. Put 100% of your focus into your steps. You'll want to put great care into each step you take, so walk slowly. Thich Nhat Hanh says to imagine your feet kissing the earth with each step. Take this moment in for everything that it is. There is no past and no future. Know that peace and happiness both exist in this moment.
For more information, instruction, and various different walking meditation techniques check out The Beginner's Guide to Walking Meditation.
Other forms of meditation
As I mentioned earlier, there are many different Buddhist meditation techniques and even more forms of meditation and techniques in general. Listed below are various guides and posts to different practices you can explore (Loving-kindness meditation being the second most well-known of all Buddhist meditation techniques):
- How to Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation
- How to Find Peace and De-Stress with a Simple Tea Meditation
- The Mindfulness Survival Guide: 10 Powerful Practices for Overcoming Life’s Challenges and Living Mindfully
What's the Difference between Mindfulness and Meditation?
OK, so you're probably wondering at this point- what exactly is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
To put it simply, mindfulness is itself a form of meditation. Mindfulness is something you do as a form of sitting meditation practice, but it's also something you can do outside of sitting meditation, during your everyday life.
So, what exactly is mindfulness then? It's two things- mindfulness is both the quality of being, as well as the practice of keeping yourself, alive to the present moment (or present moment events). That's why it's used as a meditation practice (the most fundamental of all meditative practices) but also something you can so outside of sitting in meditation.
If you're walking, you're fully awake to the act of lifting, swinging, and placing each foot down and you're aware of any thoughts, feelings, or sensations that arise while you're walking. Living fully in the present moment, not reflecting on the past or planning for the future.
So, why sit down to practice mindfulness if you can do it while walking, cleaning and eating? Sitting meditation is the most concentrated form of all mindfulness practices.It allows us to enter what's often called in meditation, the highest state of "absorption".
Sitting meditation allows for the necessary level of "concentration" or absorption, for deep insights to occur. That isn't to say that you can't receive insight any other way, just that sitting meditation is the best vehicle.
Frequently Asked Questions About Meditation
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about meditation. Have a question but don't see it here? Feel free to contact me here and I'd be happy to help.
1. I can't sit still, how on earth am I supposed to meditate?
All the more reason that you need to sit! Those who have the greatest difficulty in meditation are typically the ones who get the most out of it. This excerpt from Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind sums up this point well:
When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Those who can sit perfectly physically usually take more time to obtain the true way of Zen, the actual feeling of Zen, the marrow of Zen. But those who find great difficulties in practicing Zen will find more meaning in it. So I think that sometimes the best horse may be the worst one, and the worst horse can be the best one.
2. The same thought keeps coming into my mind while meditating, what does it mean?
Don't worry, this is perfectly natural. Mindfulness is more than just being aware of your breath. It's about being fully aware of everything occurring in this moment. Your thoughts, feelings, and various sensations being a part of that.
If the same thought keeps creeping into your mind during meditation then, as you do with any thought, simply acknowledge it each time it comes to the surface and then bring your focus back to your breath. Do this as many times as necessary. You're letting the emotion run its course.
Whether it's fear, anger or stress, this is a good thing because it's a clear sign that your mindfulness is improving. If you stick to your practice you will slowly and gently unfold your mind, watching all your fear, anger and stress arise and allowing the natural healing process of mindfulness to unfold.
Keep in mind though that to really work on this fully you should practice mindfulness in your everyday life, not just when sitting in meditation.
3. How long can I expect to meditate before seeing results?
It depends on what you consider results. In the most real sense, most of us sit to acquire peace and happiness. This is the wrong way to look at meditation, but I'll talk about that in a moment.
If you're looking to cultivate peace and happiness, the very first day could make you feel more happy and peaceful. In all likelihood though your first couple of weeks will be tough. You'll experience the "monkey mind", as it's called in Buddhism, at its greatest intensity.
Ultimately it all depends on how quiet (or loud) your mind is going into meditation practice. Either way, don't judge yourself. It doesn't matter how quiet or loud your mind is, just that you sit diligently. For the most part, the "rewards" of meditation come on their own timetable so you'll need to practice patience.
For me in my own practice, at the beginning seeing my mind gradually quiet and feeling the increasing sense of peace within myself was more than enough confirmation and encouragement for me. That started happening after just a few weeks and was significant.
You shouldn't sit down to meditate expecting anything, but of course it would be wrong to say that you started your meditation practice for no reason. That just doesn't make any sense. Know why you began your meditation practice, find confirmation of your practice in that and then let go of it.
Sit without any expectations. Only then will you see the true value of the practice.
4. How exactly is slowing down and taking time to do something completely unrelated to my work supposed to make me more productive?
I completely understand this mentality because I was that guy too. I didn't understand how doing something completely unrelated to my work could actually make me more productive.
I was the epitome of a productivity junkie. Everything I did that I felt wasn't naturally productive towards my work I tried to do at the same time as something that was. When I did work I tried to be as quick as possible and was constantly looking for ways to squeeze more time out of each day to get more work done.
It turns out none of those things make you all that more productive, and in fact, they can make you far less productive. When you allow your mind to rest, to step away from a particular project or thought for a period of time, you will notice yourself as being far more creative and productive when coming back to it. It's just the way the mind works, there's nothing more to it.
5. Can't I just sit down however I want when I meditate? A simple cross-legged position?
Absolutely, meditate in whatever sitting position you'd like. But be careful, a stable sitting position and proper posture are very important in a regular meditation practice.
The full lotus is the most stable position and, once you get used to it, a comfortable position to meditate in. So you should strive to sit in the full lotus.
This is a difficult position to sit in even with practice for some which is why I mention that you can sit in the half lotus or even sit on a chair if neither of those is comfortable for you.
If you'd like to sit down but prefer not to sit in the full or half lotus positions, you can take the seiza position. The seiza position is one I use often and it's essentially just dropping to your knees from a standing position and then sitting back with your butt touching your feet (spread your knees out a bit for greater stability).
In the seiza position you form the same tripod as in the full lotus and while you can do this position with a meditation pillow (the pillow between your feet), this is also the best position to sit in when you don't have a pillow handy on a flat surface. Keep in mind that if you sit like this without a cushion for too long though (10-20 minutes), your legs will go numb as you're sitting on your sciatic nerve.
Here are some additional resources to help get you started. Some of these I mentioned above throughout the guide, but I'll mention here again for good measure.
With the exception of the meditation cushions, these are all located on Buddhaimonia, be it posts, podcasts, guides, or books:
More Guides and Posts
- Tools to Help You Start Your Home Meditation Practice
- The Beginner’s Guide to Walking Meditation
- What is Mindfulness? A Guide to Mindfulness Meditation
- 5 Steps to Making Meditation a Daily Habit
- 50 Awesome Meditation Tips for Beginners
Below are short summaries of two of my books, which are some of the best resources I've written on meditation practice. The Little Book of Mindfulness is a "mindfulness A-to-Z" beginners guide while the other is an in-depth moment-to-moment everyday mindfulness practice guide. Here they are:
The Little Book of Mindfulness
As I mentioned, this is a "mindfulness A-to-Z" beginners guide. It's extensive, coming in at about 130 pages, and will give you everything you need to begin your mindfulness practice.
It's also free! All you need to do is sign up for email updates (where I'll send you post, podcast, guide, and book updates weekly) and you'll get access to the complete book:
Zen for Everyday Life
Zen for Everyday Life is an in-depth moment-to-moment mindfulness practice guide. It's all about showing you how to establish a daily mindfulness practice from beginning to end, not only from practice instruction (across nearly a dozen everyday activities) but expanding your practice to your relationship with others as well as to developing and maintaining your practice to keep it healthy and consistent.
If you'd like to learn more about Zen for Everyday Life, click the book image or the link below to go to the official book page:
Depending on the surface you meditate on and what's readily available to you, meditation cushions can be very helpful. In Zen, practitioners usually use two different types of cushions at once: a zafu (a little round pillow, the pillow they sit on) and a zabuton (a wide square-like mat that is placed between the ground and your meditation pillow/zafu, which helps protect your knees on a hard surface).
Here's the meditation pillow (zafu) that I've personally used for years and suggest: buddhaimonia.com/cushion
And here's the meditation mat I suggest as well: buddhaimonia.com/mat
Get the How to Meditate for Beginners PDF (the complete guide in a beautiful PDF format) free by entering your name and email below:
The Time is Always Now
We all come to the practice of meditation for different reasons. Whatever brought you here, I hope you found this guide useful in beginning your meditation practice and that you discover the full beauty of the practice.