7 breezy steps to learn how to meditate
| Posted by Jinnene |
If you’re here, you’re likely hoping to learn how to meditate, or how to set up a home practice that you can return to multiple times a week.
The National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health acknowledges that “practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.”
Each year, more studies indicate that engaging in a regular meditation practice can reduce overall levels of stress. This is good news, as stress seems to be a major contributor to disease, early-onset aging, relationship hardships, and ultimately death.
And yet, as a yoga and mindfulness teacher, I continue to hear: “I tried meditating, but it didn’t work! How exactly do I meditate?”
In order to come closer to cashing in on the countless benefits of meditation, it can be helpful to reflect on several different methods to help us find the portal into our own best mindful breathing practices. As the saying goes: Nothing works for everyone. But there is something that works for everyone.
What are the modes of meditation?
I like this thoughtful explanation of meditation methods that National Institutes of Health puts out:
“There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common: a quiet location with as few distractions as possible; a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions); a focus of attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath); and an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).”
Whether or not you consider it regularly, rest assured we always have choices on the wellness path. For example, are you a mobile person? If so, try a walking meditation and see how it feels in your body. If sitting sill and observing the breath feels to “nebulous” for you, then choose an object to focus on. You can also experiment with sense meditations, which I’ll get to a bit later.
How do I get started?
Plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz offered a wonderful paradigm to follow when taking on new patterns in life. During the 1950’s, after carefully observing outcomes from the surgeries he performed on patients, he deduced that “many observed phenomena tend to show that it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve and a new one to jell.”
In essence: we now commonly accept that it takes about three weeks to form a pattern. Try it out for yourself. Once you have decided upon a method for meditating that you think would work well for your body/mind type, commit to trying the process for 21 days or more.
Let’s learn how to meditate with a few simple strategies!
Strategy #1: Set up a space with intention
Now that you’ve started (congratulations, you committed to learn how to meditate for a time), set up a space that will offer you piece of mind.
For years, I have built my own little sacred “alter” near which I perch for seated meditation, and for quiet reflection. My little alter space consists of a tile-top table that my parents and I built together, candles, crystal stones, my favorite incense scents (sandalwood is a great one), and essential oils (eucalyptus offers a healing quality to me, but you’ll have to test out your own if you’re interested. See a later blog post as we delve more deeply into essential oils).
With thought and intention, set up a space that you will feel safe in. It could be as simple as a tiny cushion in the corner of your bedroom. Whatever you choose, do take the care to reflect on where you will meditate. The same will apply for walking meditation: where do you find beauty, and possibly quiet when you walk? Go there.
Strategy #2: Establish regularity
If your goal is to learn how to meditate regularly, you’ll want to put some thought into when you are going to do your breathing practice. Do you tend to be most receptive in the morning?
It may be useful to start a regimen soon after waking up. Are you struggling with sleep? If so, it could be helpful to meditate before bed. As my Ayurveda teacher, Melanie Phillips has astutely said, “regardless of what your hopes might be, do whatever you will do consistently.”
Though we may have hopes of becoming the most zen master of meditators (don’t try that right now—it’s hard, and could leave you deflated!), the key is to choose a regimen that will work for you. I tend to meditate in the morning (short routine) if I can, and a longer sit before going to bed.
Strategy #3: Start small
As I mentioned, it can be overwhelming when we go out guns blazing at the outset of a new pattern. Do you ever see the influx of people committed to going to the gym forty times a week once New Year’s hits? This is wonderful, of course, as I’d love to think of a world where people are exercising regularly.
And yet. One might also notice that many of those gym memberships peter out by March. In short, our eyes can be bigger than our stomachs. Mindfulness training 101 teaches us to be patient. Rome was not created in a day, and you don’t have to meditate every day for an hour when you are just beginning.
In fact, I recommend only a couple to a few minutes at first. If you can commit to meditating two minutes once a day (or very near daily) for three weeks, I have a strong feeling you will observe positive outcomes.
Strategy #4: Start with a beginner’s mind, and maintain it
Among mindfulness circles, I repeatedly hear trusted leaders referring to the beauty behind maintaining a beginner’s mind. To this end, we are always learning, always discovering, always faltering, and always succeeding.
When you first learn how to meditate, accept that it could feel awkward. Expect that it will feel uncomfortable. Resist the urge to become married to one way of engaging in meditation. Rather, keep your heart open to new ideas.
For example, if seated meditation isn’t working, you might try walking, or vice versa. Do try to hang in with one choice for a few days, however, as sometimes it can take a bit to adjust.
Strategy #5: Log your progress (journaling)
Here is a bonus benefit of this journey: while you learn how to meditate, you might also learn how to write more clearly.
One of my lovely yoga teacher training mentors, Jenny Hayo, taught me the beauty of the meditation log. If you’re meditating for three weeks before you potentially start into habit mode, then use those three weeks as a breeding ground for all the notices you can muster.
Take 1-2 minutes after every meditation session to jot down how you feel afterwards. Do not discount seemingly small observations, and most certainly do NOT discount negative outcomes. If, for example, in one session you felt like crap the whole time, or your mind was monkeying all over the place (monkey mind is yoga chat for “inability to still thoughts”), then honor that. Congratulations, you noticed something!
Here is an example of what a log might look like:
Thursday, June 13, 2019
Seated meditation, 6:15am, two minutes
My mind was fairly calm today, but I noticed that I couldn’t stop thinking about what I need to do at work. Furthermore, that text that (significant other/friend) sent before I fell asleep was so confusing. What the hell was she saying? Physically, I feel pretty good, though I noticed a tensing in my neck. I need to exercise soon.
You can obviously make your log whatever you want. The importance is to build the wiring in your brain that offers you a connection to the process. The more intention, investment, and careful observation you put into this, the closer you will come to that eventuality.
Strategy #6: Sense meditation
One of the challenges many people encounter when they learn how to meditate is that their mind is unable to fix on a tangible object, and that causes anxiety. Observing the five senses is a great way to stay rooted in a breathing practice.
Once you have established your comfortable seat (I recommend sitting and not lying down, as the latter can cause sleepiness), start to notice that you are breathing. You might silently bookmark: I am breathing. Breath enters my body, and leaves my body.
When you have established an organic rhythm of breath, begin to tune in to the senses. You can observe in any order, but it might me most potent to start with sound. Observe sounds of birdsong, traffic, voices, barking animals, phones ringing, ventilation systems or fans, no sound (the sound of no sound is actually a thing), etc.
There is no need to get swept up in aversion if any or most of these sounds register to you as disruptive. Simply noticing that they are present while you breathe is enough. Give yourself a break from fixating on what you like and what you do not like. Even so, noticing that something is uncomfortable is wonderful mindfulness work, but let it go as soon as you can.
Follow the same patterns for taste, touch, sight, and smell. For each of these senses, you can try these questions to get started:
What is the air quality on my skin? What is my temperature trending toward? How does the air feel? What is it like for my clothing to touch my skin? How does my pelvis feel as it roots into this chair, or into the floor/earth?
What smells are present? If nothing occurs to you at first, no worries. You might notice that you are able to detect some type of scent after a few breaths of opening to this sense.
For example, here in the coffee shop where I write, I could not immediately detect a scent as I wrote that last paragraph. But now that I think about it, I can pick up on the scent of some type of baked good being heated. It smells like it could be bread and cheese; the scent comes across as buttery, and faintly of yeast.
Sight sensation might be interesting to note, even if your eyes are closed. You can usually pick up on some type of light data coming in through you eye lids. What’s that light like? What words would you use to describe it?
You can also keep a lazy gaze (eyelids partially closed to cut out some of the light, but not all of it), and focus on a particular object for your short meditation.
Taste is another sensation that can come across as nearly too faint to pick up. And yet, try it on for size: What is the taste present on my tongue? What is the texture of my tongue? Keep breathing; there is no need to get lost in story around your answers. Try to remain objective, ever the silent observer.
Strategy #7: Counting the breath
If your goal is to learn how to meditate so that you can focus more on your breath, you might try counting the breath as you sit. This can feel much like the old practice of counting sheep to prepare for sleep.
The difference here of course, is that we are breathing to maintain awareness, and not to slip into unconscious sleep.
For counted breathing, you could experiment with targeting a couple numerical goals. I try 20 or 30 usually, but you could start smaller—perhaps five. Inhale, and silently note “1.” Exhale. Inhale, and silently note, “2.” Exhale.
Continue is this fashion until you reach your number. When you reach your target number, return to the beginning. If you get lost in thoughts and you lose count, no worries. Return to “1” as soon as you notice you have gotten lost in thought.
To aid in your own personal success, I recommend setting an intention. For example: You could start your breathing with a mantra: I intend to move forward in my journey of learning meditation technique for my wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of others.
Opening up to the higher powers that be signals to our bodies that we are ready to receive.
Closing blessing for now: Patience is key
A paradigm we can all live by is that patience will only do us good. Though it’s tempting to get lost in the tangled web of society’s pressure upon us to acquire skills quickly, working under pressure only shuts the body down. Be kind to yourself, and remain open to the beauty in learning slowly.
I hope this is enough information to at least get you thinking about what it will take for you to feel you can learn how to meditate.
Before long, I will publish some more meditation strategies, and some ideas for follow up to your meditation practice, including ideas on how to find community around meditation. Until then, Namaste friends, and enjoy your breathing!
One last note: If you think this material would help others you know, please share the post with them! Thanks so much for spreading the word of wellness.
For further reading:
“What the Science Says About the Effectiveness of Meditation.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. n.d. Retrieved from: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm#hed3.
Maltz, Maxwell. Psycho-Cybernetics. 2016. TarcherPerigee: New York. (Original work published 1960).
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