How to Meditate: Guideby Intelligent Change
Meditation is a great way to combat stress, become more grounded in the now, and achieve mindfulness and happiness. Only a few mindful and focused minutes each day make it easier for us to develop patience and be emotionally balanced.
Here, we offer some simple steps and basic techniques to help you get started, make meditation a healthy habit that is a part of your routine, and expand your practice.
The Meditation 101
Let’s start with three meditation basics––routine, persistence, and universality.
This pillar is the key to making any new habit, practice, or ritual part of your daily life. There are many reasons why routines are important in our lives––they help us function against the chaos of the world and of our minds. They give us extra control and discipline. They bring wellness, harmony, and structure into our everyday life.
A consistent meditation routine has immeasurable power in combating difficulties, challenges, and life hardships. Meditation can become a part of your morning and/or evening routine, or you can implement it as part of your mindfulness routine at work when you meditate for a couple of minutes during your breaks.
You can only reap the benefits of meditation if you actually practice it. It’s not a one-time magic healing, but a practice that requires persistence and patience.
And while we can all benefit from meditation in one way or another, those of us who need it the most are those who think they have the least time for it. As the old Zen proverb says: “If you don't have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours.”
Like with many other things in life, there’s no “talent for meditation.” Perhaps some people are more relieved in life so they find it easier to focus, while others are more restless, and meditation seems to be a challenge to them. Either way––practice makes it perfect. If you want to succeed and feel the effects of your meditation efforts, you need to keep going.
Meditation not only serves the purpose of calming you down at the very moment of meditating. The point is to permeate all aspects of our lives and make us more mindful at work, in our relationships, when we eat, exercise, or spend time alone.
Meditation is meant to open our hearts and minds and make us more receptive to the good things in our environment. That’s why we need to be persistent and make meditation our routine––this way it becomes a way of life.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a process, a set of steps and techniques, geared towards achieving an elevated state of being. The goal of meditation is to change our consciousness and make us more present in the moment. It’s a training of the mind to be present and proactive in the here and now.
Meditation has been practiced across different cultures for millennia, as almost every religion has its own meditative practice. Today, the practice of meditation is not necessarily related to religious rituals, as many people practice it with the goal of improving their wellbeing or as a psychotherapeutic technique.
The meditative process relies on emptying or focusing our mind on the very basic things happening in the current moment (our bodily sensations, a specific experience, our breath, or a particular object, mantra, or sound from our environment).
The Benefits of Meditation
The benefits of meditation are many, from stabilizing our mental and physical health to improving our relationships and productivity.
Research has revealed that people who meditate experience fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression, and they develop better stress management strategies. It has positive effects on our attention span and it has shown to be helpful as a tool for nurturing self-awareness.
Meditation can also help us sleep better and fight sleep disorders and it has been shown to be beneficial for high blood pressure and chronic pain issues.
Mindfulness Versus Meditation: Differences and Common Grounds
These two concepts are closely tied together, yet they’re not the same. To understand how they’re different, try understanding mindfulness as a philosophy and a way of life, and meditation as a tool that can help us achieve the ideal state of this philosophy.
It is a way of living your life. Its basic concepts are awareness, openness, and presence in the here and now. Other constituents of mindful living are lack of judgment and (self-)criticism and an active effort to not dwell on the past or future to be able to experience what is happening now fully.
On the other hand, meditation is a technique used by many (including the mindfulness school of thought) to achieve an elevated state of mind.
Mindfulness meditation is just one of many types of meditation, and it promotes presence in the now through focusing on breathing. Other types of meditation have different goals, and we will show you some of them in later paragraphs.
Many mindfulness techniques use meditation as a tool to elevate consciousness. It has become popular in secular practices for its congruence with the western lifestyle. Mindfulness meditation requires you to be present in the moment, through acceptance and without judgment.
Although seemingly simple, this practice gives rewarding positive results in terms of locus of control, improved stress management and emotional intelligence, higher self-awareness, and better relationships with other people.
A Few Tips to Start With
Before we jump to different types of meditations and the steps to practicing them, here are some basic tips to begin with.
Pick a Spot
If possible, it’s best to meditate in the same spot every day. It’s not mandatory, but it can help with habit building. Our brain and body have an easier time when they can make an association between the environment and the activity, and, after a couple of repetitions, once you enter your meditation zone, you can switch to the activity more easily.
Although meditation is commonly associated with the lotus pose and sitting on the floor, you don’t have to do that if it’s not comfortable for you. You can simply find a distraction-free spot where you can sit up straight and still.
Make a Schedule
Establishing a stable new routine is best done by scheduling activities. For example, you can fit meditating into your morning or evening routine and complete the exercise each day at the same time.
Simply add “meditation” to the morning task list in your Productivity Planner, calendar, or habit tracker, and commit those 5-10 minutes to your well-being and mindfulness.
Meditation may sound easy because there’s no visible, external effort involved, however, it’s not that simple. If you begin with longer, more complex meditations, you might get discouraged after realizing that relaxing and focusing on fewer stimuli is not as easy as it sounds.
The best way to start is by doing short, five to ten-minute sessions each day. Once you’re ready, you can start extending these intervals progressively.
A good thing about meditation is that it’s a universal practice and you don’t need any tools if you don’t want them. The most important asset to a good meditation is intention and focus.
However, some people like to sit on a special meditation cushion, rug, chair, or use other tools such as candles, scented sticks, mists, or objects that produce sounds that can help them achieve a deeper meditative state, such as meditation bowls or gongs. You can discover more about spiritual practices here.
Focus on the Feelings
Meditation is all about being present in the moment and focusing on the feelings and sensations you are experiencing. Each time you breathe in, try to visualize or name how you feel, and then do the same when you breathe out.
Let the Feelings Be
As you meditate, your mind will have the tendency to wander around. This can sometimes lead to different feelings and thoughts, some of them quite unpleasant. Instead of trying to clear your mind from such thoughts, it’s much better if you simply acknowledge them without judgment and refocus on your body and breathing.
Our brain is in constant action, even when we aren’t. When we sleep, our body is resting, but our brain is working hard to store and process all the information gathered that day. That’s why we dream.
While you meditate, it’s normal to experience mind-wandering that can involve body sensations, thoughts of future, past, or present events, or judgments of yourself and others.
When this happens, try to avoid focusing on stopping this train of thought. You can simply acknowledge them and let go, and then slowly become aware of your breath again by focusing on each inhalation and exhalation.
If you force your mind back to breathing, you are missing out on the whole point of meditation: self-acceptance and achieving a higher level of consciousness.
Inevitably, your mind will wander off again after a few breaths, and, if you will get upset every time this happens, you’ll end up stressed out. Instead of combating this natural process, simply learn how to respond to it, free of judgment, and resume with your meditation. Success lies in managing to return to the present moment each time your mind wanders off.
How to Meditate: Practical Guide
Now that we’ve introduced you to some of the basic principles of meditation, it’s time to get practical. What are the steps to a successful meditation?
Exercise #1: The Return of the Wandering Mind
This exercise is designed to help you return to the present moment whenever your mind wanders off during a meditation session.
Step 1 - Wandering
No matter how experienced you are, your mind will inevitably wander off during meditation. This is something you can’t escape nor stop, so you have to learn to embrace it as part of the process.
Step 2 - Acknowledgment
Take a moment to acknowledge your distraction. Name or visualize the thoughts you have instead of just following the digression your mind has made, choose to let them go, and refocus your awareness on your breathing. Inhale slowly and exhale.
Step 3 - Stay Free of Judgment
Ending up daydreaming or wool-gathering while you’re meditating is a natural process, so there’s no need to judge yourself for it. Simply gear your consciousness towards the now and pick up right where you left off.
Step 4 - Repeat the Process
No need to get discouraged: when the same thing happens again, repeat the process. Stay clear of judgment, acknowledge your distraction, and return to the present moment.
Step 5 - Acceptance
As you become a more experienced meditator, letting go of your thoughts and switching back to the present moment will become faster and easier for you to do, and eventually––as easy as breathing. Accept that the human psyche works in mysterious ways and processes so much every day, that it makes it extra difficult to stay focused on one single activity as simple and as deeply ingrained as breathing.
Exercise #2: Mindfulness Meditation
While there are many types of guided meditations, and there are many benefits to having guidance while meditating, especially for beginners, there are also some meditations you can do all by yourself.
One such meditation is mindfulness meditation, which you can practice anywhere and at any time.
Here are some short and simple mindfulness meditations you can practice in different time intervals (1, 5, 10, or 15 minutes, whichever works for you best).
Matching Inhales and Exhales
Set up a timer for how many minutes you want to meditate––it’s your call. If you’re only a beginner, we strongly recommend shorter intervals. Setting up a timer will help you focus on the exercise instead of thinking about the clock.
Sit in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Breathe in slowly and count to see how long it takes you to fill up your lungs with air. Usually, it’s 3-4 counts. The number itself is irrelevant, you just need to be comfortable.
When it’s time to exhale, match the number of counts you needed to inhale to the exhale.
Repeat as many times as necessary until the timer goes off.
Sweet 16 Mindfulness Meditation
Take a comfortable sitting position and set up your meditation environment however you like it best.
Set up a timer just like in the previous exercise, or decide by yourself how many rounds you want to complete.
Inhale for 4 counts.
Hold your breath for 4 counts.
Exhale for 4 counts.
Hold the exhale for 4 counts.
Repeat until the timer goes off or until you’ve completed the planned number of rounds.
Count Your Breaths
Set up your meditation space and sit in a comfortable position.
Count your breaths: inhale 1, exhale 2, inhale 3, exhale 4, until you reach 10.
Repeat this for any number of rounds you’ve previously decided you will do.
Exercise #3: Body Scan Meditation
In mindfulness meditation, the point is to focus on breathing. However, there are other options for gearing your focus, such as bodily sensations and areas––that’s what body scan meditation is all about.
Take a comfortable position. For this meditation, you can either sit or even lay down on your back with your body stretched. If you’re sitting, put your hands on your lap or in another relaxed position, and if you’re lying down, put your arms next to your body.
Prepare for the meditation by relaxing and slowly breathing in and out a couple of times. You can apply Exercise #1 and #2 meditations to prepare for a body scan meditation.
Slowly bring your attention to the surface of the skin on the top of your head. Think about it and try to feel your hair, scalp, forehead, ears, eyebrows, eyelids, and nose.
Continue to move slowly down your face, trying to be aware of each part of your face––lips, cheeks, chin. Then move further below to your neck, shoulders, chest, stomach, etc, until you reach your toes.
This can last for a while.
At first, you might find that you don’t feel anything. As your meditation progresses, you’ll start experiencing many sensations. Some of them will be pleasant, like warmth, relaxation, comfortable weight, but others can be neutral to unpleasant, like soreness, pain, tickling, or itching.
As the sensations appear, try to make note of each one without reacting to them. Of course, if you feel strong pain, you will want to relieve it if you can, but, in general, try not to react to any sensation. Just notice and acknowledge them without even labeling the experience of these sensations.
Just like in mindfulness meditations, your focus is likely to stray from your breathing. In that case, slowly bring your focus back to your body and continue where you left off.
Exercise #4: Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental meditation is a type of meditation in which instead of focusing on your body or breathing, you focus on a certain mantra. This simple technique helps you settle your mind into a state of relaxed awareness and makes mind wandering easier to control.
Sit in a comfortable position with your feet touching the ground and your hands resting on your lap. Do not cross your arms or legs. You can set up a timer if you want.
Close your eyes and prepare for the meditation by taking a couple of deep breaths.
Pick a mantra and start repeating it in your mind.
If your mind wanders, acknowledge the thoughts you’re having and return to your mantra.
When you’re done with the mantra, keep your eyes closed a bit more and then start to move your toes and fingers to come back to reality.
Open your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Take a moment and just sit until you’re ready to proceed with your day.
Upgrade Your Meditation
If you want meditation to become your lifestyle, you can expand its practice to other areas of life.
Although the traditional way to meditate is to sit in a comfortable position, you can also meditate while taking a walk through nature, park, beach.
Just like in regular mindfulness meditation, you can focus on your awareness of your bodily sensations, breathing, or movement. You can focus on your feet touching the ground or how your body moves through space.
Depending on where you’re at, you can either walk back and forth, walk slowly, or at a normal pace, or you can test different rhythms of walking.
The important thing is to feel the different sensations in your body, feel the ground you’re walking on, focus on the wind, smells, sounds, your walking movements. If your mind wanders, find something in the environment to bring your awareness to.
Spending time in nature is already a remedy and a healing technique in itself, so why not upgrade it by practicing mindfulness whilst there?
Whenever we’ve written about mindfulness in our previous articles (like when we talked about how to be more mindful at your work desk), we’ve mentioned the importance of being a mindful eater.
Being mindful with your food can turn plain feeding into a valuable experience, as it can reveal a myriad of sensations you’ve never noticed before. Mindful eating begins with paying attention to how hungry you really are and choosing the right amount of food to eat that will satisfy your nutritive needs––no more, no less.
Try to eat as slowly as possible, acknowledging and paying attention to each step of the process. How do you sit when you eat? What does the food taste like? What does it smell like? What is its texture like?
You can also pay attention to how you react to each bite and whether you chew enough. When we eat just for nutrition, we often don’t pay attention to how many chews we make per bite. So, there’s another aspect of eating to focus on.
If you’re used to eating quickly, this mindful eating exercise can bring you a lot of benefits, from a healthier way to eat to an improved eating experience.
The Common Pitfalls of Meditation
Last, but not least, although there are many benefits to meditation, the practice has its challenges, the same way there are various obstacles to mindfulness.
When you first start meditating, try to avoid setting your expectations too high and too soon. Learning how to meditate takes time, and if you want to build a solid habit that will last and have a positive impact on your well-being, you should follow the “start small” pillar. Commit to your practice and stay persistent even if you find it difficult to focus on your breath. Success comes with practice, and staying consistent is what helps you get there.
Also, keep in mind that meditation is just an exercise in well-being. It won’t solve your life problems, fix your relationships, nor completely heal your traumas. If you approach meditation with these ideas, you’re running the risk of turning it into a means of escape from reality instead of a self-care and grounding practice.
Although meditation roots can be found in a variety of religious rituals in different cultures and eras, it has become a part of secular contemporary practices as well. We meditate to lower our mental load at work, to combat emotional and psychological symptoms of daily stress, and use it as a therapeutic tool to improve our overall well-being.
Remember that your (new) meditation practice––as any other habit you want to implement into your life––should be approached with a healthy and positive outlook. Be relaxed when starting your practice, curious when experimenting with different meditation types, and friendly to yourself when encountering some ups and downs of meditation.
The whole purpose of meditation isn’t to think positive thoughts or be in full control over your mind––it is to become more compassionate, calm, patient, self-aware, and accepting to whatever happens in your life.