So, you’ve heard that meditation is a great tool for reducing stress and calming the mind. But you don’t know where to start. Or what to expect. This meditation for beginners guide will answer all your questions and give you everything you need to know to start changing your life today.
Meditation has grown massively in popularity in recent years. Once the domain of stick-thin yogis living in remote Himalayan caves, these days you are as likely to find it being practiced in mainstream settings such as schools, boardrooms and even prisons.
Many celebrities swear by it—Oprah Winfrey, LeBron James, Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood and Sir Paul McCartney, to name a few.
“In meditation, I can let go of everything. I’m not Hugh Jackman. I’m not a dad. I’m not a husband. I’m just dipping into that powerful source that creates everything. I take a little bath in it.” Hugh Jackman
So, why has it become so popular?
The simple answer is that it works. Regular meditation practice can bring about profound change in your life—mentally, physically and spiritually.
Another reason for its rise in popularity is need. As our lifestyles become increasingly fast-paced, complex and demanding, more and more people are looking for ways to deal with the resulting stress and overwhelm this creates. Meditation is the perfect antidote to modern life.
As this is a lengthy article, I have created a table of contents. Skip the details if you’d prefer to jump straight into the nitty gritty of how to meditate. (audio included).
At the end of the article, I’ve included a list of resources to help you further.
Table Of Contents
- What is meditation?
- Benefits of meditation
- A few guidelines for getting started
- How to meditate? (with guided audio)
- Types of meditation
- Some common questions and misconceptions
Meditation is a tool to help you be present in the moment and create a more harmonious relationship with your mind. It helps you experience more peace, fulfilment and wellbeing in your life.
And it has been around for a long time. The earliest records go back 5,000 years to ancient India.
Being secular in nature, it can be practised by anyone, regardless of faith or background. It is more science than religion.
“Thinking is harmful to you and everyone around you” — Kick The Thinking Habit
Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time in our heads. Our thinking is mostly unconscious and runs on autopilot.
You’re sitting having breakfast, but are so absorbed in thinking about your to-do list for the day that you don’t notice the food in your mouth or the sound of the birds singing outside the window.
Then you are sitting in the park on your lunch break, thinking about the presentation you’ll be giving later that day. You are unaware of the beautiful trees that surround you or the warmth of the sun on your skin.
Unconscious thinking robs us of the wonder and simplicity of the present moment.
The mind is restless by nature. Left unchecked, it continuously wanders off into the past and future, causing all kinds of trouble in the process.
Most of our thoughts are not only repetitive and unproductive but are often dysfunctional and negative as well. Unchecked thinking is stressful and exhausting. It is the root of our suffering.
So, how does meditation help?
Meditation helps you stay present by providing a focal point for your attention. Depending on the type of meditation, it may be your breath, a flame, a mantra or a physical sensation in the body.
Instead of giving all your attention to your thoughts, as you normally do, you focus on your breath instead. The breath is a good place to start, as it is always present, wherever you are.
You start by consciously paying attention to the sensation of the breath as it flows in and out. Thoughts will continue to appear… and that’s fine. Acknowledge them and gently bring your attention back to the breath.
Thoughts may be few or many. They may be pleasant or unpleasant. The type or frequency of thoughts doesn’t matter. The main thing is that you are now aware of them whereas before, your thinking was unconscious.
Simply observe your thoughts. Let them come and go. Watch them with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgemental acceptance. Come back, again and again, to noticing your breath.
The Benefits Of Meditation
Meditation has many proven benefits—physical, mental and spiritual.
The modern consumerist lifestyle is highly demanding. It takes a heavy toll on our health, vitality and wellbeing.
Stress levels are sky high. Anxiety, depression and other mental health issues have gone through the roof. We have become more disconnected from ourselves, from each other and from the natural world than ever before.
Meditation helps alleviate all these conditions.
It is a healing balm for the body, a vacation for the mind, a spa for the spirit. It allows us to slow right down and, as Hugh Jackman puts it, “dip into the powerful source that creates everything. Take a bath in it.”
Suffering is due to our disconnection with the inner soul. Meditation is establishing that connection– Amit Ray
For me, the greatest gift of meditation is that it helps us reconnect with a deeper part of ourselves—the part that is already whole, complete and at peace. It helps us ‘come home’ to ourselves.
Intention and Motivation
Expect your mind to be restless, distracted and chaotic. There is nothing wrong with this. It is simply the mind’s nature.
Know in advance that your mind will do EVERYTHING it can to convince you that today is not a good day to meditate—much the same as when you start a new diet or exercise regime.
“My mind is too busy, I have got too much on, I’m no good at it, I don’t feel like it today, I’ll definitely start on Monday.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the mind will play no part in its own demise!
To combat the mind’s tendency to talk you out of meditating it, it is helpful to become clear about your intention and motivation for doing it.
Maybe you’d like to experience less stress, become less reactive, find more inner peace or a deeper feeling of connection with yourself and others? Being clear about your motivation will help you to ‘do it anyway’ even when you don’t feel like it.
That way, your decision to meditate or not isn’t coming from a fleeting desire, but rather from a deeper, more inspiring vision of yourself and the kind of life you wish to create.
Regularity is a key factor in developing a solid practice. It is better to commit to 5 minutes a day and do it consistently than to try sitting for an hour, only to become disillusioned and give up after a couple of days. Start slow and easy.
Begin each session with the intention: “ I am going to sit here for 5 minutes (or however long), no matter what the mind comes up with.”
Before you start, reflect on your motivation: “I am doing this because I want to reduce stress and experience more peace in my life.”
How Often And For How Long?
Ideally, it is good to meditate at the same time and place each day. This helps to establish a regular habit. I like to meditate first thing in the morning, when the world is quiet. It’s a more serene, positive and energising way to start your day than listening to the news or reaching for your smartphone the moment you open your eyes.
Another good time to meditate is before bed. Quieting the mind and dissolving the stress you have accumulated during the day will improve your sleep and allow you to wake up feeling refreshed and energised.
To start with, pick a length of time you feel you can easily commit to. Five minutes perhaps? Or ten if that is comfortable for you.
You may wish to use an mindfulness timer?
Setting a timer will stop you from constantly checking the time while you are meditating.
Over time, you can gradually extend the period you sit for. Twice a day for 20 minutes (or longer) is a good goal to aim for.
Does meditation conjure up images of emaciated yogis sitting bolt-upright for hours on end?
Well, happily there is no need for that.
Comfort is important when you meditate.
If your posture is too rigid or difficult to maintain, it will create an unnecessary distraction.
You won’t be able to relax into your practice and may become disinclined to continue after a day or two.
At the same time, if you are too comfortable—lying down for example—it is easy to fall asleep. It’s best to find a posture which is both comfortable and also supports a wakeful and alert state of mind.
If you are comfortable on the ground, you may choose to sit cross-legged on a meditation cushion. If you find the floor uncomfortable on your back or knees, sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the ground.
My favourite position is to sit on a couple of raised cushions with my back against the wall.
Put your hands wherever they feel most comfortable— clasped together or resting loosely on your lap or knees.
Don’t get too hung up on how to sit. Complicating matters can be another strategy the mind uses to sabotage your practice.
Wear loose, comfortable clothing and make sure you are warm.
Don’t look to achieve anything when you meditate. Don’t look for peace or any particular experience. Simply follow the instructions (which we will be coming to shortly) for the allocated time period and let whatever happens happen.
If you are expecting a particular outcome, you may become disappointed. Meditation isn’t about becoming free of thoughts or blissed out (although that may happen). It is about being aware of each unfolding moment, however it looks.
Every time you meditate, the experience will be different. It may be enjoyable. It may be boring. It may be peaceful. It may be turbulent.
Make the simple decision to sit until the time is up, no matter what the mind gets up to. You may find this surprisingly easy to do if you don’t follow and buy into your thoughts? Or not.
Another great insight that meditation may give you is the realisation that the mind may not have as much power to affect your peace as you believed.
Meditation is about watching the mind dispassionately, with an attitude of non-judgemental acceptance. The mind is just how it is—sometimes quiet, sometimes busy.
Your job is just to watch and not get involved. You may experience peace. You may not. Either way, it is perfect.
How To Meditate
There are many different forms of meditation. For beginners, the Mindfulness Breathing Meditation is a good place to start.
You may like to read through the script or go straight to the guided meditation audio at the end.
Before you start, make sure you will remain undisturbed for the duration of your practice. You may wish to dim the lights or light a candle to create a peaceful atmosphere. A blanket or shawl around your shoulders can be cozy and comforting.
- Find a position, either on the floor or in a chair, that is both comfortable and supports a wakeful and alert state of mind. Start your timer.
- Breath in deeply and, as you exhale, consciously let go of any stress or tension you are feeling.
- Take a few more deep breaths and, on each out breath, release any tension you may be holding in your mind and body. Feel the unconditional support of the chair or the floor beneath you. Let go and allow yourself to be held.
- Bring your attention to the points in your body where you can feel the physical sensations of the breath as it flows in and out—the cool air passing across the nostrils, the movement of the ribs expanding and contracting as you breath in and out, the rising and falling of the belly. You may wish to put your hands gently on your belly or chest and notice the sensation of your hands being moved up and down?
- Start counting the breaths. Regulate the in and out breath so they are roughly equal in length. Breathe in for a count of 3 or 4 and breathe out for a similar count.
- Pretty soon you’ll be aware of thoughts. This is normal. You don’t need to do anything at all with them. Simply acknowledge they are there and gently guide your attention back to your breath.
- Continue counting the breath as it flows in and out. Whenever thoughts arise, simply notice them and gently come back to the breath. You are not trying to change them or fix them. You are not trying to stop them or get rid of them. Just notice them with an attitude of curiosity and non-judgemental acceptance. Notice how you can choose where you put your attention.
- Let go of counting and allow your breath to fall back into its natural rhythm. Whenever you become aware you are thinking, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the breath flowing in and out.
- Keep doing this until the timer or alarm sounds.
Mindfulness Breathing Meditation Audio (7:47)
Some Key Points
A common misconception many people have about meditation is that it is about trying to stop thoughts or make the mind empty. It isn’t.
I have been meditating for over 25 years and, at times, I still experience an avalanche of thoughts when I meditate. The truth is, we have no control over what the mind does. It has a mind of its own.
What has changed however, is my relationship with thoughts. When the mind is busy, my peace is not disturbed the way it used to be. I see that, although I can’t control the thoughts that appear, it is up to me whether I engage with them or not.
Another thing you may see with time is that, as thoughts are self-arising, they are not personal.
In meditation, we use the breath to anchor our attention in the present moment and, from there, we observe the mind objectively, with compassion and without judgement.
Types Of Meditation
Until now I’ve been talking mostly about mindfulness meditation and, to be honest, this is what I would go for if I were just starting out. It’s simple to learn, doesn’t require a teacher (in the early stages anyway) and being secular, it can be practiced by anyone, regardless of faith or background.
If you are looking for a little more inner peace and self-acceptance, rather than full-blown spiritual enlightenment, then mindfulness is an ideal place to start.
There are many other types of meditation, however and I thought I’d give them a brief mention here.
Mindfulness has its roots in ancient Buddhist practices and is probably the most popular form of meditation in the West today. In mindfulness practice, the aim is to stay present in the moment through focusing your attention on the breath, on bodily sensations or on the sounds around you. You allow thoughts to come and go with an attitude of non-judgemental acceptance. In mindfulness, there is a strong emphasis on self-acceptance and loving kindness.
Also called Metta, loving kindness meditation has its roots in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Loving kindness is an attitude of well-wishing, an aspiration for ourselves and others to be happy, well and free from suffering. The practice raises your vibration and awakens feelings of kindness, compassion and happiness. This is a good practice for those suffering from depression, negativity or self-judgement.
Another type of mindfulness practice, body scan is usually done lying down. Starting at the feet and working up towards the head, you zoom in to each part of the body in minute detail and become aware of the physical sensations you find there… the sole of the foot, the heel of the foot, the top of the foot, the inside of the foot and so forth. When thoughts arise, you keep bringing your attention back to the physical sensations in the body. This a great practice for those who live in their heads and feel disconnected from the physical aspect of their being. It brings your body to life.
Focus meditation is more active than mindfulness. The aim is to fix your attention unwaveringly on an object, which may be internal (the breath for example) or external. It can involve any of the five senses— counting rosary beads, gazing at a flame or listening to the sound of a gong. The aim is to master the power of concentration and stay one-pointed in your focus. Although the benefits may be profound, It may not be the best meditation for beginners.
“Mindful walking is a profound and pleasurable way to deepen our connection with our body and the earth” – Thich Nhat Hanh,
Mindful movement is a good practice for those who prefer moving to sitting still. Sitting motionless isn’t everyone’s cup of tea! Yoga and qigong are forms of mindful movement but gardening or even washing the dishes can also be meditative, when you make the present moment your focus. I love walking mindfully through the woods and consciously engaging the senses—feeling the feet coming into contact with the earth, the texture of the leaves, the fragrant smells, the crackling of twigs and the birds chirping. Mindful movement brings the world to life and awakens gratitude for the miracle of life .
Popularised by The Beatles and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Transcendental Meditation (TM for short) is the most well-known form of mantra meditation in the West. Sacred syllables such as Om, Shiva or Krishna are said to contain subtle but powerful vibrations that positively affect the surroundings and energy field of the practitioner. Keeping your attention on the mantra is a means of staying one-pointed and preventing the mind from wandering. These sacred sounds can be repeated silently, out loud or chanted in the form of devotional music.
There is a point in each person’s meditation journey where awareness of a deep, still, silent, place within happens. This inner space becomes self-evident when the mind settles down and becomes quieter. Just Sitting is self-explanatory. There is no focus involved. It is the ground for some of the more advanced meditation techniques such as Self-Enquiry— enquiry into our essential nature— or “Abiding in the Now” which means consciously resting in our true nature.
There are many more types of meditation but these are the most common.
The following are some common misconceptions about meditation and questions that are often asked.
So, that’s it.
Below, I have included a list of resources you may find helpful.
If you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment below. Id love to hear what you think.
Resources (include affiliate links)
Mindfulness In Plain English by Bhante Gunaratara
Practical Meditation For Beginners: 10 Days To A Happier, Calmer You by Benjamin W Decker
Mindful Breathing Meditation (5 minutes)