How To: Meditation Tips for Beginners
In order to have a successful meditation practice, it is not necessary to worry about the traffic noises we hear outside or the ache in our knees as we sit in silence. It is about exploring the internal environment of your mind. Someone once compared the mind to the weather. They said that it is always changing and it is also inescapable. The mind is there, whether we want it to be or not. It is part of our evolution into what we are today. It is fundamental to our being.
The problem is that today, the mind has become what we perceive as our being, when it is actually only a small part. It was very helpful when we were chased by animals intent on making us their dinner. When faced with such a situation, it was the mind that would help us to figure out whether the best course of action would be to climb a tree or squeeze into a crevice in the rocks to evade our attacker.
Today, however, the mind has a lot of extra time on its hands. In order to keep itself busy in the present when there is no immediate danger, it tries to figure out the future. Surely there must be some problem to be solved there. If there isn’t it makes a problem to solve. This is what we know as worry. We fixate on something that has not happened, nor may it ever come to be.
Many people, therefore, ask how to meditate to relax. It is very hard to relax the mind when the body is fidgety, so meditation is often combined with yoga to address working out the physical effects of stress on our bodies in order to prepare us for meditation.
Yoga help us return our focus to the present instead of wondering what our next door neighbor will do next that will upset us. It provides us with a grounding that helps to keep us composed. Meditation becomes far simpler for us when we have practiced yoga and our minds have become reunited with our bodies and both have become quiet.
The Four Noble Truths
In Buddhism there are Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth states that suffering exists. Simply that. It is here no matter what we do, what we think, or how we act. If we focus on worrying about suffering, then we miss out on life itself. It is like we take a very long car trip through the Alps, but don’t notice them at all because the entire time we have our eyes fixed to our phones where we are reading texts from people that upset us and there is nothing we can do to change the situation.
The Second Noble Truth is that we create our own suffering. Things are constantly changing. Everything about life is dynamic. By nature, we like things to remain the same because we find comfort in familiarity. By resisting change – in whatever form it may take – we cause ourselves to suffer.
This is like standing in the ocean at low tide and trying with a great amount of effort to stop the tide from coming back in. Regardless of what we do, it is going to happen. We may either choose to acknowledge that the tide will come in, or we can try to resist that acceptance and mentally struggle with the fact that we cannot change the tides.
The Third Noble Truth tells us that we can become free of suffering, and the Fourth Noble Truth tells us the means for how to become free of suffering. The beginning of the path outlined in the Fourth Noble Truth is shamatha, or calm abiding, which is developed through the practice of mindful meditation.
A good technique for trying to stay centered while the craziness of the world goes on around us is shamatha. It is about recognizing the emotions that come and go throughout each day, but not becoming attached to them or being drawn into them. It is about being present and being aware, but it is not about trying to enter some sort of detached euphoric state.
Much of our suffering comes from wanting things to be different than the way they are. We can only reach a state of equilibrium, or santosha, when we learn to be content, unconditionally, with what is. If you practice yoga, you are familiar with this state, even if you have not reached it.
When you are in an asana, or pose, and you wish that you could go further into the pose but your body does not let you, this is a form of suffering. When you accept that where you are in your pose is simply where you are at that moment and that it is neither good nor bad, then you have experienced santosha.
How to Do Shamatha
Begin by sitting. In sitting, we are reconnecting ourselves to the earth. Instead of doing our best to pretend we are elsewhere, we start by recognizing first where we are.
If you are uncomfortable sitting with your legs crossed, grab pillows to support yourself so that you are as comfortable as possible. Even comfortable positions tend to get uncomfortable over time, so it is best to start out as comfortable as possible.
When you have found your position, ground your sit bones to the earth, stretch your spine, and float the crown of your head to the sky. Relax. Close your eyes. Place your palms on your knees, face down. This position of the hands, known as a mudra, is called the “resting mind” and it helps to calm you and any excess energy you may have at this moment.
Allow yourself to notice the weight of your arms on your legs, and allow your legs and pelvis to settle further toward the earth. At the same time, keep your chest lifted and open, as this will help you to feel lighter and uplifted.
Now begin to take notice of your spine, starting at the base. Gently elongate your spine one vertebrae at a time until you reach your skull. A little movement here is ok as you take notice of each part of your spine. Keep your belly soft. Relax your jaw and your tongue. Many people unknowingly store their tension here, so be sure to be aware of it.
Focus on Your Breath
Focusing on your breath is one of the most effective ways to stay focused in the present moment. We all have “monkey mind” which is where your mind swings by a vine from one tree (thought) to the next. This is a normal occurrence when you begin meditating, so don’t beat yourself up over it when you are trying to relax and you find yourself making a mental list of what you need to pick up at the grocery store on your way home.
By focusing on your breath, you give your mind something with which to occupy itself. It feels content because it now has a “purpose.” Don’t give up when you start thinking about problems at work or what your significant other said or did to you. Remind yourself that they are just thoughts and return to focusing on your breath.
It is important not to try to change your breath as you focus on it. If you do, then that becomes another occupation of the mind. Instead, observe your breath as it is – it’s rhythm and it’s depth. Each time you exhale, allow your mind to let go and soften.
There are alternative meditation techniques which involve envisioning things like ocean waves, but they often open the door to create storylines.
Becoming Aware of Your Mind
Have you ever had an ache or pain that wasn’t horrible, but was annoying? You suffer with it day in and day out until it kind of blends into the background, as it were. It is only when you get that pain fixed – by, say, going to the dentist – that you realize how it was constantly there. When we sit for meditation and try to stop our mind from thinking, we realize just how much processing is going on.
Normally, we are not aware of all this mental activity, because it has blended into the background. It is only when we try to turn it off that it becomes somewhat overwhelming. Stillness and absence of stimulation is the key factor to identifying what your mind is up to and learning to put it on pause for a while.
As you meditate, you will have thoughts come to you. Do not analyze them. Simply label them as “thought,” and push them away. You might think of attaching a balloon to them and let them float away.
Many people believe that meditation is trying to rid yourself of all thought and by having a blank mind. This is not the case. What you are trying to do is simply become aware that you are having thoughts, and instead of allowing your mind to process them, you put them aside for the time being.
It is tempting to try to push away unwanted thoughts and let the pleasant ones remain – like about the cute new person at work and how you received attention from them earlier that day. Then you wonder if they will ask you out, and what you would wear, and where you would go to eat, and if you went to see a movie which one would it be, and do they want kids, do they want to live in the city or the suburbs – or perhaps life on a farm would be great an you could both telecommute, and would you have cats or dogs – or both? If you had a farm then there could be all kinds of animals, but would you guys ever go into town to see movies or maybe visit the restaurant where you had your first date…Don’t do that.
That is called a storyline and it happens in a matter of seconds. Nip it in the bud when you first recognize you are doing it. You may recognize it when you remembered the cute new person from the office – and, then again, you might not realize it until you were planning on moving together to a farmhouse. Whenever you realize you are having a thought or creating a storyline, label it and float it away with a balloon. The storyline may be pleasant, but you are not achieving your goal by allowing your mind to daydream.
Just remember that each time you have a thought, label it, tie a balloon to it, then watch it float away. When you are able, return your attention to your breath. Rinse, repeat. It does get easier with practice, so don’t be discouraged if you feel that you have floated enough balloons to fill a football stadium in the time you have been sitting. Forgive yourself and try again.
Don’t Pass Judgement on Yourself
One of the most important things to do when meditating is to make a promise to yourself that you will not judge yourself when you find yourself lost in a storyline. Why is this so important? Well, not only is it bad to think negatively about yourself, but more importantly is that it creates another storyline. It goes something like this:
…and we will move into a farmhouse away from the city and have lots of all kinds of animals…oh, crap. I’m thinking again. Why do I always do that? I’ve only been at this for 5 minutes and already I have lost my focus completely. I am no good at this. I bet all the other people in the meditation class are doing so much better than me. I wonder how long it took them to get to where they are. I wonder if I will ever get there – or perhaps I should just give up trying this at all…
Boom. One storyline just led straight into another one. So, when you find your thoughts wandering, label them, float them away, and redirect your attention to your breath. Should you feel judgment coming on – remember it is also a thought. Label it, float it away, and return to your breath. The longer you do it, the easier it will become. Everyone finds it challenging and no one is perfect at it. It’s called meditation practice for a reason.
Creating the Right Environment for Meditation
In as much as possible, it is best if you can limit the number of distractions during the time you have set aside to meditate. It is never possible to stop all noises, such as loud trucks passing by outside or the sound of jets zooming by overhead. Learning to recognize these noises and label them as “noises” when you meditate is part of the practice. In fact, one technique is to use them as cues to go deeper into meditation when you hear them. The idea being, that if they distract you, realize that your focus is not inward – it is outward – and redirect it deeper into yourself.
That being said, you do want to make as many arrangements as you can to limit your distractions. Turn your phone completely off – not to vibrate. Try to find a time when you are not surrounded by family – either by scheduling your meditation when the kids are at school and the significant other is at work or shopping, or by going to a meditation class at a yoga studio or spiritual center.
Many Buddhist organizations offer times for people to gather for mediation. It generally does not matter if you are Buddhist or not. Buddhist spiritual centers are great places to meet other meditators and pick up some good tips on how to meditate effectively. Even if you aren’t Buddhist, you may still find that you have a great deal in common with the people who attend classes there because you are all on a similar inward journey.
Set a Duration of Time
Meditation works best when you have a fixed amount of time set aside for it. There is no “correct” amount of time, but the longer you can do it, the better the outcome. Don’t be all gung-ho and try to do an hour at a time when you first begin – maybe try 5-10 minutes. Work your way up to half an hour – or maybe even an hour. Do it slowly.
One of the biggest distractors while trying to meditate is wondering how much time is left. Invest in a small, silent digital kitchen timer and set it for the desired amount of time plus one minute. Use the first minute to settle yourself and focus on the timer to ensure that the first minute has ticked by.
This way you won’t worry if you remembered to hit ‘start’ or not. Sometimes time flies by in meditation and at other time it crawls. It tends to crawl on the days in which you are having trouble focusing. When you are having a good day, you won’t believe that you just sat in silence for an hour.
Regular practice is what helps to improve your meditative skills. Make the time that you can, and stick to it. If that only means once a week when the meditation class meets, because the rest or the time you are surrounded by kids, dogs, and chaos of daily life, then that is good enough. Then, if you get the opportunity at another point during the week take advantage of it and consider it a bonus.
Expect at first to feel very frustrated, but stick with it. You will find great reward in the time you have committed for this practice. While there are tips for meditation beginners, there is no such thing as “basic meditation for beginners.” Whether you are new to meditation or you have been doing it for years, the practice is the same. You just get better at it. Periodically re-read this “How To: Meditation Tips for Beginners” article to remind yourself about the techniques that will make for successful meditation.