How to Meditate: A Guide to Mindfulness for Beginners
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Have you been wanting to start a mindfulness meditation practice but don’t know where to start? Or have you tried and failed? You might be relieved to hear that there is no one-size-fits-all version of mindfulness meditation. What you hear on an app, a social media post, or from a family member, may not be an approach that works for you. And that’s okay! This doesn’t mean you can’t meditate. It just means you need to know all your options and a little how-to.
This guide will help you find a way to connect with the practice that works for you.
What is mindfulness meditation?
It begins at the most obvious levels of experience by noticing sounds in the room, your breath, or the sensations in your body.
As you get better at noticing these experiences—not through perfect focus, but by being willing to start over, again and again—you begin to notice subtler aspects of experience.
You begin to change how your nervous system responds to things that would normally feed anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. It allows you to see people—including yourself— more clearly, without thick layers of judgment and bias.
Mindfulness meditation allows us to examine how and why we see the world the way we do; “I am flawed.” “I am unlovable.” “No one can be trusted.” The presence of these thought patterns is like looking at life through grubby sunglasses that we don’t even know we’re wearing. Once we notice them, we can remove them. So in the long run, the goal of mindfulness is liberation from these false and limiting ways of looking at life.
Proven Benefits of Meditation
Some of the life-changing ways meditation has been proven to benefit your mind and body include:
- Reduced stress.
- Reduced anxiety levels.
- Reduced depression.
- Greater awareness of your thought habits, and ability to create constructive habits.
- Enhanced attention and memory.
- Improvements in age-related memory loss.
- Increased attention, memory, and mental quickness in older people.
- More creative problem-solving skills.
- Increase in compassion toward yourself and others.
- Control over food cravings.
- Control over alcohol cravings, and alcohol use.
- Improves sleep.
- Helps control pain.
- Reduces blood pressure.
- Reduce inflammation.
- Reduces the severity of many disorders and diseases including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia.
What is an “anchor”?
When meditating, the anchor is the experience that you focus your awareness on, and it won’t be the same for everyone. This is why finding the right anchor can make all the difference.
The anchor helps us train our attention. Trying to deeply notice the distorting lenses through which you experience life (those grubby glasses) without first training your attention is like trying to look through a microscope in an earthquake.
To keep your attention, your anchor should be something that is interesting and stabilizing enough that you don’t throw your hands up in frustration. But it also needs to be something subtle enough that you have to keep making the choice to pay attention (who, for instance, has emerged from an hours-long Netflix vortex with the thought, “That really improved my focus”?).
For many people, choosing the wrong anchor can sink a mindfulness practice before it ever gets going. This is why choosing the right anchor is so important. So let’s dive in and find yours!
How to Meditate on your Breath
We offer the breath as an initial anchor for good reason. The breath is always with you. It’s constantly changing in subtle ways. And it lets you know when you’re trying too hard, because it becomes strained or uncomfortable.
If you stick with the breath, trying to keep things natural, it can teach you how to bring the right effort into a meditation practice. Too little effort and you lose focus. Too much effort and your breath starts to feel straight-jacketed. If you choose your breath as your anchor, there are a number of things to consider:
Where do you place your focus?
First, where will you focus on your breath? After all, breath is a whole-body event. It appears as a light drag of air against the upper lip and a whisper-touch in the nose. It may trickle across the throat and then swell in the chest. You may notice the belly softly expand or the ribcage gently flex.
If you’re especially tuned in, you might even notice how a breath raises the shoulders and then lowers them back down. You can feel its movement not just in the front of the torso, but the back as well. Maybe it’s more like a delicate thread against the left inner nostril, or an indescribable buoyancy above the diaphragm.
For others, this sort of narrow lens can feel too sleepy and closed down. You might prefer to notice the breath as a whole-body event, feeling the whole field of bodily sensations expand on a breath in, and release on a breath out.
How do you stay focused?
The intention, here, isn’t to drift into a nap while staying vaguely aware of your breath. The point is to become more and more aware of what is happening in the present moment. Fortunately, there are some clever ways you can frame your breath to stay interested in it.
Counting the Breath
One of the simplest and most direct ways to stay interested is to count your breath.
Helpful techniques include:
- Counting from 1 to 10, and then back to 1.
- Count by even numbers to 20 and then odd numbers back down to 1.
- As you count, you could say the number once every time you breathe in,
- You could repeat the number throughout your breath, silently repeating 1, 1, 1, 1 in your mind as you breathe in and out, and then moving on to 2, 2, 2, 2.
How to Meditate on a Focusing Phrase
Maybe you aren’t a numbers person, and all of this talk of counting makes you bored from the gates. In that case, you could identify some other phrase to repeat as you breathe. Try “Just this,” (“Just” on the inhale, and “this” on the exhale) as a way of continually reminding yourself to stick with “Just this breath.”
The great meditation teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, offers this refrain: “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile,”
Shorter versions include:
- “Breathing in calm. Breathing out a smile.”
- Or simply “Calm.” “Smile.”
- Others like to use meaningful words like “Peace”, “Love”, or “Serenity Now!”
Note that if you count or if you use a phrase, it’s important to keep the sensations of your breath at the forefront. We’re using the phrase to point to the breath, not to replace it.
A Word on Mantras
Sometimes people use a word or a mantra for their anchor (there are entire traditions of meditation that work this way), but this will not ultimately support mindfulness. Words and mantras alone may quiet the mind, but they also keep the mind focused on itself, rather than on the changing sensory world. If we want to get out of our heads and become more present to our experience, we need to allow some of that experience into a mindfulness practice.
How to deepen your interest in the breath
Beyond using a number or a word to frame the breath, you can also become more interested in the actual lifespan of the breath itself.
To do this, challenge yourself to notice:
- The entire length of an in-breath and the entire length of an out-breath.
- See if you can be interested in the gaps between in and out.
- Notice the details of the breath itself–the way an inhale feels cool against the nose, while an exhale feels warm by comparison.
- Notice the energetic effects of a breath. An exhale feels a bit more settling and relaxing, while an inhale carries subtle wakefulness.
- Find the most pleasant or enjoyable part of the breath and track that.
Or, in the spirit of allowing each breath to be really new, let yourself find each successive breath in a new place in the body—now the chest, now the abdomen, now pressure in the right hip.
The point, here, is that as we pay attention to the breath, we can make it more interesting by finding ways to become more interested.
With all of this said, the breath still might not be the ideal anchor for you. Maybe you have allergies or asthma that make focusing on the breath a constant chore. Maybe you have past trauma around the breath, or the breath seems to bring up trauma. Maybe for some unnamable reason, it feels awful when you focus on the breath, or like a constant strain, or simply too dull.
Some people can have a hard time letting the breath be natural when they give it their attention, and the struggle can feel like a war of attrition. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed as a meditator, or that you’re not as good as someone who can easily focus on the breath. It simply means you need to choose a different anchor.
How to Meditate on the Body
The body can be a great alternative for an anchor if the breath isn’t working for you. Just like the breath can be approached in various ways, so can the body.
It’s a good idea to locate someplace in the body that feels relatively stable and supported. For many people, this is the:
- Seat— the points of contact between your butt and whatever you’re sitting on.
- “Centerline,” that sense of uprightness that hovers just in front of the spine.
The whole body
You could also use the body as a whole, without narrowing down on any one place in particular. For people who hope to eventually transition back into using the breath, using the whole body as an anchor for a time can allow them to eventually feel the whole body breathing with a bit more ease.
It’s a good idea to spend some time searching for a place in your body that feels settling, but also interesting enough that you want to keep coming back there. Unless you’re meditating in the back of an old bus, the body will be a bit more static than the breath, but this can be an asset for people who need a greater sense of stability and support in their mindfulness practice.
If you would like to incorporate more liveliness into using the body as an anchor, you can also cycle between a few different places in the body. Sometimes this is referred to as using “touchpoints.”
The most classic touchpoints are the seat, the feet, and the hands. So you’d simply attend to the sensations at your seat for a given amount of time—maybe a few seconds, maybe a minute or two—before shifting to your feet. Then, after the same general amount of time, you’d shift to your hands, and continue.
How to Meditate on Sound
Some people need to spend some time with an anchor that is entirely outside of their body. Maybe discomfort or a sense of tension and effort are too overwhelming to work with at the outset. Or maybe the body just keeps putting them to sleep. Whatever the reason, sound can provide another great option for anchoring your attention.
When you use sound as a mindfulness anchor, you’ll begin to notice a number of unique effects it has on your mind.
Sound can be effortless
Sound arises effortlessly, and listening to sound can be similarly effortless. If other anchors have you feeling like you’re squeezing or tensing to stay aware, sound can help you open and release.
Spending time with sound can make a mind feel more spacious, clear, and bright—and this is especially true if you’re outside, or in nature.
Just as with the other anchors, you can approach sound by narrowing your lens down or broadening it completely. You could pick a particular sound, such as the sound of rainfall, birdsong, or an argument happening in the other room. Or simply open up and allow yourself to receive whatever sounds arise and pass in the moment.
If you take this latter approach, try not to play favorites with sounds. There may be sounds you don’t like, but we give these their moment, too. The training is just to steer your attention back to sound—whatever it is.
How to Meditate on Sights
Using visual objects as mindfulness anchors is less common, but if you’re having trouble settling into another anchor, you might give it a shot.
In particular, candle flames have a robust tradition as a tool for focusing the mind. To try it, simply place a lit candle (or an electric imposter) about 3-6 feet from your face. Gaze at it. After a time, you might try closing your eyes and focusing on the red dot the candle flame leaves behind.
Just as with the other anchors, you’ll want to work to stay interested in the subtle changes of the flame, and awake to any details. This is why a candle flame is a better visual object than, say, a rock or a picture of a rock. The subtle changes and movements allow you to stay fresh and interested.
How to Meditate on Connection and Kindness
For some people, using one of the above sensory anchors feels too emotionally dry to stick with at the outset. Maybe the effort to attend to sounds or the breath feels too solitary or insular–there’s just not enough social juice there.
If this sounds like you, you could have a very different experience simply by using the qualities of connection and kindness as your anchor.
When learning how to meditate, the easiest way to approach this sort of anchor is through “lovingkindness” meditation, but it’s certainly not the only way.
In general, when you use connection and kindness as an anchor, you begin by holding the image or the feeling of another person in the mind. This image or feeling is the first part of the anchor.
Next, you begin to offer some positive wish or intention to the person you’ve called to mind. This could take the form including:
- Saying to yourself the phrase, “May you be safe, happy, and healthy.”
- A visualization, such as a beam of warm light extending from your body to theirs.
- The sustained observation and beholding of this other person with a feeling of appreciation, compassion, or generosity.
These relational practices aren’t technically mindfulness meditation because they’re more about generating certain images and emotional qualities than noticing and receiving what’s present.
But they’re often used to support mindfulness practice. And they can be an excellent way to build focus and attention if other anchors aren’t working.
If you’re interested in this approach, you might look into guided practices or books by people like Sharon Salzberg (Lovingkindness), John Makransky (Awakening through Love), or Pema Chodron (Tonglen).
There are also scientific studies that show how lovingkindness meditations can make you less critical towards yourself, while increasing self-compassion in people suffering from PTSD, while decreasing PTSD symptoms.
What’s the Best Meditation for You?
When learning how to meditate, the best anchor is the one that helps you build mental stability, focus, and clarity and that soothes your nervous system the more you pay attention to it.
Just like there is no magic weight-training machine that can build muscles without fatiguing them, every anchor will involve some difficulty. The point isn’t to choose an anchor that you never stray from, or that only gives you cheery thoughts. It’s to choose one that you like to return to.
If staying with a meditation anchor feels like a struggle, or involves a lot of tension or pain, you may want to lighten up a bit or choose a different anchor.
Meditating on Pain: A word of caution
Some people find their mind tending toward chronic pain, and can find pain so absorbing that they end up using it as their anchor. While it can be focusing in the short term, it can soon cause the mind to feel fatigued and resistant to meditating.
This isn’t to say that we should avoid noticing pain sensations at all. It’s just a good idea to balance our awareness of pain with neutral and pleasant sensations as well.
Stick with one anchor
Finally, once you find an anchor that works for you, you’ll want to avoid the temptation to jump around a lot from anchor to anchor. When learning how to meditate, choose one anchor, stick with it for a while, and decide whether it’s a good approach after you’ve gotten familiar with it.
Our attention is such a precious resource. It’s the doorway that leads us into a fuller, freer, and healthier experience of life. This life, right now, is composed of moments that only happen for us if we have the attention to notice them.
When learning how to meditate, finding the right anchor can be a simple but transformative step. It can teach you what it feels like to be present to the people around you. It can also teach you how to let go of the loops of habit and addiction that keep you estranged from the natural clarity and joy of your own mind.
And along the way, mindfulness meditation can build resilience by teaching you how to continually start over, to make the choice to show up again and again for yourself.