How to Start Meditating

By Sarah Siegel

A beginner’s guide for those who think they can’t do it.

Meditation is a practice of “non-doing.” This may sound strange at first because we are conditioned to think more of the things we are “doing” and less of the ways we are “being.” Meditation is about learning to connect to a deeper part of the self, which lies beyond thoughts, feelings and physical sensations, yet isn’t separate from them. This deeper part of our self is always open, awake and at peace. It is untouched by anything from our past and can’t be harmed by anything in our future. This deeper part of our self is called many different names, depending on what religion or spiritual tradition one believes in. Some of these names are: our inner wisdom, our soul, Christ Light, Buddha Nature, our intuition, our Highest Self, Bodhi Mind and Higher Power. There are many methods for connecting to this deeper part of our self and meditation is only one of them. There are many types of meditation as well. One type is Mindfulness Meditation. While it has roots in Buddhist practice, it is secular and can be used by anyone of any spiritual or religious tradition. “Paying attention on purpose in the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment” is my definition of Mindfulness Meditation. If either of those two pieces is missing, you’re not really practicing Mindfulness Meditation.

Here are the five steps to begin a Mindfulness Meditation practice:

FIND A COMFORTABLE SEATED POSITION.

A chair, propped up against cushions in bed, seated on the floor, all of these are fine. However, sitting is better than lying down, as a favorite meditation teacher of mine, Jack Kornfield, instructs: “meditation is a practice of ‘falling awake’, rather than ‘falling asleep.’”

CHECK IN WITH YOUR POSTURE.

You don’t need to sit perfectly straight and unflinching in order to mediate (although that is one way to practice). Instead, a favorite Buddhist teacher of mine, Lama Willa Miller, instructs us to have a “strong back and a soft front” in our meditation posture. Take a moment to notice your spine and your back. Find that place between being very rigid and upright and loose and hunched over. Kornfield says to sit “upright and dignified, halfway between heaven and earth.” Experiment with your posture, notice what feels best for you and your body. Right here, from the beginning, practice listening to your body with compassion.

TUNE INTO YOUR BREATH.

Now we learn to swing the spotlight of our attention to an area of focus called an “anchor.” The anchor is where we return to when we notice we’ve been pulled away by strong thoughts, feelings and sensations. Returning to the anchor helps us strengthen our ability to focus at will, instead of always being pulled from here to there (and everywhere!) by our mind. For this basic practice, make your breath your anchor, specifically the sensations of the breath at a particular place in the body. You can use the edge of the nostrils and notice the sensations there as the air enters and exits the body. You can also use the rise and fall of the abdomen as your anchor and the sensations there as the breath expands and contracts. If it feels difficult to connect to the breath in either place, try putting one hand on your abdomen and feeling the rise and fall as the breath flows in and out of the body. Don’t be afraid to experiment or to switch to another anchor if one is hard to connect with.

RETURN TO THE ANCHOR WHEN YOU NOTICE YOU’VE DRIFTED AWAY.

Remember the attitude of non-judgment part? Here is where it begins to really come into play. Do not judge your thinking mind. Thinking is what minds do, just as hearts beat and lungs breathe. There is no need to resist, get upset at, or judge the thinking mind. Instead, when you notice you have been pulled away from your anchor and you are caught up in thoughts, simply and silently say to yourself, “thinking.” Then return once again to your anchor and feel the movement of the breath. This means that we do not say to ourselves, “You stupid idiot, why aren’t you focusing on the breath?” or “Why can’t I stop thinking?” If thoughts like that arise, see if you can allow them to pass gently, without taking them too seriously. Be gentle on yourself. It is of zero benefit to infuse mediation practice with an attitude of self-hatred. Meditation need not be another thing that you tell yourself you stink at doing. Also, don’t try and stop your thoughts. This is a common misunderstanding of meditation and the reason that so many people give up the practice. Thoughts are normal and natural, and Mindfulness Meditation is a way to get to know them better and learn to strengthen your ability to swing that spotlight of your attention at will. And finally, even if you are lost in thought for the majority of the time, guess what? You are still meditating! When you realize you have drifted away from the anchor and return to it, you are meditating. You are slowly learning to return home to yourself and this ever present, eternal now moment.

CONTINUE FOR 5-15 MINUTES AND REJOICE IN YOUR EFFORTS.

The amount of time you practice meditation is important, as is how realistic and kind you are to yourself in your expectations. Again, be gentle on yourself. For many, it is not at all practical to expect to sit for an hour in meditation every day, especially if we are just learning how to be healthy and present in general. Be realistic about the amount of time you can commit to your practice. It is more beneficial to do 5 minutes every day than 35 minutes once a week. Regularity is important when strengthening your ability to swing the spotlight to your attention. If you miss a session, be kind to yourself again. You are in the process of learning a new skill and beating yourself up won’t help you get there. In fact, it’s best to celebrate your willingness to try something new, while reminding yourself that you are growing into this practice. When you begin a meditation practice, you are committing to your inner world in a new way and this is something to truly honor and appreciate. Ultimately, you’ll keep coming back to the practice if you don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to sit for too long right from the start. Five minutes is a perfect time to start with. Enjoy your process.

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