How to meditate: a beginner’s guide
Want to meditate, but don’t know where to start? Start here.
Meditation; we know it’s good for us, but it can seem a little daunting knowing where to start. If you’d like to learn how to meditate but you’re not sure how we’ve got good news — learning to meditate is easier than you think.
Meditation is a practice that has been around for thousands of years. While it is an ancient practice, modern clinical studies have found that meditation can have a myriad of health benefits. Meditation may help relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety1, improve concentration and focus2,3, improve sleep4, increase creativity5,6 and create an overall sense of calm7.
Meditation works by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol running through our body, and it encourages the brain to enter a restful and restorative state. It does this through the practice of focusing attention.
For people living with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, studies have shown that a mindful meditation practice can help to manage difficult thoughts and feelings. Alongside support from a mental health professional, meditation is a fantastic addition to the mental health care strategy of people living with mental health conditions.
How to start meditating
There are many different meditation techniques out there, however they all share similar principles.
Here’s how to meditate:
- Find a comfortable, quiet spot with minimal distractions: It’s completely normal for there to be some background noise such as a passing car that may distract you — it’s more about finding a space where you feel comfortable enough to sit with yourself.
- Choose a realistic length of time to meditate: First time meditators may like to start with 3 - 5 minutes. By starting small, there’s less pressure and you can work your way up to longer sessions over time.
- Explore what position you’re comfortable in: Whether you’re sitting on the floor, on a chair or lying down, choose an option that feels good for you. If you choose to sit in a chair, ideally your back is straight, without being too stiff, your feet are flat on the floor and your hands are resting comfortably in your lap.
- Choose to practice guided or unguided: When starting meditation, you may find it easier to practice a guided meditation — this will take the guesswork out of what to do and when to do it. Organisations like Smiling Mind have apps that feature experienced teachers guiding a mediation session.
- Close your eyes or hold a soft gaze: By closing your eyes, you allow your focus to turn inward. If you feel more comfortable keeping your eyes open, try gazing softly at one object. This will still allow you to focus your attention.
- Choose your focus: You might choose your breath as your object of focus - breathe naturally as you rest your attention on your breath, notice the gentle rise and fall of your chest and belly rise as you breathe. Alternatively, you might choose to focus on your body - slowly move your attention through different parts of your body. Or, you could choose to focus on the sounds around you. No one object of focus is better than another. Experiment and see which works best for you.
- It’s normal to get distracted: Remember, it is completely normal to get distracted, whether by thoughts, emotions, physical sensations or sounds. Each time you notice you have become distracted gently bring your attention back to your chosen object of focus – over and over again. Getting distracted doesn’t mean you have stopped meditating, it is part of meditation! Try to be kind and patient with yourself.
- Meditation is not about stopping thoughts: Contrary to what many people think, meditation is not about stopping thoughts – it’s not possible! Instead, we change our relationship to our thoughts. We become less bothered by them and get better at noticing when we’ve become distracted and bringing our attention back to what we are focusing on. With practice your thoughts will begin to settle as you meditate but it’s not something we can force.
It’s important to remember that it takes time, patience and practice to meditate. If you don’t feel comfortable right away, it’s completely normal — take a look at your mediation routine and see what areas you can tweak that may make the experience easier. Had trouble sitting up during a session? Try the next one lying down.
How to make meditation a habit
Just like any skill — like playing the piano or scoring goals in a football game — meditation becomes easier the more your practice. Building up a meditation habit as a beginner is one of the most difficult parts.
In partnership with Smiling Mind, here are our top tips to help you get the most out of your mediation practice:
- Set yourself a goal: When starting meditation, a short-term, realistic goal is the key to creating a regular habit. Try meditating everyday for a week, and keep resetting and re-evaluating your goals.
- Challenge yourself: Set yourself a ‘21 day challenge’ with a friend. This will help you create a habit, and practising with a friend will help keep you accountable.
- Be patient: It’s not about getting it “right”, it’s about doing it consistently. It can be challenging to meditate, but in those challenges are valuable meditation experiences.
- Lean on the experts: Meditation courses, classes and apps such as Smiling Mind are great at keeping you accountable when it comes to committing to and showing up to your mediation session.
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1 Hölzel, B. K., Hoge, E. A., Greve, D. N., Gard, T., Creswell, J. D., Brown, K. W., ... & Lazar, S. W. (2013). Neural mechanisms of symptom improvements in generalized anxiety disorder following mindfulness training. NeuroImage: Clinical, 2, 448-458.
2 Chan, D., & Woollacott, M. (2007). Effects of level of meditation experience on attentional focus: is the efficiency of executive or orientation networks improved?. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 13(6), 651-658.
3 Dane, E., B. J. Brummel (2014). Examining workplace mindfulness and its relations to job performance and turnover intention. Human Relations, 67 (1), 105 - 128.
4 Davidson R. J., Kabat-Zinn J., Schumacher J., Rosenkanz M., Muller D., Santorelli S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom. Med. 65, 564–570
5 Colzato, L. S., Ozturk, A., & Hommel, B. (2012). Meditate to Create: The Impact of Focused-Attention and Open-Monitoring Training on Convergent and Divergent Thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 116. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00116
6 rso, V., Fabbro, F., & Crescentini, C. (2013). Mindful creativity: the influence of mindfulness meditation on creative thinking. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1020.
7 Netta Weinstein, Kirk W. Brown, Richard M. Ryan (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping, and emotional well-being. Journal of Research in Personality 43, 374–385.
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