As evidence mounts about the benefits of meditating, more and more people want to know how to meditate. Specifically, what are some of the best meditation techniques for beginners, and how do you make it a habit? Even those who have meditated a few times can find it hard to regularly fit meditation into their schedule, or wonder whether they are getting it right or making progress. Read on to get started with meditation, plus learn how to take your practice to the next level.
First things first: What is meditation?
Meditation is a form of training that helps you familiarize yourself with and calm or focus your own mind. Some types of meditation have a philosophical or spiritual focus, such as Zazen or Zen meditation, Buddhist meditation, Transcendental Meditation (TM), Taoist Meditation, Loving Kindness meditation, Qigong, Yoga meditation and more. Other types of meditation focus on breath, body and mind awareness, focus and attention, such as mindfulness meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
A lot of recent research has focused on the benefits of mindfulness meditation and self-regulating your attention. It’s based on the premise that by attending carefully to your reactions, you can break habitual patterns developed over time both mentally and emotionally, and enhance your ability to attend to what’s really happening in the moment. In recent years, researchers have linked mindfulness meditation to lower stress and pain levels, fewer wandering thoughts and decreased anxiety.
Plan to meditate for three to five minutes for starters. (Starting small makes meditating regularly achievable, experts say.) Find a calm, quiet space to meditate where you will be undisturbed. Sit cross-legged on a pillow or the floor with your back relaxed but straight, shoulders down, knees lower than your hips—so your pelvis is tilted forward slightly—and your hands resting palms down on your thighs. You can also meditate sitting on a chair, using a pillow to ensure your knees are somewhat lower than your hips. The goal is to keep your back straight but remain comfortable. (Note that there are many other meditation positions, but these are good starting options.)
One simple meditation to cultivate focused attention and mindfulness is to concentrate on your breath. Start your timed meditation by closing your eyes. Breathe naturally and focus on the sensation of each incoming and outgoing breath, zoning in on the feeling of breath in your nostrils, your chest or your stomach. This technique is aptly called, “sensation of breath.” Alternatively, you can try counting breaths. Follow the same steps as above and with your mind focused on your breath, begin to count each exhalation up to a count of ten, before beginning at one again. Whenever your mind wanders, observe but don’t react to your thoughts, and simply start your count again. At the end of your session, open your eyes and take a few moments to notice the feeling of calmness.
Enhance your efforts
Meditation sounds like it should be effortless, but it’s common for beginners and even semi-experienced meditators to feel frustrated by their wandering thoughts, or doubtful about whether their efforts are producing any results. Others may enjoy their brief meditation sessions but struggle to find the time and space to practice regularly, or to progress beyond their initial efforts. Remember to be gentle with yourself, because cultivating attention takes time and practice.
If these frustrations sound familiar, consider investing in a tool such as Muse, the brain-sensing headband that makes meditation easy. Unlike other guided meditation videos or apps, Muse is the only tool that actually measures and lets you hear your mind’s activity as you meditate. Essentially, Muse acts like your personal meditation assistant. While you meditate, the headband uses brain-sensing technology to measure whether your mind is calm or active, and translates those signals into guiding sounds. When you’re calm, you’ll hear peaceful weather sounds. When your mind wanders, the weather will intensify and guide you back to a calm state. After your session, you can review your data and set goals. The more you train with Muse, the more easily you’ll be able to respond to distractions and refocus. Over time, Muse’s personalized tracking, notifications and motivational challenges and rewards will help you build a deeply rewarding meditation practice.
How long should you meditate?
Consider starting with four 3-minute meditation sessions a week for the first few weeks before building up to meditating six days a week or daily. (Choosing an optimal time of day, such as when you first wake up, at lunch or before you go to bed, can help you stick with it.) After the first week or two, start lengthening one or two sessions within your weekly mix to five minutes. Once you’re regularly doing five-minute sessions, try some seven-minute sessions and gradually build up to 10, 15 and even 20-minute sessions.
Remember, however, that there’s no rush. At Muse, we’ve noticed that those who start with three-to-five minute sessions and then slowly work their way up realize the greatest benefits. Ultimately consistency is even more important than duration, especially for beginners. Doing a Muse session every day—even for a short period—can train your capacity to focus far more productively than doing an extended session once or twice a week.
Make meditation a regular part of your week, enjoy the way it makes you feel and be patient with yourself. Stay inspired by reading meditation research, tips and quotes—even celebrities have some amazing things to say. And be proud of yourself—now that you know how to meditate, you won’t be a beginner for long!