How to meditate

I have tried numerous times over the years to get a meditation practice going, but it never really stuck. However, I became very motivated once again to incorporate meditation into my life while I was doing my psychology education. So much of the research I was reading stressed the benefit of meditation on our mental and physical health. There is wide agreement on this among researchers. There has been so much convincing research that supports the health benefits of meditation that it became impossible for me to ignore. The research was telling me in no uncertain terms that I will benefit from giving meditation another really good shot.

It is not as though I had not already experienced the benefits of meditation: I have always found meditation to be incredibly helpful, for example, when I felt anxious. A short 10 minute meditation has always worked to decrease an anxiety peak quite significantly.

Based on the aforementioned mountain of research, as well as my own beneficial experience of meditating, I found myself frequently talking to clients about meditation. Sometimes I'd recommend a form of meditation to someone with a particularly busy mind, but often clients already had their own meditation practice, and we talked about their struggles with it. However, I did not have a regular, daily meditation practice myself — until this year. SInce I was talking to clients about meditation, I thought I better put my money where my mouth is, commit to it, and experience what regular meditation does for me. A number of months ago I started a meditation practice of twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes each time. It’s been going pretty well! Even though I miss a session on occasion, I have kept it up regularly. The result? I feel calmer and more even. I will definitely keep it going.

I want to write about meditation because I hear some commonalties among what clients struggle with when they are meditating, myself included. So this is a simple guide on how to meditate.

Note: There are many ways to meditate, this is the approach that I use and recommend to others based on my research and experience as a counsellor and a fellow struggling meditator. This is intended to assist in understanding the therapeutic use of the practice of meditation and to help normalize the struggles many of us have with it. I am no guru! That’s for darn sure.

How to meditate:

Sit comfortably in an upright posture.

If upright is too difficult, find a comfortable position for your body using back support of some kind. Rest your hands on your thighs, or wherever they comfortably land. Note: lying down tends to promote sleepiness, so try to find something other position sitting up.

Decide how long you want to meditate for.

5 to 20 minutes is a good range to aim for. Even five minutes a day has been shown to have a measurable benefit. I suggest starting with a shorter amount of time in order to make this practice doable — especially when you are trying to establish it as a habit. You can always increase it later, or extend your meditation at the time when you feel like continuing.

Tune in to yourself

For the first 30 seconds to a minute, simply sit and tune in to yourself. By this I mean to settle into your sitting position, start to breathe deeply and naturally, and simply notice how you feel. Are you sleepy? Does your body feel activated? Are you twitching? Are you feeling down today? Just notice what’s going on today as you settle down.

Start to meditate

You start meditating by choosing something to focus on. Some people focus on their breath, some people repeat a word or phrase silently. It is up to you. There is no “right” way.

Close your eyes, and notice your focus. For example, if you choose the word “love” as your focus, repeat the word slowly and silently to yourself in time with your breath. Keep doing this.

Your mind WILL wander

Your mind will wander away from your focus. This is the critical part: don’t worry about it. Seriously, this is the part that many, many people get wrong about meditating. I’ve heard it so many times: their mind wanders, and they get mad at themselves. They say, “My mind shouldn’t wander! I’m not doing it right!”, beating themselves up. Many people think the goal of meditation is to clear the mind and have a blank mind. This is not the correct goal.

It is the nature of the mind to wander, to get distracted, and think about other things besides the focus you have chosen. It is what minds do. Some people refer to it as the “monkey mind”, but I like to think of the mind as a sweet, innocent puppy. The nature of the puppy is to be a puppy! It does not make sense to get mad at the puppy for being a puppy. It is natural for the mind to wander, the practice is to bring it back when you notice it wandering.

Meditation practice

The key aspect of meditation is the practice of gently, without judgement, bringing your mind back to your focus. Over and over again.

I want to emphasize these main points:

  • bring your mind back to your focus over and over

  • do it gently, like you are guiding an innocent puppy or a baby

  • with no judgement — please do not berate yourself

That’s it.

When the mind wanders (which it inevitably will), as soon as you notice that you are thinking about something else, gently bring it back to your focus. Without judgement. Like you would guide a sweet little puppy back to its bed. With firm but gentle kindness. “Oops! There I am thinking again! Come on back, sweet puppy-mind."

End with another attunement

At the end, it can be helpful to ease back into your day by spending another 30 seconds or a minute with your eyes closed. Take this time to once again notice what is happening in your body and mind, move and stretch and a little, then slowly open your eyes and carry on with your day.

Common experiences, problems, and suggestions

  • Sometimes your mind will wander a lot, and fast, and it will feel like an unsatisfying meditation session. That’s OK. Try not to judge it (for example, try not to judge it as “unsatisfying”). It just happens that way sometimes. It is still meditating, and it is still a beneficial meditation session.

  • Sometimes you will feel sleepy. That’s OK. It just happens that way sometimes. It is still a beneficial meditation session. It may mean you need more rest.

  • It can be helpful to meditate before you have ingested caffeine.

  • Some people believe that they can’t meditate because their mind is too busy. If you are following these guidelines, it is still beneficial even if you feel like you are not doing it correctly. You are, and it is still beneficial.

  • If you are saying things like “I am bad at meditation”, “My mind should be blank. I suck at this”, or “I need to be in a perfect mood to meditate.”, then reread this article. Please be more gentle and caring towards yourself!

There are numerous resources on meditation, this is one I really like:

Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to

by Dan Harris

It is an excellent and accessible book, especially for fidgety skeptics!