I’ve spoken with many people who are interested in meditation but don’t know where to begin. Or have tried but felt they weren’t doing it correctly, or well enough. The good news is that anyone can meditate. You don’t have to do it perfectly. In fact, releasing those kinds of judgments about ourselves and our present-moment experience is part of the practice itself. No matter what your path has been, you can always start fresh at any moment. You can begin wherever you are.
Meditation is a gift to yourself. You can create your practice in a way that works for you. Even if you start by sitting for just five minutes, you can still benefit. Five minutes of imperfect meditation practiced daily is better than a conceptual ideal of thirty minutes of perfect meditation practiced never. In other words, just start with whatever you feel you can do.
Here are some things that helped me establish my own practice eight years ago—and have helped me sustain it.
This guide will give you the basics of mindfulness meditation. At its core, the practice is about learning to be fully present in this moment, with nonjudgmental, kind attention; to ride the waves of experience without getting swept up in fear and separation. Mindfulness helps us shift from reactivity to clarity. It gives us perspective. It brings us back to our hearts.
Whatever we cultivate grows. My teacher Tara Brach says, “We’re really practicing to manifest more fully that natural awareness and love that’s who we really are.” We can offer that care to ourselves and others. We can deepen our awareness and bring a sense of groundedness into our daily lives. “The point isn’t to stop human experience,” says my teacher Jack Kornfield, “but to be able to pause in its midst and see the impermanence of the waves… and that which entangles us and causes suffering, and that which releases us into joy… The goal of it all is a wise heart.” With mindfulness practice, wherever we are can be a place of freedom and ease.
Some advice to help you begin:
1. Sit comfortably.
You don’t need to fold your legs into full lotus in order to meditate. If you can, brilliant, but it’s completely unnecessary. Aim simply for this: spine tall, in its natural curves, with a sense of dignity, balance, and relaxation. If folding your legs is painful or uncomfortable, you can sit on a chair with your feet grounded on the floor. If you can fold or cross your legs comfortably, choose a spot with the right balance of softness and firmness. Maybe a meditation cushion, maybe a supportive sofa. If it helps you to have your back supported, sit with a cushion behind you, against a wall or the back of the sofa. Also, sitting on the front edge of a low cushion or folded blanket can help encourage a healthy lumbar curve. Experiment to find the most comfortable way to fold your legs. You can prop a blanket or small cushion under one or both knees for extra support.
2. Create a soothing atmosphere.
Your environment can help with your practice. Sit in a place that feels safe and peaceful. You can light a candle or have beautiful flowers nearby, or a crystal you like, if you’re into that sort of thing. Let your senses take in the soothing qualities of your surroundings.
3. Settle yourself.
Gently close your eyes and take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Feel a sense of releasing and letting go with the out-breath. Then let your breath settle into its natural rhythm. Scan your awareness through your body, sensing any areas of tension, and see if you can just allow those to soften. Reflect for a moment on the deepest values of the heart. You might imagine you can feel your breath in the area of the heart. What does your heart most yearn for? What are your deepest desires, your true intention that brings you to the practice today?
4. Choose an anchor.
An anchor is a focal point of attention that grounds us in the present moment. The most common anchor in mindfulness meditation is the breath. As you meditate, simply observe your breath, without trying to control it in any way. Notice where you can feel the breath most easily, or where it feels most pleasant. Maybe it’s the movement of breath through your nostrils. Maybe it’s the spot above your upper lip. Maybe you feel the gentle rise and fall of your chest or your belly. You might feel your whole body breathing. Just notice the movement, the natural rhythm.
For some people, body sensations or sounds feel more natural as anchors for attention. Sense into specific parts of your body, like your hands and feet, and see if you can feel them from the inside out. Or notice the sensations of aliveness throughout your body—the tingling, vibrating, pressure, warmth, coolness—whatever you feel. If you’re working with sounds, simply notice whatever you hear in your environment. Notice sounds that are close and far away, as they arrive and recede. Let them move through awareness without attaching stories to them.
5. Make peace with thoughts.
In meditation, we want to quiet the mind. But do not approach the practice with the goal of erasing thoughts. It’s natural for the mind to generate thoughts. What we learn is how to simply let thoughts arise and slip away, like drifting clouds or sticks in a river. We can notice a thought without getting attached to the story. In the trance of day-to-day life, we often identify our thoughts as who we are; but we are not our thoughts. We are the awareness that notices thought. We don’t have to get tangled up and carried away in every thought that arises.
As you practice meditation, you will notice a lot of thoughts. It’s okay. Hold the intention to release any judgments you might have about your patterns of thinking. The moment you notice that you’re caught up in thoughts is the moment of power and transformation. Just say to yourself, “thinking, thinking,” or “come back,” and then gently bring your attention back to your breath. Each time you do this, you’re reinforcing the pathway of awareness. It doesn’t matter how many times you catch yourself thinking and bring yourself back to present-moment awareness. Every time is a moment of clarity and healing.
6. Cultivate kind attention.
You have the capacity to hold whatever arises in loving awareness. As you sit with yourself, you may experience challenging emotions, unwanted thoughts, or discomfort in your body. These things are part of the human experience. If you can allow these unpleasant feelings to be there without struggling against them, you may find that they soften. You are learning to hold space for yourself. Your vast awareness has room for all of it, the pleasant and unpleasant, the pain and the joy. See if you can inwardly say yes, or “this too,” to whatever you are experiencing as you sit. Offer yourself an inner sense of kindness and caring. This energy of simply allowing, with kindness, releases you from struggle. It opens the possibility of peace in any moment.
A note about trauma: if you have experienced trauma, meditation can be triggering. In trauma, our own bodies often don’t feel like safe places to be. Turning inward can face us with dark and difficult emotions that can be too much of a flood. If this is the case for you, you will first need to cultivate some inner resources. Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma can be a good starting point and comes with audio recordings for guided practice. You can also seek support from an experienced trauma therapist. Since trauma lives deep in the nervous system, not just in our thinking brain, I have found mind-body methods like EMDR to be most effective. It takes courage to look inside ourselves and heal trauma, but it is possible, and it is life-changing. When you’re ready, meditation can become an invaluable part of the journey.
7. Don’t tough it out.
Meditation is not about intentional suffering. If your body is in pain, shift your position. Do it slowly and mindfully, after noticing the sensations and sitting with them for just a moment. Over time, you’ll become more comfortable with your sitting posture. You’ll find what works. For longer sittings, if your legs are folded you may want to switch which leg is on top halfway through the meditation.
8. Use a timer or try a guided meditation.
My favorite meditation app is Insight Timer. You can choose from beautiful bell and gong sounds to start and end your meditation, and at intervals in the middle if you like. The app also has a vast library of guided meditations, including some by my teachers Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield. Tara’s guided meditations were instrumental in helping me develop my practice. Other specific recordings I like in the app are “Slow Down & Accept,” by Meg James and “Self Compassion” by Neil Tranter. Another excellent series is Oprah and Deepak Chopra’s “Manifesting Grace Through Gratitude,” available for purchase on the Chopra Center website. This series is in a different tradition—mantra practice rather than mindfulness—but there is significant overlap and Deepak is a wonderful teacher.
9. Attend a meditation class.
The energy of a group in meditation is powerful. Attending a class can deepen your practice. If you feel more comfortable with in-person guidance, use a class as a way to start. But also don’t let the idea of needing a teacher hold you back from trying on your own. Guided recordings are a great place to begin.
10. Give yourself some grace.
You will not meditate perfectly. If it’s challenging at first, don’t take it personally. Your experience will evolve over time. Do what you can; this is for you. Trust that it’s possible to cultivate your inner awareness, peace and joy—as Tara calls it, “the natural joy of being alive.” Over time, Jack says, with mindfulness practice “we develop the capacity not just to sit with the pain but also to fully let in the beauty.”
If you miss a day or two or three, forgive yourself and begin again. Aim to practice every day, even for just a few minutes. And aim to gradually lengthen your sitting time to twenty minutes or more, once or twice a day. But start where you are, with whatever feels possible. A short practice every day is more beneficial than an occasional longer sitting. The daily rhythm is important. With a regular practice, you will start to feel a sense of groundedness coming into your daily experience of living. You’ll become more aware, less reactive, more in touch with yourself. It is empowering. And in this simple act of cultivating the peaceful qualities of your own mind and heart, you are helping to improve the world.