Meditation for beginners
So you’ve decided to start looking after the health of your mind by meditating. But where to begin? How to get started? What are the basics? How will it feel? What to expect? All perfectly normal questions, and, lucky for you, we’re here with the answers you need to get started.
Most first-time meditators find it strange to sit in silence, to sit with their innermost thoughts and feelings, to sit and do nothing — the very things that, funnily enough, the mind tends to resist. To a beginner, meditation might initially feel a little alien, perhaps even daunting, but that’s okay. People have been meditating for around 3,000 years, and many have doubtless experienced the same reticence, trepidation, or wonder that first-time meditators often feel.
Maybe you want to start meditating because you want to be less reactive, feel less stressed, or be more focused. Maybe meditating is part of a wider personal development plan of some kind. Or maybe you’re looking to improve your relationships with those around you. Whatever the reason, training the mind through meditation is training in awareness, and training in awareness offers the potential to fundamentally transform your perspective on life.
Our entire existence is experienced through our minds, and our perspective on life can dramatically alter once we begin meditating. Being inspired to start meditating is very different from actually doing it, however, and you’ll only feel the benefits of meditation by beginning and maintaining a regular practice. In order to get meditation, you need to do meditation. In order to calm your mind, you need to begin by sitting with its untamed nature.
Meditation is simple to learn and involves some fairly straightforward techniques. Before getting started, let’s take care of a few practicalities and answer some everyday questions.
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When you close your eyes and follow the instructions of your first guided meditation (whether in-person or via a recording), you should expect your mind to be busy, easily distracted, and restless, if not more so. Just because you’ve chosen to sit and meditate doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly experience uninterrupted calm, in the same way you’d never expect to tame a wild horse overnight.
The process of meditating is straightforward and easy: simply sit and practice. All you have to do is close your eyes, stay focused on your breathing, and let your mind do its thing. This is the one skill where you don’t have to strive to achieve something — just a place of stillness where no effort is required.
There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. There is only awareness or non-awareness. The moment you realize you’re lost in thought, that’s awareness, and that’s when you return to the object of focus (usually the breath). This is all you have to keep doing — return from your distracted thought to the breath, all the time honing your awareness. With perseverance, the periods between awareness and distraction will get longer and longer.
Before starting, it’s good to familiarize yourself with how the mind works and what to expect of it when you sit down to meditate. A good introduction is this short animation that uses the experience of sitting by the road watching traffic to explain how meditation helps change your perspective on your thoughts or feelings by teaching you to observe and let them go without getting caught up in them.
Meditation doesn’t promise to solve your problems, and there’s no guarantee of everlasting happiness. Life, with all its challenges and uncertainty, will still happen. What meditation can do is change how you choose to relate to, react to, and view the circumstances happening around you. It offers a pocket of stillness amid all the outer chaos. With a consistent practice — and with a certain amount of open mindedness and a willingness to investigate — the change it brings about is gradual, subtle, and intangible yet profound. It involves a growing sense of awareness and understanding that can ultimately change the way you feel about both yourself and others.
The first step is to commit to a regular practice, a few times a week if possible. Be clear about the time you will carve out— 10 or 15 minutes initially — and where you will sit, relatively undisturbed (a little bit of background noise is not an issue). It takes discipline and perseverance to make a habit stick, so honoring a routine — same time, same place — will help build your meditation practice. Many people pair meditation with a routine habit they already have, like brushing their teeth, to make sure they remember it. A popular time to meditate is first thing in the morning, though it’s okay to find a time that suits your schedule, be it morning, afternoon, or evening.
Wear whatever you like. The most important thing is that you are comfortable and relaxed. If you happen to be wearing a tie, belt, or scarf, you may want to loosen it beforehand and also kick off any uncomfortable, tight-fitting shoes or heels. If you so choose, you could also wear absolutely nothing at all (as long as you’re in the privacy and comfort of your own home).
You can meditate inside or outside and can sit on the floor, a cushion, bench, chair, or anything else that works for you. Unless you wish to do so, you can safely forget stereotypical images of sitting cross-legged by a tree. Beginners often find it’s easier to use an upright chair as they’re familiarizing themselves with the practice. Sitting toward the front of the chair will help with the correct posture: back straight, neck relaxed, chin slightly tucked in. Rest your hands loosely on your lap or knees.
How long you choose to meditate depends on your preferences, life circumstances, and time available. The important thing is that frequency trumps duration. When first starting out, it’s recommended that you begin with a 10-minute session. You can always make the jump to 15 or 20 minutes the more familiar you become with training the mind. If sitting in silence for 10 minutes sounds overwhelming as you’re just starting out, then there’s no harm in beginning with three- or five-minute guided meditations. You might as well give it a shot and see how it feels and then build up as your confidence grows.
The reasons to meditate are broad and subjective as well as different for everybody. But it’s helpful to start with a clear motivation — to know why you are wanting to meditate. If you only have some nebulous idea of why you’re doing it, then the chances are you’ll struggle to stick with the practice. Being clear about what you want to get out of your sessions — whether it’s to feel happier, feel calmer, be more focused, or be less stressed, etc. — will be a big help in creating the right attitude of mind going in as well as helping you maintain the commitment to yourself.
Meditation is a journey of a lifetime, not a sprint to instant progress. Take it session by session, day by day, appreciating that this is a skill that requires commitment, patience, and practice, where the benefits are felt gradually over time. There is no “good” or “bad” meditation, and there is no “succeeding” or “failing”; there is only awareness and non-awareness or distraction and non-distraction. Over time, the more the mind learns to become less distracted and the more our awareness stabilizes.
We meditate to practice our awareness of the present moment. The point of this skill is to make us more mindful and less distracted throughout the day. At the end of your meditation, it’s important to recognize the quality of mind in that moment and then make the intention to carry it into the rest of your day. Form a clear idea about what you are going to do next, whether it’s brushing your teeth, taking a shower, or making breakfast. It’s so easy to jump off the seat and lose the calm, spacious quality you created while meditating, so be conscious of carrying this awareness with you into the next activity you do.
A good introduction to meditation for beginners is the “body scan” technique, which is actually a great way to cultivate the gentle curiosity we need to bring to a meditation. What’s a body scan? Imagine a photocopier-style scanner slowly moving over you, detecting any physical sensations within the body, without analysis and without trying to change what you feel.
With your eyes closed and starting at the top of the head, mentally scan down your body, from head to toe. As you scan, notice which parts feel relaxed or tense, comfortable or uncomfortable, light or heavy, and so on and so forth. You are simply building a picture of how the body feels right now, in the moment. Each scan should take about 20 seconds. Thoughts may well arise and distract you. If so, simply return to the area of the body where you last left off. In making the body scan a part of your meditation, you are familiarizing yourself with bringing awareness to your thoughts and feelings.
It’s perfectly normal when first starting to meditate that you encounter obstacles, whether it’s feeling restlessness, bored, fearful, anxious, overwhelmed, or generally resistant. In time and with practice, all obstacles diminish, and the process will feel easier. It’s worth remembering that everyone comes to meditation with a lifetime of conditioning behind them. The mind is used to being busy. It is not used to stillness. So it will naturally buck and kick until it gets comfortable with the foreign idea of letting go and doing nothing.
The most common obstacle is finding the time to meditate, but it really doesn’t matter if you miss a day or three. A regular practice is the most effective, but what does truly matter is that you pick up where you left off and give yourself that 10 or 15 minutes — or whatever duration you choose — to look after the health of your mind. If it’s been longer, say a month, since you last meditated, it may even help to revisit some of the basics again.
Feeling sleepy — and perhaps even nodding off — is also normal when beginning a meditation practice. That’s because the mind confuses “doing nothing” with relaxation. Eventually, it will know the difference between a relaxed focus (what you’re trying to achieve) and total relaxation (a byproduct of meditation).
Three tips that might prove helpful to stay alert and awake:
Many first-timers believe a library-like hush should greet every meditation session, which leaves them extra sensitive to every little distraction and sound. It’s important to know you are not meant to sit in total silence; you are simply meant to settle into your environment with all its accompanying sounds, be it a noisy neighbor, screaming kids in the street, or a reversing truck. Rather than dwelling on those sounds — or trying to tune them out and getting frustrated when you can’t — allow them to come and go without resistance. Of course, if you are struggling with this in the beginning, you can always try earplugs or noise-cancelling earphones.
Meditation is one of those practices and traditions that comes with a lot of misconceptions and stigmas attached, built on the back of certain stereotypes that have themselves been built on the back of rumor, myth, and media portrayals. Many people think of meditation and readily associate labels and images to the practice, from “New Age” to “woo-woo,” from “granola” to “tree huggers.” But there is not “a certain type of person” who meditates; people of all ages and all walks of life — people who wish to better understand the mind — have been meditating for hundreds of years.
One of the biggest myths out there is that meditation is inherently religious. Meditation is a skill, not a belief system. Some people do use meditation in a religious context, but the application of the skill does not make meditation inherently religious.
Another myth is the idea that meditation takes itself too seriously, involving meditators who are sitting cross-legged, arms extended, repeatedly saying “ohhhmmm” out loud. The truth is that while some people choose to sit cross-legged — and maybe out in nature or by the beach — many meditators choose to meditate sitting in a chair with hands on their laps. All you are doing is sitting with the mind, becoming aware of your emotions and feelings. Everyone has a mind, and from time to time, everyone struggles with that mind (or thoughts). Sportsmen and women — NBA basketball stars, Team Great Britain Olympians, NFL prospects at the Scouting Combine), the U.S. swim team, and English Premier League soccer players to name a few — have increasingly turned to meditation as part of their mental training. They are not hugging trees or burning incense (not that there’s anything wrong with that); they are simply getting their head in the game, understanding that their mental health is just as important as their physical health.
It’s always easy to start something new — a new diet, a new exercise regime, a new hobby — but the tricky part is keeping it going. Early enthusiasm wanes. The novelty wears off. This is a common issue with meditation, especially because the exercises can sometimes feel repetitive. So it’s worth remembering that we are training the mind to shift the way we relate to our thoughts and feelings...and that takes time, perseverance, and discipline.
One reason people throw in the towel is frustration — frustration that the mind won’t “empty” or “clear.” Going in, it’s important to know that the mind is always going to think, because that is what it is programmed to do. Meditating won’t magically stop thoughts, but it will teach you to step back and observe them without judgment or bias. The purpose is to allow thoughts to come and go. It is a skill to be learned, practiced, and mastered. And we can only master this skill by building a habit.
The more you stick with your meditation practice, the more benefits you will feel. The more benefits you feel, the more you will understand how your mind thinks and feels —and the more you can take steps toward a healthier and happier life with increased clarity, calm, contentment, and compassion.
Meditation is a journey of a lifetime, and each journey starts with a first step. In the Headspace app, that first step takes you to Basics, a course in three parts that is designed to be the foundation of your practice. Basics 1, 2, and 3 — where you’ll learn techniques to be used in the series of exercises across all courses — are made up of 10 sessions each, and while it’s not required that you complete all the levels, it is encouraged to take the time to work through each stage to familiarize yourself with meditation and Headspace’s style of teaching.
Once you are a little bit more confident about what you’re doing, there is then a whole library of content to explore with different courses applicable to different areas and emotions of life.