The ultimate cheat sheet to meditation for beginners

You already know that meditation is a global phenomenon, and is associated with improved physical health, increased happiness, mental clarity, and lower levels of depression, among its many benefits.

While you may have tried to sit still once and a while and capture some of the benefits of meditation, you don’t have a clear picture of what to do or how to really get started.

Sound familiar?

If you’re a beginner to meditation, you probably have a bunch of questions.

Like, which kind of meditation is right for you? What type of posture is best? And if you’re brand spanking new to it all, how and where do you actually begin?

Don’t worry; we’ve got your back.

Read through this insanely comprehensive guide, as we have ALL the information you need to begin a fantastic journey into a new world of meditation.

(This article is an extract from my new no-nonsense eBook on applying Buddhist teachings to every day life. Check it out here).

So, how exactly do you meditate?

woman meditating on beachHere are a few general tips to get started:

1. Ease into it!

If you’re new to meditation, start with only 5 to 30 minutes per day.

While experienced monks might spend hours meditating every day, there’s no need to jump in that far.

You’re more likely to maintain a regular meditation practice if you set a reasonable timeframe for yourself.

2. Meditate every day

Don’t skip days, or you’ll struggle to establish a steady routine and reap the benefits. Try setting a regular time and place for your meditation, and prioritize it.

3. Choose a comfortable posture that you can maintain for the length of your meditation

You may be unaccustomed to sitting on the floor, for example, but with time you’ll soon adapt. Use a cushion as needed for comfort.

4. Find a quiet place

Find a place that is reasonably quiet where you will not be disturbed.

You can try sitting in the same place for meditation every day, as your mind will begin to associate that place with conscious breath, inner peace, and deep concentration.

5. Join a community

Some people enjoy meditating with a likeminded community, a group of people who gather to meditate in silence together.

If this interests you, check if there are any meditation groups in your area. Belonging to a group also increases your sense of accountability and may make you more likely to stick to your new practice.

6. Meditation tapes

Many meditators enjoy the guidance of a meditation tape, especially when they are new to practice.

These tapes are plentiful, and you should be able to find one that’s to your liking. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of mindfulness and meditation apps toward the end of this book.

7. Focus on your breath

Begin your meditation by focusing on your breath, on the sensations of inhaling and exhaling.

There are many things you can focus on while meditating—a mantra, a flame, an image—but the breath is one of the most fundamental.

OK, now what posture should I take?

meditation postureYou can meditate in a variety of postures: sitting, walking, lying down. I will now sketch these meditation postures and offer advice.

1. Sitting Meditation

First, where should you sit?

You can either sit on the ground (with or without a cushion) or on a chair. Find a quiet place with few distractions.

Next, how should you sit?

Keep an upright posture with a flat but not overly tense back. Don’t slouch. Keep your ears aligned over your shoulders and your shoulders aligned over your hips. If you’re on the ground, you can sit in several different ways:

  •    Cross-legged
  •    Half lotus or lotus position
  •    Kneeling (with a cushion resting between your calves and thighs for comfort)
  •    Both legs bent to one side

Many people spend hours sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, and this tendency can wreak havoc on our necks and backs. In a typical “work” posture, we round our shoulders and push our necks forward. Your meditation practice is a chance to break this habit and undo some of its harm.

If you’re especially tight or stiff, consider stretching for a few minutes before settling into your sitting meditation.

Your meditation itself may take several forms. Often, practitioners center themselves on the breath, feeling the air enter and leave their lungs, feeling their chests and stomachs rising and falling. As explained above in the section on breathing, meditators frequently use a mental chant to help guide their minds:

  •    “Rising…falling…rising…falling”
  •    “Breathing in…breathing out…”
  •    “One…two…three…four…”

You may take a few moments to scan your body, starting at the head and working your way down to the feet. How does the head feel today? The neck? Any stiffness or soreness? And moving down to the shoulders, arms, hands, torso, hips, legs, feet, and toes.

Notice areas of discomfort if any exist, any tightness or tension. Or perhaps you’re feeling especially loose and relaxed today and can enjoy the simple pleasure of feeling good in the moment.

Whatever observations you make, try to make them without judgment. There’s no use lamenting right now that your crappy left shoulder is feeling tight again—make this observation, then breathe and let it go.

2. Walking Meditation

How should you perform a formal walking meditation?

Walk slowly and with intention. Typically, we walk briskly without really thinking about it. In walking meditation, you want to slow down and notice each component of the step.

You can break each step into four basic components:

  •    Lifting – lifting your foot off the ground.
  •    Moving – moving your foot forward.
  •    Placing – placing your foot back down on the ground.
  •    Shifting – shifting your weight from one foot to another.

As you walk, concentrate on each part of the movement, using these words to guide and focus your mind. Think to yourself, “Lifting…Moving…Placing…Shifting…Lifting…Moving…Placing…Shifting…” and so on. Allow your eyes to remain open (you don’t want to trip) but with soft focus.

Where should you walk?

Ideally somewhere private and indoors, where you won’t be disturbed by people who are confused about what you are doing! Choose somewhere with level terrain and no obstructions. For now, you want to focus on the movement of your body, rather than on navigating complicated terrain.

Finally, find a space that allows you to walk in more or less a straight line for at least ten paces or so, so that you are not constantly turning around.

There is also a less formal kind of walking meditation, one that is more compatible with walking around in the outside world.

How much time do you spend walking each day? Do you walk into town to run errands or walk your commute to work or school? If so, you probably do a good deal of this walking on autopilot. Once you’ve memorized your route, you can walk it without really paying attention beyond the bare minimum (hopefully you always check for traffic before crossing the street!).

Next time you have to walk somewhere, though, why not try doing so with more mindfulness? As you walk, look at your surroundings.

Notice that so-and-so who lives over there has a nice garden. Notice that there’s a wasp’s nest up in that tree. Notice that this house has been painted a new color. Notice the sounds and smells all around you: the noise of cars and buses, the conversations of other pedestrians, the songs of birds, the smell of flowers.

Is the air humid or dry? Is the sun shining or hidden behind clouds? How does your body feel as it walks, loose and relaxed or tight and in pain?

Taking the time to notice and observe your body as it moves through its environment centers you firmly in the present moment and gets you in touch with how you are doing and feeling that day. There are few things healthier or more calming than mindful walking.

Master Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh explains walking meditation brilliantly:

“You don’t have to make any effort during walking meditation, because it is enjoyable. You are there, body and mind together. You are fully alive, fully present in the here and the now. With every step, you touch the wonders of life that are in you and around you. When you walk like that, every step brings healing. Every step brings peace and joy, because every step is a miracle. The real miracle is not to fly or walk on fire. The real miracle is to walk on the Earth, and you can perform that miracle at any time.”

3. Lying Meditation

You can also meditate while lying down. There’s always the risk of drifting off to sleep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you do a lying meditation in the evening as a way to calm your mind before rest. In fact, I think it’s an excellent way to end each day.

Lie on your back on a comfortable surface such as your bed or a yoga mat. You can leave your eyes open (with soft focus) or close them. Then use the techniques outlined above. For example:

  •    Count your breaths as they come and go.
  •    Scan down your body and take inventory of how it is feeling.
  •    Feel the weight of your body as it presses into the ground or bed.

What does yoga have to do with meditation?Link between yoga and meditationOriginating in ancient India, yoga takes on many forms today. There are multiple schools of yoga, multiple ways to practice, and multiple goals.

What I want to focus on here is hatha yoga. Its various postures stretch and strengthen your body and improve your sense of balance.

Undertaking a mindful yoga practice is also a wonderful way to enjoy moving your body. If you spend most of your day sitting, you may be reluctant to spend even more time sitting by performing a sitting meditation. In this case, practicing yoga is an excellent way to foster mindfulness while also allowing your body to move.

While it is possible to perform yoga the same way you would any other exercise, I suggest bringing the same quiet, calm, mindful energy to yoga as you would to a sitting or walking meditation. Focus on your breath. Notice how your body is feeling. Pause and scan your body. Accept both its strengths and limitations.

Yoga is quite difficult to learn from a book, so it’s recommended to take a class from a qualified instructor or find a video that you like and follow along.

(To learn more yoga techniques that help you relieve stress and tension, click here)

4. Mindful Breathing

According to Master Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, this is the most simple and basic meditation technique but also the most useful. Why? Because we’re always breathing. You can literally practice this anywhere, anytime, even if it’s for 15 seconds.

The main crux of this technique is that you simply focus on your breath.

Here is Thich Nhat Hanh explaining how to go about it:

“Please, when you breathe in, do not make an effort of breathing in. You just allow yourself to breathe in. Even if you don’t breathe in it will breathe in by itself. So don’t say, “My breath, come, so that I tell you how to do.” Don’t try to force anything, don’t try to intervene, just allow the breathing in to take place….

“What you have to do is be aware of the fact that the breathing in is taking place. And you have more chance to enjoy your in-breath. Don’t struggle with your breath, that is what I recommend. Realize that your in breath is a wonder. When someone is dead, no matter what we do, the person will not breathe in again. So we are breathing in, that is a wonderful thing….

“This is the first recommendation on breathing that the Buddha made: When breathing in, I know this is the in-breath. When breathing out, I know this is the out-breath. When the in-breath is long, I know it is long. When it is short, I know it is short. Just recognition, mere recognition, simple recognition of the presence of the in-breath and out-breath. When you do that, suddenly you become entirely present. What a miracle, because to meditate means to be there. To be there with yourself, to be there with your in‑breath.”

This video explains the neuroscience behind why focusing on your breath is so effective in tuning yourself into the present moment.

(To learn 3 breathing techniques you can use to calm down and reduce stress, click here)

5. Concentration

According to Thich Nhat Hanh, concentration is a great source of happiness. Concentration simply means focusing on something, whether it’s your breathe, a flower or a body part. You could literally point your focus on anything, and as long as you keep that focus, you are practicing mindfulness.

It’s recommended that you choose an object where you don’t have to scan your eyes. Buddhist monks tend to use a candle flame.

If you get distracted by your thoughts, simply return your focus back to the object.

You can start this for one minute and then keep on increasing the time as you practice more.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains why this is so powerful:

“Anything can be the object of your meditation, and with the powerful energy of concentration, you can make a breakthrough and develop insight. It’s like a magnifying glass concentrating the light of the sun. If you put the point of concentrated light on a piece of paper, it will burn. Similarly, when your mindfulness and concentration are powerful, your insight will liberate you from fear, anger, and despair, and bring you true joy, true peace, and true happiness.”

6. Awareness of your body

This is the technique Thich Nhat Hanh recommends to use to get in touch with your body.

All it involves is a body scan where you turn your focus to each of your body parts one by one.

As you’re going through your body, release any tension and simply try to relax. Thich Nhat Hanh says that this is powerful because we rarely experience this in daily existence. Our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere.

Thich Nhat Han recommends to use this mantra:

“Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. When you practice mindful breathing, the quality of your in-breath and out-breath will be improved. There is more peace and harmony in your breathing, and if you continue to practice like that, the peace and the harmony will penetrate into the body, and the body will profit.”

7. Release tension

guy lying on the grass using Thich Nhat Hanh mindfulness techniques

The next exercise is to release tension in the body. When you start becoming aware of your body, you’ll notice tension in different parts of your body. Therefore, it is very important to learn how to release tension in the body.

Thich Nhat Hanh explains how:

“So next time you’re stopped at a red light, you might like to sit back and practice the fourth exercise: “Breathing in, I’m aware of my body. Breathing out, I release the tension in my body.” Peace is possible at that moment, and it can be practiced many times a day—in the workplace, while you are driving, while you are cooking, while you are doing the dishes, while you are watering the vegetable garden. It is always possible to practice releasing the tension in yourself.”

This is an excerpt from Hack Spirit’s latest eBook called The No-Nonsense Guide to Using Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy For a Better Life. By unwrapping iconic Buddhist teachings, this 96-page eBook focuses on specific actions you can take to alleviate stress, cultivate healthier relationships, and live a more satisfying life. Check it out here.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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