What do you imagine when you hear the word meditation? An Asian monk with a shaved head sitting a cave? A white woman doing yoga in her expensive condo beside a Whole Foods?
Yes, meditation — at least the kind that produces mindfulness — derives from Buddhism, an ancient Indian religion.
And yes, mindfulness, like yoga before it, is blowing up in places like Silicon Valley and Brooklyn.
Yet, meditation can be and increasingly is becoming a secular practice. At its core, it’s practice for the most basic aspects of being a human being: breathing, listening, and feeling sensations in the body.
Why do we need to practice all that? Because we forget. We forget about our ability to be present and aware — our natural “mindfulness” — because we almost constantly think about the past and future. We replay experiences we’ve had and try to plan experiences we’re about to have.
These wandering thoughts are natural as well. But if we don’t notice them for what they are — passing thoughts that don’t necessarily match reality — we forget to breathe fully, feel our bodies, and pay attention to what’s around us. We go on autopilot, which causes us stress and, for some of us, a never-ending sense that something is wrong or missing.
In fact, scientific research has shown that regular meditation can shrink the amygdala, the “fight or flight” part of the brain that processes emotions like anxiety, fear, and aggression.
But the possibility that meditation is increasing the size of my amygdala isn’t why I do it every day. I became a meditation fanboy once I noticed myself being a little more mindful and a little less stressed at work, talking with my girlfriend, while driving — you know, everyday stuff. I needed to experience the benefits firsthand, and it didn’t take long to do so. I suspect it will be the same for you.
So, here are the basics of the sort of meditation I’m familiar with, called insight meditation, including how to sit, how long to sit, what to think about, and what the point is.
If you’re not scared off yet — what are you, a snowflake? — this will be enough to get you started. But don’t let this be your only entry point. Listen to talks and read books about meditation, and, if it’s available to you, go drop-in on a class. Learning from experienced teachers and other meditators will help show you that this is an absolutely normal and extremely human practice.
First things first, find a quiet place and set a timer
You’re bound to feel vulnerable while meditating. Your eyes are closed, and your mind, at least when you start, is focused inward. Find a quiet room where you can close the door to other people and distractions.
Set a timer so that you’re not worried about keeping track of the time. The free app Insight Timer has bell sounds that you can set to ring at the end of the meditation.
Ten minutes is a good amount for your first time. It’s just enough time to try the basic exercises that make up insight meditation, but not enough to feel like a heavy burden.
Start by getting your posture right
The word mindfulness suggests that meditation is a practice for the mind, or the brain. But it’s actually a practice of synchronizing the mind with the body.
The way you situate your body while meditating is important. You might sit on a cushion — often called a zafu, based on meditation’s Buddhist origins. You might lay down or stand or even walk slowly. You want to have a posture instead of curling up in a chair or in bed, which might cause you to fall asleep. Ultimately, though, do whatever is comfortable for your particular body.
The most common sitting position is on a cushion or in a chair with your back straight and shoulders back. Imagine you have a tail that you don’t want to sit on, which should help you keep a healthy arch in your back.
Once you’re settled, consciously relax your body
Put your mind’s attention on your forehead and soften the skin and muscles there. Sometimes I like to imagine the warmth of the sun shining on a 72-degree day. Move your attention down through your face, relaxing and noticing as you go.
During this part of the session, called a “body scan,” the only two things you need to do is relax and notice. Relax your muscles as you make your way down through your shoulders, arms, hands, chest, stomach, legs, and feet. Notice what sensations you feel in those areas when they’re relaxed. Do you feel tingling, burning, or pleasure? Maybe you don’t feel anything. Just notice without judging what you find as good or bad.
Now, focus on your breath
Once you’ve scanned through your body, which should take a few minutes, put your attention on the movement of your breath. Follow the air in through your nose, down your throat, into your lungs, and then out. Feel your body as it breathes in a normal rhythm.
You’ll quickly notice that, just as your body breathes without you telling it to, your mind instinctively wanders. It’s thinking about breathing but then wondering about what to cook for dinner. It’s wondering about dinner and then replaying an argument you had last night.
When you notice your mind wandering, bring your attention back to focusing on your body breathing. This is training your mind to stay put. This is the practice.
Your mind will wander over and over again for the rest of your life. In its most basic form, meditation is training to notice when your mind has wandered and bring it back to the present moment — whether by feeling your body breathing or listening to what someone is saying to you or whatever it takes.
That’s it. There’s not much more to it.
I like how the creators of the app Headspace — which I have yet to try so can’t endorse — put it: “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.”
When the bell rings, give it your attention until the sound fades away, and then open your eyes.
Notice whether you feel different than you did ten minutes ago. If you don’t feel much different, that’s okay too. It might take a few daily sessions to start to notice the subtle — but potentially enormous — changes going on inside of you.
Ready to get serious about meditation?
Sign up for my weekly email on meditation and bringing mindfulness to the stuff that matters — work, relationships, and politics.
Listen to the podcast version with more content
My podcast, Meditation for the Masses, takes meditation out of faraway monasteries, expensive retreat centers, and corporate America, and brings it to the things that matter most to people who work for a living—work, relationships, and politics. It’s mindfulness for the 99%.