How to Start Meditating: Tips for Beginners

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Do you want to start meditating but aren’t sure how to do it properly? How long should you meditate? What position do you assume?

According to Henepola Gunaratana, the author of Mindfulness in Plain English, beginner meditators shouldn’t worry about attaining any particular goal within a particular time period. It’s best to start meditating with an open mind, inviting and accepting whatever the experience brings.

Here are some pointers for those who want to start meditating plus some tips for handling distractions and mind-wandering.

How to Start Meditating

Determine how long you are going to meditate. Beginners can start at 10-20 minutes.

Sit in a comfortable pose. Do not change the position again until the time you determined at the beginning. Shifting positions will avoid giving you a deep level of concentration.

Sit motionlessly and close your eyes.

Your mind is like a cup of muddy water. Keep it still, and the mud will settle down and the water will be seen clearly.

The mind must focus on a mental object that is present at every moment.

Take 3 deep breaths. Then breathe normally and effortlessly, focusing your attention on the rims of your nostrils where the air is flowing through.

  • Simply notice the feeling of breath going in and out. You may notice mindfully that there is a brief pause between inhaling and exhaling – but don’t obsess over this.

Do not verbalize or conceptualize anything. Simply notice the incoming and outgoing breath, and notice as the breath lengthens as you relax.

When your mind wanders, bring it back. The book suggests counting in a variety of ways, basically to distract your mind back to breathing:

  • Count 1 when inhaling, 2 when exhaling. Repeat to 10 then repeat.
  • Count 1 to 10 quickly when inhaling, and again when exhaling.
  • Count 1 to 5 when inhaling, 1 to 6 when exhaling, and so on up to 10, then repeat.
  • Count 1 at the top of your inhalation, then exhale. Then count 2 for the next breath. Go up to 10, then back down to 1.
  • After inhaling and exhaling, count 1. Do this up to 5, then back down to 1.
  • Once your mind is focused on the breath, give up counting.

Over time, your breathing will become shallower and more subtle. This is an indicator of concentration. 

  • You will develop a new more subtle “sign” – which appears differently to different people (a star, a long string, a cobweb, the moon, a flower). Over time, master this so that whenever you want the sign, it should be available.
  • You will find great calm here free of psychic irritants. No agitation, greed, lust, hatred. These are beautiful, clear states of mind.

The mind must keep up with what is happening at every moment, so do not try to stop the mind at any one moment. This is momentary concentration.

When you feel in a state of concentration, the mind can then move to other sounds, memories, or emotions, one at a time. As they fade away, let your mind return to the breath.

Analogy: As we breathe in and out, we experience a small degree of calmness, as the relief of tension from suffocating. The calmness does not last as long as we wish, causing annoyance. We desire permanence in an impermanent situation, which causes unhappiness. However, if we watch our breathing without desiring calmness, and we experience only the moment of breath, our mind becomes peaceful and calm. We don’t want a different state, and we don’t beoman its transience – we simply enjoy it for what it is in the moment.

Dealing with Distractions During Meditation

Sometimes you won’t be able to merely observe the distraction and ponder them without thoughts. In these cases, you can try these techniques:

  • Gauge the time that’s passed since you got distracted. This makes you pull out of the thought and become mindful of it.
    • The accuracy of the time estimate isn’t important – it’s the mindfulness that is.
  • If you feel agitated, take a few deep breaths and apply force to your attention. This helps clear the mind.
    • Think “in…out” as you breathe
  • Count numbers with your breaths, as described in chapter 5.
  • Oppose unskillful thoughts with skillful thoughts
    • An unskillful thought is for instance based in greed, hatred, resentment. These are unskillful in that they are easy for everyone to have and build into obsessions.
    • Skillful thoughts are connected with generosity, compassion, and wisdom. It is difficult for most people to feel these throughout the day.
    • Skillful thoughts are antidotes to the poison of unskillful thoughts. If you resent Charlie and want to punch his face, try directing a stream of love and friendliness toward Charlie.
  • Develop a disgust for your unhealthy emotions
    • Take a good look at the emotional response you are trying to get rid of. Look at what it’s doing to your life, your happiness, your relationships. See how it makes you appear to others. 
    • You should have a disgust for it, much as you would to a decaying carcass around your neck. Feel real loathing for the negative emotion.
  • Recall your purpose. “I’m not just sitting here to waste my time. I’m here to focus my mind on the breath.”

Improvements Over Time

As you begin, you’ll notice yourself getting caught in a thought pattern for unknown minutes before you snap back into mindfulness. This is an unconscious mental state taking over your brain. 

As you practice, you will become better at detecting when the subconscious thought arises – as the author describes it, you learn to “extend your awareness down into the boiling darkness where thought and sensation begin.”

Ideally, you become aware of the thinking sensation exactly as it arises. If you catch it too late, you miss the beginning.

Over time, you will observe your thoughts and mental states as separate things. You will decouple your automatic reaction from a sensation. 

  • For example, if you’re normally annoyed by a dog barking, you’ll conceptualize the sensation, picturing the dog barking, wondering how far away it is, picturing the irresponsible owner and fantasizing about doing bad things to him. 
  • You will learn to separate the sound of the dog from your emotional reaction. Be mindful of the hearing – everything else is just added chatter. Over time, the emotion will dissipate.
How to Start Meditating: Tips for Beginners

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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