A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown

The idea of meditation can seem a bit intimidating. I was always sure I'd suck at meditation, and the few times I tried it I found no will to stop my mind from wandering — focusing on my breathing seemed so boring, and the whole practice struck me as a little too hippie. But science has shown demonstrable brain health benefits from practicing meditation and mindfulness, and people tending toward ADHD and anxiety (like me) can find it especially beneficial. In short, it's worth a try. Here are a few suggestions for how to get started.

1. Realize there’s no “right” way to meditate

Most religions contain some form of mindfulness or meditation practice. Yoga is a form of meditation. So are some types of prayer. You can meditate with all the accoutrements — candles, floor mats, incense —but these are far from necessary. While many different meditation techniques exist, all you really need in order to meditate is intention and a small chunk of time.

2. Find a quiet place

Sit (cross-legged if you can), or lie on the floor. Keep your hands in your lap.

3. Set a time frame.

Most sources recommend that beginners start with just a few minutes of meditation at a time, working up to 10 to 20 minutes per day. But try not to get too hung up on specific time goals. Start out with whatever feels tolerable, then progressively try to go a little longer.

4. Close your eyes

Or keep them open. In some forms of meditation, eyes are kept closed. In others, practitioners keep their eyes open (gazing at the floor a few feet ahead or a steady point in the distance). Do what makes you the most comfortable.

5. Find your focus

Different types of meditation involve different ways of focusing attention.

Focus on Breathing: One of the simplest ways to begin meditating is to focus on your breath. Pay attention as you inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Don't try to breathe in a certain way, just breathe as you would normally and pay attention to it. If you notice your mind wandering to other thoughts, bring it back to your breathing. Notice how your body moves as you breathe, too.

Focus on a Mantra. Another way to start is by focusing on a specific, personal mantra (spoken aloud or merely thought) or a repeated sound (like 'Om'). If your mind starts to wander, refocus on your mantra.

Both of the above are forms of concentrative meditation, which involves focusing on a single thing, like your mantra or your breathing. This could also mean staring at a candle flame, counting beads on a rosary, focusing on the horizon, etc.

Focus on Your Thoughts. Mindfulness meditation is a specific technique that involves simply observing your own thoughts. The goal is not to judge thoughts or get too caught up in them but simply note them and let them pass.

Focus on Your Steps. Walking meditation just involves walking without a goal or destination (or at least without focusing on your goal or destination). Instead, focus on each step and on your breath. Pay attention to your body. Direct thoughts back to it when they stray.

6. Stick to it

Like anything, making a habit of meditation involves repeatedly meditating. One study found that 90 percent of people who meditated for 11 days went on to do it a 12th day, and the odds remained in their favor for weeks after that.

And remember: You can’t fail at meditating. Many people worry that they’ll be bad at meditation because they have a hard time focusing — but increasing focus and self-control over thoughts is the goal, not the starting point. Give it time, and don’t feel bad if you catch your thoughts drifting frequently (even after a while). The point of meditation is not necessarily to get to a point where thoughts don’t drift — it's to be able to catch yourself when your mind does wander and quickly bring your attention back to your focus.