How to Meditate: A Beginner’s Guide in 4 Easy-to-Follow Steps
It’s 2020 and it seems that if you don’t meditate or do yoga, your existence is doomed. Among all the hype and the multi-billion business, though, something important is being lost. Meditation is not meant to be learned arduously. It is a natural state of mind and body if only we give it a chance to work as it should be.
To breathe steadily in a state of deep relaxation doesn’t compare to climbing K2 or completing an ultramarathon race, but there lies the chief paradox: the easiest things are often the hardest to follow. We don’t trust simple.
And yet, the beauty of meditation is that anyone can do it without any special background or training.
I’ve been meditating for years and it has been a key tool for me to restore my mental balance if needed, and trigger the healing of my body should I feel unwell. Let me guide you, then, through the very basic steps you need to follow to start enjoying its extraordinary benefits practically instantly.
1. Choose a position you’re comfortable in
If you like to lie, lie. If you like to sit, sit. If you prefer to rest in your office chair or stand on your head, then so be it.
Many will prescribe you an “official” meditation posture. However, just as you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on mindfulness workshops or embark on a self-exploratory journey to India to be able to meditate, you don’t need to demotivate yourself right away by striking an unpleasant pose.
The single most important factor of successful meditation experience is reaching a state of deep relaxation, not performing a task, so simply follow your own instinct with regard to what makes your body and mind feel good.
2. Start with slow and steady breathing
All the beginners perhaps have a vague idea that meditation is somehow connected to improving their breathing techniques. But why is that?
Just as fuel needs oxygen to burn, the cells in our bodies need oxygen to convert nutrients into energy.
Without oxygen, cells die. More precisely, the cells that compose a healthy body.
In 1931, a German scientist Otto Heinrich Warburg received a Nobel Prize for proving that while normal cells cannot survive without oxygen, cancer cells can. What’s more, cancer thrives in oxygen-deprived body tissues.
When we are stressed, on the other hand, we take rapid, short breaths, which leads to a decreased level of oxygen supply in the cells, including that of our most vital organs, such as our heart and brain. This applies not only to extreme situations, such as getting robbed or facing a rabid dog, for example, but countless everyday activities, such as sitting in a work meeting, opening an unexpected invoice, taking an unpleasant call, packing kids for school, and so on, and so on.
Now, let’s go back to meditation. You’re in a position that is comfortable for you and you bring your attention to your breath.
Here, rather than heavy, think in terms of slow and steady. At the same time, breathe through your belly, not your chest, to activate your diaphragm (the curved sheet of muscle that separates your abdomen from your thorax) to enable the proper exchange of gases (oxygen in / carbon dioxide out).
PRO TIP I:
If breathing using your belly rather than your ribcage is new to you or if it feels somewhat awkward, imagine that there is a balloon inside your stomach that you’re trying to inflate evenly in all the directions.
You can do a simple test by poking a finger into your lower back or left/right side of your waist and see if it moves when you breathe.
Whenever possible, practice this even for a few minutes, so that it eventually becomes a normal way of breathing for your body, without the need for a conscious effort.
Not only will you instantly feel more energized and relaxed each time you do so, but you will also activate the deep muscles around your spine resulting in a better body posture and less back pain.
Breathe longer, deeper, for longer, deeper life. But if you do quick little breaths, you will end your life quite quickly. The quality of your breath is the quality of your life.
〜 Guru Gurmukh
3. Switch off your internal dialogues
For most people, meditation equals emptying their minds. They close their eyes and try very hard not to “think about anything”.
And then they come. One by one. A thought about this, a thought about that. It seems impossible to make them stop creeping in. Even worse, they steal the peace of mind, and eventually, the aspiring meditator gives up, believing that it is not in their power to have any control of what resides in their head.
It is indeed important to switch off our internal dialogues and direct our attention to the steadiness of our breath. Yet, if our mind doesn’t stay perfectly blank throughout the course of the whole meditation session, it doesn’t mean that we have failed.
Look at it from a different perspective — meditation as a way to free yourself from your thoughts rather than eliminate them.
More practically, when they appear: 1) observe them, and 2) ultimately let them pass.
Imagine that there are numerous movies running simultaneously in the theater of your mind. If you can switch them all off, it’s great, but if you don’t, it’s quite enough if you simply take account of what is on the program and resist being dragged into the storyline.
And if that happens — if you find yourself, a few moments later, being carried away by a particular persistent thought, branching it, indulging it, developing it into some new scenarios… simply take a calm breath and let it be. No hard sweating. No self-flagellation for having failed. Just do your best. Keep trying. Improve with every new session.
PRO TIP II:
Most of the thoughts that pass through our minds are identical to those of yesterday, of a week ago, a year ago, or even five years ago. Often the characters or the setting change, still the main plots remain the same.
Stories about loneliness. Stories about doubting ourselves. Stories about fear of the future. Stories about betrayal. Stories about anger over injustice. Stories about not being good enough for those we love. Stories about not fulfilling somebody’s expectations.
And when a certain set of thoughts repeatedly occupies your mental space, it ends up defining your entire life. So not only is it advisable to take inventory of your thoughts by practicing mindfulness and meditation, but it’s also quite useful to use a basic notepad and a pen to write them down.
In practice, it means each time you feel like there are thoughts that wake up unpleasant emotions, write them down. Do this for a few days and you will be surprised how often the same stuff keeps coming up.
PRO TIP III:
For some people, even a mindful observation of thoughts is too much to handle at the very beginning. Their addiction to an incessant flow of information through their minds is way too strong. In such cases, it can be helpful to use affirmations, i.e., (positive) statements such as:
I’m healing. I’m learning something new every day. I forgive those that hurt me. I’m actively building up my success.
This way we replace thoughts we don’t want, with thoughts we desire, to fill our mind and shape our destiny.
4. Do it for only 5 minutes
Start small — for example by 5 minutes per day. When you can do this without hesitation and when you start feeling the true effects yourself — meaning meditation becomes something you WANT to do, not something you SHOULD do — you can start extending the time of individual sessions and taking charge of your health.
The center of your immune system is in your gut. Gut bacteria not only regulate digestion and metabolism, but they also defend the body against harmful microbes or produce neurochemicals (e.g., serotonin, dopamine) that your brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes.
When you meditate, you silence the sympathetic nervous system (= fight-or-flight response to stress) and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (= rest-and-digest response once the danger is over) which allows our body to relax and perform tasks necessary for healing (!), growing, and learning.
When you are under constant pressure, on the other hand, blood moves away from your digestive tract to help you use your energy elsewhere in order to face (real or perceived) threats.
Last but not least, meditation changes your brain permanently by strengthening its regions responsible for learning, empathy, or regulation of emotions. That’s why every minute counts.
Don’t let anyone discourage you with their well-meant advice. Just as there is not just one “correct way” of doing sports (=exercise for the body), there is not a single way of doing meditation (=exercise for the mind). Experiment with what works for you. Only you know yourself the best. Only you can help yourself the best.