I can still remember the first time I meditated. I strolled casually along the beach with a woman I’d recently met. With the afternoon sun at our backs, she looked at me and said, “Let’s meditate!”
“Sure,” I quipped with a half-hearted smile.
“That spot up there looks good,” she pointed toward a cliff in the distance. As we distanced ourselves from beachgoers, I wondered to myself: “What exactly did she mean by meditate? Would we chant, pray, sing ohm, or just sit together in silence?” It all sounded pretty far-out to me.
When we arrived at the cliff, she scoped out a semi-smooth patch of dirt and took a seat. I watched her out of the corner of my eye as she situated herself. Once she closed her eyes, I examined her a little more closely, trying to get a better read on what she was doing. Note to self: watching someone meditate isn’t a successful way to learn meditation!
I eventually gave up on guessing and closed my eyes. Only I still had no idea what to do! Was I supposed to listen to the waves break? The grass rustle in the breeze? Should I chant something to myself? I associated meditation with calmness, so I tried to take a few breaths and calm myself down.
And so it went for what felt like an hour, but in reality was only ten minutes… I was filled with questions, on edge waiting for her to tell me it was over, but also a little curious to learn exactly what meditation entailed.
Fast-forward ten years, and ta-dah, I’m a meditation teacher! Let’s just say my quest to understand at least the basics of meditation has been fulfilled, thanks in large part to the world-class teachers I’ve trained with at U Mass Medical.
One of my intentions is to make this seemingly exotic practice accessible to anyone willing to give it a try… to take the guesswork out of it so you don’t have to work up a sweat the way I did!
Here are six simple steps to help you get started:
- Find a relatively quiet, comfortable place to sit. If necessary, communicate with friends, family or coworkers about your wish to have time to yourself. You can sit in a chair or on a cushion. Please note, you’re not less of a meditator if you opt for a chair!
- Embody an energizing, yet relaxed posture. Notice I didn’t say sit like a pretzel. Nor did I suggest taking a seat in lotus position. Instead, allow yourself to sit comfortably with the natural curve of your back expressed. It’s wise to keep your hips slightly above your knees with the weight situated in the trunk of your body. Then form a posture with your hands that feels natural, whether you rest them in your lap, or place them on your thighs or knees. Take a moment to settle.
- Rest your eyes closed. Or if it’s more comfortable, you may want to soften your gaze toward the floor in front of you.
- Choose an object to attend to, such as your breath. Softly focus your attention on the physical movement of breath. Feel the rise and fall of the inhalation and exhalation in your nostrils, chest or belly – wherever it’s most noticeable. Just be here with your breath.
- When the mind wanders, as it inevitably will, practice gently returning your attention to the breath. This is where I see people give up on meditation. They think the goal is to be free of thought when in reality, the only goal is to be aware when you catch yourself lost in thought, and then with a gentle resolve, return your attention to breath. Be real with yourself, it’s not going to be 100 breaths before the mind wanders, not even a full minute, maybe more like a couple breaths or even a half breath! See if you can let your mind be without labeling yourself a “terrible meditator” when you discover thoughts. All the while, continue to find a centering comfort in your breath.
- Set a timer before you begin. For how long, you might be wondering? In truth, it’s entirely up to you. I encourage people who are just getting started to practice daily for five minutes. But if you want to practice longer, go for it! You also have the option to extend the time on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, depending on what feels right to you.
Your mind will likely ask the question again and again, “Am I doing this right?” At which point, you can reflect on whether you’re practicing: a) being aware and awake for the unfolding moments of your life, and b) relating to your experience with gentleness and kindness. If so, then ta-dah! you’re engaged in mindfulness meditation.
Even if along the way you discover that you’re accidentally practicing mindlessness (which you will… and probably a lot!), and then you notice a torrent of judgmental thoughts, that’s okay, too. You can always begin again. The moment you wake up is the moment you can be different with yourself. And this is precisely how we train the brain to be a little more present and peaceful with our moment to moment, day to day experience.
Finally, try to keep a light heart, and don’t hesitate to post questions below. Let’s keep the conversation going!
Note: If you think it would be more helpful to learn mindfulness meditation in a supportive, structured group environment, there are a few seats available in our upcoming 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction class.