This is what I found when I Googled "meditation". It looks very cool, but unless you have unbelievably flexible hips, a perpetual sunset, and easy access to the ocean, your meditation practice is going to look a little bit different.
This is what meditation actually looks like. It can be done anywhere, it doesn't necessarily involve sitting cross-legged on the ground, and it is way harder than it looks. It also has the power to literally and positively change your brain.
Find Home Base: Focus on your breath
Here are the three-step instructions for beginning mindfulness meditation from the book Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. My side comments are in green.
I followed these steps each day while I learned how to meditate. For Level 1, I recommend that you follow these 3 steps every time you meditate until you can do this type of meditation for 15-20 minutes at a time.
1. Sit comfortably. It’s best to have your spine reasonably straight which may help prevent an involuntary nap. If you want to sit cross-legged on the floor, go for it. If not, just sit in a chair, as I do. You can close your eyes or, if you prefer, you can leave them open and adjust your gaze to a neutral point on the ground.
I recommend trying each variation provided here. I have the best results sitting in a chair and closing my eyes.
2. Bring your full attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and out. Pick a spot where it’s most prominent: your chest, your belly, or your nostrils. You’re not thinking about your breath, you’re just feeling the raw data of the physical sensations. To help maintain focus, you can make a quiet mental note on the in-breath and out-breath, like in and out.
I almost always note my breathing by thinking “in” and “out” and I feel the breath coming in and out of my chest. Some people like to note their breathing by counting the number of breaths, or by focusing on a different part of their body for a second in between breaths (for example "in" "out" "hands"). I encourage you to try any of these variations or discover one that works for you.
3. The third step is the key. As soon as you try to do this, your mind is almost certainly going to mutiny. You’ll start having all sorts of random thoughts, such as: What’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? What was Casper the Friendly Ghost before he died? Who was the Susan after whom they named the lazy Susan, and how did she feel about it? No big deal. This is totally normal. The whole game is simply to notice when you are distracted, and begin again, and again, and again.
A game is a great way to describe this step. Any time you learn a new game you are terrible at it at first. The more you practice, the better you get. I couldn’t go 5 seconds without my mind wandering when I first started meditating. But that’s the point. Getting lost and re-focusing on the breath is not failing at meditation. It’s succeeding. Harris says “it’s like a biceps curl for the brain.”
Your goal is to get very used to the pattern of focusing your mind on your breath and nothing else, and re-focusing every time your mind wanders. That’s truly all you have to do, and I promise it is more challenging than you think.
In Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, Harris provides this warning:
Meditation can be difficult, especially at the beginning. It’s like going to the gym. If you work out and you’re not panting or sweating, you’re probably cheating. Likewise, if you start meditating and find yourself in a thought-free field of bliss, either you have rocketed to enlightenment or you have died
Here are two things you should do as you learn how to practice mindfulness meditation:
Start by meditating for 5 minutes your first time.
Set a timer and keep meditating until it goes off. That may be difficult (it was for me), or no problem at all. Doing 5 minutes for your first practice will give you a sense of how long to meditate next time. During the month, I challenge you to try to get to a point where you can comfortably meditate for at least 20 minutes in one sitting. That took me 17 days when I meditated for my THING.
Get a small notebook or journal to keep short notes about your meditation practices.
Noe the length of time you meditated and a few quick thoughts after your meditation. This is a good habit to keep track of your progress and to notice your improvement over time. I’ve shared the notes I took after each meditation practice while I was meditating for my THING. They are at the bottom of this page. Please consult them if you want a fellow beginner to compare yourself to, and to not feel bad if you keep falling asleep during your meditation.
Don’t move on to Level 2 until you feel very comfortable with the routine of focusing on your breath and re-focusing each time your mind wanders. If you can comfortably and consistently follow the 3-step mindfulness meditation practice above for 15-20 minutes at a time, feel free to explore level 2.
In Level 2 I will explain several different types of meditation that branch out from here, but you will always use mindfulness meditation as your “home base.” I practiced Level 1 for 12 days before I tried a different meditation practice, but you may need more or less time than that before you’re ready to branch out and try something else.
Nick’s Meditation Notes
Day 1 - 5 minutes
Sat cross-legged on the ground. Sit in chair next time. Most of time spent figuring out comfortable breath - too deep at first. Light-headed. Max 5 seconds focus before distractions. Consciously thought about “in” and “out” breath.
Day 2 - 5 minutes
Sat in chair. Thought about “in” and “out”. Tried “in” “hands” “out” but it was too hard to concentrate on that. Distractions and thoughts were happening every 5 to 10 seconds. Need to stay alert and more curious about breath next time.
Day 3 - 6 minutes
Sat in chair. Tried keeping my eyes open and soft focus on the ground. Still distracted every 5-10 seconds. Too easily distracted - next time close eyes again.
Day 4 - 6 minutes
At work. In chair. Felt myself playing out future scenarios at work, on weekend. First 4 minutes were turbulent. Last 2 were pretty focused.
Day 5 - 6 minutes
Right after work. Sat in chair. Very sleepy today. Hard to stay focused for more than 5 seconds without mind wandering or falling asleep. Need more energy before meditation next time.
Day 6 - 6 minutes
Not in a great head-space to start. Wanted to see if I could “meditate my way out of it.” Didn’t work. Easily the worst go at it yet. Important to prime myself first next time.
Day 7 - 7 minutes
After run and yoga, was feeling good to meditate. Didn’t look at phone for 1.5 hours before - head felt clear. Still constantly re-focusing on breath, but felt nice the whole time.
Day 8 - 8 minutes
Sat in chair. Tired, so struggled with falling asleep. When not drowsy felt fairly focused. Was a good energy reset for my night after doing yoga too.
Day 9 - 8 minutes
Tired, think I should drink coffee before next time. Mind wanders more when drowsy, need more focus next time.
Day 10 - 10 minutes
Outside after run. Easier to focus with ambient background noise. Old lady with stereo walked by twice.
Day 11 - 10 minutes
Kind of drowsy. Felt good to go this long. Next time try when energy is up and see how 10 minutes feels.
Day 12 - 15 minutes
Energy was good. Able to focus on breath for much longer than usual. Still re-focusing often but doesn’t take as long to get back to the breath.
Day 13 - 15 minutes
Was very rested. Focused on myself as a kid and the promises I would make to myself now. Felt really great.
Day 14 - 15 minutes
First 3 or 4 minutes very distracted, hard to refocus. Then tried “Do Nothing Meditation” (letting brain settle wherever and not controlling it.) Very deep and full body experience.
Day 15 - 15 minutes
Tried RAIN meditation - only really got to A, noticed I carry tension in my jaw and anxiety in my stomach. Difficult time focusing today, spent a lot of time coming back to home base. Thinking of this one as “building muscle” for future practices.
Day 16 - 15 minutes
Laundry was on so focus was rough. Also hadn’t meditated in a couple of days. Need to do it every day.
Day 17 - 25 minutes
Helped re-focus and stay mindful before a phone call. Mostly focused on breath and establishing a home base.
Day 18 - 15 minutes
Tried RAIN again. Worked at first but then was sleepy. Detected a low hum of anxiety about going back to the States and looking for a job in the COVID job market.
Day 19 - 15 minutes
Sleepy, tried to focus only on breath. Need to meditate earlier in the evening.
Day 20 - 20 minutes
Focused on establishing home base. Felt really good this time. Focus is definitely improving, very curious about breath while noting “in” and “out”.
Day 21 - 20 minutes
Really great today. Feels like a lot of positive momentum going forward.
Day 22 - 10 minutes
After yoga. Felt good at first but ended up sleepy again. Should experiment with right after work to set my mind for the evening.
Day 23 - 20 minutes
Do nothing meditation. Maybe my favorite one, but need to establish a good home base before trying it in the future. Hard to completely let the mind go, but it feels really good when it works.
Day 24 - 20 minutes
Do nothing meditation. Last one of the month. Compared to first time, able to focus on breath for longer and look forward to it almost every day. Feel really good after it today.