How to Meditate for Beginners

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade or so, you’ve likely heard that ‘meditation’ is beneficial.

We’ll go into some of those key benefits in a moment, but first let’s acknowledge the robe-wearing, omm chanting, incense burning elephant in the room. Meditation has a long history, and has acquired some weird cultural baggage. If you’d like to avoid all that (while still getting the benefits of meditation practices), you are in the right place. Think of meditation as mental exercise. We all recognize that training the body with physical exercise has massive benefits, the same is true for the mind.

In this how to meditate guide, we’ll give you a simple, clear, no BS guide to meditation for beginners.

How to Meditate for Beginners

Here are the basics of mindfulness meditation in 3 simple steps:

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes.
  2. Focus your full attention on the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. Pick a spot - nose, chest, belly - and just feel the inhale and exhale.
  3. The third step is the biggie. As soon as you try to do this, your mind is probably going to go nuts. You’re going to start thinking: What’s for lunch? Do I need a haircut? Why do celebrities marry other celebrities?

The mind wandering is a totally normal part of meditation and doesn’t mean that you are bad at meditating! All of our minds are a bit crazy. No big deal. As soon as you notice your mind has wandered, just return your attention to the breath.

That’s it. That’s how to meditate. No matter how many times you get lost, no matter how long you get lost for, as long as your are returning to the breath again and again - you are meditating.

Every time you catch your mind wandering and haul your attention back to the breath, it’s like a bicep curl for the brain. Not for nothing, it’s also a radical act; you’re breaking a lifetime’s habit of walking around in a fog of rumination and projection, and you’re actually focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. You are building a mental muscle called ‘mindfulness’ - a complex and ancient term that we’ll give a simple, serviceable definition for in a moment.

I’ve heard from so many people who assume that they could never learn how to meditate because they can’t “clear the mind.” I can’t say this loudly or frequently enough: the goal is not to magically clear your mind; it’s to focus your mind - for a few nanoseconds at a time - and every time you get lost, just start again.

What is mindfulness?

Joseph Goldstein defines mindfulness as “the quality and power of mind that is deeply aware of what’s happening – without commentary and without interference.” Another popular definition, from Jon Kabat-Zinn, is that mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” In other words, mindfulness is a capacity of mind. It’s a way of relating to whatever is happening: paying attention, noticing, not judging, not thinking. (Just as an aside, these definitions are recent ones. Mindfulness has been around for over two thousand years, and it’s been defined in different ways over time. For our purposes, we’re going to stick with these contemporary definitions.)

Mindfulness meditation is a technique that enables us to develop mindfulness. During mindfulness meditation, we intentionally set aside time to  observe the workings of our minds.

You may find that your mind wanders, drifting into thoughts, memories, or fantasies. This is completely normal and expected.

When you notice your mind wandering, gently redirect your attention back to the breath, without judgment or criticism. Each time you bring your attention back to the present moment, you are strengthening your ability to stay focused and present.

Quick Guided Meditation for Beginners

Want to give it a try? Here’s a quick video where we guide you in a 90-second guided meditation for beginners.

If you’re looking to give mindfulness meditation a try, beyond the 90 seconds you just did in this video, download the Ten Percent Happier meditation app from the Apple App store or Google Play today. 

Why Meditate? What are the Benefits of Meditation?

Ok, now that you’ve got a handle on basic meditation techniques, let’s review some of the science. In recent years, there’s been an explosion of research into the physiological and psychological benefits of meditation. It’s been to shown to:

  • Lower your blood pressure
  • Reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Boost your immune system
  • Slow age-related atrophy of the brain
  • Mitigate anxiety and depression
  • Improve focus and productivity

Studies say a regular meditation practice can improve both behavior and grades for school children, reduce violence in prisons, and help psoriasis patients with their symptoms. Things really start getting sci-fi when you look at the neuroscience. In recent years, neuroscientists have been peering directly into the brains of meditators, and they’ve found that even short daily doses of this practice can rewire key parts of the brain having to do with self-awareness, compassion, executive function, and emotional reactivity.

One study found that just eight weeks of meditation practice resulted in measurable decreases in gray matter density in the area of the brain associated with stress. That’s only one of the reasons why another study found that a meditation practice can reduce the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia - it also may slows the aging rate of the brain and trigger the growth of new brain cells.

The science is still in its early stages and findings are preliminary. We worry that it has provoked a certain amount of irrational exuberance in the media, which has also ignited a fair share of backlash, but here’s what we can safely say: the studies strongly suggest that a few minutes of daily meditation can deliver a long list of tantalizing health benefits.

These long-term health benefits can get you motivated to learn how to meditate, but it takes a more immediate benefit to keep you going. So, let’s talk about perhaps the most powerful benefits of meditation: the oft-used but ill-defined word ‘mindfulness’.

Finding Time for Meditation

Dan Harris from Ten Percent Happier using mindfulness meditation in Times Square
Dan Harris meditating in Time Square. (Kind of ridiculous we know, but yes, you can practice pretty much anywhere)

We’ve covered basic mindfulness meditation techniques, but it’s wise to acknowledge the big challenge for most of us: How can we find the time? People tell us all the time: I get it, I know meditation is good for you, but I just can’t find the time to do it. Even some of the most successful people we know tell us this.

It’s like the gym. We all know the benefits of working out, but it takes some serious dedication to actually build exercise (or mindfulness meditation practices) into our lives.

Here are some tricks for building meditation into a super busy life:

  1. First, you can meditate pretty much anywhere. Don’t get fixated on finding the perfect, pristine, quiet place. You can meditate in a Uber, in your office, in parks, on planes, and while waiting for your toddler to fall asleep.
  2. Second, you don’t need to be obsessive about meditating at a particular time of day. You may find a regular time slot, and that’s great. But if you have an unpredictable schedule, just fit it in when you can. If you’re not a morning person, don’t force yourself to do it right after you wake up. Experiment a bit and find something that works. A daily reminder can be useful, and you can set one up in the Ten Percent Happier meditation app.
  3. Third, give yourself a break. Type A people often dive into meditation with lots of lofty ambitions, and then when they fall off the wagon for a few days, the voice in their heads starts telling them a story about how they are failed meditators. Totally untrue. When you fall off the wagon, just begin again. Nothing’s been lost. It’s like when you get distracted during meditation itself: just begin again.
  4. And here’s our final tip: perhaps the most powerful method for sustaining a meditation practice is to really notice the benefits of meditation as they show up in your actual life. Is meditation making you 10% less likely to pop off at your boss? Notice that. Is it making you 10% less likely to overeat? Give yourself credit. The more you pay attention to the wins, the more likely you are to continue to practice meditation.

Don’t make the mistake of expecting instant transformation. It’s like those erectile dysfunction ads. If you experience a state of cosmic bliss or boundless compassion that lasts more than four hours, call your physician.

Other Types of Meditation Practices

Is the idea of sitting in silence and focusing on the breath too intimidating right now? Try a different technique:

  1. Walking meditation is a great way to practice mindful movement. Choose a path to follow and focus on the rise and fall of your feet as you walk slowly. Make sure you're in a safe area where you can focus on your own footsteps without causing an obstruction - you can even walk in a small circle.
  2. Try a body scan meditation to check in with your entire body, not just the breath. Tuning into an overall sense of the body, and the sensations that are happening, can help you get in touch with your mind without exerting too much effort. While lying down or sitting comfortably, focus your attention on your body, starting at your toes and continuing up through the crown of your head.
  3. Sleep meditations in the Ten Percent Happier meditation app are designed specifically to help you drift off to sleep. Rather than trying to focus your attention, let our instructors guide you through visualizations meant to calm and relax you.

Getting Your Meditation Practice Started

You now have the basic instructions for beginning a meditation practice. Just as in physical exercise though, it can be useful to have more guidance as you get going.

That’s why we built the Ten Percent Happier app. What we’ve done is brought together the smartest, coolest, funniest meditation teachers and putting them all together in one place. We’ll help you take meditation out of the realm of being a chore, one more thing on your to-do list. We are aiming to make your meditation practice a great part of your life.

So if you want to join, we’d love to have you at the party. Download the app today and start learning how to meditate from some of the best meditation teachers in the world.

Other Resources

  1. Guided Meditations
  2. Mindfulness Meditation

Good luck! And remember the stakes here: happiness and compassion are skills – susceptible to training.

There used to be a sign on the wall of Newbury Comics, our co-founder Dan Harris's favorite record store in Boston. Above the list of upcoming releases, it read:

"All dates can change. So can you."

Interested in trying out meditation?

Give the Ten Percent Happier meditation app a shot - a clear, simple approach to meditation with with guided meditations and lessons from bestselling author Dan Harris and some of the most respected meditation teachers on the planet.

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