This post will teach you how to meditate properly in five easy steps. Meditation is a highly effective exercise which aids relaxation and concentration. It helps you to free your mind from thoughts and worries and calms your brain and body. The practice enhances your mood, increases your energy levels and improves stress tolerance.
Meditation has helped countless people free themselves from bad habits, both harmful addictions and negative emotional traits such as anger, irritability, envy and pride. Meditation clears your mind of the illusions, preconceptions and negative ideas that live in your consciousness and adversely influence your relationships with the outside world, with other people and with your inner self.
Meditation allows your mind to become aware and helps you to gain control of your emotions and your mood. It’s hard to believe a straightforward daily 40-minute practice will bring you such benefits, but it’s true: meditation is a simple route to contentment and awareness.
Meditation is suitable for people of any religion or secular view
I view meditation as a secular practice. Since it doesn’t have to be associated with religion, it doesn’t matter who or what you are – Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic or atheist: anyone can practise meditation; it’s just like any other exercise such as skipping or mental arithmetic.
On the other hand, you can use a religious prayer as a mantra during meditation, and not necessarily one related to Hinduism or Buddhism. Various forms of meditation exist in these two belief systems as well as in Christianity (Hesychasm), Islam (Dhikr) and Judaism. Meditation has also long been present in secular traditions.
In my opinion, the emergence of meditation is a natural phenomenon associated with the progress of any culture; its purpose is spiritual development and personal growth.
My own Meditation Experience
Until a few years ago I didn’t believe in meditation; I took it to be something directly related to religion or esoteric tradition, and being a non-religious materialist it was very difficult for me to think of following a method which has its roots in religion and ancient non-scientific knowledge. (Nothing dramatic has happened to my views since then; I still believe in science and empirical knowledge.)
But I had many issues – depression, anxiety, impetuosity, lack of attention (ADHD symptoms), panic attacks (panic disorder) and a tendency towards laziness; these ended up being the impetus for me to start practising meditation. I didn’t want to take antidepressants or other pills so I decided to sort my problems out in my own way, without medical treatment. And now, after several years of practice, I have to conclude that it was undoubtedly the best decision I ever made.
After a year of regular practice I could feel that every aspect of my emotional and mental life had improved. I was able cope with my panic attacks and depression – in fact, I basically made these disorders go away. Meditation opened up a great opportunity for my self-development. It helped me become much more self-confident and brought about changes that improved every aspect of my life: personal, financial and spiritual. The technique allowed me to see, work on and eliminate my personal defects.
My own experience has shown me that meditation is not some kind of spiritual ritual, but a highly effective mental exercise which has many beneficial effects. It isn’t magic: meditation improves our minds just as sport improves our bodies. Its benefits include deep relaxation, emotion stabilisation and stress reduction.
Almost everyone meditates during childhood!
It may come as a surprise to hear that many of you have actually practised some primitive form of meditation already, even if you didn’t know it! Do you remember counting sheep to get to asleep? Maybe it’s something you did during childhood or maybe you even do it now. The main principle of the technique is directing your attention onto some imaginary process, in this case a long line of sheep jumping gracefully over a fence.
This helps you focus your mind and get rid of distracting thoughts, allowing you to settle down and finally fall asleep. It’s very similar to the way meditation works. Of course, counting sheep is a simplified form of practice, but the main principle remains the same, even if true meditation leads to a much deeper level of relaxation.
The benefits of meditation
Meditation studies are quite new, but according to multiple sources, it has been scientifically proven to a have positive effects on people who practise it, including:
- Stress reduction
- Increased self-awareness
- Reduction of negative emotions (fear, anxiety, anger, etc.)
- Improvement of ability to focus one’s attention
- Increase of ability to control emotions
- Improvement of willpower
- Mood enhancement
- Increased intelligence through physical growth of the brain (Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and MIT)
- Increase in alpha brain activity (alpha waves are connected to relaxed brainwave activity)
- Stabilization of blood pressure
Iа you want to learn more about meditation benefits follow the link!
Is meditation difficult to learn?
No, it isn’t. Every man, woman and child can easily learn the basics. But you must be patient for it could be some time before you feel any noticeable benefits – several months or even a year. Of course, even your first meditation will bring about some kind of positive change in mood and put you in a relaxed state for a while, but the main long-term effects, the real ‘bonuses’, will start to take place only after sustained daily practice.
So how should you begin if you’d like to start meditating in order to benefit from all its positive effects?
5 easy steps for meditating
Step 1 – make time
I would suggest meditating twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. Why? Because when you meditate in the morning, the practice increases your energy, focuses your mind and sets up your mood and motivation for the whole day, and when you meditate in the evening it helps you eliminate stress, relax your mind and end the day in a worthy way.
How much time do you need for one meditation session? I’d recommend 15–25 minutes for adults and 5–10 minutes for children. I meditate for 20 minutes twice a day, but if I start to feel that this isn’t enough, because for example I’m particularly stressed, I’ll extend it to 25 minutes. So really you’re free to do as you like; take as much time as you need – but don’t overdo it: 25 minutes will probably be enough.
What if you don’t have enough time for meditation?
Try to make it. Organise your schedule so that you can meditate twice a day; spend less time watching TV and surfing the internet. You could even get up earlier. Twenty minutes of meditation is an ideal substitute for at least 20 minutes of sleep. Since it improves your mental and physical health it could be considered more important than many of your other daily activities. Do your utmost to find time for meditation; harmony and peace are definitely worth 40 minutes a day.
Step 2 – find a place
Nothing should distract you while you’re meditating, so you should try to find a quiet, safe place at home in which to practise. However, a lack of such a place, for example because of children or limited space at home, shouldn’t be considered an excuse for not practising at all!
I began meditating while sitting on a crowded train in Moscow. It used to take me two hours to get to work. At that time I didn’t really believe in meditation and was unwilling to devote my free time to it, so I practised on my commute.
Despite the noise and crowds, I found that I was able to relax and after some time, I began to feel a positive impact. However, I don’t wish to imply that meditation will have the same effect no matter where you do it; if you can meditate at home, please do. It’s much better than doing it on public transport. But if for some reason this isn’t possible, you can meditate anywhere you have the opportunity. As for me, I try to practise mostly at home these days.
Some meditation masters advise not meditating in the space where you usually sleep. Because your brain associates this place with slumber, there’s always a possibility that you might nod off during a session. But this isn’t a critical factor; if your bedroom’s the only place you can meditate, that’s ok, just practise there.
Step 3 – use an appropriate posture
You don’t have to sit in the lotus position. The most important thing is that your back is straight and that you’re comfortable. You shouldn’t be leaning forwards or backwards. Your spine should be at right angles to the surface upon which you’re sitting. In other words, it should be perpendicular to your pelvis. You can sit on a chair, but try not to lean against its back. Your back needs to be straight to allow you to breathe easily and let the air better flow into your lungs. Also, this posture helps you to remain aware, relax without slouching or being too rigid, stay awake and not end up horizontal. (I don’t recommend lying down to meditate.)
What if your back gets strained?
When you’re sitting with a straight back, you engage muscles which are rarely used in everyday life, so your back may feel strained. You therefore need to train yourself. I recommend at first sitting on a chair with your back straight, not leaning against the back of the chair. It’s OK to put up with slight discomfort and not pay it too much attention. If it becomes too uncomfortable, gently shift backwards and lean against the back of the chair, keeping your spine straight while you do so.
As your muscles become stronger with each new session, you’ll be able to sit longer with your back straight, not leaning against anything.
Step 4 – relax
Close your eyes and try to completely relax your body. Direct your attention to any physical tension. If you find you can’t do this, don’t worry – just leave everything as it is.
Step 5 – concentrate
Close your eyes. Focus your attention on your breathing or mantra. When you notice yourself starting to think about something else, just calmly return your attention to your original focus (mantra or breathing). Give up any attempts to interpret the thoughts, emotions, sensations or desires which arise inside you. Notice them without getting involved.
The above is a more or less comprehensive set of meditation instructions for anyone who is just taking it up. It includes everything you need to do, but below are some further clarifications.
When you observe your breathing, it’s impossible to think about anything else at the same time (try it and see). Therefore, when you return your attention to your breathing, your thoughts will leave of their own accord – you don’t need to drive them away. But sometimes when you’ve attained a good level of concentration on your breathing (or mantra) you’ll be able to observe your thoughts from the side, to see how they come and go, how they drift past you like clouds. When you watch from the sidelines it’ll seem to you that you’re not part of this process.
This won’t happen immediately though. It’s actually the next phase of concentration and you’ll reach it as you get better at focusing your attention. In the beginning it’s likely that you’ll constantly be distracted by your thoughts, and that’s fine. As soon as you notice this happening, just return your attention to your breathing. This is all that’s required for you to develop your concentration.
Getting rid of thoughts is very hard because your brain is used to thinking constantly. But getting rid if thoughts isn’t the goal of meditation, as many people think. Your task is simply to notice when your attention shifts from it’s focus and return it back.
People nowadays are constantly inundated with information – from meetings, work, their own worries, the internet, new experiences. With the fast pace of modern life our brains don’t have much chance to process this. But during meditation the brain is not occupied with anything, so it can start to ‘digest’ this information and allow you to deal with any thoughts and emotions you didn’t have time to address during the day.
There is nothing bad in thoughts coming to you, but when you notice that you’ve started to focus on one, calmly redirect your attention to your breathing or mantra. You don’t need to mentally berate yourself for not being able to relax or get rid of your thoughts. Don’t try to will the meditation session to go a certain way. Just quietly observe what’s happening without getting involved in it. Let things take their own course: if thoughts don’t come, that’s fine; if they do come, that’s fine as well.
Take up the position of a detached observer: don’t make any judgements about your thoughts. You shouldn’t compare how you feel now with how you felt during a previous meditation session, or with how you think you should feel. Stay in the present moment! If your attention wanders, calmly and without thought bring it back to its original focus.
Don’t get caught up in thinking, ‘I have to stop my thoughts’, ‘I must relax’, or ‘this isn’t working’.
If you follow these recommendations during your meditation session, the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ won’t even exist for you. In fact, everything that happens to you will be ‘right’, simply because it’s happening and it can’t be any other way. Meditation is acceptance of the way things are and reconciling this with your inner world.
(Everyone will remember a time when they couldn’t sleep. If you try really hard to fall asleep and keep thinking about it, it just won’t happen. But if you just relax and let go of your desire to get to sleep as quickly as possible, then after a while you’ll peacefully drop off. The same process occurs during meditation. Let go of your desire to immerse yourself more deeply in the meditation, to get rid of your thoughts or to reach some specific state.)
Of course, it isn’t possible to completely compare mediation to sleep. Returning your attention to its original focus during meditation requires at least a small amount of effort. But it’s a kind of effortless effort, very gentle; in addition, though, it must possess a soft persistence, always reminding you when your attention has wandered. You shouldn’t relax so much that you allow everything a free run. A small part of you must try to maintain awareness and control over your attention.
There’s a very fine line between action and inaction, effort and lack of will, a bit of control and no control. It’s hard to put into words, but if you try meditation you’ll understand what I’m talking about.
One more time…
I receive many questions about this which is why I’m focusing on it. Even if you can’t switch off your ‘internal dialogue’ and you’re always thinking about something during your meditation, it absolutely doesn’t mean that it’s a pointless exercise! It will still have a positive effect on you. Let everything carry on as is and don’t try to conform to any pre-existing ideas you may have about meditation. So you didn’t manage to clear your mind of thoughts? It’s no big deal!
You could say that the only time meditation won’t work is if you don’t actually meditate!
Your aim is to keep track of your thoughts, not to get rid of them. This means that even people who are constantly thinking during meditation benefit from the practice: in learning to keep their attention on themselves, they become more collected and can better control their thoughts and desires: ‘I’m thinking again, I feel fidgety, I’m getting angry, I’m worrying – it’s time to stop.’ If these feelings previously passed you by as it were, then the practice will help you to keep them in your awareness, which is a very important skill.
Over time the practice will teach you how to be aware at all times, not just during meditation. Your attention will stop constantly jumping from thought to thought and your mind will become calmer. But it won’t happen immediately, so don’t worry if you’re unable to achieve this level of concentration straight away!
What to focus your attention on:
- Breathing: concentrate on your respiration. Feel the air going through your body with every breath. Breathe at your natural rate; don’t employ any kind of special ‘breathing techniques’. In due course you may start to feel that your respiration has become light, that your breaths are very short. This is fine.
- Reciting a mantra: this is typically a group of Sanskrit words considered sacred in Hinduism. Certain kinds of meditation are traditionally practised with a mantra. If you’re a Christian or a follower of any other religion, you’re completely free to use a mantra or prayer of your choice.
I meditate using a mantra. (Update 17.03.2014: I’ve now started to focus on my breathing during meditation as I find it a better concentration method. I explain why below.) For me, a mantra is simply words in a foreign language which I repeat in my head to help me relax and focus. But just because it has no sacred significance for me, it doesn’t mean that you should feel you can’t use a mantra if you are religious. If you’re an atheist like me you don’t need to read anything into your mantra: it’s only words; use them to relax.
- Visualisation: conjure up a scenario to focus on. It can be moving or still, abstract or concrete. You can place your mind in an imaginary environment such as a quiet seashore or up among the stars, or picture a fantastical kaleidoscopic fire – it’s entirely up to you.
You can use any of the above techniques. Try them out and find the one that’s best for you. For me there isn’t much difference between these methods: it doesn’t really matter which tool you use, be it sacred words or a purple fire, so don’t torture yourself trying to choose.
I do believe, though, that in order to allow you to observe, there should be as little information in your head as possible during meditation. Despite the fact that a mantra or image may help you concentrate, they both also constitute information and are therefore a slight distraction from this objective.
This is why I prefer to focus on my breathing.
8 tips for meditation
Tip 1 – don’t expect an immediate effect
After a single meditation session you may feel calm and relaxed, but the major positive results will occur only after some time (weeks or months) and with regular practice. So don’t give up if you don’t feel any benefit straight away; be patient and continue practising.
Tip 2 – don’t worry about making a mess of your meditation
I receive many comments such as, ‘Nikolai, I can’t meditate. It doesn’t work’. When I ask what this means, the answer is, ‘I can’t concentrate, my thoughts won’t go away, I can’t relax’, etc. This doesn’t mean that you’re messing your meditation up. The practice isn’t like a basketball shot: you can’t miss by doing it ‘the wrong way’. Remember, the only time meditation doesn’t work is when you don’t even try to do it!
If you make yourself sit in a meditation posture for 20 minutes while reciting a mantra or visualising something or other, it will have a positive effect on you, even if your mind is teeming with thoughts.
Meditate any way you can; the more you practise, the greater your ability for deep relaxation becomes.
Tip 3 – stop thinking about ‘not thinking’
Clearing your mind, reciting a mantra and visualisation do not constitute the main goals of meditation. This means that you should stop thinking about ‘not thinking’. Clear your head of questions such as, ‘Am I doing everything right?’, ‘how am I feeling?’, ‘what’s meant to happen?’, ‘yesterday I was able to relax during practice but today I can’t’. Just relax and be a detached observer.
If you can’t calm yourself, that’s ok; don’t overthink this either (read the previous tip).
Tip 4 – don’t meditate just before bed
SSometimes meditation gives you a boost of energy and it becomes quite difficult to fall asleep afterwards. Meditate at least two hours before going to bed.
Tip 5 – become aware of your mental and emotional state after meditation
You’ll notice an improvement in mood and increase in tranquillity. Try to compare this with your feelings during those days when you don’t practise.
Tip 6 – try not to fall asleep
Keeping your back straight will help prevent this, but if you do fall asleep, it isn’t a disaster. It won’t be your usual type of nap and may actually bring you some of the benefits of meditation, leaving you feeling rested and calm.
Tip 7 – don’t eat too much before or after meditation
The metabolism process can hinder relaxation because your body is in a state of activity when it digests food. Also, meditation slows down metabolism, so it’s better not to eat for some time afterwards (maybe half an hour).
If you’re hungry, have something light or drink a glass of milk; this will stop you thinking about food while meditating.
Tip 8 – be aware of possible side effects
At the start of meditation practice, some people find themselves feeling more irritable or moody. This is partly related to suppressed negative emotions coming into your consciousness. Another explanation is the change in biochemical processes within the brain brought about by meditation.
In either event, this is temporary and nothing to worry about. It actually suggests that meditation is starting to have an effect on you. Liberating yourself from your fears and internal problems isn’t always a painless process.