If you wish to learn how to meditate, there are a lot of resources. Nearly every one I’ve seen is filled with breathy woo, and most of them have a bunch of other bullshit that serves no purpose but to try (and usually fail) to make the author sound profound.
Meditation—even beginner meditation—has well-established benefits for mood, focus, and creativity; having to put up with pseudo-spiritual nonsense to get those benefits sucks. So here is a simple method to start meditation, as well as a brief discussion about some misconceptions that may mess with your practice.
Be clear and realistic about your objectives
The goal of a meditation practice is often described with such bullshit terms as “emptiness of mind”, which lead people to think the goal of meditation is to think of nothing. That’s not really a useful way to think about it.
Your ultimate goal in meditation is to have all your attention focused on what’s going on right now. This is hard because we’ve been trained our whole lives to think a lot about the past or the future, with all the stresses involved. Thinking only about right now once in a while is like a brain vacation.
You will absolutely fail to do this. A lot. Hardly anyone can manage to do it for any significant period of time, even without all the distractions that will annoy you every time you try. That’s totally OK because even shitty meditation helps a lot. Going through the mental steps to try to meditate, and doing it regularly, is more important than any real measure of success.
The basic meditation process
Pretty much any useful meditation technique boils down to a set of cheats to make it as easy as possible to get as close as you can to a meditative state. If you do them repeatedly, you also get the mental cheats that come from the way your brain optimizes rituals.
In broad strokes they are:
- Getting your body to shut up. Stretching, wearing comfortable clothes (or none at all), etc. are all designed to make sure that little aches and pains and other discomforts don’t distract you.
- Tricking your brain into ignoring stuff. Droning sounds, the smell of incense, a visual point of focus, and other trappings of meditation are there to trick your brain into de-prioritzing various sensory inputs that might distract you. It’s much easier to think only about right now if “right now” isn’t very stimulating.
- Making intense focus easy. Concentrating on breathing, visualizing something in detail, and other such things are designed to give you something to focus on that’s easy to come back to when you’re distracted.
No-bullshit beginner practice
An easy way to get started is to do the following; it should take you less than 3 minutes. You can go longer if you feel like it, but don’t stress yourself out by thinking that going longer is somehow important. Stick with it for 3 minutes; after that, if you’re annoyed just stop.
- Set up; get naked (or if you can’t/that makes you self-conscious, wear the loosest clothing you can manage), get a kitchen or office chair that you find comfortable, put in some earplugs
- Stretch out; get as many muscles stretched out as you can. Yoga warm-ups actually do a really good job of this, but do what you know.
- Sit down; sit with good posture: back straight, feet flat on the floor. It sometimes helps to imagine a hook in your head being pulled straight to the ceiling. If the chair feels very hard, you can sit on a folded towel or firm-ish cushion. You want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable or you’ll fall asleep. Set a timer for 3 minutes. Something that will go off and then stop is best, so you don’t have to stop meditation to shut it up if you don’t want to.
- Breathe; you’re going to do “breathing loops”, they work like this:
- Check your posture, correct it if you need
- Breathe in while you slowly count to 5.
- Breathe out while you slowly count down from 5.
You’re going to keep doing that loop over and over.
That’s it. Do that every day at the same time, in the same place, for at least 10 days before you mess with anything.
Dealing with problems
There are common problems people have meditating, and they usually have simple solutions.
I get distracted
Yep, you do. Doesn’t matter. Notice it, focus back on your breathing loops. Start the loop over if you want. Literally every person who meditates gets distracted, the important skill to practice is noticing it and letting it go so you can get back to your focus.
It’s too loud to meditate
Get better earplugs. Or wear headphones and try to find a sound that’s calming but not musical. Something you can tune out like rainfall usually works best, as long as it’s not so regular that you can pick out the loop pattern in the recording.
But don’t worry about trying to force quiet. Treat noise as distraction, because eventually you’ll want to be able to meditate even if you don’t have earplugs/etc..