There are many sources of information on how to meditate online and in books. Teachers from different traditions will offer varied instructions on how to practice, but fundamentally all are trying to help you get to a similar place - awareness, resting in meditation. No matter what approach you take, the key thing for home practice is simplicity.
I’m not a meditation teacher, or a mindfulness instructor, but I thought it would be remiss not to include some sort of basic instructions for practice on this site. The guide below is my take on the techniques I have learnt as an enthusiastic practitioner over the past eight years.
In some ways, meditation is like sleep. You set yourself up for it, put everything in place, encourage the body and mind to open to the idea and then let it happen. Meditation requires a little more focus than drifting off of course, but both need a light touch - there is not forcing it to happen, no pressing a button and hey presto, inner peace!
This is a practice, not something to perfect. The instructions are simple, seemingly easy, but this is only the beginning. Most of what people call the ‘journey’ of mindfulness and meditation starts once you begin to practice regularly. As you watch your mind and life shift and change in subtle ways, it can be a fascinating process.
Start With Why
When starting with a meditation practice, I think it is particularly useful to start by considering why you want to sit and watch your breath. If we know why we want to do something, it makes it easier to keep going. Meditation won’t work as well if it is another chore on the to do list - something you get done each day to tick the box labelled ‘mind health’. There will be days when it can feel like that, sure, but fundamentally there must be something deeper driving you to try this out.
Personally, I sit because mindfulness helps me shift my mind out of unhelpful patterns of anxiety and depression. It allows me to see all the ways I cling to things in my mind, and provides space to drop back into the calm present - aware and at peace. I practice meditation because I want to be free from the bad habits of the mind.
How about you?
Choose a Time and Place
I could write a whole post on this, and I probably will at some point! Fundamentally though, this comes down to one word - consistency. Sit somewhere that you can return to again and again, and choose a time that will work for you most days.
It can be helpful to pick a time that is cued by another activity in your day. For example, some people like to sit as soon as they get out of bed, others once they have brushed their teeth or after they have taken the dog for a walk. Most people find it easier to stick to a routine of morning meditation, but if afternoon/evening is better for you, so be it!
Find a quiet spot, somewhere you can be undisturbed. You can sit either on a chair or a cushion. It is said that your attitude to meditation begins with the posture - so try to sit upright, alert but relaxed, attentive with soft shoulders and lightly closed eyes. There are a few different seated positions you might try, cross-legged on a cushion, straddling a bolster or simply seated at the edge of a chair with the feet resting flat on the ground.
Place your palms down on your thighs, gently close the eyes and let the jaw relax. It can be nice to take a few deep breaths once you have found a spot to sit, to relax into position before you begin.
Start the Practice
As I mentioned, there are so many approaches to the actual practice you undertake! Over the coming weeks I hope to share more information about different techniques and wonderful teachers.
For now though, especially if you who are fairly new to sitting on your own at home, it is best to keep two words in mind - simple and easy. I first heard this from Joseph Goldstein, as the approach his teacher suggested for practice. Simple and easy. Try not to get too worked up about what happens when you sit, this is as much a practice of letting go as it is about focusing on any one thing.
Set a timer for somewhere between 5 - 10 minutes. Start small, with an amount of time that feels manageable and enjoyable to you. If you are using something like Insight Timer, it is a good idea to set a halfway bell as well as an ending bell.
Here are four steps to simple breath counting meditation, which is a great place for beginners to start:
- Spend a few moments tuning into the sensation of sitting on the floor or chair. Sense the body sitting, the hand on the lap.
- Become aware of the body breathing. Feel the air moving in through the nose and out through the nose. The body sitting, the body breathing. Breathing in, breathing out.
- Begin to count the breath - inhale…exhale, 1, inhale…exhale, 2, and so on. Use this count until you reach 10, at which point you simply begin again. Some prefer to add a count to both the inhale and exhale (inhale 1, exhale 2, inhale 3, exhale 4 and so on…), just find what works best for you.
- Each time your mind wanders and you become distracted by a thought, sound or sensation - let go of the distraction, softly smile to yourself and take a deep breath in and out. Begin again at 1. The practice of meditation is a practice of beginning again, and again, and again. This is how we strengthen our ability to stay present - working that mind muscle if you will!
Practice this way until the timer chimes, then take a moment to reflect and thank yourself for taking the time to meditate before you get up to go on with your day. I keep a journal by my cushion, and every now and then I’ll record something about the session. Some days that can simply be “wow that was frustrating, but so it goes”, other times I will write about a lovely feeling or calm that came up. Now that it has been 10 months of practice, it’s great to look back at how my experience has changed over the year!
I hope this short guide is useful for you. Even if you have been practicing for a while, sometimes it is nice to refresh your practice by considering your approach.
If I could leave you with one key piece of advice for your practice, it would be this - keep it simple, easy and consistent. If you can remember this, you will be fine! On busy days, just sit for a couple of minutes. If your mind is racing, let go and take a soft easy approach. When you feel yourself caught up with wondering if you’re doing it right keep it simple! We practice to feel better, not to give ourselves something else to fret over.