The verdict seems to be in: meditation isn’t just hippy, voodoo, mumbo-jumbo pseudoscience. A plethora of studies have now emerged supporting meditation as a very cheap, highly-effective, and side-effect-free form of treatment for a slew of maladies like depression, anxiety, and even heart disease. In fact, just 6 weeks of mindfulness meditation correlates to increases in the size of your brain, particularly the precuneus, which regulates your memory, your sense of self, and your awareness of your consciousness.
Men, nothing is sexier than a big precuneus.
However, for most people there is a serious barrier to entry into meditation. After all, how the hell does one meditate? Is it as simple as sitting down in a dark room, listening to ambient music while contemplating your thoughts? The short answer is no, but this idiot’s guide to meditation intendeds to answer those questions in the most fool-proof way possible so that you can start getting the benefits of mediation right now — no pretense, no fluff, no bulls**t.
For now, think of your brain as a muscle. Meditation is the act of exercising that muscle in a disciplined and methodic way to achieve a more relaxed state of consciousness.
So, let’s cut the crap and get to it.
First, get in a comfortable position, be that sitting with your legs crossed or laying down on your bed: just make sure you aren’t in a position that will allow you to easily fall asleep – unless, of course, you are meditating to battle insomnia.
Next, focus your thoughts on one thing (and one thing only). This might be counting your breaths — a practice known as Vipassana meditation, and by far the most popular. I like to do five counts of inward breath through my nose and into my belly, followed by five counts of outward breath through the mouth. Focus on those breaths or visualize the numbers (1… 2… 3… 4… 5…) as you count them in your mind.
Visualizing numbers is not the only option. You could pull your attention to the sensation of the air as it enters the tips of your nostrils and the tingling you feel as it passes by your lips.
Don’t like counting breaths? Fine! Be difficult.
Not to worry: there are other options. You could turn your attention over to different parts of your body. How does the carpet feel on your legs and ass as you sit? Really notice those sensations to a degree you never have before.
What about sounds? Do you notice the humming of the refrigerator in the background or the whoosh of the fan over head? Try focusing there.
There are probably millions of sensations, sounds, smells, and even emotions (a more advanced focus) to direct your attention toward. For now, just remember that the only really important things to consider when deciding on a target for your focus is that it be something that is both present (happening here and now) and sustained. The “sustained” part is imperative. Whatever the focus, be it a sound or a physical sensation, it’s got to be there for at least 10 minutes because that is how long you will be meditating for. Have an intention and stick with it!
Now, if you’ve never meditated before, you might be thinking: “Colin, this sounds like a piece of cake. Just sit and focus on something for 10 minutes? No problem.”
Good for you! I’m glad it will be so easy. When you’re finished, come see me where I’ll be sitting over here with your foot to put in your mouth paired with a large helping of humble pie.
All joking aside, it’s not so easy. Sustained attention on anything for an extended period of time is difficult, even for seasoned veterans. Not too long into your meditation (most likely within seconds), you are going to discover just how much noise your mind creates. You’ll likely find it difficult to maintain focus on the intended target for more than a few seconds before your mind grabs you by the neck and throws you into a thought, be it positive, negative, or neutral. Relax! This is normal and to be expected.
Why wouldn’t you expect it? After all, your mind is quite used to receiving and processing stimulation from a multitude of sources: traffic sounds, television, that annoying kid crying in your neighbor’s apartment – you are bombarded with these kinds of sensory stimuli almost all day, every day. Your brain has evolved to do something with that stimulation: to react emotionally, physically, or intellectually.
By meditating, you are not only telling your brain to ignore nearly all of these stimuli in a disciplined and willful way, but you’re also going a step further by imploring your brain to do nothing but “sit” with one of them. Given that your mind has probably never done this before, it’s bound to resist. It wants to analyze, interpret, and judge. Hardest of all, you often won’t even know you’ve lost control until long after you’ve lost it.
When you do lose control (and you realize it), what do you do? Well, here’s what you don’t do: you don’t beat yourself up about it. Rather accept that it’s going to happen, and when it does, note that it happened, and move your attention back to your target. To let it bother you is to let it continue to distract you from your intention.
It really is that simple. And… it really is that difficult. However, if you want a more guided first experience, you can find a 10-minute guided meditation in audio format at my podcast here (or watch the YouTube version here) – the guided portion starts at around 36:40.
Now, go and meditate! Your brain and your heart may depend on it! And, if you have any questions, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.