The Beginner's Guide to Mindfulness

Chapter 5: Meditation Explained in Plain English

Meditation header

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a way to transform the mind through the practice of paying deliberate attention.

With its deep roots in Buddhism, meditation is frequently mischaracterized as too "woo-woo" for the average Joe. Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, lays it out nicely for a skeptical audience:

"Despite what you may have heard, meditation does not involve joining a group, paying any fees, wearing any special outfits, sitting in a funny position, or believing in anything in particular.

It is a simple, secular, scientifically validated exercise for your brain.

While Harris' characterization may read as overly-generalized (meditation is a primarily spiritual practice for many) it is accurate for a large number of meditators, myself included.

What Does Meditation do?

Meditation builds awareness of your thoughts, emotions/feelings, and bodily sensations. It does this through consistent training.

Let's take mindfulness meditation for example. In this practice, you give your mind a specific job to do (e.g. focusing on the sensations of your breath.) This pulls your mind out of it's habitual state of constant processing in order to connect with the present moment.

Awareness is arguably the most important element of mindfulness.

Developing your awareness leads to improvements in many aspects of life, including focus, decision-making, patience, and stress-reduction.

What Does Meditation Look Like?

There are many varieties of meditation. For the sake of example, a form of mindfulness meditation involves a few simple steps:

  1. Sit comfortably*, in an upright and relaxed position.
  2. Focus on the sensations of your breath as it enters and exits your body.
  3. Your mind will wander off, and you'll start thinking of something else. Notice when this happens and bring your attention back to the breath.

Repeat steps 2 and 3 for a set period of time.

* You don't need to sit cross-legged on the floor. Many people start their practice by sitting in a chair (pictured here).

It's worth noting here that the simplicity of these instructions doesn't mean meditation is easy. The opposite is true: meditation is a deep practice that can take years to master.

But you don't need to be a master of meditation to start experiencing its benefits. Getting started needn't be complex.

meditation in 3 steps

Stepping out of the natural patterns of constant thought is difficult. Your brain will naturally shift back towards what it's used to: constant "chatter".

Every time you notice that your mind has wandered to other thoughts, you get to "start over" by coming back to the breath.

Wandering and returning

The exercise here is bringing your attention back to the point of focus. Every time you "start over" is the equivalent of one repetition of the exercise.

One repetition of practice

To hear meditation described in slightly different terms, watch this straightforward explanation of meditation by Tibetan Buddhist master Mingyur Rinpoche:

In the video, Rinpoche talks about "monkey mind", which is a common term used to describe our natural state of constant thought/chatter in the mind.

Meditation pulls you out of these unconscious thought patterns by giving the monkey mind a specific task, like focusing on the breath.

Monkey mind vs. meditation

The breath exists at the intersection point of your body's autonomous and voluntary systems. Because of this, controlling your physiology (breath) leads to changes in your psychology (mind).

It isn’t about emptying your head of thoughts. It’s about giving your mind a specific job to do (focus on the breath), noticing when you get distracted, and bringing your attention back to the original job of focusing on the breath.

The Value of Meditation in Everyday Life

The practice of meditation aligns directly with your mental patterns in daily life. Meditation helps you control your mind to stay focused and present.

Picture this...

You sit down to get some work done.

After a few minutes, you start thinking about what to eat for lunch...

You act on this thought, and 20 minutes later you’re in the depths of Yelp, researching local restaurants. You haven't accomplished what you set out do do in the first place.

The exact scenario doesn't matter...But the pattern of losing focus to distractions is all too common. We all battle constant distractions in life.

Through meditation, you build awareness to observe distractions as they come up. Every time you come back to your breath in meditation, you train your ability to come back to focus on any task in the rest of your day.

When a distracting thought arises (what to eat for lunch), you can acknowledge it, and let the thought drift by. Meditation trains you to see that thoughts are just thoughts, and you don’t need to act on them all the time.

There are also deeper, more spiritual benefits to meditation. Most meditators will speak of a greater sense of connection with life, the world, and its people. For some, meditation is associated with Buddhism, but most meditators (including myself) do it secularly.

(The benefits of mindfulness outlined in chapter 2 of this guide apply for a meditation practice.)

Getting Started With Meditation

There is no one best way to get started with meditation. But I recommend using some resources to support your learning and practice.

Three types of resources you can access immediately are

  • In-person Learning
  • Meditation Apps
  • Free Online Guided Meditations

In-Person Learning

Nothing beats the instruction of an expert teacher. Meditation centers across the world teach meditation in the form of classes and retreats. If you're looking to take meditation more seriously, search for a center near you!

Meditation Apps to Get You Started

Headspace (iOS / Android)

My current app of choice. Has great variety, with tons of meditation "packs" focusing on different topics like focus, creativity, and kindness, as well as SOS meditations when life throws you into a tough place. Excellent user interface. A great option for beginners.

Try it out: Headspace is free to download, and offers a free 10-day trial called Take 10. Meditate for 10 minutes a day for 10 days and see how you like it! After that, you need a subscription to access the full library of meditations. A 1-year subscription costs $7.99/month billed annually.

Insight Timer (iOS / Android)

A great app for both guided and unguided meditations. I find that more experienced meditators gravitate towards this app if they use an app at all. It's also good for beginners, but your experience won't be as curated as some of the other options.

Try it out: Download the app and explore Insight Timer's library of 3,000+ free guided meditations. Browse the Top 20 list for trusted recommendations.

Calm (iOS / Android)

Another widely popular app, with a great web player if you're on a computer. Calm tailors their meditations towards stress reduction and sleep. They feature a variety of meditations, and upload a new meditation every day called the "Daily Calm".

Try it out: Calm offers a free trial, 7 Days of Calm, which will introduce you to some basic techniques through guided meditations. Or, try one of their free online meditations. A calm subscription costs $4.99/month billed annually.

Stop, Breathe, Think (iOS / Android)

SBT encourages you to check in with yourself before meditating, and serves up suggested meditations based on your mood. I used SBT for a number of months when I was starting, and found it to be helpful.

Try it out: Use SBT's web player or download the app from your app store. Over 20 free meditations under 10 minutes make this a great choice for beginners looking to get exposure.

Free Online Guided Meditations

A quick google search will yield countless free, online guided meditations you can use in your practice. While they won't provide you the guidance, structure, and reminders of an app, these free meditations are a great place to start.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Tara Brach
A renowned psychologist, meditation teacher, and best-selling author. Tara has a library of suggested meditations for beginners. Check them out here. Or, play the quick guided meditation below.

UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
8 free guided meditations ranging from focused breathing to loving kindness to body scans. Click here to access the meditations.

Sam Harris
A neuroscientist and author, whose work often focuses on having spiritual experiences without religion. Here's a free meditation from Sam:

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