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Aug 26, 2021
7 min read

How to meditate: meditation for beginners

There is no one-size-fits-all rule for how to meditate. Because there are hundreds of different types of meditation—including Zen meditation, mindfulness, and loving-kindness meditation—how you meditate depends on the type of meditation you choose to practice. Some common meditation techniques include breath observation, body-scanning, focused attention, and open monitoring.

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

The word “meditation” refers to a large group of loosely related practices. 

According to one recent study, there are at least 309 different types of meditation. While some of these have little in common, many share practices or characteristics. Pretty much all of them involve training your attention or awareness in ways that are thought to be beneficial (Matko, 2019).

Because there are so many different types of meditation, explaining how to meditate is not straightforward. That’s sort of like trying to explain how to cook food or how to play sports. There are many ways to go about it, and some only become possible with many years of practice.

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But, sticking to the most popular forms of meditation, an overview of the basics will give you a good starting point.

What is meditation?

Different experts have defined meditation in different ways (Matko, 2019). Some definitions from published research articles include:

  • “Meditation is an art of being serene and alert in the present moment, instead of constantly struggling to change or to become” (Deshmukh, 2006).
  • “Meditation refers to a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby foster general mental well-being” (Walsh, 2006). 
  • “An exercise in which the individual turns attention or awareness to dwell upon a single object, concept, sound, image, or experience, with the intention of gaining greater spiritual or experiential and existential insight, or of achieving improved psychological well-being” (Matko, 2019).

Yoga, tai chi, and other movement-based practices are considered meditation. But so are practices that involve sitting still and focusing on your breath or body (Matko, 2019). 

While simply defining meditation can be tricky, a lot (but not all) meditation practices share four basic elements (NCCIH, 2016):

  1. Meditating in a distraction-free location.
  2. Meditating in a comfortable posture or position—usually sitting, lying down, or walking.
  3. Focusing on your breath, your body, or an object in the present moment.
  4. Allowing distractions to come and go without judging or reacting to them.

Of the hundreds that exist, some types are more popular than others. Here are some of the most widely practiced and studied in the U.S. 

Zen Meditation

When people hear the word meditation, Zen practices are usually the ones that come to mind. 

Zen meditation is closely related to Buddhist religious traditions. It typically involves sitting still and trying to keep your mind from getting hung up on thoughts, feelings, judgments, or other mental chatter. This practice is sometimes summed up as “thinking about not thinking” (Pagnoni, 2008).    

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about anchoring your attention and awareness in the present moment. The goal is to uncouple your mind from worries, emotions, judgments, and other thoughts that don’t concern what’s going on around you. Mindfulness trains you to stay in touch with the sights, sounds, and other qualities present in the here and now (Fortney, 2010).  

Mindfulness shares many traits and practices with Zen meditation. With some training, you can practice mindfulness while you eat, exercise, or do just about anything else.

Loving-kindness

Think of loving-kindness meditation (LKM) as a twist on mindfulness meditation. While mindfulness directs your attention to your immediate surroundings in an open and non-judgmental way, LKM leads your attention to feelings of warmth, tenderness, and love.

For example, LKM may involve sitting in a quiet place and trying to focus your thoughts on someone you love—a child, or sibling, or friend. Once you feel emotions of love and tenderness, you then try to extend these to yourself and then to a wider circle of people in your life (Fredrickson, 2011). 

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation is sometimes called a “mantra meditation.” It often involves silently repeating a word or phrase—for example, Om—and focusing one’s full attention on that mantra. This form of directed attention seeks to quiet the mind and create a mental state of “restful alertness” (Ooi, 2017). 

How to meditate

There is no one “right” or “optimal” way to meditate. But if you want an idea of what meditation looks like in practice, mindfulness techniques are a good place to start.

The basics of a mindfulness-based practice are relatively simple (Fortney, 2010):

  • Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet location.
  • First, try to focus your attention on the sensations of breathing. Deep breaths aren’t necessary.
  • As thoughts or feelings appear in your mind, and as sensations are felt in the body (like feeling tension in your forehead or shoulders), merely observe them.
  • Do not react to or analyze these thoughts or sensations. Think of yourself as a witness observing what appears in your mind without passing judgment.
  • As you notice feelings, judgments, memories, or anxieties appearing in your mind, gently let them go and return your attention to your breath.  

With nearly all forms of meditation, including mindfulness, the recommendation is to practice daily. Starting with just five minutes of daily practice is typical. Setting a timer and silencing all distractions (like text alerts) can help you keep track of time and avoid interruptions. Using a meditation app or another guided meditation tool, for example, can be a helpful way to get started (Howells, 2016). 

Meditation techniques for beginners

This list could fill a book. (Or many books.) But some techniques are more popular than others. These include:

Focused attention

This Zen technique involves focusing your mind and attention on something specific—such as your breath, a part of your body, a mantra, or an object. If you notice your mind or attention wandering, that’s normal. Your goal is to redirect your attention back to its point of focus (Travis, 2010).

Open monitoring

This is a core component of mindfulness. It means you’re trying to take in all the aspects of your moment-to-moment experience—sights, sounds, smells, etc.—without reacting to them with emotions or judgments (Travis, 2010). 

Body scan meditation

Body scanning involves focusing your attention on different parts of your body. As you focus, you may also try to release any tension or tightness. Many people work through their entire body—for example, they start with their toes and feet and then work their way up to their head (Matko, 2019).

Observing the breath

This involves paying close attention to the sensations of breathing. For example, you might notice how your abdomen rises and falls as you breathe or the feeling of the air as it passes into and out of your nostrils (Matko, 2019).

Visualization

Visualization involves focusing your attention on an image or idea. For example, in loving-kindness meditation, visualization could involve a person you love. In other types of meditation, people visualize their bodies expanding out in all directions (Matko, 2019). 

Meditation tips for beginners

Some basic tips can improve your meditation experience (Fortney, 2010):

Get comfortable

You may think that meditation involves sitting a certain way—with perfect posture or on the floor with your legs crossed in the Lotus position. Don’t worry about these postures. It’s more important to be comfortable, which frees your mind up from the distraction of an awkward pose.

Don’t try to “clear” your mind

Meditation is usually not about emptying your mind. It’s about observing what pops into your mind in a non-judgmental way. Especially in the beginning, you may find that thoughts or ideas flood your mind whenever you try to meditate. That’s normal. Just noticing that is a sign that you’re making progress.

Movement may be helpful

You may find that small, gentle movements are helpful when you meditate. Movements like walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi, and qigong that incorporate mindfulness or meditation elements may be worth trying. 

Make the most of your meditation practice

You may encounter particular personal insights or realizations about yourself during meditation. To make the most of these moments, keeping a journal or talking with a therapist or meditation teacher may be helpful.  

What are the benefits of meditation?

There are many benefits of meditation. Some of the studied health benefits concern medical conditions. Research has linked meditation to reductions in the symptoms of (Fortney, 2010):

That’s just the start. More research has tied meditation to improvements in mood, concentration, attention, memory, and other mental health benefits (Fortney, 2010; Ricarte, 2015).

At this point, mountains of research indicate that learning how to meditate is a hugely worthwhile practice. There are many ways to go about it. If you try one and it doesn’t work out, try another. There’s probably a practice out there that will be a good fit for you. 

References

  1. Blanck, P., Perleth, S., Heidenreich, T., Kröger, P., Ditzen, B., Bents, H., et al. (2018). Effects of mindfulness exercises as stand-alone intervention on symptoms of anxiety and depression: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 102, 25–35. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.12.002. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0005796717302449.
  2. Cherkin, D. C., Sherman, K. J., Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Anderson, M. L., Hawkes, R. J.,et al. (2016). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA, 315(12), 1240–1249. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.2323. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27002445/.
  3. Deshmukh V. D. (2006). Neuroscience of meditation. The Scientific World Journal, 6, 2239–2253. doi: 10.1100/tsw.2006.353. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17370019/.
  4. Fortney, L., & Taylor, M. (2010). Meditation in medical practice: a review of the evidence and practice. Primary Care, 37(1), 81–90. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2009.09.004. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20188999/.
  5. Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. doi: 10.1037/a0013262. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3156028.
  6. Howells, A., Ivtzan, I., & Eiroa-Orosa, F.J. (2016). Putting the ‘app’ in Happiness: a randomized controlled trial of a smartphone-based mindfulness intervention to enhance wellbeing. J Happiness Stud, 17, 163–185. doi: 10.1007/s10902-014-9589-1. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-014-9589-1
  7. Matko, K., & Sedlmeier, P. (Matko). (2019). What is meditation? Proposing an empirically derived classification system. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2276. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02276. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02276/full.
  8. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (2016, April). Meditation: In Depth. Retrieved July 19, 2021, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth.
  9. Ooi, S. L., Giovino, M., & Pak, S. C. (2017). Transcendental meditation for lowering blood pressure: an overview of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 34, 26–34. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2017.07.008. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0965229917302285.
  10. Pagnoni, G., Cekic, M., & Guo, Y. (2008). “Thinking about not-thinking”: neural correlates of conceptual processing during Zen meditation. PloS one, 3(9), e3083. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003083. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0003083
  11. Ricarte, J., Latorre, J., & Beltrán, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based intervention in a rural primary school: Effects on attention, concentration and mood. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 8, 3. doi: 10.1521/ijct_2015_8_03. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jose-Latorre-2/publication/277331488_Mindfulness-Based_Intervention_in_a_Rural_Primary_School_Effects_on_Attention_Concentration_and_Mood/links/56b057c508ae9ea7c3addffd/Mindfulness-Based-Intervention-in-a-Rural-Primary-School-Effects-on-Attention-Concentration-and-Mood.pdf
  12. Travis, F., & Shear, J. (2010). Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending: Categories to organize meditations from vedic, buddhist and chinese traditions. Consciousness and Cognition: An International Journal, 19(4), 1110–1118. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.01.007. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Frederick-Travis/publication/41486162_Focused_attention_open_monitoring_and_automatic_self-transcending_Categories_to_organize_meditations_from_Vedic_Buddhist_and_Chinese_traditions/links/5b2d1b424585150d23c35a91/Focused-attention-open-monitoring-and-automatic-self-transcending-Categories-to-organize-meditations-from-Vedic-Buddhist-and-Chinese-traditions.pdf.
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