There’s a meditation adage that goes, “the hardest part is getting to your cushion.” Meditation teachers, like me, say it all the time because it’s true about everything–the hardest part is getting started, and starting a meditation practice is no different.
When we talk about how to start a meditation practice, we need to consider just that–how to start. In other words, how can we lure ourselves to our cushion, mat, or chair?
Plan for Success
Consider where, when, and for how long you will practice. Where will you meditate? This location should be free of clutter and distraction. It should also include all the objects you will need to sit peacefully for your chosen amount of time. For instance, will you use a bolster or a chair? Then, decide what time of day you’d like to practice. It could be before your family wakes up, or after the children fall asleep. Think about what would work for your schedule and how you’d like meditation to enhance your life. Finally, how long would you like to meditate? Then, choose a timer so you know when to stop. The timer on most phones works perfectly fine, but I also enjoy the Insight Timer app.
Set Small, Achievable, Goals
In western culture, many of us were raised with the idea of “go big, or go home.” Yet, when starting a meditation practice (or really any habit), less is more. Start by setting small goals. For example, on your first day of meditation, your goal could be just waking up a few minutes earlier and sitting on your cushion for a few seconds. When that becomes easy, you may choose to start waking up, sitting on your cushion, and closing your eyes for one minute. Then, in a few days, you may increase the duration of your meditation to five minutes. That may be enough for you for a few months. What you don’t want to do is try to sit for twenty minutes right off the bat. Trust me, I’ve seen plenty of people set really lofty goals only to never return again.
The last thing you want to do is finish meditating and feel physically worse than when you started. This is why meditation teachers insist on correct posture. If you’ve chosen to sit in a chair, space your feet flat on the ground, place your hands in your lap, and relax your shoulders. Be sure not to lean into the back of the chair. Your body should be close to the backrest, but not touching.
Check your body’s alignment. Your head should be over your sternum, and you shoulders and elbows should hang heavy toward your hips. Make sure that your rib cage isn’t protruding forward, or collapsing in toward your spine. Sit as if the very crown of your head was being magnetized toward the ceiling and your two sitz bones were rooted to the chair.
If you choose to sit on the ground or on a cushion, you would seek the same alignment while sitting crossed-legged. Careful not to cross your ankles. Keep one foot in front of the other. The position of your hands is completely up to you. Choose one that feels the most comfortable to you.
Counting Each Breath
Counting the breath is a simple method for meditation newbies. The practice is just as it sounds – we count each breath. Although the exact way to count the breath differs among practitioners, the easiest way I’ve found is to count one full inhale and exhale as one breath. Count each breath until you reach the number ten and then begin again at one. When a thought interrupts your counting, start over. Try your best not to judge or berate yourself. The most seasoned meditators rarely make it to ten before their meditation timer goes off.
Thoughts Like Clouds In the Sky
If counting the breath feels difficult for you, you may choose to simply feel the air coming in and out of your lungs as you passively watch thoughts come and go. The average person is pretty attached to their thoughts.
When an idea, worry, or future plan enters our minds we almost instantly begin to engage with it. Engaging with our thoughts takes us out of the present moment, which is exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to experience in meditation. Therefore, watching our thoughts is a practice in non-attachment and being fully present. Easier said than done, I know.
Here’s a tip. Every time a thought comes into your mind and interrupts your focus on your breath, imagine it is a cloud in the sky of your mind. Watch the cloud float farther and farther away and when you can’t see it anymore return back to the sensation of your breath.
It may be easier for you to simply acknowledge the thought. You may think, “Oh, I am thinking about how I want ice cream. That’s interesting.” Then, as soon as you’re able to acknowledge that you are “thinking,” redirect your mind back to your breath.
Meditation is a practice in being fully present, yet it is also a practice in being compassionate with yourself. Almost no one feels at ease in meditation the very first time they start a meditation practice. As you sit, remember to be compassionate with yourself. Try not to chide yourself for getting distracted. That’s why it’s called practicing meditation. It’s just that–a practice. Be comforted in the fact that you can’t be “bad” at it, and that you will have some good days and some not-so-good days. This is all part of a meditation practice.
You’ll notice that I didn’t mention any apps in this post other than the timer. That’s because I believe everyone should learn to meditate on their own. Most apps don’t teach you how to meditate. They simply take you through a guided meditation which keeps you from the real practice, which is the ability to redirect your mind through your own awareness.
“Don’t just do something. Sit there.” – Sylvia Boorstein