A Beginner’s Guide for Learning to Meditate

Why is it so hard to get your mind to agree to sit quietly with you and meditate? I remember being befuddled by this reality when I first began trying to teach myself how to meditate many years ago. I would get up early, before the rest of my family, and sit in a comfortable chair and give my mind one simple task – pay attention to my breath. That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? But every morning my mind would stage an all-out revolt! It was perplexing. Why did this seemingly simple thing seem so hard to do?

Like you, the mind wants to do what it’s already good at.

The mind is afraid to pause. If you look at the perpetual forward momentum of how most of us live our daily lives, it seems the mind must be subconsciously telling us that we can’t stop, we must keep going, keep doing, keep gaming out strategies for potential problems on the horizon. If we pause this continual drive, something might slip through the cracks! Then, there’s this matter of reluctance to do something new, unfamiliar - something we’re not yet “good at”. The mind would prefer to be in constant motion because it’s afraid to just be still. Being still is the opposite of what the mind is “good at”, so naturally that unknown produces fear and hesitancy. Who wants to do something that doesn’t come naturally? But we all know that entering into that “discomfort zone” is necessary for learning something new. Think of all the things you are now proficient in, that felt awkward way back when you were a beginner.

Give yourself permission to pause.

What your mind needs is permission and friendly encouragement to be still. Try giving yourself these gifts. Notice how simply giving yourself permission to pause influences how you feel as you sit quietly and begin your meditation. I feel like one of the most important things I give my meditation and stress reduction students is permission, an “assignment” even, to pause, to be. Remember, this doesn’t come naturally in our accomplishment obsessed culture. But there is tremendous value in pausing, in taking some time on a regular basis to sit quietly and just “be”. But the thinking machine in the head often has trouble, especially at first, seeing the value in this odd new thing you’re now asking it to do – “follow the feeling of the breath? Are you serious?”  The habitually busy and over-active mind is typically less than keen to sign on to this practice of “non-doing” we call meditation. The mind, from its point of view, may feel “If I’m not doing something, then what good am I?”

Mental activity is normal.

Often what we find when we give the mind and body permission to be still and quiet is a lot of “stuff”. Mental activity in the form of a barrage of thoughts (usually the same things that have been dominating your attention outside of meditation). These thoughts seem to emerge out of nowhere. Where do thoughts come from? Where do they go? If you’re a Type “A” and goal-driven, it can feel disconcerting to have a preconception of stillness and quiet, only to have your fleeting moments of inner peace bombarded by all these thoughts. But this is where everyone who comes to meditation starts out. Even those of us who have been meditating for a while have “those days” when our meditation practice is filled with thoughts, or the body is filled with restless energy. It’s a normal part of being human and not an obstacle to learning meditation. So, if your mind is like a jumping bean, don’t sweat it. If your mind were already perfectly peaceful, you wouldn’t need to meditate in the first place!

Have a “look see” into your mind.

The hectic activity of the untrained mind is exactly what we’ve come to investigate. What this inner commotion offers is an opportunity to have a “look see” into the contents of your mind. How interesting! Like exploring an old attic and finding lots of relics – there are some mental relics circling around in your mind that need your attention. Might as well have a look.

But how we investigate this stream of mental activity is important. Remember, we’re stepping out of “business as usual”. Since we’re training our own mind, and the mind wants to stick with what it’s already good at, we have to be a bit stealthy. Normally our attention is completely captured and enthralled by the narrative or story that is constantly being constructed by our thoughts. But with meditation we want to employ a different approach. This approach asks you to exercise patience, persistence, friendliness toward yourself, and a sense of humor.

Set up a home base in the feeling of your breath.

There are two aspects to training your mind how to meditate. The first is coming up close to the sensory feeling of your own breath where you feel it most in your body. As you build familiarity with the physical experience of your own breathing, you create a recognizable “home base” for your attention. So, when your thoughts start to entangle your attention and pull it away from your breath, you’ve got the familiarity of an ongoing experience right in your body to come back to. And remembering to “coming back”, to start fresh, in the immediacy of your own breathing body, is key to meditation practice. The more times you come back to the feeling of your breath, the more you reinforce the neural pathways in your brain and nervous system making this “return to presence” easier in the future, both in meditation and in life. Your mind is learning something new!

Stay friendly toward yourself.

Practice being patient and friendly toward yourself as you learn to meditate. This is very important. Try not to become annoyed with your mind because it forgets its assignment of attending to your breath. As best you can, adopt a kind friendly inner voice and just keep coming back to the breath, even if your mind slides back into thinking a hundred times. Just patiently come back a hundred times. That is just fine and perfectly normal. As one of my teachers taught me: each time you sit down and practice your meditation, a benefit is building in you, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Exercise and strengthen your “letting go” muscle.

This brings us to the second aspect of learning how to meditate. As best you can, try not to engage with the content of your thoughts. This takes practice, friendliness, and patience. What’s important is simply to see when the mind has become active, when it has returned to its habit of generating that seemingly endless “thought stream”. It can help to remember that the mind is just doing what, up until now, is the primary thing it knows how to do: think. Be gentle and patient as you’re training your mind.

As you practice and gain experience, you’ll learn to see the thought stream without engaging with it or being drawn into it. Mindfulness meditation gives you a method or way to handle the thought stream when you realize you’ve been pulled into it. That method has to do with “letting go”. Now, just as being still and “non-doing” are not initially the mind’s favorite things to do, letting go is also not something the mind is used to or good at. Typically, the mind is lead around by thoughts as if on a leash – from thought to thought to thought. Meditation says look . . .  see . . . and then let go.

Create your own metaphor or visualization for letting go of thoughts.

By patiently working with this practice of “looking” and “seeing” thoughts, it becomes easier and easier to let go of them when you realize you’ve been swept away into a story of connected thoughts. Come up with your own image or metaphor to help you “let go” of thoughts as you meditate. For example, you might regard your mind as a wise grandparent watching children (your thoughts) playing on a playground. Occasionally one of the children will come to you with a dispute to be resolved, or a drama to be witnessed, urging you to get involved. A wise grandparent however does not become drawn into the drama, but instead smiles and sends the children (the thoughts) back to the playground to play, while continuing to watch from a distance.

One of my students said he visualized this process of letting go as though he were placing each thought on a shelf. He could come back to the thought later if he wanted, but for now, as he practiced his meditation, this metaphorical shelf gave him a place to put his thoughts for the time being in order to resettle his attention in his breath and his immediate experience. With this kind of orientation toward your mind, and a little discipline and consistency, you will gently train your mind how to come back to now. And, the mind begins to drop its resistance to this whole endeavor and eventually treats you to periods of calm settled focus on the experience of just being in the present moment – the only moment you’re truly alive. 

Explore what remains in the absence of thought.

What remains once you’ve let go of a thought? This is where meditation becomes really interesting and illuminating. As soon as you let it go, and return your attention to something happening in the present moment, like the feeling of your breath or the humming whirl of the ceiling fan – some space opens up in your mind (even if only for a second at first!) What is this experience of inner space free from thought? Is this the real you? Pay attention! This is the doorway into self-exploration and self-awareness. Smile and say “Hello” to yourself.

Meditation makes life easier to live.

After just a few weeks of this patient mind training you’ll notice some space has opened up in your mind. Once you’ve opened the hood, looked inside, and placed some of that jumble of thoughts on a metaphorical shelf, it’s much easier in daily life to know which thoughts and ideas to keep (those brilliant, insightful, perceptive ones), and which thoughts you no longer need taking up precious space in your mind, and using up your valuable resource of attention.

And like so many other skills you practice and strengthen as you learn to meditate, the skill of letting go becomes available to you in your life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were easier to disengage from a toxic futile argument? To let go of anger? Resentment? Self-criticism?

When you have trained yourself to pause right in the midst of thinking, you can have that “look-see”) opportunity into what your mind is telling you, and you can ask “Is this true?” “Is this accurate?” “Is this helpful?” If the answer is no, then you’ve already got the skill of letting go handy and at the ready. It becomes easier and easier to let go of negative self-talk, worried thought loops, rumination (rehashing the same material over and over), and gradually this decluttering process becomes a natural part of how you operate.

And with a spacious decluttered mind, your life starts to take on the same quality – your environment, your calendar, the way you spend the precious days of your life, gradually become a reflection of what’s really important to you, and less an unexamined accumulation of “stuff” you no longer need.

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Madeline Ebelini is a former stressed-out lawyer turned certified mindfulness instructor with a mission of helping people reduce stress through teaching them practical and effective mindfulness techniques. She teaches the 5-star reviewed online course Mindfulness For Stress Relief, and leads a weekly live online meditation group Remember to Breathe.

If you would like to explore mindfulness meditation, register for the free webinar “Learn 3 Quick Mindfulness Practices for Stress Relief.”

If you’re ready to join Madeline for a formal course of training in mindfulness meditation, register for the next series of the 6-week live online course Mindfulness for Stress Relief.

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