Meditation for Beginners: The Power of Daily Awareness

meditation for beginners
Contents: Why Bother? | What is Meditation? | Foundations | Going Deeper | Quick Guide for Those in a Rush

“Deep calm, a physiological slowing of the metabolism, and a sense of peace and well-being.” These are the words that Buddhist monk Bhante Gunaratana uses to describe the effects of meditation.

A rich and growing body of evidence points to both the short and long-term benefits of regular practice. We have at our disposal not only a tool for in-the-moment relaxation but also one for fostering peace and well-being throughout our day. Indeed, throughout our life. Surely that’s something worth having?

This article is a concise introduction to getting started. By the end of it you’ll be well-equipped with all the guidance that you need.

Why Bother?

The 1970s book The Relaxation Response is often credited with being the first to widely introduce eastern techniques to a western audience. The author, Harvard physician Herbert Benson, details a host of healing physiological changes that occur during meditation (collectively called the “relaxation response”).

Amongst others, these include a slowing of heart rate and metabolism and a reduction in blood pressure and inflammation. Every time you sit down to meditate, you will be engaging these responses.

Longer-term improvements have also been well-documented. In particular, test-subjects have shown development of their grey matter (a phenomenon known as “neuroplasticity”) alongside improvements in their resiliency and the ability to emotionally self-regulate.

For a full breakdown of the science behind meditation have a look at our article: Does Meditation Work? An Introduction to the Science-Backed Benefits.

Experiencing the Power of Meditation: A Simple, Pragmatic Approach

So where to begin?

Meditation is usually seen as something that’s done once a day for about ten or fifteen minutes then promptly forgotten about. Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace equates this to, “…eating a wholesome breakfast, then snacking on junk food for the rest of the day.” 

What we really want is to imbue our whole day with the positive qualities that our meditation sessions develop in us.

Many teachers and experts recommend a two-part approach. Simply put, this involves a daily practice (of five, ten or fifteen minutes) and two or three short (one or two-minute) moments of meditation scattered throughout your day. 

It’s utterly simple!

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a word, and words are used in different ways by different speakers. ~Bhante Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English

The use of the word “meditation” is widespread and varying.

Depending on the context, it can refer to anything from simple relaxation to the contemplation of complex visualizations to the attainment of radically altered states of consciousness. For our purposes, let’s look at a definition by Matthieu Ricard, one of the world’s most respected masters:

“Meditation is a practice that makes it possible to cultivate and develop certain basic positive human qualities in the same way as other forms of training make it possible to play a musical instrument or acquire any other skill.

‘The words that are translated into English as meditation are Bhavana from Sanskrit, which means ‘to cultivate’, and gom from the Tibetan, which means ‘to become familiar with’. Primarily meditation is a matter of familiarizing ourselves with a clear and accurate way of seeing things and of cultivating the good qualities that remain dormant inside us until we make the effort to bring them out.” (From The Art of Meditation)

Couple this understanding with that offered by Herbert Benson and current science, and our understanding becomes clearer. For our modern lives, far removed from the extremes of cave-dwelling hermits and wandering sadhus, the benefits of meditation will manifest in these two ways.

First as a means of letting go of stresses and strains in-the-moment. Secondly, as a method for developing latent inner qualities, like awareness and compassion, that will enrich our lives.

1. Your Daily Practice

Your daily practice is your anchor and you will see benefits even if it is all that you do. Commit to setting aside as much time as you can maintain on a consistent basis. Generally, early in the morning or before you go to bed works well.

You might find starting small with a few minutes and building from there is the way to go. The Sanskrit word Ghatika refers to a period of twenty-four minutes that is supposedly ideal for beginners. This may present a goal to work towards.

Mindfulness of Breathing

This breathing technique is time tested and a perfect meditation for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. It forms the basis of many more advanced Buddhist practices.

  1. Seat yourself comfortably with a straight spine. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap.
  2. Take a handful of calm, centering breaths.
  3. With each inhalation feel your whole body fill with relaxing warmth.
  4. With each exhalation, feel yourself letting go of any tensions.
  5. After you have settled, let your awareness rest on the sensations of your breathing wherever they manifest. You may wish to “loosely” follow the inhalation from the tip of the nostrils down into your belly and reverse for the exhalation. In and out. Do not make any demands on yourself.
  6. After a while, you may wish to focus more specifically on the sensations of your abdomen or on the light touch of each in and out breath against your nostrils. Follow whichever method you are most comfortable with.

Meditation With a Mantra

Another option for you to consider is the repetition of a mantra. This is the technique that Herbert Benson personally studied and recommends.

  1. As in the first meditation, seat yourself comfortably with a straight spine. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap. Take some deep breaths.
  2. Choose a word, preferably of two-syllables, that symbolizes your intent to let go for the duration of this session. It could be “Jesus,” “Happy” “Peaceful,” or any other with which you are comfortable.
  3. On the in-breath, gently whisper the first syllable, on the out-breath, gently whisper the second. Alternatively, and if you are breathing through your nose, say it silently to yourself.
  4. Rest your attention fully on the utterance of the syllable. If you become distracted, gently return.

2. Short Moments, or “Micro-Meditations”

If, alongside your daily practice, you can set aside two or three moments for a short period of meditation you will really begin to see a change. Making a little space is something that all of us can manage, despite our filled to-do lists.

This is a principle that Mark Thornton explores in his book Meditation In A New York Minute: “…even the busiest people shower in the morning, commute to work, have lunch, sit in the back of taxis, have moments before and after meetings….”

Choose a handful of techniques (the list of techniques provided below is a good place to start) that suit your temperament and circumstances. Body-scan and “sama vritti breathing” are two examples. Equally, you could simply extend either your mindfulness of breathing or mantra practice into the day.

Meditation for Beginners (Techniques)

The aim here is to provide high-quality, concise meditation tips for beginners. StillMind’s site content is roughly divided into three primary sections: (1) meditation for beginners (guides), (2) guided meditation and (3) product guides.

1. Beginner Meditation Guides

The guide for busy people: Experiencing the Power of Meditation in the Midst of a Hectic Life

2. Guided Meditations

3. Product Guides

The “Empty Time” in Your Day

It’s possible to find a few minutes in any busy schedule. For example:

  1. Your daily commute.
  2. The beginning or end of your lunch break.
  3. At the end of the working day.

Most Common Types of Meditation

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More and more every day, people are coming to realize the effects that meditation can yield on our mind, body, and soul.

Meditative practices have been around for the better part of human history and are now enjoying a resurgence in popularity among those individuals looking for a new approach to health and well-being.

Meditation, at its core, is the ancient and powerful practice of training your mind to go into a certain state of being in which your consciousness or “spirit” detaches itself from your body and become but a mere observer of your life.

This allows your inner self a reprieve from the hardships and stresses of modern living while placing your body into a deeply relaxed state.

It also gives you the time you need to asses your thoughts and emotions one by one which will help greatly in diminishing the constant mental chatter we find ourselves bombarded with in our everyday lives.

This is the very objective that all forms of meditation strive for in one way or another.

Having said, there are meditation types much more suited for certain individuals than others. A practice of meditation that fits you may not necessarily work for others and vice versa.

There are also some meditative practices that might be better tailored to the end result that the practitioner would like to attain such as: losing weight, alleviating stress, or exploring one’s inner self. It is essential that before you begin to delve into your own inner world, you define what it is exactly what you want from meditation and what changes you wish to see happen to yourself and your life.

Take the time needed to explore all the different facets of learning and styles of practice of this very old art form and settle on the one/s that you feel works best for you. In this post we shall outline 8 of the most common types of meditation:

1. Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a favorite among new practitioners and certainly, one of the more well known forms of meditation. It traces its origin to Buddhist traditions and is about training your mind to be aware or “mindful” of the present.

This is done by focusing primarily on your breathing, accepting any wandering thoughts the float by, acknowledging that they are there, and then returning to the present moment which is your slow, constant breathing. Mindfulness can be practiced sitting down, laying flat on your back, or in motion depending on you.

It may also be practiced going about in your everyday life. This practice will allow you to overcome almost any form of inner suffering and unlocks your consciousness to the natural wisdom that resides within us all. Routine Mindfulness Meditation has been shown to greatly reduce stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.

2. Kundalini

This is a form of upward meditation in which you concentrate on the energy rising up through your body. A concept of Dharma, Kundalini comes from both Buddhist and Hindu traditions and when translated means “coiled one”. It refers to the primal energy believed to reside in the base of the spine. By focusing mainly on breathing and how your breath flows through the points of energy within your body, one can learn to “awaken” Kundalini and feel an altered state of consciousness which may be called enlightenment.

3. Qi Gong

Qi Gong is one of the oldest forms of meditation and can trace its roots in ancient Chinese society. It is a coordinated system or body postures, movements, breathing, and meditation. Qi Gong can be translated to “Life Energy Cultivation” and is the practice of cultivating and balancing one’s Qi (chi) with is “Life Energy”. There are 75 recorded ancient forms of Qi Gong and 56 common and contemporary. The practice of Qi Gong might require you to do an extensive amount of learning and research but the fact that this art has been in use for centuries proves that it will be more than worth it. Qi Gong’s focus on movement, breathing, and meditation helps the practitioner master his or her reaction to stress and stressful situations.

4. Zazen

Zazen meditation is the cornerstone of Zen Buddhism, and can be literally translated to “seated meditation”. Your posture here is key because how you sit is how you take in the universe. Sitting comfortably cross-legged with a straight back will give you the centeredness you need to achieve a deeper level of awareness. Zen meditation has its roots in Buddhism and focuses in a union of mind and breath to acquire a deeper insight. Zazen or Zen meditation is fairly easy to to by yourself but will eventually require you to a teacher should you wish to progress into deeper meditative experiences. Benefits include a suspension of judgment and prejudice in all things.

5. Heart Rhythm Meditation

A form of downward meditation, Heart Rhythm Meditation or HRM is a practice which focuses on the breathing patterns and heartbeats to lull you into your trance. The purpose is to experience a greater affinity with yourself and the environment around you. This will help you feel a greater sense joy and increased physical, mental, and spiritual wellness.

6. Guided Visualization

This meditation is relatively new with inspiration from the teachings of Buddha. The idea is to meditate with a vision of your desired end in your mind. This can be anything from losing weight to the assimilation of a certain virtue you wish to have. By visualizing your objective with a can-do, positive attitude, you subconsciously flush out any negativity or pessimism that might prevent you from doing otherwise.

7. Primordial Sound Meditation

Rooted in Vedic traditions of India, making primordial sound or repeating a mantra is show to take your mind into a deeper place of awareness. Mimicking the sounds a baby might here when still in the womb, this form of meditating plays into deep subconscious level of our psyche that was always there, just forgotten. Your mantra can be anything that hold any significance in your life. You can look up ancient phrases or chants or simply repeat a phrase you wish to be true about yourself.

8. Transcendental Meditation

A modern school of meditation practice, Transcendental Meditation (or TM) aims to reach a state of enlightenment in which the individual feels an unparalleled state of bliss and inner calmness. The practitioner sits in Lotus, chants, and concentrate on rising above negativity and strife.

Be patient with yourself as meditation can be a trial and error process in the beginning. Keep a journal to record and compare the effectiveness of each form in relation to you. Do not despair if you and understand there are those who dedicate their entire lives to meditating so no one expects you to get it on your first try. Keep at it!

Common Problems Experienced in Meditation

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Jump to: Boredom | Distractions | Physical Pain | Am I Doing It Right? | Ego Is (Not) The Enemy

Difficulties and obstacles, if properly understood and used, can turn out to be an unexpected source of strength.” Sogyal Rinpoche

“We don’t meditate to see heaven, but to end suffering.” Ajahn Chah

“Man learns through experience, and the spiritual path is full of different kinds of experiences. He will encounter many difficulties and obstacles, and they are the very experiences he needs to encourage and complete the cleansing process.” Sai Baba

Whether you’re a beginning or an experienced meditator, you will inevitably come up against problems. It’s in the overcoming of these hurdles that meditation presents an opportunity for growth. One that can have life-changing effects.

Theravada monk Bhante Gunaratana writes: “The reason we are all stuck in life’s mud is that we ceaselessly run from our problems and after our desires. Meditation provides us with a laboratory situation in which we can examine this syndrome and devise strategies for dealing with it.” 1

Here are a few ways you can carve a path around some of the barriers to easeful practice.

1. Boredom

Boredom isn’t clear-cut. We might equally say that we are feeling demotivated, lazy or that our mind is dull…all have a similar flavor. Boredom usually manifests as an aversion to practicing: we can’t muster the energy to sit down in the first place, and when we do we’re just waiting for the session to end.

  • Contemplate the advantages of meditation. How will awareness, and its propensity to calm your reactivity, benefit you in daily life? How will physically reducing your stress help? Consider questions like these to cultivate the desire to get your bum on the cushion.
  • Mindfulness, mindfulness, mindfulness. Use the arising of boredom as an opportunity to re-establish mindfulness. To quote Bhante again: “If the breath seems an exceedingly dull thing to observe over and over, you may rest assured of one thing: you have ceased to observe the process with true mindfulness.” 2
  • Choose a time to practice when you’re well-rested and don’t have any pressing commitments. Often, you might not want to meditate because the need to unwind is more pressing. Research has shown that we’re more likely to follow through on a course of action if our need for recuperation has been met.

2. Distraction

Buddhists usually refer to distraction as excitation, and it has varying degrees. Alan Wallace describes it thus: “When coarse excitation takes over the mind, we completely lose touch with our chosen object of meditation. It’s as if the mind is abducted against its will, and thrown in the trunk of a distracting thought or sensory stimulus. …The mind jumps from one object to another like a bird flitting from branch to branch, never at rest.” 3

  • Relax more deeply. Take a handful of deep breaths, loosen tensions in your body, reflect on a calming image…whatever works for you. As Wallace goes on to say: “Such turbulence is overcome only by persistent skillful practice, cultivating deeper relaxation, a sense of inner ease.” 4 Relaxing the mind is the key to quieting it.
  • Count your breaths. Counting each breath, saying the number silently to yourself after each exhalation, can often succeed in stilling the mind. You are essentially using the conceptual mind to help lessen its intrusion.
  • Note the distractions (literally, if you need to). If there are many thoughts vying for your attention, note them. You might want to say them aloud or even write them down.

3. Physical Pain

  • Make yourself more comfortable. Top marks for the obvious, I know! You will eventually adjust to your sitting posture. Having your hands rest in your lap and keeping your head level can go some way in reducing neck and upper-back discomfort. You may find a mat useful.
  • Direct your attention to the pain. If the pain becomes so pressing that it pulls you from your chosen object, simply use it as the focus of your mindfulness. This is what Bhante G recommends.

4. Am I doing this technique right? Can I possibly succeed?

This kind of negative self-talk is a good thing. You’re illuming some of your latent beliefs about meditation (and perhaps other things in your life). Perfectionism can be let go off, replaced with an attitude of gentleness and impartiality.

  • Accept that self-criticism is normal and “return”. You will be frustrated. Accept this, as non-judgementally as you can, and re-establish mindfulness on your meditation object.
  • Consciously affirm a playful attitude. Doing so will stop you from becoming frustrated at yourself when you think you’ve done something that’s “wrong.” Remind yourself that there is no exact right or wrong.

5. Ego is the enemy!

Ego isn’t the enemy. This is a usual, but not a useful, belief. Mind, self, ego…whatever you want to call it, it’s not the bad guy.

  • Simply being aware of this belief can be enough to quell it. Treat all the rumination and the frustration that you may be experiencing as an opportunity for mindfulness. In doing so you are examining the workings of your mind, growing better able to accept and manage it in the long-term.

So there you go! What problems have you experienced and what have you found helpful? Let us know in the comments below!

If you want to go a little deeper, consider our selection of the best meditation books for beginners. We’ve also written a comprehensive introduction to meditation, alongside an introduction to the scientific dimension of practice.

Bringing it All Together: Setting Yourself Reminders

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with a handful of techniques, you’ll need to incorporate them into your daily life. Identify the best times for practice and then set yourself some reminders, until the habit’s formed.

  1. Computer background/screensaver.
  2. Your phone’s background.
  3. Plum Village mindfulness software.
  4. A little note on your desk. (This is my favorite)

The Quick Guide

In a rush? Just use this quick guide.

Going Deeper

Deep Relaxing Meditation: Making space for relaxation, on a regular basis, is one of the most beneficial things we can do. This article outlines three techniques that have been proven to powerfully engage the body’s healing mechanisms.

Does Meditation Work? The Scientific Basis: If you’re interested in learning a little more about some of the recent scientific research into traditional contemplative practices, and how its conducted, then you might like this article.

Best Meditation Books (for Busy People): A collection of books about meditation specifically chosen for their applicability to busy, modern living.

References

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

Meditation in a New York Minute by Mark Thornton

The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson

The Art of Meditation by Matthieu Ricard

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