A Beginner's Guide to Meditation

Which kind is for you? How do you know it's working? What if you hate it? What if your leg itches in the middle of it?
Publish date:
August 15, 2011
tech, apps, meditation, breathing, not freaking out

I was chatting with a proprietor of the Esoteric Library about meditation, how people ask her what kind of meditation they should be doing, and how do they know it’s working? A few of you have written in and made comments asking me the same thing. So let’s address that.

Meditation is the practice of connecting with your breath and clearing your mind. Nothing is necessarily supposed to “happen.” That is the purpose -- to find absolute stillness.

Do you know how hard that is? Seriously, try to sit still for 30 seconds, and simply pay attention to your breath. You don’t have to monitor it or control it, just observe -- is it deep, satisfying, choppy, coming in more one nostril than the other? That 30 seconds, if you made it, is so hard. It can feel like body jail to hold still. That is strength, to do nothing with our bodies while also doing nothing with our minds. And that’s what meditation teaches us: true strength.

If you can find a calm place for your mind in the midst of turmoil, I think that means you are a pro. Sometimes, with this, comes clarity. Or peace. Or a huge ephiphany. Or a sense of space within the self so that you can either expand and become more fully you, or else change. Sometimes it brings up gross stuff we don’t want to freaking deal with, and that’s why we stay busy, so it doesn’t come up, and thanks a lot, meditation. Allowing yourself to open up is also strength. And with meditation, you don't have to do anything. That’s what’s so cool -- you can just have stuff come up, and let it go with the breath. Bye, stuff!

Meditation is not something you have to do in a quiet sacred space, or with a guru, or on a special pillow or with a group of people. Those things are great, of course, if you have access to them. I’d say making your life a meditative practice -- quiet observance, non-judgment, connection with the breath -- is more important. You can even meditate for three minutes on the train, just go inside yourself and find quiet there.

Some of you want real guidance, dammit, and not just this generic hippie talk. You want a book, don’t you? Or some kind of grid that says: If you’re [x] kind of person, you should try [x] kind of meditation. Here’s the deal, though. There’s nothing that can actually teach you. You have to do it, and that’s what teaches you.

I say this as someone who is not a master meditator. I have never gone off to Vipassana, or what is recognized as a “meditation retreat.” While I’ve attended meditation seminars and group events -- chanting mantras, absolute stillness and quiet, tonglen (the act of purposefully alleviating suffering for one and all), prayer, visualization, kirtan (a devotional participatory music experience where you’re singing in repetitive Sanskrit) -- and they’ve been great, sometimes that stuff can feel intimidating. What if you move and everyone thinks you’re a joke? What if you don’t look right, or feel like you’re going to fall asleep? What if you're supposed to be barefoot and don't have a pedicure? What if you laugh? What if you completely hate it and want to run away?

All of these concerns are valid. Still, I think these group things are good for teaching you physical technique: how to hold your body, for instance, and tricks for getting you to a place where you can clear your mind. Try one of them just to get you started, and if any of these questions comes up, do your best to hold still, right there and not react to any of it. If you can do it, you are meditating.

If you’re not shy, or you like singing in your car or in the shower, try kirtan -- it’s pretty fun, and no one cares if you have a terrible voice. If you like big, supportive groups where you just chant chant chant, try a Soka Gakkai chapter, which observes a form of Buddhism. If you go to yoga, chances are your studio has some kind of meditation group -- ask about it. And actually, these are the ones that will get your body in optimal position for the real stuff.

If you do want to try by yourself, there’s a guided meditation iPhone app I like called iChakra, which has you visualize kundalini winding up your chakras via spoken word. There's also a section just for ringing bowls. For something much simpler, and to really get your focus on your breath, there’s an iPhone app called Pranayama I like as well. This one's cool because it just has a guy sitting there, and you can adjust the transparency of his skin to see how the breath goes in and out of his body as you follow along with him. (Would be cool if there was a lady option, hint hint.) And there's a timer function, and a breath pattern setting ... yeah, it's pretty good.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: Pick something and try it, really, that’s all, and go from there. You can even try sitting still and connecting with your breath for 30 seconds more right now, and then telling us how that was for you.