Meditation 101: How to Meditate

Just like eating well, staying hydrated and exercising regularly, a consistent meditation practice is an important part of well-being. Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. The practice facilitates problem-solving and enhances emotional intelligence. 

Meditation helps us act with greater patience, love and acceptance, both for ourselves and for others. With a steady meditation practice, we live healthier, more peaceful and happier lives. 

There is a meditation practice for everyone, and we benefit from all types. Browse our meditation guides and learn how to meditate for better sleep, less stress and anxiety, increased positivity, and a life of greater wisdom and compassion.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is the act of paying attention, on purpose, to a single, beneficial object. Most of us already know how to meditate. We do it each time we focus on just one thing, contemplating carefully. Far too often, however, we meditate on past events or future worries. This type of habitual, non-mindful meditation is hardly ever helpful. 

For meditation to be beneficial, we must choose our intention with great care. By placing the mind on a beneficial object, such as the breath, the body, a mantra, or the truth of this present moment, we foster greater peace, ease, and clarity of mind.  

Mindfulness and meditation have been happening since the beginning of time. The first time a human walked through the forest while paying attention to walking through the forest, that human was practicing mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is paying attention to this present moment, just as it is, with a kind of curiosity that is free from judgment, criticism, or story. Practiced mindfulness lends itself to powerful insights which can help us live with more joy and less pain.

The formal practices we do today, especially loving-kindness meditations, do have Buddhist origins. But people were meditating long before Shakyamuni Buddha was born. Meditation has remained with us for one very good reason - it helps us feel better.

How to Meditate: Step by Step Guide

Mindfulness meditation is simple, but it’s not easy. Most of us have spent a lifetime chasing distraction, avoiding the truth of the present moment, or simply not noticing what’s going on. Cultivating the opposite takes great patience and repeated practice. 

Over time, with as little as 5 minutes of practice each day, we strengthen the neural pathways that make meditation easier. As we realize the benefits we become motivated to meditate more often and to sit longer each time.

Mindfulness of the breath is where most people start. To begin a meditation practice, try the following meditation steps:

1. Find a Quiet Place

To help minimize distractions, meditate in a relatively quiet place. Choose a location where you feel safe turning your awareness from the outside toward what’s going on within.

2. Take a Seat

We can meditate while standing, walking, sitting or lying down. Try starting with a seated practice. Your seat should be comfortable, yet upright, balancing comfort with alertness.

3. Set an Intention

During mindfulness of breath, your intention is breath observation. Setting an intention at the start of the practice allows you to observe when you’re meditating, and when you’re not.

4. Place Your Mind on Your Intention

If the intention is breath awareness, place your mind on your breath. Observe with eyes open or closed, while breathing naturally and normally. From moment to moment, without judgment or criticism, notice your breath with a spacious and kind curiosity.

5. When Your Mind Wanders…

At some point, you’ll notice that your mind has wandered and you’re no longer present with your intention. When this happens, rejoice! Let yourself relax and return to your intention. Repeat this step as often as you need to. With practice, you’ll notice sooner when the mind has wandered, and you’ll find it easier to return to your intention.

6. Close with a Dedication

When you’re ready to close your practice, take a moment to recognize the benefits you’ve received. Acknowledging these benefits and the success of your practice can help enhance the results. You may wish to dedicate the benefit of your practice toward a personal goal, to someone else, or to all beings everywhere. 

Or if you need an easy audio guide, listen to our 10-minute guided meditation.

What is the Key to Meditation?

If there’s one key to meditation, it’s to prioritize practice over perfection. Many who are new to meditation mistakenly believe that the goal is to reach a perfected, blissed-out state. But meditation, especially mindfulness meditation, is not about bypassing our pain or discomfort, nor is it about stopping our thoughts or numbing emotions. 

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being present with this moment, just as it is. As we observe, we cultivate acceptance, care, and curiosity. With this in mind, we can be kinder towards ourselves if and when we notice we’ve become distracted, or if we find that the truth of this moment is unpleasant. 

We may observe that the mind is agitated, tired, or uninterested. Perhaps what arises in our awareness is uncomfortable, painful or challenging. All of this is perfectly ok. We can apply kind curiosity to this too. A successful meditation is one in which we do our best to partner awareness with compassion.

How Does Meditation Work?

Research shows that mindfulness meditation promotes change in the brain. Consistent practice shrinks areas of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety and anger while promoting activity in areas responsible for compassion and a reduced self-centered focus. 

Without mindfulness, our brains continue to strengthen the habitual pathways that make us egocentric, reactive, and compelled to behave in harmful ways. With mindfulness, we cultivate new, less harmful thoughts and behaviors by activating (and fortifying) brand new neural pathways. The phenomenon that allows this to happen is called neuroplasticity

The following are just some of the evidence-based ways in which meditation changes the brain:

Increases Gray Matter Density

Meditation is associated with increased gray matter density, especially within both orbitofrontal and hippocampal regions. Upregulating activity in these areas helps us to learn and remember, with meditators reporting fewer cognitive errors. These areas of the brain are also responsible for emotional regulation and the ability to take on new perspectives. We become more likely to engage in mindful behavior.

Gray matter typically declines with age, but not for long-term meditators. The positive effects of meditation on gray matter seem to occur regardless of the type of meditation and increase the more we practice.

Increases Cortical Thickness

Meditators appear to have thicker cortices in the prefrontal and frontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and the secondary somatosensory cortex.

This change in brain anatomy is associated with less mind wandering, less self-centeredness when processing information, and reduced pain sensitivity. These benefits arise from an increased capacity to remain present, and an improved ability to see things as they are, absent of over-identification or personal story.

Upregulates Pons

Pons, from the Latin word for bridge, serves as an important connector between different parts of the brain. In a study comparing meditation to relaxation training, participants who meditated experienced increased pons activity.

An upregulated pons helped neutralize affective processing. Participants in the study were less likely to process information as good or bad, they saw things as they were. This effect lasted even outside of the meditation sessions.

Upregulates the TPJ

The temporoparietal junction (TPJ) plays a role in body awareness, social cognition, and predictive processing. Meditators tend to have more gray matter in this region, which is among the most vulnerable to age-related decline.

Studies have found that activity in the TPJ may be the reason why meditators are more body aware, empathetic and compassionate. A strong TPJ makes us less likely to hold false beliefs or to be biased against stigmatized others.

Downregulates the Amygdala

The amygdala is associated with fear, anger, stress, and anxiety. A hyperactive amygdala responds to harmless stressors as physical danger, kicking us into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. 

In meditators, activity in the amygdala is downregulated, and in long-term meditators, this structure of the brain is also smaller. Amazingly, changes can be seen in the amygdala after just one weekend of intense meditation training. These positive changes to emotional processing can last long after meditation training has ended, suggesting that meditation promotes change in mental function that is more than situational.

Changes the Body

What’s good for the brain is good for the body. Meditation’s benefits aren’t limited to our heads. Meditation helps us sleep better, protecting us against a variety of physical ailments. Meditation may also help boost our immunity by reducing inflammation, regulating immune cell production, and protecting us from biological aging.

Meditation 101: How to Meditate

Benefits of Meditation

Meditation’s ability to affect changes in the brain is exciting, but so too is how meditation improves our daily lives. The benefits of a steady meditation practice include the following.

Greater Mental Stability

The consistent practice of focus, attempting to hold our awareness on a single object, helps stabilize the mind. A more stable mind is less reactive. We begin to understand that not every thought is worth following, nor does every emotion necessitate an outburst. The ability to observe our thoughts and emotions without the compulsion to act upon them is a mark of wisdom and self-compassion.

Greater Clarity

Just as sentiment clears from water that is undisturbed by wind, a more stable mind is a more clear mind. By stabilizing the mind in meditation, we’re able to better discern between what is worthy of our attention and what is not. We can more clearly see the difference between what is actually happening and the judgments, perspectives, and biases that cloud our perception.

Less Rumination

Ruminative thinking disturbs our peace and exacerbates anxiety and depression. A regular meditation practice helps reduce ruminative thinking by helping us view thoughts as the movement of the mind, versus something that needs doing. Cultivating different aspects of attention helps us learn to let go of unhelpful thoughts.

Fewer Negative Thoughts

Meditation improves our ability to take on new and differing perspectives. This process minimizes negative thinking and can help the mind lean more toward joy and gratitude. Going beyond black-and-white thinking to make space for ambiguity and paradox also has a calming effect.

Improved Resilience

Resilience is a measure of our ability to return to baseline when thrown off-balance by stress, pain, or discomfort. Meditation improves resilience to stress, a benefit that can be applied to chronic pain, emotions, or any stimulation that dysregulates the nervous system.

Strengthened Self-Compassion

Mindfulness meditation helps cultivate more beneficial states of mind, such as self-compassion, empathy, gratitude, patience, and kindness. Researchers hypothesize the cultivation of such virtues is a key reason why meditators report feeling happier.

Enhanced Moral Behavior

Those who practice mindfulness tend to behave more ethically. Meditators also exhibit more prosocial behaviors. Heightened self-awareness helps us more clearly see the link between our actions and their consequences. As we become aware of the interconnectedness of all things, we choose to behave in more beneficial ways, leading to less harm and fewer regrets.

Many of the benefits of meditation are available to us right away, while others are reserved for long-term meditators, or grow stronger with time. This is one very good reason to maintain a consistent practice. Once we find a style of meditation that works well for us, it’s to our benefit to practicing every day. 

Forms of Meditation

Much of the latest research focuses on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, including breath awareness and more heart-based compassion practices. But there are many beneficial styles of meditation. We can work with the mind in many different ways. Each meditation technique offers us the ability to lead more calm, stable, and happy lives.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of observing the present moment, just as it is. We might focus our mindfulness on the breath or body, even thoughts, and emotions. Or, we might practice a more spacious style of mindfulness called open awareness.

Body Scan Meditation

The body scan is a particular type of mindfulness meditation in which we scan through the body, observing sensation. We can practice cultivating gratitude or compassion, or practice remaining present, regardless of pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensation.

Walking Meditation

Meditation need not be practiced while sitting still. Walking meditation is a type of moving meditation, in which we practice mindfulness of movement in body and mind while slowly stepping forward.

Loving-Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness, or metta meditation, is a classic heart-opening practice. This meditation teaches us to be more accepting, empathetic and compassionate, both towards ourselves and toward all others.

Visualization and Guided Imagery

Meditation practices may use visualizations or guided imagery to help us better connect to sensations or particular characteristics or qualities of the mind.

Mantra

Some styles of meditation make use of mantras or chanting. A mantra is a sacred syllable. Repeating a mantra can protect the mind from negative thinking and induce healing, transformative vibrations.

Why is Meditation Difficult?

Our high expectations make meditation difficult. We may have an unrealistic, perfectionist view of what meditation is supposed to look like. It’s helpful to remember meditation is not an attempt to stop thinking or feeling. Instead, it’s about relating to our thoughts and feelings in a more caring, affectionate way.

Meditation Do’s and Don’ts

Meditation mistakes include the following, which hinder our personal growth and progress.

  • Don’t judge or criticize yourself for losing focus. A wandering mind is a human mind!
  • Don’t beat yourself up for skipping a day. Just return to your practice once you remember.
  • Don’t force yourself to breathe one certain way, let your breath be natural.
  • Don’t force an uncomfortable, upright posture. You can sit, stand or lie down.
  • Never force yourself to stay with a practice that feels unsafe or too painful to be present.

To make meditation easier, find the practice, posture and time of day that works best for you. Emphasize patience and self-compassion while you practice.

  • Do practice self-compassion at all times, remember that you’re human.
  • Do learn about the window of tolerance, and how to stay within it.
  • Do experiment with different meditation postures, which feels most comfortable?
  • Do experiment with meditating at different times of day, and observe what changes.
  • Do experiment with several different styles of meditation.

Beginners sometimes find it difficult to meditate because they’re unsure where to begin or what to do. Guided meditation can make it easier for beginners, by offering loose suggestions on where to place your focus. The following guided meditations are an excellent place to begin, whether you’re ready to devote five or 30 minutes to your practice.

Basic Meditation Practice for Beginners

How to Make Meditation a Habit

It’s not the length of our meditation that matters most, but how often we do it. Research shows it’s more beneficial to meditate a little bit every day, than once a week for a longer duration. In fact, it’s important we enjoy our first sessions, as this is predictive of continued practice

So, meditate every day, but begin with a length that feels comfortable. Over time, it will become easier to sit for longer. You may even feel compelled to, as you begin to realize the benefits of a steady, everyday practice.

To make mindfulness a daily habit, practice the following meditation tips:

Start Small

Keep your meditation sessions comfortable and enjoyable. This may mean sitting for just 5 minutes at a time. When you feel ready to increase the duration of your practice, try increasing the frequency first.

Choose a Place

Setting up an intentional meditation space can help encourage us to practice. There’s no need for a fancy cushion or altar, but do find a safe, small space where you can sit undisturbed, relatively free from distractions.

Schedule a Time

Many people find meditating first thing in the morning is helpful. The energy of the day is still calm, and the mind hasn’t yet busied itself with activity. Regardless, find the time that works best for you, then schedule it on your daily calendar, just as you would with any other important appointment.

Use a Guide

If you’re unsure where to begin or how to get started, use a guide. Guided practice can be helpful for habit forming. As you get more comfortable with meditation, try alternating between guided and self-guided practice. Then, let go of the guide all together.

Practice Self-Compassion

At every step in your meditation journey, practice patience and self-compassion. Remember, meditation isn’t about maintaining perfect, undisturbed awareness. It’s about becoming more mindful of when we’re distracted, and practicing the return to intention.

Is Meditation Safe?

Meditation is a safe means of developing greater mindfulness and awareness, both of our internal and external experience. It isn’t always comfortable, however. For some people, the process of turning attention inward can be quite painful, especially if the body holds difficult, unresolved trauma.

Anytime you’re meditating, with or without a guide, try to balance two types of attention. Place part of your attention on your intention, such as watching the breath. Use another part of your attention to tend to your meditation experience. If you notice resistance, reactivity, discomfort, or unease, address it in the most compassionate, caring way you can. 

Sometimes, this means staying with the experience and continuing to observe with a loving, caring kindness. Other times, this means gently navigating away from the discomfort or even taking a break from the practice entirely. You always have agency over your own practice.

Meditation can help support mental and physical health, but it may not be a sufficient, stand-alone solution. If you’re using meditation as treatment for any physical, mental or emotional challenge, discuss your practice with a trauma-informed specialist, a trained medical professional or trusted counselor.

FAQs on Meditation

What Is Meditation Used For?

Meditation is used to improve wellbeing. People meditate for greater clarity and stability of mind. Improving mindfulness and awareness offers us a life of greater peace and ease.

What Is The Easiest Meditation Technique?

The easiest meditation technique for you depends on your personal tendencies and habits. It may also change from day to day. Many people begin by practicing mindfulness of breath, a technique that’s accessible to everyone.

How Much Should I Meditate?

To see results, you should try to meditate for 5 minutes or more, daily. It’s best to meditate consistently, versus worrying about the length of each session. Research indicates the practice is more powerful if we do it daily.

How Long Should A Beginner Meditate?

A beginner should meditate for as long as it feels comfortable. It’s important that our early experiences with meditation are enjoyable. For some, this means limiting practice to 5 or 10 minutes at a time, then slowly increasing the frequency or duration of the sessions.

Is 2 Minutes Of Meditation Enough?

Two minutes of meditation is better than none! However, research does show that the more we meditate, the greater the benefit. Two minutes can be a great place to start, especially if we do this several times per day.

What Can 5 Minutes Of Meditation Do?

As little as 5 minutes of meditation per day can lead to positive changes in our brains that significantly decrease stress and increase mindfulness for improved health and wellbeing.

What Happens When You Meditate Too Much?

You may be meditating too much if you’re experiencing physical, mental or emotional pain. In general, research shows a positive correlation between the amount of time one has meditated and the benefits they receive. That said, be gentle with yourself as you start your practice. Sitting for too long can lead to pain in the body. You might also note if you’re using meditation as a means of escape or avoidance. If meditation is triggering an adverse reaction, it may be best to take a break from the practice and discuss with a mental health professional.

How To Sit For Meditation?

The perfect meditation posture is the one that’s most sustainable for you. Balance comfort with an upright spine. This may mean sitting in a chair or sitting on the floor, surrounded by cushions or pillows. We can also meditate while standing, walking or lying down.

Do My Eyes Need To Be Closed To Meditate?

No. Some people close their eyes because it helps limit visual distractions. Others prefer eyes open, but maintain a soft, low gaze. If you’re very sleepy, it can help to open your eyes. There’s no right or wrong way to hold the eyes during meditation.

How Do I Know I'm Meditating Right?

A successful meditation session is not one in which we never get distracted. What matters is that we eventually realize and return to the object of our intention. So, you’re meditating correctly if you keep coming back, no matter how many times the mind wanders!

Why Does Meditation Make Me Anxious?

Meditation can make us anxious for several reasons. We may worry about doing it right, we might feel uncomfortable sitting still, and sometimes, it can be challenging to be present with painful sensations, thoughts or emotions. If meditation is making you anxious, seek the assistance of an expert guide, or take a break from the practice. 

Please note that none of what is offered within or through Mindfulness Exercises constitutes medical advice or treatment. The information provided by Mindfulness Exercises is for educational and informational purposes only.

Sean Fargo

Author

Sean Fargo

Mindfulness Exercises Founder

Sean Fargo, founder of Mindfulness Exercises and the Mindfulness Exercises Institute, is a highly sought-after mindfulness teacher, coach, and consultant. After spending 2 years as a Buddhist monk and assisting world-renowned mindfulness leaders like Jack Kornfield at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Sean went on to share his own gifts and wisdom with the world. 

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