How to Meditate

But first, a little Q & A:

  • Q: Do I have to grow out my hair and become an insufferable know-it-all enlightened douche bag?
  • A: I wouldn’t advise it, but feel free.
  • Q: Okay, fine, how do I meditate?
  • A: Keep reading.

I promise there’s no silly “new age” spiritual bullshit here, just straight-forward instructions intended to help you gain greater clarity of mind and contentment in almost any situation life throws at you.

I’ve learned how to meditate from 3 sources: my psychotherapist, the Waking Up app, and The Happiness Trap.

This short guide is for anyone that has ever wondered how to meditate. But honestly, check out the Waking Up app if you really want to have a professional guide you. You can use the app for free for an entire month. I highly recommend it.

What’s the goal of this meditation?

There can be many goals, but what I’m going to describe is called “mindfulness” which stems from Vipassana (insight) meditation. Becoming more mindful is basically the ability to pay better attention to everything life offers using open awareness.

You’ll become more aware of sights, sounds, colors, lights, shadows, sensations, as well as thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Focusing on the breath is a deceptively simple way to cultivate this “mindfulness”.

And if you are anything like most humans, you will find yourself almost immediately thinking, “hey, look I’m focusing on my breath” which is nothing more than the first hand discovery of how hard it is to focus on your breath for more than a second at a time.

Because in that brief moment of triumph after noticing you are focusing only on the breath, you were indeed not focused on your breath. You were focused on the thought of noticing it.

But catching yourself when you are lost in that thought is the practice.

Let me repeat that.

Catching yourself lost in thought while you were supposed to be focusing on your breath is meditation.

You are actively training your mind to become more and more sensitive to becoming aware of the constant chattering of your own mind. You’ll mostly catch yourself planning, remembering, imagining, and judging.

This won’t take more than 3 minutes of your time. Let’s try it:

  1. After you finish reading this sentence, gently close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths, paying close attention to inhaling and exhaling.
  2. Now do it over again, this time trying to pinpoint where you feel your breath the strongest. It may be in the rising and falling of your chest, or in the air entering and exiting your nostril, but just try to get a little closer to observing the sensation of breathing. Close your eyes and try it.
  3. Okay, for this next one, close your eyes again and pay attention to your breath in the same way, but try not to wait for it like a tiger hunting its prey, just receive it.
  4. Now do it again and this time try to notice other sensations that may be occurring at the same time as you are observing your breath. You’ll hear sounds, you’ll feel your body resting in your chair, and you may even have an itch or want to adjust your body in some way. That’s fine. Try it now.
  5. Finally, do it once more but become aware of any thought that might be present while you are paying attention to your breath and sensations. Once you notice a thought, it may help to give the thought a category such as: remembering, planning, imagining, judging, etc. and remember, catching yourself thinking is the practice. Once you’ve named the thought, come back to focusing on the breath and sensations.
  6. Set a timer for 60 seconds and close your eyes while trying to balance these instructions that you’ve just learned.
  7. That’s it. That’s the whole practice.

Some tips for meditation:

Sitting upright helps. No one is sure why.

Practicing daily helps. Remember, you’re training your mind. You wouldn’t go to the gym for a week and then suddenly quit going because you didn’t see results on day 8 would you? Of course not. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

Counting your breath helps. It makes a mental “note” to hold onto while you are being buffeted around by your thoughts and sounds.

Being in a quiet place helps. But once you get a few sessions under your belt, you’ll likely figure out that any environment is ideal for meditation because how your mind works is not dependent on your surroundings.

I hope this guide is useful to anyone starting out.

Whatever you do, don’t get discouraged. Truly anyone can realize the benefits of meditation in their daily life almost immediately.

I’ll leave you with my favorite excerpt from Sam Harris in Waking Up:

“You’ve just begun doing something that is deceptively simple, but extraordinarily profound. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how deep and interesting and transformative this simple practice of paying close attention to your experience can become.

Now unfortunately there’s no way I can prove that to you, short of getting you to do the practice to the point of real insight. Consider, by analogy, the science of astronomy. Now you might live, as many of us do, near a city with light pollution, and when you look up at the sky at night, you might not see any stars at all. Or the only stars that you do see might in fact be planets because they’re the only thing bright enough to break through the haze. So your situation is such that you can’t even notice how beautiful or interesting the cosmos is because you cant see it in any detail. Of course this doesn’t give you any reason to doubt that astronomy is a real field of discovery, but the difference is you’ve probably been out in the country or the wilderness at night and seen what the sky looks like without any light pollution.

Beyond that, you’ve surely seen pictures taken from the Hubble Space telescope of brilliant fields of stars and even other galaxies. So even if you almost never experience it directly, there’s no reasonable basis to doubt that the sky is incredibly beautiful and that there really is much to discover there.

But with respect to your own mind, you may have never had a moment where the conditions were right to see anything directly. Meditation is a method for creating those conditions. In fact, it’s analogous to building your own telescope. And once it’s built, you don’t lose it. You may need to tune it up from time to time but it really is difficult to exaggerate the difference in having recognized the sky of the mind with properly trained attention and never having looked up at all.

-Sam Harris

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More reading:

Meditation Practice Can Increase Your Stock Market Returns

Insights from meditation can help you become a more calculated investor, especially in the face of market uncertainty. (4 min read)

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