Meditation isn’t just something for yogis or crystal-collecting New Age fanatics. It’s also for overworked, gadget-loving geeks who need a little bit of downtime in their busy schedules.
Meditation is a scientifically demonstrated method of lowering stress levels and helping your body and mind relax. And, contrary to its image in popular media, meditation isn’t difficult, you don’t need to be religious, and you don’t need to bend yourself into a pretzel to do it.
All you need is bit of free time, a quiet place, and some dedication. It takes practice and discipline to get beyond the common n00b stumbling blocks.
There are many different kinds of meditation, but nearly all of them share a common goal — focusing and quieting your mind.
Although it may seem like you’re just sitting there doing nothing, it turns out that sitting and doing nothing is actually very difficult — especially when you first get started.
Tips for beginners
Start small. It will keep you from getting frustrated. Most books on meditation recommend beginners start with a short session of 5-12 minutes.
Find a comfortable chair that you can sit up straight in with your feet flat on the floor. Your dining room chairs will likely work well. Grab a pillow if you need a little extra cushioning.
There’s no “best time” to meditate, though being very hungry or very full can be distracting, so avoid both of those times.
Meditation is a great way to escape the stress of the workday. But while experienced meditators can do this, you mind find it hard to quiet your mind if you just stop working and try to switch to meditation mode. Take a break first — walk around the building or step away from your desk and relax for a few minutes before settling in.
In the beginning it’s best to close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing. Breathe freely and deeply, but naturally, don’t force the breath. Just let yourself breathe and feel your muscles relax.
Your mind will wander, probably immediately. That’s OK. Just bring your attention back to your breath and turn your awareness back to your body, looking for spots you can continue to relax.
Some people find that counting their breaths — from 1 to 10, then starting over again — is an effective way to remain focused. Just don’t worry if it’s some time before you get past 2 without your mind drifting away.
Let people around you know that you will be unavailable for a short time. It is difficult to focus when you are wondering when your kid or a co-worker will interrupt.
In the beginning your mind will trick you, you’ll wander off on a train of thought and not even realize it for some time. That’s OK, just bring your attention back to your breath whenever you notice that your mind has wandered. Over time (years in most cases) you’ll notice that your mind wanders less and less each time you try.
The wandering mind
There are several ways to stop your mind from wandering. One, mentioned above, is to focus your attention back on the breath. Another is to use a mantra, something your repeat so that your mind has something to focus on. Yet another is to light a candle a few feet in front of you and stare at the flame.
Some use a signing bowl, or some other drone-producing mechanism that gives your brain something to focus on.
Others will tell you that, to quiet the mind, it’s best to avoid any sensory distraction: no sounds, no visual aids and nothing to touch.
Whichever method you use, keep searching for muscles to relax. Meditation isn’t a test, and there is nothing wrong with a wandering mind. After all, if your mind didn’t wander then you wouldn’t have any need to meditate. Work with yourself, not against.
If you have an iPhone, iPad or Android phone, there are some apps you can use:
Equanimity ($5) is a full-featured meditation helper. It has a timer which chimes at intervals to help you establish a routine or work up to a time-based goal. It also has a log to track your progress and a journal for keeping notes. There’s also a free browser-based version you can try.
Do you need a background sound to concentrate on?
Ambiance by Urban Apps ($3) is a popular choice. It has over a thousand background sounds from nature or from everyday life, like wind chimes and water boiling.
Another favorite is the Buddha Machine, a simple app that plays a variety of looping, musical drones. Some are more intrusive than others, but most of them are ambient and pleasant. It’s also available as a physical device, a small box about the size of a pack of smokes with a built-in speaker. The loops can also be downloaded free of charge under a Creative Commons license.
You might enjoy BuddhaBell ($16 for Windows, $1 for iOS devices). It can time your meditations (including a nice delay time to get comfortable) and plays pleasant bell sounds. It can also play “reminder” bells during the day to help bring your attention back to moment and encourages what the Buddhists call “mindfulness”.
Moving past focus
Once you’re able to focus on a single thing — your breath, a mantra or whatever works for you — the next step is to focus on nothing at all. This is the “clearing the mind” part of meditation that’s probably always sounded a bit mysterious. The truth is it’s not easy, but once you’ve got your attention under control you can begin to let go of the thing that is controlling it.
Push the object of focus away from your mind and simply let it rest. Or continue to observe it, but remain impartial and detached from it. If any thoughts come up, take the same attitude toward them.
Groups and teachers
You don’t need to practice with a group or a teacher for moderate home practice, say 20 minutes a day. If you want to meditate more than that, or get into more intensive practices, some pretty weird stuff might start to happen. At that point, it could be a good idea to find a group and a teacher to ground and guide your practice.
If you decide to do so, keep your eyes open, do your homework, and shop around for a bit; not everybody in a robe is an enlightened master, and not everybody out of one, isn’t, and while genuinely scary cult types are rare, they do exist too. On the other hand, a group and teacher that suit your affinities can greatly help you deepen your practice and deal with the weird or unpleasant stuff that can come up.
While meditation is actually quite easy, it takes a tremendous amount of practice before it will feel natural. Luckily you’ll likely begin to notice some of the benefits long before you begin to feel that you’re “successful” at meditation. Once you notice the nice relaxed feeling you get after even a short five-minute meditation, you’ll find yourself wanting to work more such moments into your day.