How to Meditate in 2021: the Complete Guide for Beginners Who Don’t Know Where to Start
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Why I Meditate
Meditation shouldn’t be stressful. Obviously.
So why do you find yourself confused, unfocused and frustrated every time you try to learn how to meditate?
It’s hardly surprising when you think about it…
We have too much information at our fingertips and too many limiting beliefs in our heads. Too many options, and way too much (often conflicting) advice that often does the opposite of motivate us.
I’m sure you’ll agree with me; when it comes to learning how to mediate, we can easily end up in an info-induced coma rather than the blissful state of meditation we were going for.
But the meditation stress ends here!
This beginner’s guide to meditation contains everything you need to know to know how to meditate and actually make it stick.
Everything you need, but not more than you need.
Here you will find the answers to your meditation questions, and the most simple, fuss-free steps and tips for how to meditate without getting more stressed.
And recommendations from somebody (me!), who figured it all out the long, hard way. Which means you don’t have to.
I’m sitting in the office of a fatigue specialist on Great Ormond Street in London.
‘You have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome’, he’s just told me. ‘I want you to go home and meditate.’
I went to the hospital that day so scared of being put on medication that I hadn’t even considered the possibility of being put on meditation.
So, relieved, I did. I went home, sat down in the dark (I thought that was what you were supposed to do), and meditated.
That’s when I realised… I didn’t really know what I was doing.
What is Meditation?
"Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality." - Thich Nhat Hanh
Meditation, according to Buddhism—one of the earliest roots of meditation—is the 'stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.'
Most modern practitioners and teachers take this to mean that meditation is about calming mental chatter, or as it if often called, the 'monkey mind'.
This is done by by placing the focus of the mind on one thing, usually the breath, a sound, or a sensation.
In yogic tradition, meditation is one of the eight limbs of yoga, with asana (yoga postures) existing to prepare the body and mind to sit in meditation for long periods of time.
Modern science defines meditation as a mental exercise that trains attention and awareness with the purpose of curbing reactivity to negative thoughts and feelings in order to become calm and relaxed.
By definition, then, meditation is so simple.
But the problem is, we like to think it's some elaborate exercise that only disciplined people can do.
We like to overthink it. We like to think we're doing it wrong. And that is exactly why we need meditation.
I didn’t know this when I first sat down in that dark room and began meditating. At that point, I wasn’t actually really meditating at all. I was thinking about meditating.
It took me a long time to discover the simplicity of meditation, to find the purpose within that simplicity, and longer still to find a meditating technique that worked for me.
The following is everything I’ve learnt about meditation since: the how, why, where, and when — so you can start your practice today, without wasting time or excess thinking trying to get it ‘right’.
One Thing to Know About Meditation as a Beginner
Okay, a disclaimer, because I know you're thinking it, and I feel like we should shift the elephant out of the meditation room before we begin...
Meditation is boring.
There. I said it. Don't we feel better now?
Meditating is boring. Friends is on Netflix and you're waiting for Ross and Rachel to finally kiss already, there are social media feeds to scroll, books to be read, gossiping to be had... sitting quietly with your eyes closed trying not to think too much is dire in comparison. I get it.
At least, it's boring at first.
Because you know what's not boring?
Knowing yourself. Watching the blackness of the backs of your eyelids and one day discovering it's not actually blackness at all but a screen upon which you can meet yourself, and possibly, one day, consciousness itself. Having such an empowered relationship with your thoughts and emotions that each time you sit down to meditate you feel yourself grow and become stronger.
When you stay consistent with your meditation practice, when you stick with it through the initial uninteresting humdrum of being quiet and still, this is where you end up. In the realm of magic.
Your reward for making it through the tedious first steps of learning to meditate is the very un-boring feeling of getting to know who you are, how you engage with and respond to the world, gaining better understanding other people, being chill instead of overwhelmed and stressed, plus a whole host of other benefits we'll come to later.
Why Should You Meditate, Really?
So, now that's out of the way, let’s start at the beginning. But stay with me here, because the beginning is important!
First of all, know this: the beauty of meditation is that there are no gate-keepers to the practice.
Meditation is secular and has no barriers to entry. You don’t need to know where your chakras are. You don’t have to sit on the floor cross legged. And you don’t have to pray to Buddha.
Yes, we usually associate meditating with monks and yogis, but whether you’re into yoga and chanting or science, productivity, healing yourself, aliens, or are a warrior for world peace—meditation is for you, and there will be a style of meditation perfect for you, too.
So let go of any limiting beliefs you have about your ability or right to meditate now. Let them go.
If you have a mind and a body, you can — and, IMHO, you should—meditate.
As a meditation teacher, I see time and time again; most people know that they ‘should’ meditate, but most don’t know why they should.
You’ve heard this before, right? This pervasive modern idea that you should be meditating.
The most commonly held belief about meditation is that we should be doing it to reduce stress. This is certainly a valid reason and definitely one of the first benefits you’ll notice upon establishing a consistent meditation practice — you’ll feel less stressed.
That reduction in stress comes from the fact that you're mastering your mind.
Our minds are time travellers. They’re constantly taking us on journeys back to the past to try to rewrite events (‘I wish I’d said this instead!’, ‘I can’t believe I did that’) and forwards to worry about imaginary futures.
Our minds do this for many reasons, most often, it’s as a form of self protection—we’re trying to keep ourselves safe from things that could happen.
But this safety is an illusion, and it keeps us distracted from the things that are already happening now and it can escalate into overthinking, anxiety and stress.
It can be hard, scary, and much less interesting, to bring ourselves and our minds into the present moment to just be with what is happening right here and right now.
But that is exactly what meditation is.
Focusing our mind on the present moment. Because when we’re focusing on the present, those mental fluctuations we talked about earlier are a lot easier to tame. We're also much less susceptible to distraction.
The reasons why you’d want to even out those mental undulations are many, they don't have to be related to stress, and they’re usually personal to you. We’ll come to them in a moment.
Why Do You Want to Meditate?
The first step to learning how to meditate is to decide on your why.
Why do you want to learn how to meditate?
This step is often skipped, but having an intention is an integral part of starting to meditate and creating a practice that will stick.
Because meditation isn’t easy—so having a strong why, a reason to show up every day and keep practicing, is what will keep you going when something moe appealing comes along.
There are hundreds of reasons to meditate, but pick one or two reasons that mean something personal to you. These might include:
To reduce stress
To overthink less
To stop snapping at your kids/partner/co-workers/cat
To have more energy
To find inner peace
To help heal or manage an illness or condition
To help manage chronic pain
To improve your ability to focus and concentrate
To connect with a higher power or purpose
To change your brain
To sleep better
To be less reactive
To improve your mood
To master your emotions
To reduce overwhelm
To manage addiction
As a survival tool for being highly sensitive
My why was to heal my fatigue. Now, my reasons for meditating change often depending on what’s going on in life and what I need from my practice. Some months, it’s to find stability within me when life is hectic and sometimes it’s to connect with my higher self to find out what my purpose in life is. The reasons vary massively, but whatever my why is on any given day, it’s what keeps me coming back to my cushion every time.
Now pick your reason to meditate and write it down. Right now. Then come back when you know your purpose!
What Are the Benefits of Meditation?
“It is not that thinking is bad, and non-thinking is good. True freedom is when we are equally content, no matter what arises in the mind; free from bias, beyond any idea of thought versus no-thought, or this versus that.” - Andy Puddicombe
Most of the benefits of meditation don’t show themselves while you’re meditating. It’s after consistent practice that the cumulative effects of all that sitting and breathing and focusing come in.
It’s when you’re in the middle of an argument and are about to say something you don’t mean.
When your children won’t stop saying ‘no’ to everything you ask them to do and you’re feeling yourself about to snap.
When your mind is playing mental tennis and intrusive thoughts are piling up and you’re sure you’ll descend into an anxiety attack unless you can just. Turn. Your. Brain. Off.
It’s in these everyday moments of life when you feel you’ve reached your limit that the benefits of your meditation practice step in to give you space to pause.
When you’ve trained yourself to master your mental fluctuations, you'll be able to calm your mind in times of chaos, step back from the pressure, and observe the situation with a little more clarity.
When you have clarity, you’re able to make a different choice.
You can take a breath before you say that hurtful thing to your partner in the heat of the moment, you can respond to your kids in a way that doesn’t make them even more defiant, you can step back from your own thoughts and see them for what they are: thoughts.
Meditation gives you the space to see that you have the ability to make different choices.
But that’s not all meditation does.
The benefits of meditation are abounding and are not just limited to your mental health, meditation can also transform your physical, emotional, spiritual and energetic health.
Let’s take a look at some of these now.
Mental benefits of meditation
The most obvious and well-known benefits of meditation are its influences in calming the mind. Meditation is now prescribed as management for mental health issues including depression and anxiety.
Emotional benefits of meditation
I was physically tired but that tiredness had emotional roots. For many reasons, I wasn’t letting myself feel my feelings.
Emotions, as hard and tricky as they feel, are just energy. The word itself tells us everything we need to know about emotions; ‘e-motion’ means ‘energy in motion’. Emotions are energy that needs to move. When we emotional, deep feeling humans stop ourselves from feeling those emotions by pushing them down and holding them inside us, that energy can’t move.
We’re stopping the emotion from being an emotion.
When we meditate, we slow down enough to enable those repressed emotions, all that stagnant energy, to move.
Physical benefits of meditation
The physical benefits of meditation pertain not just to your body, but to your heart and your brain, too.
When you meditate, you’re not just mastering your mind, you’re changing your actual brain. The science on the effects of meditation on our brain is now extensive, with studies showing our physical brain can alter in a number of ways when we meditate regularly.
This is called neuroplasticity.
Scientists have discovered that meditation can positively effect the part of the brain responsible for managing negative emotions, can reduce the size of the amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for putting us into fear state—and can make our hippocampus nice and thick, which leads to improved memory and learning.
Spiritual benefits of meditation
This is where meditation gets really fun.
By the simple fact that you're sitting down to spend some undistracted time with yourself, you'll bring awareness to the parts of your life that aren't really working for you, and will find greater opportunity to welcome in more meaning and authenticity.
You'll get more clear on your values and beliefs.
And you might also begin to develop a relationship with consciousness, the Divine, God, whatever you want to call that energy that reminds you that you aren't the centre of the Universe. Via the conduit of your meditation practice, you can (if you choose to), explore yourself as a multidimensional soul (not just a human in a physical body), and discover how consciousness isn't just localised, but exists outside of time and space.
Meditating regularly can also do wonders for your creativity.
Energetic benefits of meditation
You know how once Monday rolls around, you jump onto this treadmill of productivity and doing-doing-doing without really jumping off at any point during the week to just be?
Meditation hits the stop button on the treadmill so you can get off, stretch your legs, regulate your breathing and recover a bit.
We have so much information filtering into our systems every minute of every day, far too much for our minds and bodies to properly process. Meditation is your time to digest some of that stimulation and calm your mind from the processing so that you're using less energy on data processing, thinking about all the data, and keeping up on the treadmill. It's time and space to recharge, so that when you do hop back on, you're more efficient.
There is a lot of cross over with meditation techniques and benefits. If you’re meditating to enhance your spiritual connection, you’re going to be reaping the benefits of mental stillness and neuroplasticity, for example, even if they’re not your primary purpose.
Similarly, if your only goal is to learn to manage a busy mind, the practice of sitting quietly and in stillness will likely also open you to more spiritual experiences and enhance your energy.
If you have ever experienced anxiety, depression, any kind of trauma or mental health issues, it is advised not to start your meditation practice alone, but to seek the guidance and support of a professional to ensure your safety.
The Best Meditation Technique for Beginners
"One conscious breath in and out is a meditation." - Eckhart Tolle
So, you have your why, you know your purpose, you're nice and excited about what regular meditation can do for you—now onto the part you came here for, the how. Let’s get down to sitting!
Just as many people don’t know why they should meditate, many start a practice with great intentions before quickly losing their motivation, focus and desire.
Part of this you’ll resolve with having a strong why (as you now do), the rest is resolved with actually knowing how to meditate.
It seems so simple: sit down, close your eyes, stop thinking.
But like poor, fatigued me sitting quietly in the dark wondering what to do next, when it comes down to actually doing it, we find ourselves unsure of so many things that it’s often easier to just give up.
Not this time! This time, you’re going in knowing exactly what to do.
Before you even sit and close your eyes, your first step is to choose your meditation technique.
There are hundreds of ways to meditate, which is one of the reasons starting and maintaining a meditation practice can be hard. We don’t know where to start, so we end up doing nothing.
So start here: pick one technique and stick with it.
Once you’re familiar with the meditation technique you’ve chosen you can explore another — but commit to a single technique first.
The most simple meditation technique is — ready for it?
Focus on your breath
Notice when your mind has wandered from focussing on your breath
Replace your mind on your breath
Repeat for 3 minutes
That’s it! That is meditation in its simplest, purest form.
Start with this.
Just 3 minutes of placing your attention (aka. your mind) on your breath, noticing when your attention has strayed from your breath, and replacing it.
Placement, recognition, replacement.
This is the simplest and most accessible form of meditation — and this is enough! If this works for you, stay here. Simply increase the length of time you do it for incrementally as you get more confident.
But there are many other forms of meditation you can explore, most of which use this placement, recognition, replacement as the foundation (which is why it’s a good idea to master this first).
As a beginner meditator you have two choices:
1. Start with apps and guided meditations
2. Or learn from the beginning how to meditate by yourself without extrinsic support
Both options are valid.
If you’re choosing the guided route, I recommend downloading The Breathing App. You can follow the sound guide so you have some external support while learning the foundational placement, recognition, replacement technique. I use this app with all of my meditation and breathwork clients and still use it myself because the in and out sound guides me into such a peaceful place.
If you’re going it alone, use the rhythm of your own breath to guide you. You don’t have to change anything about your breath, just notice it.
Once you’ve got that mastered, you can begin to explore other types of meditation.
So let’s take a look at the most common ways to meditate now, starting with guided meditation techniques.
More Techniques for Beginners
Guided Meditation Techniques
The best guided meditations for beginners will be short, clear and focused on your why.
Body Scan Meditation
A body scan meditation involves mindfully scanning your body to become aware of otherwise unnoticed or ignored sensations such as tension, tightness, pain or numbness in your body.
This awareness helps release these tensions and create peace and stillness in the body, and therefore in the mind.
Also called ‘yogic sleep’, Yoga Nidra is a guided practice based on the body scan technique which takes you to a lucid state of consciousness between being awake and asleep to incite a profoundly deep resting state.
Choose Yoga Nidra if you want to reaaallly relax, unwind and be transported to another world.
I have a free 14 minute Yoga Nidra practice you can follow along with here.
Currently enjoying a bout of global fame, which is great because it has subsequently now been widely studied by science, in transcendental meditation the practitioner is given a personal mantra to use in their practice.
Self Guided Meditation Techniques
You can guide yourself through most of the above guided meditation techniques, too.
Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment by noticing what’s happening around you.
The point of focus is on sounds happening around you, the temperature of the air, sensations in your body, and your breath, without judging or trying to change anything. Mindfulness meditation originates from Buddhism, but modern science is now proving its efficacy, six thousand years after yogis first understood its power.
Walking meditation usually involves applying the same focus as in mindfulness meditation, but doing so whilst walking. Focus is often placed on the feeling of each foot as it makes contact with the ground, rather than on the breath, as the breath can become irregular when you’re moving.
Walking meditations are particularly useful for people with anxiety, ADHD and physical conditions that make sitting still and comfortably difficult.
Also called ‘sound healing’ or ‘sound baths’, sound meditation involves placing your focus on music or the sounds and sensations of traditional instruments, such as gongs and singing bowls. Sound meditations use the sound waves and frequencies to calm the body and mind and provide a clear focus of awareness on the sounds themselves.
Whereas other practices use sound or voice, silent meditation usually involves no extrinsic focus at all. Silent meditation therefore allows the meditator to go more deeply within themselves and reach more profound states of awareness and self reflection.
Because of the absence of guidance, silent meditations are usually recommended for more advanced meditators. During a silent meditation practice, such as Vipassana, the point of focus is usually your own breath or body sensations.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Also known as ‘Metta’ meditation and rooted in Buddhism, loving kindness meditation is a self care and goodwill technique. During a loving kindness meditation, you will send love to yourself and out into the world. This technique promotes forgiveness, self love and connection with others.
Most mass meditations and meditations with the intention to heal world issues are based on the premise of loving kindness. Studies have shown that the techniques do actually work in reducing crime rates and creating self acceptance and inner peace.
When Should You Meditate?
Start with every day!
Create a habit and get really precious about your daily meditation slot. Make it as non-negotiable as brushing you teeth.
I once read somewhere that it's much easier to execute something you've committed to doing every single day than when you commit to doing something, say, three times a week. If you say you'll do something three times a week, you'll put it off: "I only have to do it three times and it's only Tuesday so I'll take today off". Before you know it it's Saturday and you haven't even sat down once.
The best way to make something a daily habit? Stack it on top of another thing you do every single day, preferably at the same time every day. Like brushing your teeth.
Every morning, brush your teeth for two minutes then sit straight down and meditate for three.
This book is amazing at helping you create these habit stacks.
Equipment for Meditation
Now, a disclaimer: don’t get caught up in needing all the gear to be able to meditate.
You need nothing at all except your body, your busy overthinking mind, and your breath. I urge you to keep it simple from the beginning and resist the desire to buy all the paraphernalia in order to meditate.
If, however, you’d like to create an inviting, enjoyable environment for meditating in, if you’d like to make your practice into a cosy ritual, there are some things you can invest in to add to your meditation space (but don’t wait until you have the perfect material items to start your practice!).
Some things you might like to invest in:
A meditation cushion
If you’re going to spend any money on meditation, make it a good cushion.
I use a round buckwheat-filled cushion because it’s firm and moulds to you to support your lower body while you sit. Avoid anything too soft, and look for cushions made from organic and sustainable materials.
Everything is energy, when you become more versed in meditation you'll feel this fact more; you'll notice when energies feel stale or 'negative' in a room and you'll discover the importance of keeping the energy in your meditation space clear.
The most common way to clear energies in your meditation space is to light Sage and Palo Santo, also called holy smoke. For ethical and environmental reasons, I don’t recommend buying these, though.
Instead, you can use locally sourced herbs from your area. In the UK, rosemary, mugwort, lavender and sage are easily found (for free!) and make just as potent energy cleansers.
You can also use sound, such as clapping or a bell to clear energies from any space.
The Best Meditation Books
The best way to learn to meditate is through experience, by actually meditating. But, as a reader myself, I know how much a great book can motivate, inspire and guide. These are my favourite books that have helped me in my meditation practice:
All of my recommended books link to Bookshop.org, which supports independent bookshops. Because I'm sure we can all agree Amazon has enough money.
The Untethered Soul Michael Singer
Mark Van Buren
Ed Shapiro and Deb Shapiro
This one isn't a meditation book but will help you turn your meditation practice into a daily habit.
Meditation Courses for Beginners
Skillshare is such a great platform that has many beginner-friendly meditation classes and courses to help you in starting your practice, along with all sorts of other learn-at-your-own-pace classes like social media, painting, video editing, yoga, YouTube-ing, and writing, and you can get 14 days for free and 40% off annual membership.
How to Sit for Meditation
Posture and Position
So you’ve chosen your technique, now let’s take a look at how to sit for meditation. This can seem like a simple thing, but when it comes to actually sitting down, you’ll find that all sorts of aches and slumps creep in.
Firstly, let go of the idea right now that you have to sit cross legged to meditate. Social media makes this posture desirable, but it’s not necessary. If sitting cross legged is uncomfortable, hurts your back, or in any reduces your ability to focus your mind, then find another posture—it’s all good.
There are many reasons why the cross legged position, called sukhasana, siddhasana, or ‘easy pose’, is the classic posture for meditating in.
But it’s not the only way to meditate and if you’re not sitting that way, your chosen position is still totally valid.
Choose a position that feels comfortable for you and that you can maintain for the duration of your meditation practice.
This could be:
Sitting in a chair with your feet on the floor
Lying down (as long as you know you wont fall asleep!)
Kneeling (hero pose)
Just ensure that in whichever posture you choose you can:
Hold a straight spine.
Stack your neck on top of your shoulders, shoulders on top of your hips, and hips on top of your knees, sto create one long straight line from toes to the crown of your head.
Maintain an open chest
Each time you adopt your meditation posture, check in with these three things:
1. Is my spine long and straight?
2. Are my shoulders relaxed down away from my ears?
3. Are my belly and chest open and relaxed to allow me to breathe fully and freely?
A note on using cushions:
Cushions are an excellent way to support your posture in seated positions on the floor.
If you choose to sit on a cushion, rather than plonk your whole lower half on top of the cushion, shuffle your sit bones right to the egde, so you’re more perched, with your feet and ankles on the floor rather than tucked up on the cushion. This will lift your pelvis above your feet and enable you to find a straight spine and open shoulders.
5 Tips for Beginner Meditators
“There is no good or bad meditation — there is simply awareness or non-awareness. To begin with, we get distracted a lot. Over time, we get distracted less. Be gentle with your approach, be patient with the mind, and be kind to yourself along the way.” - Andy Puddicombe
1. Keep it simple
The number 1 rule for beginner meditators: don’t overcomplicate it!
Start short, start simple. There’s no need to meditate for 30 minutes twice a day when you’re just starting — be honest with how much you can realistically do and how much you want to do. You can always build up as you start to create your habit.
2. Don’t judge yourself
Here’s one way to increase your need to meditate in the first place — because you’re so stressed under the pressure you’re putting on yourself to get it right!
Some days, you'll get into your meditation position, place your mind on your focus, and then immediately go off into an entensive train of thought for the entire session without ever doing the, you know, replacing part.
It's not wrong, it doesn't mean you should give up and stop meditating because you 'think too much'. On the contrary, by the very fact you notice, even if it's not until the end of your practice, that you've been thinking a lot, you're bringing awareness where there previously was none—and you're creating a practice that will enable you to change that monkey mind.
3. Don’t try to clear your mind
The goal of meditation is NOT to clear your mind. If you go into meditation expecting to be able to stop thinking you’re setting yourself up to fail because that’s impossible. The goal is to notice when you’re thinking, to bring awareness to how much you think and the nature of those thoughts, and to refocus your mind on your point of awareness without judging yourself each time you find yourself thinking again.
As we've just established, if you get to the end of your practice and realise you spent the whole time thinking — that’s great! You’re still developing awareness—you noticed that you were thinking a lot. That's meditation.
4. Don't force it
You cannot force yourself to meditate, rather, you surrender into it. Just like you cannot force yourself to sleep. You can only get ready, you make your environment optimal, you set your intention (your why) and relax, and then sleep happens.
The same is true of meditation. Choose your why, your technique, your position, and then surrender and allow it to come.
5. Keep going!
Give yourself time and grace. Creating any new habit takes consistency and persistence, meditation doesn’t just happen, and it definitely doesn’t happen if we give up. Remember your why, and keep going!
The graph below (shows that beginner meditators who practiced for 11 days were over 90 percent likely to continue to a twelfth day. You can see the slope of the line starts to get flatter around day eight. Sticking with meditation practice at least this long is important.
Setting yourself a 21 or 30 day meditation challenge is a great way to get yourself into the habit.
Now Go Discover a Whole New World, Meditator!
So, there you have it!
You now know everything you need to know to start your journey into meditation.
You're ready to head out into the wide world of your meditation cushion and delve into a phenomenon many deem too boring to bother with — the fact you've arrived here at the end of this guide shows that you're one of the few who'll discover just why it is worth bothering with.
Since commiting myself that day in the doctor's office, I've not only healed from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I've also gotten to know myself, discovered what I stand for, manifested, envisioned, learned, levitated and (mostly) mastered my mind thanks to the art of meditation.
I wish you similar life-affirmation, transformation, and magic now that you're a meditator, too.