How to Learn to Meditate: 5 Dos and Don’ts for Beginners

How to Learn to Meditate: Dos and Don'ts for Beginners

Something happened to me in March.  I decided it was finally time to stop thinking about meditating andactually do it. Every single day.

Regular readers and fans of the 52 Exercises series will know that I’ve been suffering from depression this year and, since meditation has been used for thousands of years to improve both physical or mental health, it was finally time for me to learn to meditate.

Although I’ve dabbled mildly in meditation over the years, (I can still remember my first meditation session in Laos when a giant rat started scuttling around the temple) I’ve never pursued it seriously. By which I mean meditating every day.

At the beginning of the year I was inspired by Sandra Pawula’s post Why Not Meditate Right Now? to meditate more often, but it took me a few more months and an ever-increasing depression to commit to it regularly.

I’m no meditation guru and I never will be but here’s what I’ve learned about how to meditation over the last 10 weeks.

1. Don’t wait to learn to meditate until you’re desperate

I was well overdue for regular meditation practice because recent research at Harvard shows meditation reduces depression, stress and blood pressure while raising immunity. Most usefully for me, with my erratic mood changes and increasing anxiety:

“meditation can improve emotional stability and response to stress.”

To get started I set myself a challenge of meditating for 10 minutes every day in March and, based on positive experiments in using Twitter as a motivational tool I decided to chart my progress on Google+ to show my commitment and keep me on track. What I didn’t expect was to amass a delightful group of cheerleaders who encouraged me to keep going and gave me useful tips on how to overcome some of the problems I face when meditating.

From what I’ve read about meditation recently, most people who learn to meditate face the same challenges and most of them probably give up because of them. But almost three months later I’m still going and maybe even starting to see some results because my bad mood is showing signs of lifting.

2. Don’t go it alone

What really helped me stick with it were all the people who left me encouraging comments on Google+ or shared useful links with me like What meditation really is.

What amazed me most was when I stopped trying to help other people and started sharing what I was doing and struggling with people quickly jumped in to help me. It wasn’t the position I was used to taking but it was the position I needed to take to get the help I needed.

To start with I tried various meditation poses such as lying down, sitting on a pillow and sitting on a chair to see what worked best for me. None of them worked because I’m such a fidget bottom sitting still for 10 minutes is hard for me in any position, so of course meditating was uncomfortable and required huge mental and physical effort.

3. Do use modern technology to aid your meditation

Then Susan Pivers appeared out of the Google+ blue and shared her post on meditation postures with me which gave me new ideas and showed me that it’s okay to experiment with your yoga posture. I learned that I don’t need to cross my legs completely and I can elevate my knees too.

It’s amazing to start thinking about how to sit down when you’ve been doing it mindlessly for over 40 years but if you try a few variations you’ll be able to find the posture that’s comfiest for you.

Because meditation was so hard for me I started reading more and more about it. Not just about why mediation is good for you, how it is proven to improve your sense of wellbeing, improve concentration, reduce anxiety and depression and boost your immune system  but also what to actually do.

I downloaded podcasts and loved the Reawakening guided meditations by Angela Artemis and Steven Aitchison.

I tried various apps and started using the Zazen Life to time my mediation and end it with a gentle ding instead of a jarring alarm. I used My Calm Beat to slow my breathing and learnt to set my iPhone to airplane mode so text messages or phone calls don’t disturb my meditation practice.

4. Do be experimental with your meditation practice

I was kept inspired by my readers experiences with meditation and their blog posts like 4 Tips to Enhance Your Meditation by Joanne at The Bottom Line, Kama at Gracefully Natural who shared Sit and Observe The World For a While and Learn More About You and Annie Infinite’s post In the Silence You Can Hear… YOU.

If you’re new to meditation too another great read is Meditation for Beginners: 20 Practical Tips for Quieting the Mind on Zen Habits.

I started by meditating for 10 minutes a day and am aiming to hit 30 minutes a day soon. Here are some simple meditation styles I’ve tried so far:

1. Body Scan Meditation – Start with your head and work down to your arms and feet, noticing how your body feels. Just notice if you feel tense, relaxed, calm or anxious. Try to breathe softness and relaxation into areas of the body that feel tense.

2. Breath focus meditation – Sit comfortably on the floor or a chair. Tune into your breath and focus on one sensation such as the rise and fall of your chest or tummy.

3. Mantra repetition – Mentally repeating a simple word or sound such as the classic ‘Om’.

4. Guided imagery meditation – Like the ones in the Reawakening Meditations where you go to a special imaginary place to enjoy certain experiences, emotions or feelings.

5. Focus your attention on an object such as a beautiful flower, a special view or even a photo of a duck. When your mind wanders slowly guide it back to the object of focus and your breath.

5. Don’t expect meditation to meet your expectations

What I noticed most in all these meditations was how much my mind wanders and chatters on almost ceaselessly and how long it takes me to notice that I’ve lost focus on the meditation and to return that focus to the body, breath, mantra or guiding voice.

It felt like such a huge failure, it felt like meditation wasn’t working for me and I so wanted to be able to let go completely, to relax my mind totally and stay in the pure awareness of the present moment. I wanted to discover a deep stillness within me and become more self-aware.

So I read more and more including The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (Book & CD). Then I ordered more books like Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life which sounded like the answer to all my meditation problems.

I got frustrated, confused and fed up but I carried on meditating and even made positive progress in the end. I learnt that  most of all I need to let go of my expectations, let go of my goals and hopes and just be.

It’s hard but I’m working on it every day and I’m trying to go easy on myself because at least now I’m not just thinking about meditation, I’m actually doing it. Even if it turned out to be quite different from my expectations.

how to meditate duck photo

Would you like to learn how to meditate and if so what’s the hardest part for you? If you’ve been meditating for a while what tips can you share with beginners like me?

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  1. Dianne May 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your post. I started reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s books a couple of years ago and found great comfort in following his meditations on a daily basis. There are some wonderful online links to his meditations. I was then introduced to ThetaHealing and have found that to be an empowering and transformative process. Meditation is part of my daily life and I find I need to do so as I work away on my laptop for long hours! Best wishes to you!

    • Annabel Candy May 24, 2013 at 10:49 am - Reply

      Hi Dianne,

      Thank you for sharing those resources, I’ve heard that name before so will see if I can track it down.

  2. Andi Leeman May 21, 2013 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    Hi Annabel, I love to meditate, I do a combination of repeating a word or counting my breath while sitting alone in a chair, sometimes I do 5 minutes in bed in the dark while sitting up straight but I usually tend to drift off lol.

    The other is I sit and allow my mind just to be and observe what goes on and slowly stop myself if I feel my mind getting into something, it is amazing what is going on in there sometimes!!

    Occasionally if I am outside I will close my eyes and focus on the sensations I feel on my body like the warmth on my skin and how it moves when clouds get in between me and the sky or the wind as it touches my skin and creates different feelings.

    Great post Annabel and I hope you are feeling a lot better now :-)

    • Annabel Candy May 24, 2013 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Hi Andi,

      I am feeling better thank you and loved reading about how you meditate. I’m glad it’s not just me whose mind is like a run away train :)

  3. derek leong May 22, 2013 at 11:19 am - Reply

    You read too much. Think too much. Just sit and breath

    • Annabel Candy May 22, 2013 at 12:34 pm - Reply

      Hi Derek,

      Great to see you here. You are funny and correct.

      Although I don’t want to stop reading I do need to stop thinking so much but it’s a lot of work for me.

      Sit and breathe, sit and breathe, sit and breathe… I will remember that thank you – you make it sound so easy :)

  4. Pst Bless May 23, 2013 at 12:14 am - Reply

    Hello Anabel, i am impressed by your commitment to who you love doing. thanks and more grace to you. i want you to remember that i gave you a page in my little blog.

    • Annabel Candy May 23, 2013 at 10:12 am - Reply

      Great to see you here and thank you for interviewing me :) I really appreciate that.

  5. Carthage May 24, 2013 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    That makes fascinating reading and is very similar to my own experience of learning to meditate. I would say that when it comes to expectations, the important thing is not to really have any. At least remain sceptical.

    Also take it easy on yourself. Even on the days when you don’t quite manage to still your mind you will still benefit greatly from taking a few minutes to be relaxed. Meditation has a cumulative effect and the more you do it the greater the benefit.

  6. Annabel Candy May 27, 2013 at 10:44 am - Reply

    Hi Carthage,

    Great to see you here! I am certainly remaining skeptical but isn’t that an expectation – that it won’t work! Oh dear….

    I love what you say about how “Meditation has a cumulative effect and the more you do it the greater the benefit.” I am clinging on to that, thank you for the encouragement :)

  7. Annabel, there’s so much to read in this post! It’s like a primer for meditation. And now I am sitting here remembering that I promised myself I’d still still for five minutes every day… then forgot. I think it takes a lot of effort. Maybe I could just do it in the car before my next appt. Off to re-read and check out some apps. Thanks A.

  8. Accum Hostili September 11, 2017 at 3:01 pm - Reply

    Incredibly useful information. I made the decision today to explore soul work, but realize meditation and others are skills I must hone before beginning. Thanks for sharing.

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