Tips to make beginning meditation easier.
You’ve no doubt heard that meditation is good for you. It can help you feel calmer and has a host of other benefits. However, for many people, descriptions of meditation aren’t appealing, and it sounds like just another thing you don’t have time to do.
Here are five meditation tips for beginners that will help overcome the dual problems of lack of appeal, and it seeming too daunting.
1. Start small, with three to five minutes (or less).
Some great new data collected from users of the Lift goal-tracking app* shows that most beginner meditators started with three to five minutes. Even three minutes can feel like a darn long time when you first start meditating, so you could even start smaller. For example, paying attention to the sensations of taking three breaths.
In my therapy practice, the clients who’ve found meditation the most helpful have generally been people who are prone to rumination (unwanted overthinking). This makes sense given that meditation is about focusing your attention on something “experiential” (e.g., sensations of breathing) and bringing your attention back to this focus when you notice it has drifted to “evaluation” (e.g., “Am I breathing too fast?”) or to another topic (e.g., “I’ve got so much to do tomorrow.”)
Meditation can help with irritability partly because it helps you learn how to recognize you’re having irritable thoughts before you’ve blurted them out in ways that end up generating stress for you (e.g.. nitpicking your partner in a way that causes a fight).
3. Understand the principles of meditation.
Beginning meditators often think the goal of meditation is to get to the point that they can focus without becoming distracted. A more useful goal, however, is becoming aware of when your mind has drifted sooner.
Becoming aware of what you’re thinking is the basis of successful cognitive therapy. You can’t restructure your thoughts if you haven’t first developed the ability to identify your thoughts.
Another useful goal for meditation beginners is being able to redirect your attention back to your point of focus without criticizing yourself.
4. Do meditation your own way.
Most of my clients don’t like meditation mp3s. They usually report finding them too “new age-y.”
Since walking helps people concentrate and reduces distractibility, a meditation that involves walking can be a great place to start.
Fellow PT blogger Dr. Kelly McGonigal suggests a 10 minute walking meditation involving 1 minute of paying attention to each of
- the feeling of your body walking
- the feeling of your breath
- the sensations of air or wind on your skin
- what you can hear
- what you can see
Follow this with five minutes of open awareness where you allow anything you can observe or sense to rise up into your awareness. Don’t go looking for things to hear, see, or feel. Just let whatever rises up into your awareness do that and be naturally replaced by something else, whenever that happens.
During the open awareness portion, if your attention drifts to past, future, or evaluative thoughts, briefly go back to one of the points of focus to stabilize your attention.
You can adapt these instructions however you want. Make your practice your own. You’re in charge! For example, do a walking meditation in which you focus on one of the above points of focus for three minutes, then do three minutes of open awareness.
5. Reduce all-or-nothing thinking.
Realistically, there are only a small amount of people who will be willing to meditate on a regular basis. Another approach is to do formal daily practice of meditation (such as the walking meditation) for a brief initial period, and then start just incorporating meditation into your day in informal ways.
For example, incorporating informal meditation into your day might involve paying attention to the sensations of a few breaths each time you switch tasks. For more informal meditation ideas, see “6 Mindfulness Exercises That Each Take Less Than 1 Minute.”
Doing a sustained period of formal daily practice when you begin meditation will:
- allow you to try different types of meditation
- give you enough comfort and familiarity with meditation that you can restart formal practice if you’re going through a particular period of stress or overthinking
- develop enough understanding of meditation to come up with your own ideas for informal meditation practices
The graph below (also from users for the Lift goal-tracking app) 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. Doing a 21 or 30 day meditation project is a great way to get started.