How to Meditate
Mindfulness, relaxation, and clarity are just some of the benefits that accompany a basic meditation practice. It can also reduce pain and stress while improving your mental health. Beginner meditation techniques are simple; if you can breathe, you can meditate. In this step-by-step guide on how to meditate, we answer your questions.
Illustrations by Tomi Um.
What is Meditation?
Before you learn how to meditate, it’s helpful to know what meditation is. The most common form of meditation is breath meditation, or mindfulness meditation, in which you bring your attention to your breathing. While breathing in and out, observe when and how your mind wanders to thoughts — for example, everyday stresses of relationships and work — and then return your focus to your breath. By learning to continually bring your attention to your breath and releasing your thoughts without judgment, you are training your consciousness to remain in the present moment. Making this a habit can lead to an emotionally stable state of mental clarity.
“The practice of meditation helps us to release the tension — within the body, within the mind, within the emotions — so that healing can take place,” says Thich Nhat Hanh, the famed teacher of mindfulness and meditation.
Healing through meditation can take many forms. There are meditation practices that help manage daily stress and anxiety. There are meditations that reduce pain; promote relaxation; and others that enhance empathy and compassion. Other forms of meditation include the body scan, walking meditation, and loving-kindness, or metta meditation.
How to Meditate
A Step-by-Step Guide to Basic Mindfulness Meditation
- Take your seat. Sit cross-legged and upright on a meditation cushion or on a straight-backed chair with your feet flat on the floor. Try not to lean against the back of the chair.
- Here’s how to meditate. Find a quiet, uplifting place where you can do your meditation practice. When starting out, try to allow 5 minutes for the practice. Listen to the guided audio meditation in our “Guided Audio” section, or follow along with the audio or written instructions below.
- Find your sitting posture. Place your hands palms-down on your thighs and sit in an upright posture with a straight back — relaxed yet dignified. With your eyes open, let your gaze rest comfortably as you look slightly downward about six feet in front of you.
- Notice and follow your breath. Place your attention lightly on your out-breath, while remaining aware of your environment. Be with each breath as the air goes out through your mouth and nostrils and dissolves into the space around you.
- At the end of each out-breath, simply rest until the next in-breath naturally begins. For a more focused meditation, you can follow both the out-breaths and in-breaths.
- Note the thoughts and feelings that arise. Whenever you notice that a thought, feeling, or perception has taken your attention away from the breath, just say to yourself, “thinking,” and return to following the breath. No need to judge yourself when this happens; just gently note it and attend to your breath and posture.
- End your session. After the allotted time, you can consider your meditation practice period over. But there’s no need to give up any sense of calm, mindfulness, or openness you’ve experienced. See if you can consciously allow these to remain present through the rest of your day.
You’ve just meditated!
Guided Meditation for Beginners
Use our helpful audio guide to find your proper meditation posture. Once you’ve settled into your seat, try a basic breath meditation with the one and five-minute meditation timers.
Basic Mindfulness Meditation
Guided Posture Check-In
1-Minute Meditation Timer
5-Minute Meditation Timer
Why Should I Meditate?
Quiet the Mind
Some people may meditate to develop insight into the true nature of reality; others, to help deal with stress or relieve pain. The Tibetan Buddhist teacher the 17th Karmapa says meditation awakens a trust that we are full of wisdom and compassion. Meditation can simply calm an excited mind, relieving stress and anxiety while relaxing the body. Meditation master Ajahn Chah explains:
“As you meditate, your mind will get quieter and quieter, like a still forest pool. Many wonderful and rare animals will come to drink at the pool, but you will be still. This is the happiness of the Buddha.”
Develop Mindfulness & Insight
Meditation also fosters a wider awareness, or mindfulness, that can provoke profound realization. This process can help cut through unhelpful misconceptions and encourage a more open, compassionate relationship with yourself. For this reason, meditation practice is considered to have long-lasting mental health benefits.
Cultivate Positive Qualities
Additionally, we might meditate to specifically cultivate certain positive traits. Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön lists five key qualities that emerge through meditation practice: steadfastness, clear seeing, courage, attention, and an easeful feeling of “no big deal,” where perhaps that might not have been the case for you previously. Meditation can improve your attention, resilience, compassion, and relationships.
You don’t have to be Buddhist to meditate. The Buddha taught meditation as an essential tool for any of us to achieve liberation from suffering.
Follow the Science
Numerous studies on the science of meditation have proved its many benefits, including its ability to:
- Sharpen attention
- Increase compassion
- Reduce stress
- Boost patience
- Improve mental health
Make Meditation a Habit
There’s no denying it: meditation is more effective when you do it regularly. One of the biggest challenges for meditators of all experience levels is maintaining a regular practice. When you’re just getting started, it can help to set a dedicated space in your home. You may wish to include a meditation cushion (sometimes called a zafu) or meditation bench. But meditating in a chair is fine too. Just be aware of your posture, sitting solidly and straight-backed as is comfortable for you.
While there are many benefits of regular meditation practice, forming a good habit can be difficult. Here is a list of tips and techniques that can help you make sticking with your meditation practice a part of your everyday routine:
1) Create a Routine
Try practicing meditation the same way each time. Repeating the same action — the same small rituals — again and again, renders a habit automatic after some time. Create a cue for meditating. Some meditators set an alarm or a reminder on their phone.
Sit in the same place every time. Consider lighting a candle and/or incense before meditating. Time, place, sight, and smell can all be prompts to meditate, fortifying and strengthening your practice. (See also “5 Ways to Get Into the Meditation Habit.”)
2) Take Small Steps
Make yourself a promise you know you are able to keep. Start small and increase your practice from there. If you are just beginning to meditate, dedicate yourself to a very doable five minutes. Even after meditating for just two consecutive mornings, you’ve begun building a habit into your routine.
3) Meditate with Others
Having a regular meditation practice with someone else can also be beneficial. Try joining a Buddhist group in your area. If you can’t practice with somebody you live with or with a Buddhist group, you can sit with a meditation buddy via Zoom. Sitting with others regularly is a great support to your daily practice at home. Going it alone is ok, but a practice can be very fulfilling to share with other people.
4) Keep Your Expectations Low
A lifetime of meditation can be transformational. A single session of meditation can feel underwhelming. It is often a win-some-lose-some scenario. Many people go into meditation expecting to achieve inner peace the first time they sit down, but we don’t expect to understand Italian the first time we walk into a language course. So cut yourself some slack but keep at it and see what happens when you’ve established a meditation habit.
5) Make it Enjoyable
In order to keep coming back, find a way to make meditation enjoyable. Your meditation space should look pleasing to your eye and be comfortable. You might consider adding a cushion, stool, or chair, some incense, and some artwork. Some meditators set up an altar.
Your practice itself should also be physically pleasing. When you sit, scan your senses for something you enjoy. Rest your mind upon the sound of your breath, the weight of your hands on your knees, or some part of your body that feels good. Try various cushions or chairs if sitting is painful. You can also ask a teacher for tips about posture when meditating.
Alternatively, you could make a walking meditation your habit. Any form of practice contains some discomfort and pain, but it’s not supposed to be torture. Be flexible in your practice to reduce pain.
6) Be Kind to Yourself
New habits are easy to start, but sometimes enthusiasm can begin to wanea. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t get angry and berate yourself over and over when you catch your mind wandering. That will lead to burnout. Your mind will wander! So when you bring your focus back to your breath, be content that you managed that. Even if the whole meditation feels compromised by obtrusive thoughts, you still did it. Tell yourself “Good job!” You’ll look forward to the next time you sit.
7) Enjoy the Challenge!
Some meditators become bored and just sit to sit without actually trying to meditate. But the rewarding challenge of meditation is to use every technique at our disposal to continue focusing.
Frequently Asked Questions About Meditation
If I’m thinking during meditation, is that bad?
It’s not bad at all—in fact, it’s perfectly natural. Your mind is a machine that’s built, in part, for thinking. Meditation is all about being able to take notice of how the mind works—we’re observing our thoughts as they arise. The tricky part is to let those thoughts go just as easily as they arise. It takes time and effort, but every experience of meditation is a step in the right direction.
As Pema Chödrön tells us, “We’re instructed that when our mind has wandered off, without any harshness or judgmental quality, we should acknowledge that as ‘thinking” and return to the outbreath. We train in coming back to this moment of being here. In the process of doing this, our fogginess, our bewilderment, our ignorance begin to transform into clear seeing. ‘Thinking’ becomes a code word for seeing ‘just what is’ — both our clarity and our confusion. We are not trying to get rid of thoughts. Rather we are clearly seeing our defense mechanisms, our negative beliefs about ourselves, our desires and our expectations. We also see our kindness, our bravery, our wisdom.
What do I do with my eyes during meditation?
You can meditate with your eyes open or closed. A good approach is to look slightly downward, letting your gaze fall about six feet in front of you, keeping it in soft focus and relaxed, neither too tight nor too loose.
What do I do with my hands during meditation?
Hand positions are known as mudras. There are two mudras commonly used in Buddhist meditation. You can do one called “resting the mind,” by placing your hands palm down on your knees, with the upper arms parallel to the torso, enabling your hands to relax and your back to remain straight, but not stiff.
The other hand position you can try is the “cosmic mudra,” which is often used in Zen. In this position, rest your right hand in your lap palm up with your left hand laying gently on top of it, also palm up. Touch your thumbs together, creating an oval below the navel. When the oval often begins to collapse as our focus strays or we grow sleepy, it reminds us to wake up.
Do I have to sit on the floor or in some special way?
The most common way to meditate might be in full lotus posture, but how many of us can physically do that? There are various ways to sit when meditating: Some meditators sit cross-legged, on a cushion, or kneeling.
If you need to sit on a chair, that’s okay too! Your posture should make you feel grounded and relaxed. If you sit in the chair, your spine should be straight and your feet flat on the ground, with your hips higher than your knees.
Meditation is not always comfortable, but it shouldn’t be painful. Experiment with different sitting postures. Choose the posture that fits your body.
How long should I meditate?
You can meditate for as long, or as short, as you’d like. Any amount of time spent meditating is good, no matter how brief. Your meditation practice can be just 5 minutes. A starting point for beginners is 30 minutes but meditate for long enough that your mind and body calm. Once you are calm and relaxed, you can truly start your meditation practice. Sit long enough to go through the calming phase with time left to enjoy and benefit from meditation.
What if sound distracts me?
It is often suggested that beginner meditators find a quiet place to meditate so that they can focus. If you can’t find quiet, then simply sit with the noise. Becoming comfortable with “what is” is a big part of meditating, and that includes traffic noise, your neighbor’s TV, or loud music. Observe your frustration without judgment while sitting. Learn to continue sitting through less-than-ideal circumstances.
Is meditation painful?
Even during meditation, pain can’t always be avoided. Our bodies sometimes suffer “growing pains” while adjusting to sitting. Meditation experts advise first to notice the pain as an object of meditation: Does the pain come and go? Who is encountering the pain? Try following your breath and see if you experience some relief.
The experts have different pointers about how to react if the pain still seems too much to endure. Some encourage you to adjust your posture to find relief. Others take a firmer stance, suggesting you hold your position and meditate on the pain. Try to sit as still as you can—you’ll find real benefit there—but be mindful that it is your choice. Either way, meditation shouldn’t be tormenting.
Can Meditation Support Mental Health?
Sometimes. Researchers (and, certainly, meditators over millennia) have found that meditation can support mental health. However, meditation is not a replacement for therapy or medication. When improperly used to address mental illness, meditation can be ineffective or even detrimental.
Most Western practitioners find that a combination of meditation and psychology is the most effective way to liberate ourselves from trauma, bad habits, and negative feelings. While meditation provides insight into the nature of thoughts and emotions, psychotherapy engages with their substance. If you’re interested in meditating for mental health, talk to a medical professional.
Are There Different Types of Meditation?
New meditators often start with practices that calm the mind, like following the breath. If your brain is jumping from thought to thought you can’t take the next step that results from a focused mind: seeing deeply into the nature of reality or insight. That being said, there are other methods to anchor the mind.
These meditations include Body Scan, during which you focus your attention on an area of the body or bodily sensations in a slow progression from your feet to your head.
Some people practice Walking Meditation. While out on a walk, try noticing as each foot touches the ground – follow your footsteps as you would follow your breath. Can you sync the moving of your legs with the rise and fall of the breath?
Another popular meditation is Tonglen, which translates to “giving and taking.” Pema Chödrön defines this practice “How to Practice Tonglen” as visualizing “taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.”
Similarly, Metta, or “loving-kindness,” is a meditation practice in which you conjure thoughts of various people — loved ones, not-so-loved ones, and others including yourself, who and allow “loving-kindness” (sometimes thought of as friendliness) to rise in your heart and mind.
How to Practice Walking Meditation
Guided Audio Walking Meditation
Listen to a guided mindful walking meditation from Leslie Booker.
Think of walking meditation as mobile meditating where you center your full concentration on moving your body. The practice is an essential aspect of meditation retreats and is used to counterbalance and transfer the power of sitting meditation. Consider it a way to include your practice into your routine. Here’s how to do a walking meditation:
Begin walking in a peaceful place. Bring your focus to your feet, shifting your weight from one side to the other.
Raising your right leg, take note of your body’s weight redistributing. Focus on what your left side needs to do to keep balanced. Step forward, putting the heel on the earth and rolling onto the ball of the foot. As your weight switches, take note how the heel of your left foot starts to rise. Step forward with the left foot, repeating the process.
Verbal prompts can be a way to create harmony and rhythm during your walking meditation. As your thoughts start to stray, use an easy cue like “lifting, moving, placing” to remind yourself to return your thoughts to the body. Integrating a simple verse to assist the practice is a technique utilized by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. Here’s one that might be used for walking meditation:
(Breathing in) “I have arrived”; (Breathing out) “I am home.”
(Breathing in) “In the here”;
(Breathing out) “In the now.”
(Breathing in) “I am solid”;
(Breathing out) “I am free.”
(Breathing in) “In the ultimate”; (Breathing out) “I dwell.”
At the outset of this form of meditation, you might note that your footsteps are very deliberate and mechanical. Try to discover more fluidness as you link your breathing with the way your body moves. Consider dropping the phrases for a while and focus on your body before returning to the vocal cues.
Begin with about a ten-minute walking meditation, gradually working up to half an hour.
When you have completed your meditation, try standing still, finding the energy in your body and noticing what is still.
How to Practice Metta, or Loving-kindness Meditation
Guided Audio Metta Meditation
Listen to a guided loving-kindness, or Metta, meditation from Sharon Salzberg, author of Loving-Kindness.
In our culture, people find it difficult to direct loving-kindness to themselves. We may feel that we are unworthy, or that it’s egotistical, or that we shouldn’t be happy when other people are suffering. So rather than start loving-kindness practice with ourselves, which is traditional, I find it more helpful to start with those we most naturally love and care about. One of the beautiful principles of compassion and loving-kindness practices is that we start where it works, where it’s easiest. We open our heart in the most natural way, then direct our loving-kindness little by little to the areas where it’s more difficult.
- First, sit comfortably and at ease, with your eyes closed. Sense yourself seated here in this mystery of human life. Take your seat halfway between heaven and Earth, as the Buddha did, then bring a kind attention to yourself. Feel your body seated and your breath breathing naturally.
Think of someone you care about and love a lot. Then let natural phrases of good wishes for them come into your mind and heart. Some of the traditional ones are, “May you be safe and protected,” “May you be healthy and strong,” and “May you be truly happy.”
- Then picture a second person you care about and express the same good wishes and intentions toward them.
- Next, imagine that these two people whom you love are offering you their loving-kindness. Picture how they look at you with concern and love as they say, “May you too be safe and protected. May you be healthy and strong. May you be truly happy.”
- Take in their good wishes. Now turn them toward yourself. Sometimes people place their hand on their heart or their body as they repeat the phrases: “May I be safe and protected. May I be healthy and strong. May I be truly happy.”
- With the same care let your eyes open, look around the room, and offer your loving-kindness to everyone around you. Feel how great it is to spread the field of loving-kindness.
- Now think of yourself as a beacon, spreading the light of loving-kindness like a lighthouse around your city, around the country, around the world, even to distant planets. Think, “May all beings far and near, all beings young and old, beings in every direction, be held in great loving-kindness. May they be safe and protected. May they be healthy and strong. May they be truly happy.”
The Buddha said that the awakened heart of loving-kindness and freedom is our birthright as human beings. “If these things were not possible,” he said, “I would not teach them. But because they are possible for you, I offer these teachings of the dharma of awakening.”
There are many ways you can bolster your meditation practice. Reading Buddhist texts and practicing with others, including meditation teachers, can keep you on the path of awakening. Understanding how your mind works can enable us to feel happier and healthier. The helpful resources from Lion’s Roar below will help get you started on your meditation journey.
Reading to Support Your Meditation Practice
There’s a true wealth of meditation teachings on lionsroar.com. Below are are some particularly great resources for new meditators, plus three of our most popular publications on the practice of meditation.
The simple act of stopping, says Pema Chödrön, is the best way to cultivate our good qualities. Here are five ways meditation makes us better people.
Valerie Mason-John shares a meditation for cultivating a positive relationship with yourself, and, by extension, the world.
Zen teacher Norman Fischer proposes a two-week trial run to get your meditation practice started and looks at how to deal with some of the obstacles you may encounter.