meditation basics for beginners a busy person's guide to mindful focus

Modern life has some pretty impossible standards.

We’re all supposed to be able to do a thousand things, including juggling work, family, friends, and a side hustle or three, all while having an Instagram-ready home and perfect travel and food photos.

It’s exhausting!

And of course, on top of all this, we’re supposed to find time for green juice, yoga, and an hour of spin class every day.

It’s enough to make you want to toss your smartphone out the window and move to a cave in Mongolia. Almost.

A Solution to Stress

The solution to all this stress is regularly touted as meditation…but who’s actually able to completely clear their mind for half an hour? Don’t people have to-do lists to be checking off or deadlines to be obsessing over?

But meditation isn’t necessarily about going off to a retreat in Nepal or emptying your mind. It’s more like an exercise routine for your concentration, focus, and awareness. It doesn’t require dumping every thought out of your head or forcing yourself into uncomfortable positions for hours at a time.

In fact, once you get the hang of it, you can incorporate meditation into your day at any time, using your new skills to get a grip on a stressful situation or take a step back when you get frustrated during the day.

As with any new exercise, it takes a little practice to get the hang of it and to start feeling comfortable and confident—but the results are worth it!

What Is Meditation, Anyway?

Just figuring out what we mean when we talk about meditation can be tricky.

In English, “meditate” has a couple of meanings—meanings that seem to be opposites. One is “to think carefully or deliberately,” while the other is “to consciously disengage from thoughts.” No wonder there’s confusion about what meditation involves!

But look at it this way: both involve focus.

When you meditate, you’re focusing on something specific: your breathing, the feel of the ground under your feet, a certain trigger word, or your own thoughts.

By doing this, you’re teaching yourself to concentrate better and to let go of fleeting worries that might distract you.

Types of Meditation

Meditation as a practice has been around for thousands of years, so you can imagine just how many different types have evolved by now. But when you’re getting started, there’s just two kinds you need to know.

Concentration

Concentration meditation is all about focusing on something specific and not straying off with thoughts of what you’re making for dinner tonight or how to sort out your next chapter.

You might choose to focus on repeating a word or phrase (the traditional mantra, like “om”), the feeling of your feet on the ground, the flickering of a candle flame, counting something like gong chimes or beads, or the sensation of breathing in and out.

The most popular concentration focuses are breathing and mantras, because you don’t need any outside help or objects.

Every time your mind starts to wander, just bring it back to your focus and settle back into your groove. With practice, you’ll find yourself wandering off with distracting thoughts less and less. Your concentration will improve and you’ll be able to focus better even outside your meditation time, like when you’re writing!

Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation emphasizes awareness instead of focus. Instead of bringing your thoughts back to a specific point or trying to empty your mind, you let your thoughts course through your head without engaging them.

Think of your mind as a river. Thoughts are like leaves floating along on the water. When you’re doing mindfulness meditation, you’re just watching the leaves float past, never fishing them out of the water or picking them up or poking them. The thoughts are there, and they’re flowing through your head, but you’re not engaging with them.

The trick here is to not judge your thoughts. You’re not assessing each thought as it goes past, you’re just watching it float. There’s no good or bad here, no happy or upset. There’s just your thoughts and you.

steps to start meditation

4 Steps to Get Started

One awesome thing about meditation is that it takes exactly no money or effort to get started. All you need is a quiet, comfy place and a little time to yourself.

1. Take Two Minutes

You can do just about anything for two minutes. If it’s not doing it for you, hey, you’re not losing anything other than another two minutes of Facebook time.

Find a comfy spot and get settled. You can sit on the ground with your legs crossed, lie down, or sit in a chair with your back straight and your feet on the floor—whatever’s feeling good for you. Make sure to sit up straight instead of slouching; this will make it easier to breathe deeply (and will make your back feel pretty good, too!).

2. Pay Attention to Breathing

Once you’re settled, let your eyes close, or at least go unfocused. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Don’t worry if your breaths aren’t super-deep at first; as you start to relax, your breaths will naturally start to get deeper and your lungs and belly will start to fill up more on each inhale.

Pay attention to the feeling of your breath coming in and going out. How does it make your chest and stomach feel? Follow the feeling of the air coming in your nose, expanding through your chest, and then going out through your mouth.

3. Accept Wandering Thoughts

If your mind starts to wander away from your breathing, don’t worry about it! This is totally normal, even for people who’ve been meditating for years.

Our minds are always zinging with thoughts, both important ones and dumb ones like wondering whether ants can dance. Don’t get down on yourself just because a thought pinged in and interrupted your focus on your breath. Just take another breath and come back!

4. Stretch It Out

When your two minutes are up (keep track with a handy online timer or your phone), roll your neck and shoulders out and take your time getting back into your day.

The more you meditate, the more benefits you’ll see and the longer you’ll be able to do it. Increasing your time to five or ten minutes a day won’t take too much out of your busy schedule, but you’ll start noticing a lot of positive changes!

Benefits of Meditation

What kinds of changes? Glad you asked!

Meditation is touted as a cure for just about whatever ails ya, and for good reason. Since the 1970s, various studies have shown that meditation can have a dramatic effect on our mental health, and even has some physical benefits.

  • Less stress
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Lower heart rate
  • Better sleep
  • Improved focus and concentration
  • Increased feelings of wellbeing or happiness

Meditation has even been shown to improve your willpower and ability to think and plan—awesome bonuses for any writer!

Tips to Help You Meditate

As you’re getting started with meditation, you may find yourself getting frustrated with all the thoughts flickering through your mind. Don’t give up! It takes a little practice, but it’s worth it.

Don’t Get Caught Up in “Right”

There is no right way to meditate—there’s just what works for you. You don’t need to sit a certain way, hold your hands just so, use a particular word, or anything like that.

You just need to take a few minutes out of your day to focus. Not on your deadlines, not on your word count, not on the chores you have to do, not on the errands you need to get done. You’re taking a few minutes to focus on nothing but existing.

That’s it.

That’s your only responsibility here: to be.

Make it a Habit

Studies have shown that it takes at least 21 days to form and sustain a habit. So give yourself a full 21 days of daily meditation before you even consider giving up on it.

Set a particular time every day, whether that’s first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or between work and dinner. Schedule it onto your calendar. Make it every bit as important as that staff meeting—aren’t you worth it?

Go with the Flow

As you start meditating more and getting the hang of recentering your focus as thoughts stream by, you can take another approach to dealing with them: follow them.

Kind of like in freewriting, where you allow yourself to follow your train of thought wherever it’s going, without judgment, another approach to meditation is to follow along with the flow of your thoughts as they come up.

In this variation of mindfulness meditation, you don’t dismiss your thoughts, you accept them and stay with them. Instead of judging yourself or the thought or emotion you’re experiencing, just hang out for a little while with that feeling.

Be curious about it, not critical, and see where that takes you.

This technique can be a really interesting way to get to know yourself and your thought patterns, helping you explore trends in your thoughts and feelings and start to gain some control over your reactions to your emotions and experiences.

Try Moving

Most people associate meditation with sitting still for hours in lotus position. But moving meditations can be incredibly handy, especially for people with ADD or other concentration issues.

You’re doing something very similar to concentration meditation, but you’re moving while you do it. Try this out while taking a walk: focus intently on every step you take, feeling the ground under your feet and paying full and complete attention to how the ground feels, what your muscles are doing, and the impact of each step.

When your mind starts to wander, come back to the feeling of your feet.

For a little extra help focusing, try counting your steps. When your mind wanders, just start the count over as a way to bring yourself back to the moment.

Tai chi and other forms of slow, controlled movement can also be great focus points for mindfulness and a good entry point to meditation for people who have trouble sitting still.

And those fidget spinners that are everywhere these days? They make a great meditation focus: just click or spin one and focus on the feeling of the gadget in your hands. Every time your mind wanders, bring it back by switching what fidget action you’re using.

Check in with Yourself

When you’ve finished meditating, take an extra minute or two to check in with yourself. How does your body feel? Are any thoughts particularly persistent? Did any keep on poking into your flow during your two minutes?

Consider writing those down so that you can deal with the underlying causes that are making those thoughts “sticky” for you right now.

Meditation only takes up two minutes of your day and offers a huge array of mental and physical benefits that can improve every part of your life. Why not give it a try?

Do you meditate? Tell us about your experience in the comments!

For more on how to master your mind, keep reading:

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