Learn the basics of meditating for beginners including quieting the mind, posture, and getting answers to a few common questions.
Meditating for Beginners
We’re asked almost daily if we have any tips on meditating for beginners. Although we always love answering questions, connecting with people, and of course learning along the way, we thought it would be good to offer this page with some tips, suggestions, direction, and answers to common questions. First, it should be noted that these suggestions on beginning a meditation practice are just one perspective on meditation. There are many religions, traditions, and forms of meditation practice, and our experience lies mainly in the Theravada Buddhism lineage (the Way of the Elders). At the bottom, we have a few guided meditations that you may find helpful, and will discuss how guidance can be helpful.
Basics of Meditation
There are many different ways to practice. In Buddhist meditation, there are practices of concentration, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and more. Here are a few of the basic types of Buddhist meditation. These are brief introductory descriptions for those interested in meditating for beginners.
Concentration meditation is what many people think of when they think of meditation practice. Put most simply, it is the practice of cultivating a mind that can focus on one object with sustained awareness. We do this most often through concentrating on the breath in the body. We can feel the breath in multiple locations, but people most often use the sensation of the chest rising and falling or the air coming in and out of the nostrils.
With concentration practice, we are cultivating the ability for the mind to concentrate, not showing it off. It’s natural that the mind wanders. This is part of the practice. The mind thinks all day long; it is the mind’s job. We don’t resist the thinking mind, we just bring our awareness back to the breath over and over again. You can read our post about blocking negative thoughts for more about the topic of allowing the mind to think.
You can find a guided concentration meditation at the bottom of the page, but here’s what a concentration meditation looks like. You can find a comfortable position in which to sit. There’s a bit about posture below if you’re unsure of what proper meditation posture is. You can set a timer if you wish. As you allow your eyes to close, settle in the sensations in your body. Notice the points of contact such as your butt in the chair, the feet on the floor, or the hands resting on the legs or lap. You don’t need to dig for anything specific; the task here is to simply arrive in the present-time experience.
You can turn your focus to the sensation of the body breathing. I recommend picking a spot and sticking with it. If you’re pretty new to meditation, it may be easiest to tune into the body breathing in the chest. All you have to do is bring your awareness to each inhale, each exhale, and the space between. Meditating for beginners isn’t easy. It takes practice to cultivate a concentrated mind, so try to not get too frustrated with yourself when the mind begins thinking. You can use a simple mantra such as “in, out,” or “inhale, exhale” to help you stay with the breath. When the mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath. Don’t try to control the breath. Rather, let it breathe itself. Your task in concentration practice is to return to the breath whenever you notice the mind wandering. As you do this repeatedly, the mind will grow in its ability to concentrate. It’s much like going to the gym and lifting weights. We have to repeat our workouts in order to grow strong. In the same way, bringing the mind back to the breath helps us cultivate the quality of concentration.
Mindfulness meditation seems to be a bit of a buzz term these days, yet few understand its roots or what it truly means. Mindfulness is NOT just being present. There is more to mindfulness than simply being in the present moment. When talking about meditating for beginners, this is a super important point. The word mindfulness is an English translation of an ancient Pali word sati. Although most commonly called mindfulness, many scholars of the Pali language point out that the word actually means something closer to “remembering” or “recognizing.” True mindfulness is being aware of the present moment AND remembering or recognizing the causes and effects of the experience. That is, mindfulness is recognizing what is going on and if it is leading to suffering or liberation, if it wise or unwise, if it is kind or harmful, etc.
There are many different ways to practice mindfulness. They all share one thing in common: the focus of the mind on present-time experience. This includes sights, sounds, smells, tastes, feelings in the body, and thoughts. In mindfulness meditation, we bring our awareness to whatever is arising without judgement or wishing for things to be different. When judgement does arise, we simply notice it. To give an example of how mindfulness practice works, I’ll illustrate an experience I had recently in meditation. I had some caffeine a bit before meditating. While sitting in mindfulness meditation, I noticed that my heart seemed to be beating fast to me in the moment. I felt the direct physical experience in the chest, felt that it was rather unpleasant, and saw my own dislike of the feeling. Then, the mind started up. I began thinking about the coffee I had just finished, about how I should not have done that, and how silly that was of me to do. I eventually noticed what was happening and was able to not identify with the thoughts arising. What happened here was that I had an experience in the body, it was unpleasant, I didn’t like it, and the mind began thinking. This is mindfulness. We bring awareness to what is going on, the processes that happen in relation, and simply follow along with awareness. This may seem overwhelming, and it takes practice, but with repeated cultivation we can truly bring a heightened awareness to the workings of the mind and body experience that we have.
Again, meditating for beginners takes some patience and recognition that these qualities take time to cultivate. You can settle into your meditation by looking at the body. You may even start with a few minutes of concentration practice to help settle the mind. To begin investigating mindfulness practice, I recommend starting with one of the senses to work with. You may want to start with just physical sensations in the body or just hearing. We practice by simply waiting for something to grab our attention. Sit with an open awareness and see what comes up. When a sound or sensation arises, tune into it. Remember that your job isn’t to judge it or try to decide what is good and bad or right and wrong. Just focus on the experience for a few moments. You may notice some thoughts arising, a liking or disliking, some judgement, etc. Whatever comes up, just notice it. In my personal opinion, the key to mindfulness is nonresistance. Let what comes up be there.
The Heart Practices
Although we may think of concentration and mindfulness practices when we think of meditation, there is another equally important piece of the practice. These are the practices of the heart, called the brahma-viharas in Buddhism. There are four of them, and they are just as important to practice as cultivating mindfulness. We generally cultivate the heart practices through the repetition of phrases silently in our heads, getting in touch with our intentions and cultivating these wholesome qualities of the heart. Traditionally, we cultivate these qualities toward ourselves, toward a good friend, toward a neutral person (stranger), toward a difficult person in our lives, and then toward all beings everywhere. There are guided meditations on each of these practices at the bottom of the page.
Metta is the first of the four brahma-viharas, and is often called lovingkindness. We much prefer to use the word gentleness, as it embodies what metta is in our experience. In metta meditation, we are cultivating the kind and gentle heart toward ourselves and others. Metta is the deep realization that all beings wish to be happy, at ease, and safe just like we do. Here are a few traditional metta phrases used in meditation:
May I (or you) be happy.
May I (or you) be healthy.
May I (or you) be safe.
May I (or you) be at ease.
Compassion is the practice of responding to suffering with metta. Our care and friendliness turns to compassion when it gets in touch with pain and suffering. Compassion is not a codependent quality of resting our own happiness on the happiness of others. Rather, we tune into suffering with a kind awareness and presence. Compassion phrases include:
May I (or you) be free from suffering.
May I (or you) be present for the pain.
May I (or you) care for the suffering.
Somewhat a counterpart to compassion, appreciative joy is what happens when metta meets joy. Whether it is our joy or the joy of others, we practice meeting it with a kind presence. Rather than falling into envy for others or believing we don’t deserve the happiness in our own lives, we cultivate the ability to truly be present for our own happiness and the happiness of others, rejoicing in the moments of joy. Some phrases of appreciative joy for meditating for beginners are:
May I (or you) be happy.
May my (or your) joy continue.
May I (or you) rejoice in the happiness.
May I be present for my (or your) joy.
Equanimity, the final of the brahma-viharas, holds the other three together. Equanimity as a heart practice is the quality of remaining stable and balanced amidst the experiences of the heart. It is the recognition that although we may wish well for someone, respond with kindness or wisdom, or be present for their suffering or joy, we ultimately cannot change them. Equanimity practice helps us to be with suffering without getting enveloped by it, and be with joy without letting our own happiness rest upon the happiness of the other person. Equanimity phrases commonly used are:
All beings are in charge of their own actions.
May you do what you need to do to free yourself from suffering.
Suggestions for Meditating for Beginners
These are just some general suggestions that we have found extremely helpful in our own practice and in our experience working with new students. Meditating for beginners can be overwhelming, so we hope these suggestions help you navigate your practice.
We may have an idea in our heads that we should meditate for a certain period of time. We recommend disregarding those thoughts, noticing the ego present in them. Instead, start somewhere that works for you! It may be 2 minutes at a time, 5 minutes at a time, or 10 minutes at a time. Don’t overwhelm yourself. As you sit regularly, you build on the practice of the days before. Set a timer, and just sit for what feels doable to you. If you’re not sure, try starting with five minutes.
Listen to Guidance
This is one of our favorite tips to offer when talking to people about meditating for beginners. It’s how we personally got our start meditating. Guided meditations help you understand what you should be doing during your practice, and the voice may bring you back to the practice when the mind wanders. You don’t have to go it alone. Especially in the beginning when you may get confused or overwhelmed, listening to guided meditations is a wonderful way to deepen one’s understanding of the practice. It is a way in which you can learn about meditation while actually meditating. We have a free guided meditation podcast and daily guided meditation emails if you’d like to investigate guided meditations.
Investigate One Practice Thoroughly
When talking with students, we’ve found that they often want to look at every practice on the path. This is a wholesome desire, but we must really get to know each practice we are investigating. Pick a practice and sit with it daily for a couple weeks. Meditating for beginners becomes much more difficult when we put too much on our plates. You may start with concentration or metta toward yourself. As much as you may want to keep switching to new things, try doing the practice repeatedly. As you do, you will find the practice developing and changing, deepening insight and care.
Find a Teacher
This is one of the best things you can do for your practice. As with almost anything you are learning, there are people out there who may know more than you do about the topic. Speaking with a teacher can help you in many ways. You can talk about your experience and difficulties in meditation and get some educated guidance. Perhaps a teacher can help point you in the right direction. There are many teachers out there willing to work with students freely out of their own passion for the path of freedom that meditation offers. You’re always welcome to email us at [email protected] if you’d like to connect with one of us and get some guidance.
Questions about Meditating for Beginners
How do I quiet the mind?
This is probably the most common question receive about meditating for beginners. It’s a great question, and one that we love to hear. If you’re noticing the mind is thinking quite a bit, that’s good. It means you’re bringing awareness to your experience! We have two separate answers to this question. First, you don’t need to quiet the mind to meditate. Thoughts aren’t bad, and Buddhist meditation is not about stopping the mind from thinking. Rather than pushing thoughts away or thinking of them as wrong, trying bringing awareness to them. You can use a one-word label just to label what type of thought it is. Some labels we use are: planning, resentment, fantasizing, worry, longing, figuring out, and replaying. Try shifting your method of responding to the thinking mind and meeting the thoughts with some acceptance. Thoughts are part of experience, and we can find great freedom in tuning into the ever-fluid stream of thoughts that come and go.
Additionally, concentration practice can help us quiet the mind in a sense. Continual concentration practice doesn’t make us not think. Rather, it helps us to not be so sucked in by the thoughts that arise. As we return to the breath over and over, we become disenchanted by the thinking mind. We may notice the thoughts arising, but not hook into them as we often do habitually.
What is the correct meditation posture?
There isn’t one posture that works for everyone. Every body is different, and we all may find our own posture that work for us. However, there are a few tips that we have to offer in a general sense. First, it needs to be said that one posture is not “more spiritual” than another. Leave the judgement be that you need to sit in full lotus position to be a good meditator.
Generally, there are two things that are helpful to consider when investigating what works for you. First, what is comfortable? You want to find a posture in which you can sit with minimal discomfort for the duration of your meditation period. Discomfort happens, but try to find something relatively sustainable. To do this, try to allow the muscles of the body to relax. Allow the shoulders to drop, let there be some slack in the jaw, and allow the hip and butt muscles to soften. You may also make special effort to practice “soft belly,” letting the belly relax.
On the other hand, find a posture that brings energy and alertness to your practice. To do this, keep the spine straight. I like to picture the vertebrae stacked neatly on top of each other. You may think of a string at the top of your head, pulling your head and spine upward. It helps to sit on the “sit bones,” by tilting the pelvis forward. This keeps the spine in a healthier position. This is why people often sit with the knees below the hips; it pulls the pelvis forward slightly. You may meditate laying down, but this leads to sleepiness and I strongly recommend against it unless it is the only doable position for you due to some pain or medical issues.
Finally, you may also meditate while standing or walking. The Buddha recommended this several times in multiple suttas. Walking meditation is a great formal practice, and we can easily bring this practice into our daily lives. Standing is a great posture if you are experiencing sleepiness during meditation. Meditating for beginners sometimes means experiencing a quality of drowsiness or heightened energy. Walking can help get this energy out a bit, and standing can help us stay awake.
How do I start a daily practice?
Starting a daily practice is a beautiful intention to have, but meditating for beginners is hard enough once, let alone every day. There are a few things you can do to help develop a regular sitting practice. Before we go into them, we’d like to point out that sitting daily is the best way to practice. I often say to my students that it is better to sit 10 minutes a day than 45 minutes once a week. Continuity of practice helps us build upon our experience and insights, and is definitely worth giving a shot.
You may try sitting in the same place every day. The benefit of this is that the mind will begin to associate the spot with ease and calm. When you go to sit in your meditation spot, the mind relaxes more easily. You also may try sitting at the same time every day. Similarly, this will help the mind build some routine. If sitting at a regular time doesn’t work well for you (remember, everybody is different), you may try the practice of spontaneous sitting. If you are going about your day and feel the urge to meditate, stop and meditate!
Finally, utilize technology! Set a reminder on your phone every day to meditate. If, like me, you have a tendency to ignore reminders and alarms, set a couple a day! As so many of us are attached to our smartphones or computers, we can use this knowledge to aid us in our practice. If you are going to bed at night and haven’t meditated, take 5 minutes and sit. I don’t believe that we don’t have time to meditate. Rather, we don’t make it a priority. If we prioritize and set aside a few minutes to sit every day, we can get it done.
How do I meditate?
We included this question in this post on meditating for beginners because we receive it so often. It’s a pretty simple answer… Listen to guided meditations and dharma talks. It really is the best way to get a feeling for the practice and the path. With guided meditations, we can get a live walk through of the practice while we actually practice. With dharma talks, we can learn about the qualities we are cultivating. Below are quite a few guided meditations, and you may also click the appropriate links in the menu at the top to find podcasts with talks, guided meditations, and more.
Guided Meditations for Beginners
Check out our collection of 5 minute meditations, a perfect way to begin investigating meditation practice!