Basic Mindfulness Meditation
This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the human hardware.
The following breath meditation is as basic as it gets. Its main purposes are as follows:
- To train mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. This breath meditation allows you to notice your thoughts without getting carried away by them. The breath is your “anchor” you can return to when you notice yourself drifting down some thought path.
- To train equanimity. Equanimity is a state of psychological stability and composure which is undisturbed by emotions or pain. This meditation cultivates equanimity by training you to observe and acknowledge painful emotions as they arise and then quickly return attention to the breath rather than becoming engaged with those emotions.
- To relax and heal. Just breathing purposefully and regularly has very positive effects on both body and mind (for which there is a multitude of scientific evidence). Additionally, this will help condition relaxation as a habit which, over time, will spread into other areas of your life.
- As a foundation for more difficult meditations, e.g. concentration meditation or insight meditation. Those meditations are very difficult without basic mindfulness, which this meditation trains.
- Set a timer for 30 minutes.
- Sit and get as comfortable as possible – then make the decision to not fidget or adjust yourself for the next 30 minutes. You should now stay absolutely still for the next 30 minutes. Only the muscles involved in breathing should move.
- Watch the breath: in, out, in out. This is a light kind of attention. Thoughts should be able to come and go. You should return to the breath every time you notice your thoughts wandering. It is your anchor.
- For any thought, emotion or body sensation that occurs, let it arise as it wishes, observe it with mindfulness and equanimity, then return attention to the breath. You can make brief verbal-thought notes in your mind about the thought or sensation if you like, but don’t dwell. This kind of noting could be along the lines of: “Pain.” “Fear.” “Warm.” “Movement.” “Tension.” Etc. Then come straight back to the breath.
After a while of this, the thoughts just start floating by like clouds. After some more time there are very few thoughts and there is a very peaceful state which persists for some time afterwards.
This meditation should be done every day for a minimum of 30 minutes per session. Other websites, and many books, will let you off the hook by saying 10 or 15 minutes is fine. This is because they do not want to “scare you off” with a “big” number like 30. However, if you consider how much time the average person wastes on Facebook or watching TV per day, 30 minutes is really nothing.
Most importantly, the real gains in meditation begin to take place around 20 minutes in. It will take most beginners about this long to get a reasonably clear or still mind. Therefore 30 minutes will give you 10 minutes of “quality” meditation. Of course, you should feel free to extend that time if you feel it is going well!
This meditation is perfect in the morning for a clear head during the day. It is also perfect before bed for a deep, often dreamless sleep. I used to have persistent insomnia and this meditation cured it completely within a few days of practising, and it has not come back.
Practise this meditation until consistency is achieved. Some signs of consistency include (but are not limited to):
- Being able to reach a relatively clear, still mind within the 30 minutes.
- Knowing roughly what mental states you will move through within the 30 minutes (and therefore moving through the 30 minutes in predictable fashion without worrying whether or not it is “working”).
- Becoming faster at reaching a clear or still mental state.
- Becoming able to reach even clearer and more still mental states than earlier on in your practice.
- Noticing the benefits of the meditation practice at times when you are not meditating — e.g. noticing you are calmer during certain situations than you were before you began practising.
- Being able to become mindful of thoughts and emotions when not meditating, if you choose to do so.
- Being able to reach a clear or still mental state through meditating, even after an unusually stressful situation.
- Becoming happy with your meditation practice through having learned what it does and how to do it.
- Meditation no longer being a “chore” or something difficult, and in fact being something you now look forward to.
It will take different people different time periods to become consistent in their meditation but 2 months of daily practice is a good guideline.
If you have reached a consistent level in your mindfulness meditation and are happy with the results, you could feasibly just continue practising this meditation daily for the rest of your life. Plenty of successful people do exactly that. It is the best all-purpose meditation.
Alternatively, when you have attained basic mindfulness you may try moving on to concentration meditation or insight meditation. I personally recommend learning concentration meditation as soon as you are ready as it is the most powerful meditation for improving personal happiness, power and capability.
If you choose to pursue a more advanced meditation it can either replace the basic breath meditation in your schedule, or the breath meditation can be used before the advanced session to help you become mindful. For example, 5 minutes of mindful breathing at the start of a concentration meditation session may make the concentration meditation significantly easier.
If you have been practising concentration or insight meditation and have not been having much luck with it, you may need to come back and work on your basic mindfulness using the above meditation for a couple of months. Mindfulness is the foundation for pretty much every other work out there — including body and energy work, cognitive methods, and advanced meditation. Mindfulness cannot be missed.