Basic Mindfulness Meditation

This is part of my Start Here series of posts aimed at teaching beginners the basics of the human hardware.

Introduction

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.

Method

  1. Set a timer for 30 minutes.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Schedule

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.

Next Steps

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.

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30 Responses

  1. James says:

    Great guide, I’ve found after doing mindfulness for a bit, I’ve “purified” my mind and its way easy to do literally everything. I see it like de-junking your mind, it definitely makes concentration practice easier and at times effortless.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I’ve heard some people call it a “systems reboot” or “hitting the reset switch” which can be useful analogies. 🙂

  2. James says:

    Yeah, those make sense.

    I’ve done it while falling alseep and have had interesting experiences. One thing is that I’ll sleep for about 4 hours and wake up fully rested.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I’ve had that experience a lot. Earlier in the week I meditated before bed at about 11pm then let myself drift off to sleep. I woke up at 4:30am completely ready to go. I don’t actually want to wake up that early however as it’s pitch black and completely quiet and frankly I can’t be bothered. 😛

  3. Fernando says:

    What is the difference between this type of meditation and the concentration meditation? In both you would have to pay attention to the breath, right? (if you use breath as a your attention center).

    • Illuminatus says:

      It’s a different kind of attention. And a different goal.

      In mindfulness, the breath is an “anchor” you can return to if you begin to get lost. The goal is to let thoughts arise and pass (which ends up having the effect of “clearing out the junk”). By placing attention on the breath, the thoughts can still happen, but you do not get carried away by them. Imagine it like being on a tour bus going around a city. You can still see all the sights and landmarks (your thoughts, emotions and body sensations) but the bus (your breath) keeps moving so you never get stuck on any one particular landmark for too long. Mindfulness also teaches you about all these sensations because they are allowed to happen but, by returning to the breath, those sensations do not interfere with the observation too much. Over time you can learn a lot about your inside workings.

      Concentration meditation is extremely different. In concentration meditation the breath is more like a target and your attention is more like a laser. Your goal is to keep the laser trained on the target. Any thoughts that arise are to be ignored and/or suppressed. You do not engage thoughts/emotions/body sensations at all. You do not let your attention move away from the breath at all. (This is hard work and there is a training element required which takes different amounts of time for different people; mindfulness helps with this training by letting the mind learn about how it works so it can better focus.) Eventually the breath ends up being “all there is”. At this point you are absorbed into the breath. This is when the various jhana states begin to arise by themselves. These cannot be described in everyday terms but are extremely fascinating and are unlike any mind-state you are likely to have experienced.

      The mindfulness mind-state on the other hand is far more similar to everyday awareness, except relaxed and peaceful with things “slowed down” somewhat.

      In mindfulness meditation your attention should return to the breath extremely often (a beginner should still try to keep their attention on the breath “all the time”). However in concentration meditation it is more like your attention is stuck to the breath like glue. There are no gaps in that attention where thoughts can exist.

      • Fernando says:

        Thanks for the reply! I though it was something like that, but it’s better to have sure, otherwise i would spend the whole meditation time wondering about it haha.

      • Pyro says:

        I thought trying to hold one’s attention on something without letting it wander is bad because of all the tension it can cause? Well this is what I have heard from people who are experienced with the jhanas. Someone like leigh brasington usually would say let it wander and then return when ever you have noticed until the mind eventually becomes still and only the breath is in mind.

        • Illuminatus says:

          “I thought trying to hold one’s attention on something without letting it wander is bad because of all the tension it can cause?”

          Well, “tension” is a vague word. In one sense there is always a tension present within a jhana because it is the pulling together of sensations to form an object.

          Then there is the other sense of tension in the body due to struggling, which is negative. To avoid this I mainly advise learning to breathe well, and practising this in all of life not just meditation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=awtPZzdz4Qw

          “Well this is what I have heard from people who are experienced with the jhanas. Someone like leigh brasington usually would say let it wander and then return when ever you have noticed until the mind eventually becomes still and only the breath is in mind.”

          Do you have a source for this please? I’m not that familiar with his work but I don’t really think he would have advised directly to let one’s mind wander.

          Anyway, there is a different method depending on practically everyone you ask. Daniel Ingram would say something more along the lines of maintaining steady consistent focus on the object, and would likely not endorse what you just wrote about letting the mind wander.

  4. Ron says:

    How does this differ from insight meditation?

    • Illuminatus says:

      There are many types of insight meditation but all have mindfulness as their basis. Mindfulness is an essential basis for both insight meditation and concentration meditation.

      Insight meditation is generally concerned with investigating the sensations that make up reality to ascertain their true nature (and therefore the nature of experience itself). You could see it as a “high resolution” mindfulness meditation where, with great skill and concentration, much more sensations are noticed. Larger thoughts and emotions are broken down into finer and finer sensations. So, if you noted “warm” in your mindfulness meditation, in insight meditation you would see that on a finer scale and see the sensations that make up “warm” — which can be perceived as little bubbles, or as waves, or as “dots”, or maybe something else entirely, depending on what mental state you are in at the time (e.g. in the formless realm jhanas sensations are mostly perceived as waves).

      To continue my analogy of the tour bus in a previous reply, insight meditation is like stopping the bus at each landmark, walking up to the landmark and inspecting it in detail. As skill increases this can be done many times per second.

  5. Vysotsky says:

    What do you think about this article? (I.e. mindfulness meditation is judgmental because observing -not only “experiencing”- any bad sensation is suppression.):

    http://mindfulconstruct.com/2010/01/11/the-contradiction-of-mindfulness/

    This is the same site as the OP posted in this tread:

    http://www.personalpowermeditation.com/forum/meditation/observing-versus-experiencing-emotions/

    • Illuminatus says:

      She’s going after another author’s idea of mindfulness which itself sounds wrong to me from the excerpts. Then she gets all into her labels (what mindfulness “IS” or what emotion “IS”) and gets tangled up without much apparent insight as to what those labels point to. This article is largely an exercise in having labels point at each other in various directions till the argument emerges that she wants to put across.

      Ultimately, the argument she seems to want to put across is that the emotional context of experience should not purposefully be altered by humans — they should just accept emotions how they are, and that if they find such emotions disturbing then that is somehow a “judgment call” they are making and is part of the problem.

      Pragmatically, this is complete nonsense and is harmful advice. In the real world, individuals find certain emotions disturbing, sometimes EXTREMELY disturbing. It can take YEARS of insight meditation to learn to see those emotions as simple sensations arising where they are. Also, just being able to see those sensations does not necessarily mean they will be any less disturbing when they arise in non-practice daily life.

      This is the main reason the Buddha ALWAYS coupled concentration meditation — jhana — with insight meditation. When bliss is added, the emotion can far more easily be faced and then understood (at which point it disappears). The bliss of jhana is healing and allows totally peaceful and equanimous mindfulness of emotions which is what truly allows them to dissipate. Meditation is ABSOLUTELY a manipulation of one’s own mental-emotional landscape, and should be pursued vigorously as an intentional modification of one’s experience.

      Also, some weird thing has arisen amongst Western authors which is that “suppression” (of negative emotions etc.) is somehow “bad”. I believe this may have been born out of a) Psychoanalysis concepts e.g. “repressed memories” and b) A broadly Christian worldview which venerates suffering. These just don’t belong in meditation. Jhana for example purposefully and skilfully suppresses negative mind-states, because — to be perfectly frank and pragmatic here — that is the only context under which to skilfully address negative emotions. You can’t deal with fear from within fear, anger from within anger and so forth.

      Authors like this one don’t typically have much meditation experience.

  6. Nick says:

    Also, some weird thing has arisen amongst Western authors which is that “suppression” (of negative emotions etc.) is somehow “bad”. I believe this may have been born out of a) Psychoanalysis concepts e.g. “repressed memories” and b) A broadly Christian worldview which venerates suffering. These just don’t belong in meditation. Jhana for example purposefully and skilfully suppresses negative mind-states, because — to be perfectly frank and pragmatic here — that is the only context under which to skilfully address negative emotions. You can’t deal with fear from within fear, anger from within anger and so forth.
    This is a cul-de-sac which I was on, until you pointed this out.

  7. Ram says:

    For anyone who’s practicing this, one variation that I find really helpful is to use the ringing in my ears rather than my breath as an anchor. I fucked up my ears pretty good during my six years playing in a rock band and going to concerts every weekend, so the ringing is very clear and easy to focus on. It also provides a really nice solid backdrop, so against that background it’s easy to see how all the other sensations and thoughts are fleeting and impermanent. I’ve gotten significantly better at focusing and pushing away unwanted thoughts and sensations since I started practicing this, as well as the concentration “muscle” getting a lot stronger. Some people, like me, might find it easier to maintain mindfulness with other objects than the breath.

  8. Bishop says:

    Hi Illuminatus, I was wondering will the new fascia guide you are working on be useful for someone with no experience? Ive been having trouble with upper back pain when meditating in a chair past 20 minutes. The chair is the most comfortable for me but I start getting frustrated about my posture not being good enough. Do I need great posture when doing mindfullness meditation or am I just being too hard on myself? Sorry for ultra newb question.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I need to figure out whether the fascia guide actually does what it’s meant to do before I write/record it, and that involves getting some real-life test subjects. So don’t hold your breath waiting for that guide!

      Regarding your question, it depends how bad your body is currently. Posture is a combination of which nerves are firing (the neurological side) and where fascia/muscle is built up which distorts the body physically. For good meditation practice you don’t need to be perfect but ultimately you do want the whole spine to be “firing”, meaning none of the back “sags”.

      The best thing for you is to go to a yoga class or preferably get an instructor to come to your house and teach you a routine you can memorize to help prepare your body for meditation as best you can. The main purpose of hatha yoga, and in fact all the pranayama and other yogic practices is to prepare the body for meditation by stretching and releasing fascia and also getting all the nerves along the spine firing. If you can’t afford proper yoga instruction then I suppose YouTube is better than nothing. And you want to be doing 10 minutes or so of yoga before sitting to meditate.

      Once you are meditating, you need to forget about posture entirely and instead focus on the breath (and getting a steady breathing rhythm will tend to make the spine erect anyway).

  9. Bishop says:

    “The best thing for you is to go to a yoga class or preferably get an instructor to come to your house and teach you a routine you can memorize to help prepare your body for meditation as best you can. ”

    Yeah sounds like a good plan for me. Luckily there is a yoga studio thing not too terribly far from me that seems decent enough. Thanks

  10. Bishop says:

    Hi again Illuminatus, after doing some research I think I may have some form of kyphosis of the spine. I’m going to see a doctor to see whats what but my question now is will I still be able to get the full benefits of meditation despite this condition? I’m feeling pretty discouraged about it.

    • James says:

      I have scoliosis and it hasn’t impeded my meditation what so ever.

      • Bishop says:

        Hey James, thank you that is very encouraging to know. I was concerned since so much importance is put on the spine in meditation I thought it would limit how far i could progress. May I ask if you use a chair when meditating? Thanks again.

        • James says:

          I just sit on a yoga mat.

          • Bishop says:

            Oh wow and no discomfort? I have trouble meditating in a chair without some support. It feels like there is a weight pulling downwards from my upper back and becomes uncomfortable. I guess I’ll figure out whats going on when I get it checked out.

            • James says:

              I use to have lots of discomfort but I just sat with my spine straight as I could, and stretched a lot and now I can sit for long periods with no problem.

    • Illuminatus says:

      I attained the first jhana and several of the early insight stages before fixing any of my back problems. The trick is to stay absolutely still and ignore the discomfort, then eventually you barrel through it.

      “will I still be able to get the full benefits of meditation despite this condition?”

      I don’t want to discourage you because there is so much you can do despite a non-straight spine, but my opinion is that if you begin to develop kundalini then it may not reach its full potential if the spine is not corrected. Kundalini tends to want to make the spine straight, which can lead to strange twists and turns appearing in the body when you meditate. Luckily yoga can correct many of these problems.

      One possible answer is that you avoid energy work (e.g. moving energy up the spine) and keep meditation localized to the head area, e.g. the bridge of the nose. As I said, I attained the first jhana here before fixing any of my back problems.

  11. Andrew says:

    eyes closed or open? and is this basically anapa meditation?

    • Illuminatus says:

      Eyes closed. Anapanasati meditation (is that what you mean?) tends to have a more focused awareness on the top lip and its goal is jhana, if memory serves.

      The purpose of the meditation in this article is training basic mindfulness for a couple of months before then training for jhana etc.

      • Andrew says:

        Oh yes, I did with eyes open for a day or two…still got some of the benefits. Thanks. I will be doing this at least 1 hour a day. Seems like great stuff 🙂

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