Maybe you have heard about the numerous benefits of meditation. Maybe a friend or colleague talked you into it. Or perhaps you are feeling a call from inside yourself. Whatever the reason, you want to begin your meditation practice, but you are not sure of how, or would like some guidance to help you set on the right path. It is a wise choice, and you are in the right place.
If you have read our introductory guide on meditation, you know that it can be a tool for beautiful and profound transformation, but you also know that for that it must be done in the right way. Otherwise, you will likely just be wasting time without producing any sizeable and meaningful transformation, and that may even become a gateway into patterns of frustration or hopelessness. So, let us learn how we can properly make our meditation practice an effective and powerful tool for transformation and the cultivation of love and joy.
You might have been expecting and even hoping for a list of steps, a simple set of instructions that you could easily follow and bam! – you are meditating. But I will do nothing of that here. Why? Because I would not be really teaching you meditation and how to meditate. Why? Well, read along.
As always, we will begin by what is most foundational. And to know what is essential in the practice of meditation, we must go back to the essence of meditation, and what it truly is. In its essence, meditation is the conscious or voluntary transformation of the mind. From this definition, we can break down what we need to correctly meditate to two things:
- A mind. Check? Check.
- A conscious intention. Check?
If you are reading this and you are aware of it, I would bet my slippers that you are gifted with a mind. That is requirement one – a mind to be worked and transformed. (Sorry, Google bot, meditation is probably not for you.) Ideally, this mind is also imperfect, has afflictions, shortcomings, destructive tendencies, unwholesome qualities that can be released or transformed; and space for improving, cultivating wholesome qualities, and flourishing. I believe you can relate to that too. Otherwise, meditation would not be needed at all.
So now all you need is a conscious intention. You need to know where you want to go, how you wish to transform. This is fundamental, since meditation is a conscious or voluntary transformation of the mind, and so entails the existence of a conscious intention of what to transform and in what way. Without one, there will be simply no meditation at all – just a few minutes of sitting down of mind-wandering and doing nothing (and this raises the point that doing nothing by itself is not meditation, unless that doing nothing is conscious and voluntary).
In fact, the whole of meditation is all about intention. When you ask “How do I meditate?” or “How is meditation practiced?”, the best and most foundational answer is: through conscious intention. In meditation, all we are doing is holding a conscious intention, and working with the mind to walk on that direction. Truly, simply generating and maintaining a conscious intention will by itself train and transform the mind towards it.
It is often said that energy goes where attention goes. This is completely true from my and many other meditators’ experience. But what usually is not explained is how attention goes where it goes, and why, and how we can have a choice in that. So here it is, and see if it is also true for you: attention goes where intention goes. And this spells: energy goes where intention goes. Transformation happens through intention.
The problem is, most of the intentions that govern our minds and lives are unconscious or subconscious, and so that is what directs attention most of the time, and therefore that is where most energy goes. So, no conscious and voluntary transformation here.
Now, meditation is precisely about inverting this process – having the intentions that direct our mind and energy be conscious rather than not. It is about having a choice in who and how we will become, what qualities we have and not have, how we feel and think, and how we interact with others and the world. In this way, we can see that meditation is practiced by creating, sustaining, and empowering a conscious intention, while at the same time decreasing or weakening unconscious ones.
Yes, because even when you have a conscious intention, unconscious ones continue to exist, and they compete for your attention and energy. Have you ever tried, for instance, to voluntarily hold your attention on the breath for long? How did it go? And what took you off it? Unconscious intentions, desires, impulses, and needs continue to exist even when there is a conscious intention, and they all compete with it for attention, often with much greater intensity and strength (that is why they succeed).
This is simply how the mind works, and if not, meditation would be instantaneous. But this also means that to succeed in bringing about true transformation through meditation, we must not only hold a conscious intention and strengthen it, we need also to weaken and decrease unconscious ones.
This is highly important, and brings with it an even more important point, one that pertains to probably the most common mistake people do when beginning to meditate and which can render meditation useless and even counterproductive or harmful. These unconscious processes have to be weakened and decreased, but not by force, by fighting them, or suppressing. That creates just the opposite of what we want – to have a more conscious and pliant and yielding mind. It creates only mental tension and separation, inner conflict, lowering the level of consciousness and curbing any meaningful transformation.
They need to be weakened and decreased, but by accepting and allowing them. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but is actually so beautiful and profoundly transformative. By doing this, we are allowing them to come to consciousness, to become conscious too. And that is when we can work with them, heal them, transform them. We reduce unconscious intentions by making them conscious too, by making them be also part of the conscious intention. It is a process of increasing consciousness by bringing the mind together (mental unification, or samadhi).
In this manner, we are transforming enemies into friends, adversity into aid. We are decreasing unconscious intentions while at the same time strengthening conscious ones. When they arise, we do not see them with frustration or anxiety for being obstacles, but with gratitude for being opportunities for improving and precisely that which allows us to. Isn’t that beautiful and life-changing?
This quality of non-forcing and non-tension is so paramount that it is the first goal on which we exclusively focus on developing in meditation as a whole, and particularly in mindfulness, and we call it relaxation (fitting and appealing, right?).
In this way, we can further develop our answer to the question “How to meditate?” as follows:
Meditation is practiced by holding a conscious intention, strengthening and sustaining it, and weakening and decreasing competing unconscious intentions through mental unification.
Breaking this down now to a more practical set of directions, here is how to meditate:
- Set your aspiration and goals (conscious intention)
- Hold your conscious intention, cultivate it, strengthen it
- Allow competing intentions to come to awareness when they do, and then return to and reinforce your conscious intention
This is it. Simple, right? Meditation is probably not as complicated as you thought. Nor is it difficult – most often the difficulty of meditation comes from not understanding what it really is, how it really works. Repeat these steps, keep to this practice, and you will certainly see progress and transformation. And remember that, as with any training or cultivation, it takes time.
This is the backbone of meditation, the foundation of how to meditate. If you have this – a meaningful conscious intention – then you do not need anything else to meditate. No teachers, no books, no guides, no instructions – you have all you need, and you will walk your path. And no amount of teachers, books, guides, or instructions can teach you how to meditate if you do not have and start with this.
This is why I do not begin teaching meditation by laying out a few standardized instructions for you to follow. I would not be really teaching you meditation and how to meditate – not any more than you would learn how to code if someone just told you what to write, or how to draw if someone simply held your hand and moved it themselves.
This may be disappointing at first, as you may have been looking for a quick and easy solution – understandable given our culture of instant gratification and constant business. Some guides and teachers try to give you that – a 10-day meditation plan for happiness or a 5-minute easy guided meditation to enlightenment. (Often, guides for beginners jump directly into instructions on mindfulness meditation, stemming from a misconception between meditation and mindfulness, a form of meditation). But meditation is not that (a quick and easy solution), and in fact there is not one.
Meditation is not a quick fix, magic spell, or gimmick, but a profound transformation and personal path. It is important for you to understand this, that real transformation happens through deep and continued work, it cannot be feigned and it cannot be bought, and that your meditation is yours and must always come from you. It is once this is understood that good teachers can make a difference and further improve your path (and I believe a good teacher is one who also understands this).
So, now that this is clear, more objective and practical advice can become useful and constructive. So now let us get some!
Practical advice on how to meditate
1. Choose a time and place
The first step in meditation is to get to it. Simply contemplating and admiring the idea of meditation is not any form of meditation, and will not produce any transformation. So, begin by choosing a time of your day and a place to meditate, and then do it.
When to meditate?
So what is the best time to meditate? The short and best answer is – the time that best fits your circumstances. The most common and recommended moments are first thing in the morning, and in the evening after all chores are done (but before you are too sleepy). Read this guide for a more complete dive into how to find the best time to meditate.
Where to meditate?
The ideal characteristics are a quiet place without much noise or distraction, without dangers, and where you can be comfortable. This can be your room, a nearby garden, an uncrowded beach, and anywhere else you can imagine that fits these conditions. Do not stress it too much, and ultimately, meditation can be practiced anywhere, anytime.
How often should you meditate?
One other absolutely essential factor for meditation to produce any meaningful and lasting change is frequent and consistent practice. More than anything else, it is the frequency and consistency of practice that will have the greatest impact. Establishing a routine is a great way of helping make that true, and consistently choosing the same time and place to meditate can help in creating such a routine. Read here for a complete and thorough guide on establishing a regular meditation practice and overcoming the most common obstacles to it.
2. Set a timer
The next step is to choose for how long you will meditate. Setting a timer will allow you to be fully engaged with the practice for that period without having to worry about how much time has already passed or constantly checking the time. If you are feeling adventurous and have free time, you may also choose not to set a timer and simply meditate for as long as you feel well.
How long should you meditate?
What is the ideal length of a meditation session? Well, it depends. The best length for your meditation is the one that is best adapted to you and your context: your stage and experience in meditation, your other needs and responsibilities, your goals and degree of commitment.
The simple and straightforward recommendation for beginners: begin with sessions of 24 minutes, once or twice a day. This is not so much that it becomes strenuous and difficult to adjust to, and not too little as to allow for still a deep dive into the practice and meaningful transformation. For a more complete and detailed explanation and exploration of this topic, read this guide.
3. Position for meditation
Next, it is time to get into position. The posture you choose is not trivial, since the body and mind are intrinsically interconnected and one deeply influences the other. The position you choose should support you in your practice and development of the qualities you wish to cultivate. The cornerstone guidelines to it are that it should be relaxed and comfortable, without being clumsy so that you can also remain still and vigilant. For help in choosing the best posture for meditation, read this guide.
4. Go through the preparation for meditation
The preparation for meditation is a series of steps that you can do in the beginning of each session to greatly improve and empower your practice. They are meant mostly to bring up and strengthen that conscious intention and commit to the practice for the length of the session. The most important part of this process is bringing up and connecting to your most meaningful aspiration for engaging with the practice, the one that will guide you and motivate you through it. This is where step 1 above takes place, and thus is already part of the meditation itself – in fact, it is an essential part to it. Read here for the full guide on the preparation for meditation.
This will be the body of your meditation. Depending on the type of meditation and your specific goals for that session, this can vary greatly. It may or not involve imagination, visualization, analytical or discursive thought, or simply working with attention and awareness. While the form will be the same as discussed above – the working with intentions – the content will be completely dependent on the type and goals of the practice. That is the reason there are so many different types of meditation!
Because there are so many and diverse types of meditation, it makes no sense to describe any particular one here. First, you need to choose what are your goals, the qualities and skills you would like to develop, and how you want to transform. To decide which conscious intention you want to set. Because this article answers the how, but not the what and the why. While the how dictates the form of meditation, the what and the why dictate its content. The content of your meditation will depend on what you want to cultivate, where you want to go, and why.
Once we have our intentions and goals, we can set a more objective path and practical directions on that specific type of meditation. These are not trivial matters, and to help you reflect on and set your aspiration and goals, you are welcome to read this guide. If you already have a goal and one type of meditation in mind, then find our guide for it here! The most common and often the first form of meditation practiced is mindfulness meditation, so if that is what you are looking for, you may find helpful and detailed guidance in our mindfulness meditation guide.
Close off your meditation session by dedicating whatever benefits might come from it to your most meaningful aspiration. Just like we begin with aspiration, we also end with aspiration – ever the most powerful force in producing change and transformation. We said that energy goes where intention goes, and so by bringing conscious intention once more at the end of our practice we are helping direct its energy and results towards whatever end we find most meaningful.
7. Go out into the world
Now that you finished your meditation session, it is time to get up and go out into the world – and this is when meditation truly begins. Remember that the idea of meditation is to produce transformation in our way of being, during every action, every interaction, every moment of our lives, and not just while we are sitting. Therefore, if after meditation we simply forget all about it and go living our lives as usual, then no real change will come from it. When you go out into the world, try to bring conscious intention to every moment, action, speech, and thought, in that which we call informal meditation. Then, and only then, you will see real transformation happen.