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How to Meditate for Beginners | Tips, Steps, FAQS and Metaphors

Last updated on October 7, 2020

Covid-19 has revealed our chaotic new normal: fake news, social distancing, no clear answers, and no end in sight.

With so much confusion spread through the air, a simple meditation practice is both one of the best ways to deal with confusion and also to thrive.

This post is written for the beginner who has never before tried meditation. I’ll be drawing upon my decades of meditation experience to help explain:

  • A 3-Step Meditation ”How To” For Beginners
  • Metaphors On How To Work Your Thoughts
  • Environment, Duration, Seating, Sound
  • Common Beginner Meditation Pitfalls
  • Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a video where I cover these topics:

A 3-Step Meditation How To For Beginners

man meditating on seated comfortable chair

In this first section I just want to tell you how simple a meditation practice can be for beginners. This technique is something that I return to nearly every day, even after years of practice. There’s no need for anything fancy, this 3-step meditation technique can serve you for years.

  1. Get Comfortable: Don’t worry about criss-crossing your legs or having a meditation cushion. All you need is a comfortable chair or something to lay down upon so that you can physically relax your body. And part of getting comfortable is also giving yourself permission to accept where you are for the next few minutes.
  2. Become Aware Of Your Breath: Don’t think too hard about this. Here’s an exercise you can try right now to become aware of your breath:   As you read these words simply notice whether you are inhaling or exhaling. It’s that simple.
  3. Gently Refocus On Your Breath: We’ll talk more about thoughts in the next section about metaphors. For now just realize that re-focusing on your breath is literally how you practice meditation. Basically it’s okay to have a crazy mind, a crazy mind is perfectly natural. Your crazy mind is going to daydream, get distracted, get annoyed, and think all sorts of crazy thoughts because your mind is crazy! Once you notice your mind is getting crazy, just try to gently refocus on your breath. Are you inhaling, or exhaling?

These 3 steps are pretty much all you need. Seriously! Part of me wants to hit publish and stop right here. You don’t need much to meditate.

But, the other day I listened to an Oprah podcast, and god bless Oprah because she is a goddess, but she said something clearly like she meditates every morning and clears her mind.

And to me, I couldn’t help but feel flabbergasted. 

Giving the advice to ‘clear your mind’ is some of the worst advice is you can give to a meditation beginner.

Now, Oprah has been promoting meditation for years, so probably some of her audience was familiar with meditation. But her audience is vast people and probably the majority of her people are new to meditation.

And it’s not just Oprah.  You have all sorts of misinformation out there, from mindfulness click bait headlines that promise inner peace to total stress relief at work.

So while I want to keep this article short and sweet, I feel compelled to address some of the confusions around meditation.

To help demystify meditation, I feel it’s first important to talk about thoughts, and then I’ll answer some other common questions.

Metaphors On How To Work Your Thoughts

Anyone can easily start to meditate for a moment or minute.

For example, are you inhaling right now as you read these words, or are you exhaling? Right in reading this sentence and becoming aware of your breath you have successfully practiced meditation. Easy!

But, try keeping your mind on your breath for 5 minutes, 10 minutes or even 15 minutes. I’m sure that after a few short minutes of sitting comfortably, your mind starts to become a huge problem, and you won’t be as comfortable:

  • You start thinking, “I don’t have time to sit right now!”
  • You suddenly realize you forgot to answer your boss’s email about a project due tomorrow! Now you are anxious.
  • Your back suddenly starts to hurt
  • Your thoughts become intrusive and you think about how you fail at everything. And even after you refocus on your breath your thoughts are still disruptive.
  • You begin to itch everywhere and get restless
  • You just can’t stop thinking!

The Next Time Your Thoughts Become Difficult, Try One Of These Metaphors So You Can Get Past The Tough Spots In Meditation And Move Towards The Light

woman on left sad in stuck during meditation versus woman on right who is happy during meditation

Here’s the gist. You have to notice and accept your thoughts. But that’s simply easier said than done.

Thoughts are notoriously difficult. As a beginner, it’s important to have some sort of reference so that you can make progress when you get stuck with your thoughts. That’s where metaphors come in.

Here is an example of a metaphor: I feel light as a bird. I could have just said, “I feel light.” But by adding in ‘I feel as light as a bird‘ you can connect with my expression easier.

Metaphors are powerful because they contain pictures and stories, as opposed to purely logical instructions.

For example, I can give you logical instructions like ‘accept your thoughts‘. That seems pretty straightforward, right? Just accept your thoughts. Just do it!

But your mind understands information better with pictures and stories. As a beginner, once a few minutes go by in your meditation session, I guarantee that you will be at a loss on how to meditate.

All my 3-step instructions will fly right out the window. But, if you have a metaphor in your metaphorical back pocket, you can use it to keep practicing with your thoughts, even when things get difficult.

So let’s get into the metaphors!

Dirty Water Metaphor | How to Meditate for Beginners

A glass of dirty water will become transparent as the dirt settles to the bottom of the glass.

Your mind is like the glass of muddy water. It’s so thick with thoughts that you can barely see.

Normally you don’t realize how chaotic and dirty your mind is, but once you sit still for a few minutes you start to see all the crap that’s floating around.

Don’t react to the crap in your mind. Getting upset or reacting to the crap in your mind is like stirring a dirty glass of water. You will only mix the dirt even more and make things even less clear!

The key is to simply let the dirt settle, to be patient, and to trust the process that the dirt will settle and the water will become clear.

In Zen, they say “Just sitting”. You just sit there calmly, relaxing in a comfortable position and gently becoming aware of your breath, and after about 10-15 minutes your mind becomes more clear. Perhaps not totally clear, but more clear.

Dentist Metaphor | How to Meditate for Beginners

picture of dentist as analogy to show how to let go of your thoughts without worry

When you begin to practice meditation, pretend you are at the dentist’s office. If you were at the dentist’s office for an appointment, and you suddenly had a thought, “I gotta pay the bills!” you wouldn’t react or move. You wouldn’t tell the doctor that you had to get up and go check your bank account. You’d just keep lying there because you knew you had no other alternative. You’d naturally let go of the thought with full confidence that you’d be able to worry about your finances after the dentist’s office.

Can you bring your ‘dentist’ mindset to your meditation practice?

Down below I’ll cover some tips on setting up a comfortable space so that you can practice meditation, but the real idea behind this metaphor is realizing there is a time and place to worry about thoughts.

The Dentist Metaphor is also powerful because you have been to the dentist before and have given yourself temporary permission to not worry about things. You need to give yourself this same reassurance and permission when you practice meditation.

Don’t worry! Just sit there!

Sitting On A Train Looking Out The Window Metaphor | How to Meditate for Beginners

Imagine you are sitting on a train looking out the window. Your train rolls by an amazing view, and all you want to do is get out and stretch your legs. But you know that you have a long train ride ahead. If you get out of the train every time you see something interesting, you’ll never get anywhere. Can you stare out the window and see your thoughts pass by like views from a train window?

Do you see how your thoughts are like the endless views you see from the train? If you get off the train for every thought, you won’t get anywhere.

Instead, can you simply ‘watch’ these views go by? You can ‘watch’ your thoughts if you try. It’s sort of hard to describe, and that’s why these metaphors can come in handy.

Which metaphor do you relate to most? Let me know in the comment section down below.

Here are a few more metaphors to help you relate to your thoughts differently…

(And do you see what I mean by ‘relate’ to your thoughts differently? Meditation is NOT about clearing your mind. It’s about accepting your thoughts without resistance, knowing that they’ll pass like clouds in the sky. Notice the metaphor I just used there?)

Marathon Runner Metaphor | How to Meditate for Beginners

A human being can not 26 miles without consistent practice and training. Likewise, human beings cannot become masters of their minds without practicing meditation.

Perhaps the difficult part of meditation is seeing that you aren’t in the driver’s seat all the time. As you sit in meditation and see the endless barrage of thoughts bombarding down like missiles in a war, you can become discouraged.

You see how your thoughts are like missiles. But unlike missiles they are being launched at you, by you! It’s a tremendously confusing experience. Any who takes a serious look at themselves will realize their inner chaos is a big deal that’s not to be trifled with lightly.

But just know, the inner chaos is default. The inner chaos is what every human being experiences. Even if you don’t know you are being moved and propelled by your thoughts, doesn’t mean that you aren’t.

In fact, the people who are most brainwashed by their thoughts are the people who don’t know they are brainwashed by their thoughts! They keep repeating the same endless patterns in life because they never change their relationship to their thoughts.

You have to train your mind to deal with your thoughts, or to accept your thoughts without reacting. It’s the not-reacting part that is tough. If you don’t train your mind, you will always be reacting towards your thoughts and your thoughts will always have control over you.

You need to train yourself to not react. Just notice your thoughts, and when you catch yourself reacting to your thoughts, just to try to return and notice your breath.

Lion Versus Dog Metaphor | How to Meditate for Beginners

If you show a bone to a dog, the dog’s head will wag back and forth. If you show a bone to a lion, the lion will just stare at you.

There is a certain composure you have when you meditate. You are the lion. Your thoughts are the dog bones.

Your thoughts are going to distract you, but can you just simply stare straight ahead? It’s not like the dog bones dangling in front of you go away. The lion can still see the bones, but the lion stays focused straight ahead.

Ok, there lion or lioness, now that you have some metaphors in your metaphorical back pocket, let’s talk about some other details in setting up for meditation.

I didn’t come up with this metaphor either btw, I got it from this article here!

Environment, Duration, Seating, Sound | How to Meditate for Beginners

beginner meditation 101 sign to show the next section starts with the basics

This next section involves what I call non-essential details.

Basically, don’t worry about these!  They are simply tips to help you.

Remember, the essence of meditation is simply the 3 steps we covered earlier:

  1. Get comfortable
  2. Breathe
  3. Re-focus

Now if you want more information, you can check out my Mindfulness 101 article here, but just know that these 3 steps are the basics. That’s it.

If you commit to practicing these 3 beginner meditation steps 1 time per day, then in a few weeks you will have figured out all these other details on your own.

For example, I have gone from meditating at night to meditating mid-day. Why did I switch? Because I felt like switching and trying something new.

There’s no precise answer on when or how long you need to sit, or what if any music you should play. I suggest you just jump into the pool and get your feet wet! This is the best way forward!

And yes, that’s another metaphor!

Where and when? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

Your first step is commitment.

Meditation is like training a wild horse. Have you ever tried to tame a wild horse? I haven’t but I’ve heard it takes months before a wild horse will become tame enough for you to ride it. Do you have years of commitment within you gently and patiently train your mind? It doesn’t take much time, you can meditate 5 minutes at a time, but to really transform your life you’ll need to practice at least 5 minutes a day for months on end.

That’s the lesson here. I know we are supposed to be talking about where to meditate, but it really doesn’t matter where! Just do it. In your car, in the shower or in your bed. On a meditation cushion. Just take 5 minutes out of your day to practice ‘staring at your thoughts’. Wherever you happen to be isn’t important.  And do it whenever!

Now, of course, having a quiet place is nice. Of course, having a consistent schedule is nice. But do you need these things to meditate? No. Just jump in and get your feet wet!

Clothing? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

Again, doesn’t matter. One person may want to wear formal clothing. Another person may want to just be casual.

It doesn’t really matter what one wears. The key is that whatever one wears, one is comfortable.

If I am sitting on a cushion, I’ll wear some comfy sweatpants that have some stretch to them. But if you are sitting in a chair or laying down you can wear pretty much anything.

Want to meditate naked? Go for it!

Position? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

6 different meditation poses with the last image of a person seated to show that seated meditation is good too

When I first started meditating I would cross my legs into a full lotus position. I’d say elaborate mantras. I’d visualize.

While doing all these things I’d try to focus on my breath.

Then when I finished meditation I would stand up and my legs would have fallen asleep! For 5-10 minutes after meditating my legs and feet would throb with what felt like a thousand burning needles being pricked into my skin!

It really hurt, and was totally unnecessary. Remember what I said earlier about being comfortable? Learn from my painful mistake and just get comfy.

If you don’t know how to sit comfortably in a meditation position, don’t worry. You don’t need that information if you are just beginning to meditate.

Just start by sitting in a chair. Have a straight spine. Relax your shoulders. Don’t hold your gut in. Just put your hands on your knees.

Eyes – Open Or Closed? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

Again, it simply doesn’t matter. Some days I have them open but other days I have them closed. And other days I have them half-way open.

How Long Should You Meditate As A Beginner?

Here’s my rule of thumb:

  • Any time is good – whether it’s 1 minute, 1 second, or 1 moment, it counts.
  • I think it takes me about 10-15 minutes of ‘staring out the train window’ for my mind to start quieting down
  • I try to meditate about 3-4 days a week, but some weeks I do more or less

If you are just starting out, I suggest you aim for consistency first with 5 minute times.

See if you can meditate 7 days in a row for 5 minutes. Then just build up as you get more and more confident in your ability to sit still with your crazy mind!

Because that’s all that meditation is about, being able to sit still with your crazy mind. It’s difficult, but simple in many ways too.

Motivation? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

I’ll be honest. You need some sort of real, sincere motivation to succeed in meditation.

Many people have tried meditation once or twice, but significantly less people have persevered with it.

It’s easy to start to meditate for a minute, harder to meditate for a week, and infinitely harder to meditate for years on end.

But, even thinking about meditation being ‘hard’ or something that you need to push yourself to do, is the wrong way of thinking.

You need to be drawn to meditation, to feel the need to want to relax, to enjoy the quiet silence. And that can be your motivation to continue, to persevere.  Because meditation is a practice. It takes practice to quiet your mind.

And at the same time that meditation is a practice, it has to be an easy-ish practice. It can’t be too hard, and you shouldn’t have standards that are too high and doom you to failure.

Isn’t it crazy how LOUD it is these days? Isn’t it nice just to sit there and let your thoughts waft on like clouds on a hot summer afternoon while you relax and focus on the wind of your breath?

Man, I am really digging these metaphors!

Guided Meditation CD’s? How to Meditate for Beginners Tips

I use guided meditation tools all the time – things like the free Insight Meditation Timer app. It’s a great way to go!

In meditation, it’s good to be a beginner. One of the most famous meditation books of all time is called “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.” I read this book back in high school and it motivated me to become a Zen monk for 13 months.

It’s a great book, and guess what it’s about – it’s about how being a beginner is best!

In meditation, it’s about restarting. It’s about starting all over again, again and again.

It’s not about focusing for uninterrupted hours at time in a supremely calm state with no thoughts.

So with this humble meditation attitude, relax, it’s ok if you listen to some guided meditation. It doesn’t mean that you are ‘bad’ at meditation. It doesn’t even mean you are a ‘beginner’ at meditation.

If you like it, do it. Aim for joy, settle for being content, and let the rest take care itself. If guided meditation is what it takes for you to get started, do it.

Common Beginner Meditation Pitfalls

How to Meditate for Beginners Pitfall #1: Distractions

If you want things to be perfectly quiet, you’ll never end up happy. You are not meant or supposed to sit in total silence during meditation.

As I mentioned earlier, guided meditation is fine. So is music. And so are kids in the background, traffic noises, and birds.

With that being said, put your phone out of sight! Sounds are fine, but getting text message notifications and social media buzzes is going to do more harm than good.

For me, I’ll leave my phone in the other room when I go to meditate. And sadly, I do feel strange leaving my phone in the other room. It’s crazy how addicted we are to our phones, but hey, just another reason to meditate in the first place. The present moment is intrinsically valuable and we are so often distracted!

How to Meditate for Beginners Pitfall #2: Drowsiness

Meditation is tricky in that you want to relax, but you don’t want to fall asleep either.

It’s a fine line. For me, I’ve found that meditating at night is too much for me. I get too drowsy. I’m not ‘staring at my thoughts’ I am instead basically going to sleep.

And there’s a difference between meditation and going to sleep. When you go to sleep, you stop becoming consciously aware of your thoughts.

Meditation, on the other hand, is all about awareness. You’re aware of your breath, your thoughts, your awareness and bodily sensations.

If you find yourself nodding off, then try meditating after exercising, or at a different time earlier in the day. Splash cold water on your face. Get creative.

How to Meditate for Beginners Pitfall #3: Finding Enough Time

You can meditate while you drive. There. Does that clear your schedule?

Seriously. While I drive I often will just try to pay attention to the vibrations and rumbles in my body as I drive.

Ok, no, it’s not as good as a seated meditation where I’m still and fully feeling my breath and letting go of thoughts.

But the point is that you deliberately set aside some time to just be there with your body and to de-prioritize thoughts for whatever duration. Start with 5 minutes a day!

Now that we’ve addressed some common beginner meditation pitfalls, let’s go even narrower and talk about some specific questions related to learning how to meditate for beginners.

(As you can see, I started out with the basics and am slowly getting more and more technical. I’d like to stress again to just get started by setting aside some time to focus on your breath, and let go of thoughts as you refocus, because that’s all it takes!)

Frequently Asked Questions about Meditation |

How frequently should I meditate?

I think at least a few minutes of reflection every day is important.

If you have a prayer or journaling practice, these can be useful additions to a meditation practice. Don’t think you have to meditate and give up everything else.

But in all seriousness, even just a few days a week is fine. You want to think of meditation as a way of cleaning your mind, kind of like brushing your teeth.  

When you brush your teeth, the experience is pretty pleasant. Brushing your teeth doesn’t make you miserable at all. It just takes a few minutes and you feel a little bit better afterwards.  And you do it every day, right?

It’s the same thing with meditation. Make it a habit, do it a few minutes regularly, and keep your mind clean.

I can’t concentrate! Why is this so difficult?

If you have high standards, meditation is difficult!

Look, you just need to notice your thoughts and try a little bit to let them go. It doesn’t matter if your thoughts go away or not. If you notice your thoughts and then get upset your thoughts don’t go away, you’ll never last with meditation.

Another thing I’d like to mention is it’s likely that you are trying meditation with limiting beliefs that you picked up from society. Even though in this article I have mentioned that it’s ok to have thoughts while you meditate, based on what you’ve heard from others you still might deep down believe that you have to clear your mind.

And clearing your mind is NOT the point of meditation!

The point is to learn how to accept your thoughts, and return your focus to your body gently without getting upset. If you practice in this manner, in due time you’ll be able to meditate for longer and longer.

Remember, we live in a society filled with distractions. By re-shifting your focus to your body and breath, away from your thoughts, you are essentially working out your ‘attention muscles’.

Meditation is not meant to be super difficult, but it’s harder than falling asleep.

Here’s my advice – lower your standards for success. In a 5-minute meditation period, see if you can follow your inhale and exhale breath cycle 3x in a row. It’s a small goal to shoot for and can demonstrate how low to set the bar.

If you can’t follow your breath three times in a row, try two times, or one time. The point is to start practicing!  Again, training your mind takes time and patience.  

While meditation is easy, training your mind just takes time, patience and repetition. Are you inhaling right now, or exhaling?

Is Meditation Against My Religion?

Call it silent prayer.

Or, use a mantra or verbal prayer.

Technically speaking, you don’t have to concentrate on your breath.

You can focus on a verbal prayer or a mantra if you’d like.

Just say “God, God, God” to yourself if this feels easier to you. When your mind wanders, come back to God.

Or “Love, Love, Love” or “Peace, Peace, Peace” or “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” or “One, One, One”. It doesn’t really matter what you focus on, as long as you focus on something and let go of thoughts.

Is it bad that I always fall asleep and get super bored?

What’s wrong with falling asleep?

Look, naps and rest are beneficial to us.

Just taking a few minutes to calm down is good! Stop being so hard on yourself!

Do you really want to train your mind? Make no mistake, letting go of thoughts requires some effort.

If you really want to train your mind and be able to routinely get into a calm headspace, you’ll need to apply some effort. Once you apply some effort and then fall asleep, no big deal.

After you do fall asleep, then try earlier in the day, but overall, maybe your mind just needs a 5-10 minute break and that’s ok too. Don’t think you’re a failure. Just keep trying.

I’ve heard that meditation is not good for everybody, is this true?

True. There is some research that shows if you just tell people to only feel their bodily sensations without telling them to also gently and compassionately accept how they feel, then mindfulness can make people feel worse.

That’s why I’ve repeatedly said to be easy on yourself. To let yourself experience whatever comes up. This is parallel to acceptance.

How do you teach yourself to meditate?

Honestly, it’s pretty easy to teach yourself to meditate. Just read this blog article and apply everything.

Read some other books or try a meditation app.

What do you think about while meditating?

If I answer this question literally, I think about all sorts of crap. Things to do, things to say, random thoughts about people, goals, more to do lists, regrets, and all sorts of nonsense that I can’t remember after I finish meditating.

But if you are asking about how to focus your mind, then one technique that may help to focus on your body.

Feel your finger. The tip of your right pointer finger. Feel that right now. The finger you use to click on your mouse. Feel the tip of your finger.

There. You’ve put your attention in your body. For a split second, your mind was in your body. That’s what you ‘think’ about.

Are there other meditation techniques for beginners?

Yes, body scaning is a great technique. A body scan is where you feel your head, and then your neck, and chest, and you keep scanning your body all the way down to your toes and back up again.

When you lose focus, you just return your mind back to your body scan and pick off where you left off.

What are the easiest steps to meditate?

I started this article by listing the 3 steps that I believe are a good place to get started.

I’ll wrap up the article by repeating that learning how to meditate for beginners is just about these 3 steps:

  1. Get Comfortable: Feel good in your body and give yourself permission to have low standards. Have an accepting open attitude.
  2. Become Aware Of Your Breath: Are you inhaling or exhaling?
  3. Gently Refocus On Your Breath: Meditation is about returning. It’s about resetting. You can’t have total focus on your breath because otherwise you wouldn’t need to reset! So relax, refocusing and restarting all over again is what meditation is really about.

And …

That’s it! That’s my post on how to meditate for beginners!

If you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments section!

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