Introduction

So, how should you begin if you want to start to mediate? And why bother with meditation in the first place? I mean, honestly: Cultivating such a practice will require time and dedication—and your schedule is, presumably, already overflowing with urgent tasks and important responsibilities. Sitting still for prolonged stretches of time is actually quite boring and can cause physical discomfort or even pain. Some of your friends may think you’ve totally lost it when they hear about what you’re up to; They might think that you’ve started to believe in supernatural faith healers, and magic crystals, and whatnot. But also, on a more serious note, meditating can expose you to some things that are going on in your very own head that even you yourself might find troubling or disturbing. So, why bother with this at all?

In this chapter, we’ll build some foundations. First, we’ll attempt to willfully control our attention and we will quickly discover that that’s not easy as it sounds. In fact, we’ll see that we are constantly getting distracted by our very own thoughts! But also, that this is an inevitable part of being human. We’ll also learn about specific techniques which can help us to deal with this quirk of the mind more skillfully and which, furthermore, can be a source of profound insights into the nature of reality itself.

But philosophy and metaphysics aside, we’ll also learn about what modern science has to say regarding the physical and mental health benefits that come with making meditation a part of your daily life. So, let’s get started, shall we?

We’ll begin right away with our first meditation session. But before: Please put away the tarot cards, extinguish the tea candles and the incense sticks and turn the lights back on. Meditation in general, and mindfulness in particular, doesn’t have to be esoteric, religious, or mystical–quite the contrary. There’s an abundance of scientific evidence that shows that meditating has positive effects on the brain1 2 3, the mind4, and even the body5. There’s nothing you have to “believe” in, no doctrines, no commandments. Really, it’s just about you and your very own mind.

For this first practice, sit comfortably, either in a chair, or on a cushion on the floor. You can, but don’t have to, sit with your legs crossed and with your eye closed. Just sit with a relaxed, but composed posture.

For the next few seconds, I’d like you to pay close attention to your breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. And try to find a location where the physical feeling of the breath is most prominent for you. That is, where you can get the best grasp on the sensation that the air causes as it enters and leaves your body. Maybe you feel the tingling at the tip of your nose? Or something somewhere further down, in the throat? Or is the strongest sensation you feel the rising and falling of the chest?

Once you have identified a spot where you can feel the breath, commit to that and stick with it for the rest of the session. Don’t jump around between the nose, the chest, … just pick one, and stick with it.

Let the breath come and go naturally. Don’t force your breathing.

Just breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Now, I’d like you to concentrate your attention on that particular sensation you’ve identified before. What does it feel like?

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Give it ten seconds or so.

By the way, are you still concentrating on that sensation? Be honst. Or did, by any chance, your mind begin to drift off? Did your thoughts take “somewhere else?”

Well, if that happened: Congratulations. You’ve got a perfectly normal, human mind. And you’ve just completed your first meditation session!

Did you notice that even when there’s nothing specific you want to think about, for example just now, when you’re only trying to focus on the breath, your mind is nevertheless coming up with new thoughts all the time? If you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that these thoughts don’t actually come from anywhere. They just… appear, without us really noticing. Usually, your mind then picks up on them and your concentration gets pulled away. Suddenly you’re absorbed into the content of that thought, and we’re no longer in the present moment.

But that also means that all of a sudden, you’re concentration is no longer where you “wanted” it to be. It just drifted away or wandered off without your conscious decision or approval. Out there, in the real world, this can be tremendously dangerous of course: When driving a car, for example, even a split second of mind wandering can turn into a deadly accident. The meditation cushion however is a nice and safe playground which we’ll use to fiddle with our conscious attention. And, hopefully, strengthen it a bit.

Let’s do another practice:

Again, sit comfortably. Locate the sensation of the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Give it a couple of seconds. Allow your mind to wander, if and when it wants to. (Side note: It will. Trust me.)

But this time, notice when you’re attention is no longer on the sensation of the breath. It doesn’t matter if that noticing happens immediately, or one minute, or ten minutes, after you lost your concentration. Just notice that you’re no longer concentrating on the breath.

Let the thought that’s just occupied you fade away. And gently return your attention back to the breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Now, two interesting things happened: First, at some point we be came consciously aware of where our attention actually was–particularly, that it was no longer where we had intended it to be. And second, we willfully directed it back to what was going on in the present moment–namely, that sensation of the breath. These two skills combined, mundane as they may seem, are already a kind of mental “superpower:” If you can deploy this throughout your daily life–say, while driving your car down the highway–it can make that life-or-death difference between being distracted and being present–and thus, able to evade that truck which just pulled out in front of you.

This kind of enhanced “attention management” is one major reason why many people today find value in meditation practice today. And this strengthened ability to concentrate, and to detect and counteract unhelpful mind-wandering, furthermore can help you to break through unproductive thought spirals. But more on that another time.

Beyond that, there are quite a few other benefits to a sustained meditation practice:

  • Relaxation: Though not “really” the point, most people find that meditation helps to reduce stress. From a physiological standpoint, you can observe for yourself how your heart rate and your breathing are slowing down, for example. After a few seconds, your parasympathetic nervous system is taking over, and your mental chatter is slowly subsiding. Whether you meditate for 30 minutes every the morning, or just take two mindful breaths before the start of an important meeting, once your mind is acquainted with the practice, it’ll settle into a calmer, more collected state more easily. By the way, did you know that there’s a whole field of therapeutic applications of mindfulness, called mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR)? It was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s and is now widely in use around the world.6
  • Insight: After our first meditation session, we had an interesting realization: We noticed, that our thoughts “come from nowhere.” This is an important piece of “insight” into how the human mind actually works. And the more you meditate, the more profound these “insights” can be come. Practically speaking, these insights are what Buddhist philosophers built a whole universe of morals and ethics out of.
  • Perspective: Based on the aforementioned insights, you’ll develop a different perspective on life. For example, you’ll learn that our mind has the tendency to instantly judge every experience every moment as “good” or “bad.” But that these judgements are not only often unhelpful, but that they usually lead to short-sighted and often just wrong conclusions. Once you’re becoming more aware of that, it’s easier to take a step back, reflect, and willfully respond (rather than instinctively react) to whatever happens in life.
  • Emotional health and stability: All of that combined can help you be more content and more satisfied with what’s going on in your life, moment by moment. But don’t be afraid that you’ll turn into a complacent sheep that just accepts everything that’s being done to it. You will you develop more resilience in the face of whatever life throws at you, but you’ll also learn to respond skillfully and make positive changes to move in whatever direction you want to go.

Let’s close this one off with another practice session.

Again, sit comfortably. Locate the sensation of the breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Notice when your concentration is no longer on the breath. And gently direct it back to the breath.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Repeat.


  1. Source: Mindfulness Meditation Is Related to Long-Lasting Changes in Hippocampal Functional Topology during Resting State: A Magnetoencephalography Study ↩︎

  2. Source: The Effect of Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials ↩︎

  3. Source: Serum melatonin and serotonin levels in long-term skilled meditators ↩︎

  4. Source: What meditation can do for your mind, mood, and health ↩︎

  5. Source: Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure ↩︎

  6. See also: History of MBSR. ↩︎