For a practice that basically includes sitting still and thinking of nothing, there are a lot of opinions on the best ways to meditate. Oprah Winfrey even bought all of us at her company Transcendental Meditation courses, which are quite expensive. But in all my methods and years of meditation, I haven’t found any to be consistently superior to any other, so I’ll share the basics:
Get in a quiet place.
Sit in a comfortable position. You could sit with both feet on the floor, or in the cross-legged position, but try not to be all curled up on yourself. Expand into the space around you, don’t collapse.
Put your phone in airplane mode.
Set a timer for 20 minutes.
Close your eyes.
Clear your mind.
When the alarm goes off, you’re done meditating. Rest a few seconds until you “come back” to yourself, and go on about your day.
Clearing your mind
Ok, I put it there in the bullets just like it was a one-and-done kind of deal, but that’s the trickiest and most uncomfortable part of the whole thing. I have been meditating pretty regularly for years, and I still can’t consistently clear my mind.
Here are some techniques I use to keep my mind clear as things come up:
- Acknowledging the thought and saying to myself “it can wait for 20 minutes. I can set it aside for just 20 minutes” and then visualizing it floating away until it’s a little vanishing speck on the horizon.
- Envisioning a pond with ripples that gradually settle down into a glassy pool.
- Counting my breath as one, two, three, four seconds in, holding for one second, and then one, two, three, four, five seconds out, holding for one second, repeat.
- Repeating a mantra such as “for the greatest good” or “all is one.”
For Pete’s sake, don’t beat yourself up for having thoughts come into your head. This doesn’t make you “bad at meditating” or mean it “isn’t working.” It means you’re a human being. Everyone has thoughts.
Buddhists call this “Monkey Mind,” for reasons that probably are obvious if you’ve tried meditating. Your mind is basically all over the place like a monkey on methamphetamines, flinging poo and trying anything to get your attention, and it’s REALLY DANG ANNOYING when you’re just trying to have a pleasant sit-down with The Universe.
But trust me, you get better. It gets better. As you practice, you might not get perfect, but at least you’ll get better and more quiet.
Why 20 minutes?
Sitting still for 20 minutes is a real commitment. I’m not gonna lie: I don’t do it every day. It’s embarrassingly difficult to take 20 sequential minutes of silence. I always feel like I absolutely should be able to take 20 minutes with consistency, considering how good it is. And then life gets in the way, with one thing, and then another thing, and pretty soon it’s the end of the day, and I’m exhausted.
Because of this, I try to take my 20 minutes before my day gets started, before anyone else is awake. I have a cup of coffee, just so I don’t fall asleep, and then I sit on the couch, both feet squarely on the floor, and I set my meditation timer. Sometimes, thoughts come to me during meditation and, unless they seem to be a God-given insight, I softly set them aside.
But it’s important to take 20 minutes if you can, and here’s why: something happens. The nature of meditation shifts from being a brief interval (say, for example, 5 minutes) to achieving a stillness. It’s like riding a rodeo bull: under 15 minutes is amateur, but the real prize is for those who stay in the saddle for the full 20.
Usually at around minute 10, my monkey mind starts wondering what time it is. By minute 12 or 13, I start fantasizing that maybe my timer broke or crashed, and maybe I should just look at the clock. Since I’ve been doing this for a few years, I know the bizarrely repetitive and predictable thought pattern, so I remind myself that this is “minute 12 anxiety,” and remind myself to settle down, that it’s only for 20 minutes, and that my monkey is just rattling the cage.
Twenty minutes is enough time to unlock profound meditation experiences that, with practice, can really blow your mind.
I have been one with a bumble bee seeking out dogwood blossoms, feeling the tickle of the petals and the wind from the beating of my wings. I have been that dogwood blossom, celebrating the bee’s arrival and rolling out the petal carpet for him. I have been one with the air — with all the air — around the planet. I have been the ocean, swelling and bulging with the tides, attracted to my friend the moon.
I have also thought of nothing but the content for this week’s email newsletter, lost in my thoughts, until the timer goes off and I am disappointed in myself for letting that opportunity for stillness slip by.
I have also gone into meditation with a problem, set my intention to have the answer revealed to me, cleared my mind, and had the solution come to me like a butterfly. For those times, I do break meditation long enough to write down the revelation, and then return to meditating with deep gratitude.
Meditation gets easier the more you practice it, but even masters struggle with the same things beginners do. It’s hard to find the time, and even when we find it, it’s hard to truly be still. 20 minutes give us that time.
It will probably surprise you not-at-all that there’s an app for that.
Yep, there are bazillions of meditation apps, including guided meditations and everything.
The Chopra Center
The Chopra Center (of that guy Deepak who knows all the cool and enlightened stuff) has regular free “21 Day Meditation Experiences” (they used to call them “Meditation Challenges,” but I think the idea of a challenge was a little too non-meditational). The Chopra Meditation Experiences open with some meditative thoughts (depending on the theme of the challenge), give you a handy Sanskrit mantra to repeat, give you some minutes of music, and then close.
They’re absolutely stellar for beginners, because you get stuff to think about, you get a mantra, and you get someone timing the experience for you. You also get a daily sequence, so it encourages daily participation.
Insight Meditation Timer
This app has it all. The primary function of the app is a meditation timer, but it also includes guided meditation (including some to aid with sleep). There’s even a very fine community where you can thank other people for meditating with you (you know, since they joined in with The Universe at the same time ’n’ all).
Other forms of meditation
“Exercise is my meditation.”
“I find walking through the forest to be a good meditation.”
“When I’m on my motorcycle, it quiets and focuses me. It is my meditation.”
While I appreciate that people are trying to work meditation into other soothing and relaxing activities, meditation isn’t just any relaxing activity. Meditation is sitting still and clearing your mind.
There is no substitute for literally meditating.
If you find meditation to be too difficult, I understand that. But don’t use how difficult meditation is to justify pivoting on the concept of meditation to the more general, umbrella concept of relaxing.
Meditation isn’t relaxing. It is sometimes work. It requires diligence. It is a mindful practice that is not necessarily easy.
But it’s important.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, YOU-NICORN: a 30 day workbook to find your inner unicorn and live the life you love. It is posted as a companion to my post about non-medical treatment for depression. If you find it helpful, please sign up for my mailing list to receive a notification when my book’s kickstarter begins.