How to Start a Meditation Practice
It's not as hard as you think
“I’d love to meditate, but I’m really bad at it.”
This is the most common response I get when I talk to folks about meditation. I can never help but laugh—it’s like saying “I’d love to eat healthy, but I’m really bad at it” or “I’d love to exercise, but I’m really bad at it.” Meditation isn’t an innate ability—it’s a habit.
And just like healthy eating and exercise, the more uncomfortable, unnatural, or unpleasant you find meditation, the more you stand to benefit from it. The discomfort is typically due to neglected mental hygiene—with a little effort you can easily push through it.
I’d like to share how I tamed my ADD-diagnosed brain into a regular meditation practice, in the hopes that it encourages other people to do the same.
All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
The most important skill in meditation is the ability to sit still for long periods of time.
When most people start meditating, they try to “clear their mind”, or focus intensely on their breath, or engage in some other uncomfortable mental maneuver. But I’d encourage new meditators to just sit, and let your mind do whatever it wants. Think about work, fantasize about sex, plan your next meal—doesn’t matter. The point is to start carving out a space in your life where you’re sitting unoccupied.
This might sound a bit like showing up at the gym, changing into your workout clothes, and then just walking around aimlessly. And it sort of is! But getting that time carved out in your day, getting your body physically into a space where it can practice, is a huge step forward.
You’ll want to set some consistent parameters for your meditation time. Try to sit in the same location, at the same time of day, in the same position; a quiet room behind a closed door is ideal. You don’t need to twist yourself into a fancy lotus pose—just find a position that’s comfortable, but not so comfortable you fall asleep1. Much like sleeping, it’s best if it’s a spot that’s only used for meditation—you’ll likely find it hard to sit idly in your office chair.
Beginner meditation manuals will often tell you it doesn’t matter how long you sit—even two minutes is great! And if this is all you can muster at the beginning, don’t sweat it. But you should try and build up to sitting for at least 30 minutes daily—this is about enough time for your mind to chew through all its typical coping mechanisms for boredom. 60 minutes is ideal, but more than that and you’ll probably see diminishing returns.
Again, at this point, your only goal is to start physically carving out the time and space for a practice. You don’t need to do anything while you sit—just let your brain carry on however it wants. This phase might last weeks to months, and it’s something you can always come back to if deeper practice starts to feel like a burden.
Unlike our friend wandering aimlessly around the gym, you’ll probably see a great deal of benefit even if you never progress beyond just sitting. You’ve created a space where your mind can work through all the stress and drama of day-to-day life instead of letting it fester in the background—you might find you sleep better, or that you’re less distracted in conversation.
Observe and Report
Just sitting sounds trivially easy. But when I first started meditating, I found it astoundingly difficult. Within a few minutes, I’d start to fidget. Often I’d feel an intense urge to complete some forgotten task—surely texting my friend back is more important than doing nothing! And very frequently I’d find myself ruminating on uncomfortable topics, worrying about the future or reliving some past trauma.
In the most comfortable sits, I’d end up focusing on an issue at work, a math puzzle, or some philosophical problem—I found sitting was easiest when my brain had a clear task to chew on. Other times I would idly fantasize about some contrived scenario where I became rich or famous or enlightened.
As I got used to sitting quietly for 30-60 minutes at a time, I started to catalog all the different things my brain would do. Problem solving, ruminating, fantasizing, and rehearsing arguments were some of its favorite pastimes.
After each sit—and increasingly during the sit—I would sort through my mental activities, putting them into buckets. “Lots of worrying about work today,” I’d think; or, “man, I’ve been rehashing the same argument with my partner for over twenty minutes.” Eventually, every train of thought could be grouped into one of about a dozen categories, like arguing, fantasizing, or planning.
This part of my meditation practice feels like observing a pack of animals in the wild. I don’t interfere—I just watch and make notes. And I’m always surprised at how simple a system my mind actually is! For all the grand depths I like to imagine my inner monologue exploring, it mostly sticks to a few well-worn paths.
Again, you might spend weeks, months, or years just watching your thoughts and building a map of your inner landscape. It’s something I still fall back to when my mind insists on wandering. But as an engineer, I get kind of bored in this mode—fortunately there are plenty of fun ways to mess with your mental system.
Throughout my years of meditation, I’ve built up a repertoire of mental exercises. These range from simple tasks like “focus on your breath” and “count to 1000”, to activities that are more abstract and esoteric.
All of these tasks look to train a single muscle: attention. But there’s a huge variety of attentional styles, and different people need to work on different aspects. Some minds constantly wander, and have trouble focusing on any single thing; other minds have a tendency to grasp hold of a topic and refuse to let go.
Learning to both clench and unclench the attentional muscle is important. I’ll share a handful of helpful exercises here.
Focus on the Breath
This is the simplest and most common meditation instruction.
Focusing on the breath is a great first step when you’re in “observe and report” mode—your mind will naturally wander, but every time you realize you’ve drifted off, you can gently bring your attention back to the breath. Then make a note of where you went and how long you were there for. I find it particularly helpful to try and remember the initial impetus that took my focus away from the breath.
It doesn’t have to be your breath. You can focus on a word, an image, or a physical object in front of you. But breath is a particularly convenient meditation object—everyone has it, and it’s always there.
As your sits get deeper, you might find you’re able to tune into and focus on other biorhythms, like your heartbeat, the pulse in your temples, or tactile vibrations in your hands.
Narrow and Wide Attention
I took this meditation exercise straight from Colin Wilson. I discussed it in more detail here.
Try a very simple experiment. Take a pencil and hold it in front of your eyes, a few feet away. Narrow your attention to the pencil itself, so you cease to be aware of the room. Then let your attention expand, so you become aware of the room as its background. Then narrow your attention again. Do this a dozen times. At the end of this time, you will begin to experience a curious mental glow, not unlike what happens if you exercise your muscles. Because in fact you are exercising a muscle of whose existence you are normally unaware.
—Colin Wilson, The Outsider
Again, you don’t need a pencil. Any object2, physical or mental, will do—just keep shifting your attention to the object, then letting go, in intervals lasting maybe a few seconds3. I like to combine this with the exercise above by shifting my attention with the breath, maybe focusing on inhale and defocusing on exhale, or focusing for one round of breath and defocusing the next.
Noting and Labeling
A common technique for training attention is to notice and label every minor sensation you experience while you sit. This is like observe and report at light speed.
Every time you hear something, you can say or think “that’s a dog barking" or “sound” or maybe even just tap your finger; then spend a second or two soaking in that sensation. Here’s Shinzen Young discussing the practice:
There’s a rhythm that is set up of acts of noting. Each act typically—but not inevitably—consists of two parts: a brief moment of clear acknowledging that some sensory category or some sensory event is present. And there’s a few seconds of intent focusing.
He also has a short, accessible book on the topic.
Because each of the sensations you note is novel, noting and labeling tends to be much more engaging than other exercises like focusing on the breath. You’ll likely struggle less with mind wandering during this task, though it can get a little tiring.
Body scanning is a typical technique taught to new meditators. It involves slowly moving your attention to different parts of the body, often starting with the head, moving down the torso, and finally into the feet. Left and right limbs might be scanned together or separately; ditto for the front and back of the body.
You might imagine a sliding horizontal plane, slowly moving down from the head to the toes. Once you reach the bottom, reverse direction and scan back up.
This helps to direct the mind away from discursive thought and towards immediate sensations. It’s also a bit more engaging than focusing on the breath, so it’s easier to avoid mind wandering. And getting in touch with your somatic state (maybe your left leg is sore, or your stomach hurts a bit, or your forehead feels tense) can be a great way to start getting comfortable with prolonged sitting.
As I built a catalogue of all the different paths my mind would wander down, I started noticing that each path had correlations in my physical body—problem solving involved pressure between my eyes; ruminating I’d almost always feel in my stomach.
Interestingly, I found that if I managed to relax that part of my body, the thoughts would dissipate as well. This seems to be a common experience for meditators, and is likely the inspiration behind the chakra system.
If you’re struggling with mind wandering or intense emotions, try associating your thoughts with some tension in your body, then direct your attention to that area and examine it.
Mental Time Travel
Often I find my mind naturally wanders into the past or the future. I start to reminisce or ruminate about something that happened days or years ago; I fantasize or worry about what the future will bring. So I came up with a short exercise to help me explore mental time travel.
I begin by thinking about what was happening a minute ago—what was I thinking about? how did it feel? Then I step back a bit further, maybe to the beginning of my sit, and ask the same questions. Then to earlier in the day—what did I have for breakfast? what was my mood like? As the process continues, I jump back orders of magnitude, to last week, last year, my twenties, my adolescence, early childhood. I try to remember what life felt like then, what dominated my thoughts, what my hopes, dreams, and fears were.
Once I reach my earliest memories, I play the process forward again, passing through the present moment (how am I feeling right now, as I do this exercise?), and begin trying to predict what the future will be like. How will I feel tomorrow? What will I be doing next year, or in a decade? What will the end of my life look like?
I might loop through this life-scanning technique one to three times over the course of a sit, with each loop only taking a few minutes. It often engenders a sense of wholeness; I feel like I can see the full arc of my life from a bird’s eye view. And it seems to satiate my mind’s desire to wander into the past and future.
As you train your attention to focus on immediate sensations—mainly sight, sound, and touch—you’ll find that the sensations start to grow in richness and intensity.
For example, if a dog barks as I sit, I not only hear the sound of the bark; I hear echoes of it as it lodges into my memory. I also feel a tactile motion in the perceived direction of the bark, as though my skin were reaching out to touch it. If it surprises me, I might feel a jolt of energy through my limbs.
Absent any external stimulus, I often feel a great deal of tactile sensation. I can feel intense vibration in my hands (typically beating around 7 Hz, but with a lot of high-frequency white noise); often I feel a dense current of circular movement through my torso, orbiting around 1-2 Hz.
These sensations can be guided, amplified, or dulled with directed attention. Exploring the dynamics here, learning exactly what attention can and can’t do, can be a huge help in navigating your inner landscape.
As an extreme example, I’ll often take an unpleasant sensation—a pain in my leg, or a fresh mosquito bite—and work with it instead of physically adjusting my posture or itching. With enough effort, I’m able to turn the pain into a neutral throbbing, or the itch into an almost pleasant, menthol-y tingle.
In the first stages of your practice, you’ll start to figure out which paths your mind tends to wander down; as you take on more active exercises, you’ll start to forge new paths. And each time you walk those paths, they become easier to traverse.
If an exercise tends to lead you somewhere exciting, pleasant, or equanimous, keep it up! Eventually you might learn to expand that space, and to move into it without the exercise.
I’ve gotten to the point that I can almost always enter a very comfortable, stable equanimity, with little sense of my physical body, within a few minutes of sitting. That mindstate has become a source of comfort no matter what’s happening in my life. What’s more, it’s started to serve as a home base for other explorations—I find I can settle there, then move out to more exotic places. And I can easily return back if I get overwhelmed or distracted.
Not every meditator needs to enter a monastery or pursue intensive jhana practice. But creating space in your life to let your mind untangle itself is incredibly important—especially in an era where every waking moment is saturated with information and entertainment.
Only a few generations ago, life was filled with long stretches of idleness. Traveling to the next town, relaxing after work, using the bathroom—maybe you could fill part of that time reading a book or playing an instrument, but it’s hard for our internet-addled minds to conceive of the sheer boredom of pre-information-era life. Humanity’s natural state involves a lot more time to process a lot less information. Making space for meditation—for returning to that state of idleness—is like eating a few vegetables in an era of Big Macs.
And if the idea of starting a meditation practice starts to feel overwhelming or unachievable, remember: all you have to do is just sit.
I should note: these days I almost always sleep through the first ten minutes of my sits—meditating after a full day of work is hard, but I find it helpful. A lot of people seem to like meditating in the morning, since they’re already rested.
I’ve had the most success using a physical, visible object. There’s a very clear change to the visual field when you focus and defocus; the shift when focusing on an auditory sensation or a purely mental image is more subtle.
You can experiment with the timing. For me, longer durations are a little less comfortable and require more focus; shorter, sub-second durations seem to quickly produce the glow Wilson describes, but can become exhausting.