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How to (Finally) Start Meditating

Practicing mindfulness is not complicated, but it's also not easy.


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photo illustration of man sitting cross-legged against rainbow-colored background, a white cloud shape over his face

Photo Illustration by C.J. Robinson

Near the beginning of the pandemic, when we were all freaked out about surfaces, I started using my elbow to hit the elevator buttons in my apartment building. It’s more sanitary, but less effective. In hitting 8 (my floor), I’d often clumsily mash 5 (not my floor). In the twelve or so seconds it takes the elevator to ascend five stories, I’d frequently end up so lost in either my thoughts or my phone that I get off on the wrong floor. You might say that I’m not very mindful.

It is particularly embarrassing, then, to admit that I’ve had a meditation practice for years—ever since I walked into a bookstore and, out of sheer curiosity, picked up The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. (Mindfulness is a present, ongoing awareness of what’s happening. Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness.) In addition to giving basic instructions on how to meditate, it lays out a way of relating to thoughts, emotions, and feelings that’s downright liberating to someone neurotic enough to push an elevator button with his elbow. According to Hanh, through the simple act of paying attention to my breath—and thus “keeping one’s consciousness alive to the present reality”—I could quiet my anxieties, lighten up, and “find joy and peace in this very moment.” That would be a miracle indeed.

I started meditating that day. Three years later—with, admittedly, a few dry spells—the changes have been profound. I’d list them all but I’d likely be repeating something you already know and might be tired of hearing. Mindfulness and meditation has been linked to everything from making you kinder and less stressed to helping with your irritable bowel syndrome. And yet the way mindfulness is often sold in our goal-oriented, productivity-obsessed, endlessly self-optimizing culture can make the act of beginning or maintaining a practice difficult. If it’s packaged as a quick-fix panacea to relieve you of all suffering and stress, you might rightfully be disappointed when, after a few deep breaths, you’re still anxious, don’t feel “fixed,” and can’t get off the elevator on the right floor.

That packaging is, unfortunately, how many people get introduced to meditation—or, frankly, any new habit during this relentlessly self-bettering time of year. But I’ve found that there’s another, less high-stakes way of approaching meditation. The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron puts it best, in her book When Things Fall Apart: “In practicing meditation, we’re not trying to live up to some kind of ideal—quite the opposite. We’re just being with our experience, whatever it is…. Awakeness is found in our pain, our confusion and our wisdom, available in each moment of our weird, unfathomable, ordinary everyday lives.”

This thought has proved to be a buoy anytime I’ve found myself drowning in self-doubt, frustrated with my own progress. That we’ve got room for improvement is not a sign that we need more practice. That, in fact, is the practice. Starting there—as opposed to a place of shame, where many resolutions start—might prove more sustainable if you’re interested in beginning or revisiting a mindfulness practice.

So here are some thoughts on getting into meditation—how to do it, what it looks like, and what to expect—with some help from books I’ve read along the way, and the guidance of three of our country’s foremost meditation teachers: Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein, who, in 1975, founded the Insight Meditation Society; and Tara Brach, who is also a psychotherapist.

What is mindfulness anyway?

Mindfulness is a term so overused that it’s effectively meaningless. It’s often confused with presence, says Goldstein. In order to explain why that’s a mistake, he brings to mind the image of a playful black lab. We’d say the dog is present but we wouldn’t describe it as mindful. It has no awareness of being in the present. Thus being mindful suggests a level of metacognition. Or, “knowing that we’re knowing,” as Goldstein puts it.

But simple recognition isn’t quite mindfulness either. Take the example of a loud noise. We might recognize the loud noise—we know that we hear it—but if that recognition is colored by a desire for it to stop, then there needs to be recognition of that desire for it to go away, too. We’re aware of what’s happening around us, and our attachment (or aversion) to those conditions.

“Mindfulness would mean being in the present, observing what's happening in a non-judgmental way, free of greed, free of aversion, free of delusion,” Goldstein says.

To illustrate the importance of this type of clear-seeing, I’ll borrow a metaphor that is often used in mindfulness teaching: think of standing underneath a waterfall. Though it can often be a pleasant experience, especially on a hot day, it’s also loud, noisy, and nearly impossible to sense anything happening outside the torrent of water rushing down over you. Seeing your thoughts, feelings, and emotions as they are—and everything you attach to them—is like taking a small step back out from under the onslaught of the waterfall. They don’t go away, but now you can see them more clearly.

By seeing them clearly, you have more agency and can respond more constructively. Say someone at work is pissing you off. If you’ve ever had a meltdown you later regretted, then you know that, often getting mad is one of the least effective ways of dealing with anger. By attending to the anger mindfully—seeing both the anger and your aversion to it—you can then decide the best course of action, instead of just flying into a rage.

Goldstein compares it to having a remote for the television of our minds: “Mostly we are just watching the channels that have been habituated. But through mindfulness we can actually pay attention. We can really see: ’Does this contribute to my happiness, [or] another's happiness? Well, no. It will just create more suffering for myself or others.’ When you're mindful enough to see that, then just click the remote…most people are not aware that they hold the remote in their hands.”

Tara Brach says that when a meditation practice resonates with her clients and students, it’s because there’s “a space that opens up” between the things they feel and think and the ways they react. In that space, they have more choice. “There is an incessant inner dialogue that goes on, but you don't have to believe the story,” she says. “The people I see that start a practice and have the most benefit, they're getting that as a takeaway: ‘I am not my thoughts. I don’t have to believe my thoughts.’ And that is the beginning of freedom.”

This isn’t just metaphorical freedom. You’re actually interrupting the neural circuitry that’s been hard-wired to keep you alive by constantly scanning for threats.

“Every time you have an anxious thought, it gives a message to your body to tighten that up—if you can see those thoughts and instead of fueling them, just take a few breaths and reconnect with what's right here, you're interrupting the entire habit of anxiety,” she says. “You have the option when you interrupt it to create new neural pathways. Neural pathways that are actually more creative and more intelligent and more open-hearted.”

O.K., I’m sold. How do I start?

As mentioned above, the practice of mindfulness is meditation. There are many different types of formal meditation, some of which look the way it’s traditionally imagined—sitting, relaxed but alert, focusing on the breath. But it doesn’t have to always be so formal. As Brach puts it, “There's a lot of language for meditation, but basically meditation is training your attention in a way that benefits your well-being.” For Brach, sometimes that means simply having her patients note and name their thoughts or emotions.

“If you get anxious a lot and every time you're anxious, you pause and just name it—just say ‘anxiety, anxiety’—and you name it a few more times, and you actually say it in a voice that's friendly enough, that actually starts ratcheting down the level of anxiety. There's research that shows that when you note an emotion, when you mentally name it, it actually calms down the limbic system.”

Sharon Salzberg says that you can think of meditation as being divided into two categories. There’s the period of sustained awareness where you’re sitting, but then there are other more informal pockets of mindfulness you can steal throughout your day. She uses an example from Hanh, who says that instead of picking up the phone on the first ring, you should let it ring three times and use that as a reminder to breathe. One of Salzberg’s teachers calls this “short moments, many times.”

“[These are] short moments in your life where you get to rest, or you get some space or you get to come back to yourself,” she says. “Nothing long, so it's not gonna upend your to-do list. But even drinking a cup of tea or coffee without multitasking. Those are actually really significant parts of the practice, which a lot of people overlook.”

As for that more formal type of meditation, there are a wide variety of ways to practice. Some involve sitting or lying down, others walking. Personally, I sit cross-legged on the ground, in a posture that is comfortable but keeps me alert (since I’m usually doing this first thing in the morning) and choose an object of awareness. For me, that’s the breath. But it could be a mantra, a set of phrases, or a sound. I close my eyes but you can keep yours open—the point is to figure out what works for you. I then take full inhalations and exhalations through my nose, and pay attention to my breath as it comes in and as it goes out. I focus on it rising and falling in my chest, but it might be how it feels on your nose or in your stomach. Sharon Salzberg calls this “resting our attention on the object.” That is the practice.

You don't want to overthink it—but that's the hard part.

As Goldstein writes in his book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, “It’s very simple, although perhaps not so easy.” If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that almost immediately after you sit, you’ll get distracted: you’ll start racing through your to-do list, or your back will hurt, or you’ll wonder why you said that really dumb thing in yesterday’s company-wide Zoom.

The instruction then is to note that your mind has been carried away and gently come back to the breath. If it helps, you can imagine your thoughts as clouds in a sky, cars on the highway, or waves in the ocean. You note their passing but you’re not carried away. Moments later, you’ll find that, again, you’ve wandered. You realize very quickly that what seems extremely easy—sitting, quieting your mind—is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult. This is where frustration can set in.

“There comes a moment when we realize, Oh, it's been quite some time since I last felt a breath,” says Salzberg, who has been meditating for half a century. “What’s very tempting as part of our conditioning is, at that moment, to just get lost in a whole spate of self judgment: I can’t believe I’m thinking. No one else thinks when they meditate. I’m the only one who thinks. Maybe other people do think. But they’re thinking beautiful thoughts. They’re thinking wonderful thoughts. We get completely overwhelmed by that.”

Brach says that “if somebody else was whispering into my ear all the nonsense that my brain comes up with, I wouldn’t put up with it for a minute.” Goldstein, too, says that it’s important to realize this is a common experience of every meditator.

“It doesn’t mean that the practice isn’t working or that we can’t do it, it’s just a manifestation of a mind that hasn’t trained in this,” he says. “That's not a problem. That's just how it is in learning anything new.”

Okay, you’re right, it doesn’t sound easy. Why am I doing this again?

Consider how many times throughout your day things don't go according to plan. You sit down to chug through some work, and all of a sudden your kid starts screaming or your boss sends you something urgent to address. You set out for a run, and your calves decide not to work. You go to make eggs and you drop the entire dozen on the ground. This happens on a macro scale, too: Consider what you expected 2020 to be like this time last year.

Meditation can be a training ground for exactly this type of upheaval. You try to rest your attention on your immediate experience, and, all of a sudden, you’re thinking about dinner. You try and you fail. You try and you fail. Life goes like this, too—over and over again, until your time runs out. How fluid and graceful you can be with that turbulence just might determine the quality of your life. 

This is why the pervasive idea that you’re doing meditation “wrong” if you’re “thinking too much” is particularly harmful. “I've seen so many people through the years feel they’ve failed [at meditation] because they're still thinking, or they have tons of thoughts or painful feelings,” says Salzberg. “We don't believe you can fail because the point isn't to get rid of that stuff, but to develop a different relationship to it.”

Salzberg says that this is why she sometimes refers to this style of meditation—where you have an object of awareness and are deepening concentration—as resilience training. You’re cultivating an ability to bounce back. This type of resiliency doesn’t have to be born out of critical or harsh self-judgment, but a way to practice “letting go gently,” says Salzberg. You see that you’ve wandered and you come back to start again. (In her book, Chodron uses the helpful image of tenderly touching a bubble with a feather.)

Goldstein says that, when something comes up that is especially difficult—maybe it’s anxiety, or pain—and you find yourself fighting it, it might be helpful to imagine what you’d say to a young child going through that experience: “With the child, we probably wouldn't be judging it. We wouldn't be saying, ‘Oh, that's terrible. You shouldn't be feeling it. Stop complaining.’"

How often should I do it?

Though you need to make a commitment that is realistic enough that you can stick to, it’s important to remember that you’re trying to build a habit. That means no days off.

“There’s so much research saying even a short amount each day does calm the limbic system and activates the parts of the brain that help you be more present, more open-hearted, gives you more perspective, executive function, the whole thing,” says Brach. “To integrate that, to have that available, to have it go from a state to trait, that takes time.”

When she was younger, Brach lived in an ashram for ten years, where she’d practice meditation for hours a day. But when she left the ashram—some thirty years ago, with a four-month-old infant—she made a commitment to meditate every day.

“I have done it every day, no matter what,” she says. “But there’s a backdoor to it. And the backdoor is that it really doesn't matter how long. Just keep on the ‘every day, no matter what’ part. You can do it standing. You can do it sitting. You can walk. It just has to be, ‘This window of time is dedicated to presence.’”

Brach says some days she would intend to sit down just for a minute or two, and then get into it and stay longer. Other days, she wouldn’t get to it until the very end of the day, sit down, take a few deep breaths, and go to bed. “But that counted!” she says, laughing.

How quickly am I going to see results?

Though sitting and focusing on your breath for even just five minutes might certainly bring a sense of rest and ease, it’s useful to remember that the practice of mindfulness is just that: a practice. It’s forever ongoing. It’s likely some days will be great, some will be frustrating, and none will feel like Nirvana.

The most profound changes I’ve noticed don’t happen during the act of sitting. The best way I can describe it is similar to how Brach describes it: as an opening. I’ll be on the cusp of sending an angry email, or about to drop into an anxiety spiral that will devour my afternoon, and find a gap where I can interrupt that habitual behavior. It’s not all so self-absorbed. Sometimes, I’ll find myself noting something as inconsequential as a breeze, or find myself drawing on deeper reservoirs of empathy and understanding for others. As you get out of your own dramas and attend more deeply to the world outside of your head, I’ve found it nearly impossible not to feel more closely connected to the people around you.

It’s important to be realistic: those moments are a long time coming and still quite rare. But I’ve also noticed that they seem to accumulate, like compound interest, or a ball rolling downhill. As your practice unfolds, they gather their own momentum. Though it’s useful to note this progress, to evaluate whether meditation works for you, I’ve found that it’s also important to remember that striving and self-improvement can pull you away from the ultimate practice of mindfulness which is letting be.

Brach compares it to being in a motor boat. Our natural tendency is to want to ratchet up the engine, and go faster and faster. But if we can remember the intention of the practice—”so that we can come fully into our aliveness”—we’re less likely to give in to that propulsive anxiety. “If you really want to get into presence, you’ll actually cut off the engine, let it come into stillness and go, oh, it’s right here.”

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published January 5, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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