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“Meditation is a science, the systematic process of training the mind.” – John Yates, Ph.D.
By sophomore year of high school, it had become clear that my mind was completely out of control. After a series of car crashes resulting from my own distraction and declining grades in school, I was promptly diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and prescribed several medications. This came on top of a previous Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) diagnosis.
I’d sit down intending to accomplish something and end up scrolling endlessly on the Internet instead. A childhood of Lego-playing and reading had made me into an intellectual kid, but at this point in my life, I couldn’t pay attention for more than 10 seconds on any given task.
I was a wreck and this seemed to all stem from an unfit mind, trained to seek instant gratification in the form of social media “likes,” text messages and entertaining video clips. This state of mental fragmentation continued until I discovered a simple practice that would change my life.
While studying psychology at Yale, I stumbled upon a podcast episode that suggested meditation as a means of increasing productivity and wellbeing. But what began as a productivity tool quickly became an obsession, as I realized that I could train my mind to better suit my intentions.
Through meditation, I slowly regained my ability to focus and also recognized a host of other benefits: behavioral change, emotional control, increased mood, better sleep, and less stress. These improvements in brain functioning are all interrelated and confirmed by scientific studies on the benefits of meditation.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
I began to recognize what a superpower it is to have control over your mind in a world of constant distraction. As we live in a growing “attention economy,” in which companies exceedingly profit from our attention (which determines future purchasing decisions), it’s never been more important to be able to consciously dictate how we think, feel and interact with the world around us.
One year out from college, with this realization in mind and the determination to bring secular meditation to a wider western audience, I left my job in finance and traveled to Bali, Indonesia to become a YTT Certified Meditation Teacher. Afterward, I spent time in the mountains with Buddhist monks, meditating in silence for 17 hours per day.
How to Start Meditating
There are so many different meditation methods that beginning a practice can seem daunting.
What I’ve laid out below isn’t a quick fix. Rather, if you truly want to transform your mind, it will require consistent effort, just like training any muscle in the body. Everyone has the potential to make substantial progress, but only those who are disciplined will reach the advanced stages.
Where to start?
Commit to a regular practice
In what I call a “Minimum Viable Commitment,” choose an amount of time that’s so small it seems feasible even on your busiest day. Three minutes is all you’ve got? Great, start there in establishing a regular daily practice. The only way to really “fail” at meditation is to stop practicing. Slowly increase the amount of time you spend in meditation and aim for 20 minutes at the end of your first month.
Find a posture
Thankfully, there’s no need to form a human pretzel in your meditation practice. Meditation posture simply involves having an erect spine (so that your mind stays alert) and eliminating your body from the equation. I like the phrase “sit with dignity,” meaning not too stiff but also not too relaxed. You might sit in a chair, on a cushion or even kneeling – whatever works best for you personally.
In the modern world, we spend so much time in the “fight or flight” mode. If your mind is racing and anxious, begin by taking elongated and smooth breaths in and out through your nose. You might exhale for longer than you inhale in order to help activate the “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system.
Hone your attention
Park your attention on a single spot, wherever you feel the breath most in your body. This is usually either the stomach or your nostrils. Whatever you choose, simply observe the sensations of breath as closely as possible at that one spot.
Keep your attention focused there for as long as possible. Each time that you find your mind wandering, gently bring it back to your breath. The point here is not to force thoughts out, but rather just to recognize them as thoughts and keep returning to your object of meditation.
For the first couple of weeks, you will notice that your mind wanders often after just a couple breaths, forgetting that you’re supposed to be meditation. You are training those attention muscles, the ability to have conscious control over where you direct your mind.
Open your awareness
It’s important to hone your attention muscles before jumping to this next step or you will find it impossible to keep the mind from wandering off. Introspective awareness involves making your full experience, i.e. the mind itself, your new object of attention.
What does it feel like to be you in this instant? What kinds of thoughts, feelings, and sensations are arising? Simply observe these occurrences without getting swept away into some narrative.
Many of the benefits of meditation come from increased metacognition as a result of this fifth step. By becoming more aware of how your mind works, you gain more control over your own internal mental machine.
These five steps can take you very far in meditation… There are additional techniques you might add to your meditation practice once you cultivate a strong “attention muscle.”
Practicing this simple exercise for the next couple of weeks, you’ll be ready to progress to the deeper stages of meditation.
Best of luck in beginning your practice!
Liam studied Psychology at Yale and became certified as a YTT Meditation Teacher. He now runs a corporate meditation training company and blogs about mental wellness at FitMind.