A quick introduction to meditation
This article uses exercises to explore these some of the different practices out there. This first exercise is designed to give you a preview of the meditative experience.
Prepare mentally to ask yourself a question and adopt an inquiring mindset. For this exercise to be effective for you, you must truly be curious and want to know the answer.
Exercise: Close your eyes and ask yourself this question: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?”
Most people characterise this experience as an intense silence. A quieting of the mind in a way they hadn’t thought possible. This exercise provides a sudden realisation that you are capable of being without thinking. If we repeat the exercise we may notice the unusual ways that thoughts can manifest.
Exercise: Again close your eyes and ask yourself this question: “I wonder what my next thought is going to be?”
Most people notice that the second time around the exercise yields different results. Often they find that thoughts come quicker. Sometimes they notice the presence of a thought that carries no words or images but an indescribable understanding.
If we dig deeper we may notice something profound. If it is possible to truly wonder what thought you will think next, then where do thoughts come from? It becomes apparent that thoughts think themselves.
For the rest of this article you will be doing 1 minute exercises. Most phones come with a self timer which can be rese for each exercise. Read the exercise instructions and then put the timer on. Once the timer starts it is usually helpful to close your eyes. Keep following the instructions until the timer runs out.
Thinking about meditation
In this section you will be doing a range of contemplation exercises. These are not meditations per se. Instead this section helps illuminate some of the key ideas behind meditation practices.
Exercise: Set a 1 minute timer. During this minute actively think about this idea: if thoughts think themselves, who is the one that is thinking?
What happened during that minute. Did your mind wander? Or did you stay fixated on the task at hand? It is surprisingly easy to “forget” you are meditating even with as small a goal as 1 minute of practice.
Let’s reflect on our question from this exercise. If thoughts think themselves, and you *actively* try to think, who is doing the thinking? What exactly does it mean to be “actively thinking”?
By now you may have noticed that you are simply an observer to thought, not the thinker. There is no “I” doing the thinking. Even the action of actively thinking appears to come from elsewhere. Yet it also appears that thoughts are aware of conscious observations. So then what is this thing you call “I”? What is the nature of the self?
Exercise: Set a 1 minute timer. Actively try and think about this idea: If I can wonder what my next thought is going to be, who is asking the question? Who receives the answer?
It takes an observer to see a thought, and it takes thoughts to think a question. Every thought we experience is experience through consciousness. Even thinking about your consciousness is experienced in consciousness. That feeling of wondering and waiting for a thought? That is itself a type of thought. That feeling simply “appears” in our conscious perception.
As we go through these exercises we notice that this feeling of “I” seems to vanish more and more. Thoughts think themselves. Wondering about thoughts appears to be a thought itself. We are left with a sense of self only insofar as “you” are the one who observe thoughts as they happen.
Exercise: Set a 1 minute timer. Try to perceive your face and back of your head. Try and notice where you are in all this? Do you feel like you are inside your head?
At the end of the exercise it should very much feel like you exist in your head. But we’ve also been noticing that everything we perceive is noticed by our conscious mind. It feels like we exist somewhere but that feeling of existence itself occurs in consciousness. How can your consciousness be inside your head if the feeling of being inside something occurs in consciousness?
Exercise: Set a 1 minute timer. Try to imagine that your conscious perception is inside your stomach. Imagine that the sensations of having a head are above you.
This exercise is difficult to achieve. Hopefully with only a minute of time you at least feel like it could be possible to imagine yourself not being behind your head.
The key takeaway should be this: any perception of the existence of the self comes in the form of a thought. And we know thoughts think themselves. So when we feel a sense of self it is: (1) our conscious perception, (2) experiencing a thought, (3) which is reflecting on what it is like to experience a sense of self.
But it’s interesting to consider that we lose our sense of the self all the time. Have you ever “gotten lost in your work”? Or been so engrossed in some activity that you simply come out on the other side only mildly aware of what happened in the intervening period?
You may have sometimes heard of a sensation described as “flow” or “flow state”. It occurs when you are truly “in the zone” or so “engrossed in your work” that every action is effortless. It requires so little conscious input that even the sense of consciousness disappears. Contrast that to our first exercise where you wondered what your next thought would be. When you sit and wait for a thought you notice that there is only consciousness. Which is quite different to flow state where your conscious perception disappears. This is the difference between flow and meditation.
The reason flow and meditation are often conflated is because in flow you are often free of thoughts. When you are lost in your work your mind doesn’t wander. In meditation we become aware of what we are doing, which can also have profound impact on what thoughts we think.
Exercise: Set a 1 minute timer. Actively think on this idea: imagine you had something painful coming up like getting a filling at the dentist. Where does the anxiety about this event come from?
In just one minute it’s difficult to fully realise why we suffer. Hopefully you experienced a hint of the cause. When something bad has happened recently or will happen soon we spend time mindlessly thinking about it. Our mind wanders aimlessly yet also seems fixated on the painful thing.
For us to experience suffering we must think. That doesn’t mean it’s possible to simply not think and so not suffer. Some pain is so visceral it breaks through no matter what we do. It’s important to realise that this experience is no different to any other thought that thinks itself.
This introduction has focused largely on contemplation exercises. But this is not what meditation is about. Instead these exercises are designed to introduce you to a range of experiences and realisations that are possible through meditation.
You may have heard that meditation is about clearing the mind. While some practices focus on this aspect it is not what characterises meditation as a whole.
In fact, meditation covers such a diversity of exercises and practices that even saying “it’s about sitting in silence” is not a sufficiently general description. In the following section we will explore a range of exercises covering meditation practices. This exploration will give us a taste of different techniques and what each one is trying to achieve.
Types of exercises
A quick note about getting lost in thought
It is not uncommon for even experienced meditators to spend the majority of a meditation session “lost in thought”. Many meditators even believe that they have “cleared their mind” while they are busy thinking about how clear their mind is the whole time. This is because the sensation of feeling like your mind is clear manifests itself as thought.
When you sit and meditation you will often find that you have forgotten that you are meditating. This can happen even in a simple 1 minute exercise. What’s important is that when you notice you are lost in thought you must simply return to the exercise at hand.
Paying attention to the breath
Because it is very easy to get lost in thought during meditation it is also easy to become frustrated with yourself. This is understandable but also not useful. Getting lost in thought is not a failure to dwell on but simply part of the experience. Our first exercise teaches us to let go of this frustration by providing something useful to focus on.
Paying attention to the breath is often the first exercise taught to a beginner meditator. It is so useful that many experienced meditators will always use this exercise as their primary form of meditation.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. During this time simply try to pay attention to the breath. Do not purposely control your breathing. Simple try to notice your breaths as they come in and out.
For some reason that remains mysterious to me this is an incredibly useful tool for mindfulness.
What is mindfulness? It is simply the act of being aware of the present moment. When you meditate and get lost in thought you experience mindfulness in that moment that you remember you are meditating. You hopefully experienced this state in our very first exercise where you wondered about your next thought. You hopefully also experienced mindfulness as you paid attention to the breath. Meditation is attempting to return to and cultivate that state.
There is something about the breath that lends itself to maintaining mindfulness. Perhaps it is because our breath is ever present yet we are generally unaware that it is happening. Regardless, this basic exercise can be practiced for many years to great benefit.
For this exercise we will be counting each breath that we pay attention to. It is generally not considered useful to focus on your progress as a meditator. Treating mindfulness as some score you can improve upon is simply another thought that thinks itself. So it is important not to use this next exercise as a means of measuring your success.
For this exercise simply use the counting to help bring attention to your mindfulness. Pay no heed to the actual number. And remember, if you get lost in thought simply return to the exercise.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. As you pay attention to your breath, count how many breaths you have taken. For each inhale say a number, and for each exhale say “out” (as though you were saying in….out). If you lose track of where you were up to start again from 1.
Were you able to go the whole minute without losing track? Did your mind wander to other thoughts as you tried to keep count? With this exercise we realise how fragile mindfulness can be. We’ve all gone to work and school and been able to focus on a task for an extended period of time. But why is it so hard to pay attention to nothing but the breath for even a minute?
Some more esoteric meditation practices teach you to focus on your Qi (or life force). Though the validity of such claims is doubtful, the practice of visualising energy flowing through your body can be useful for mindfulness.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. As you breathe in imagine a glowing energy entering your body and builds just under your stomach. The energy should glow brighter as you inhale more air. As you exhale imagine the energy travelling up your spine and into your head and arms.
This exercise tends to be easier than focusing on the breath alone. It is worth spending some time pondering why happens to be the case. When you simply pay attention to the breath you are passively participating in meditation. When you visualise something there is an active component which can be deceiving.
What is this deception? Visualising the energy moving around the body appears to be a conscious choice. But as we have seen earlier, your conscious experience is inherently passive. Even actions that we seem to take with conscious volition simply come to us as if from nowhere. Thinking that you have consciously made a choice is still getting lost in thought. So too is the act of visualising energy just another thought to get lost in.
Why then is this exercise useful? It’s useful because it trains our mind to focus our conscious attention on one solitary task. It keeps us in the present moment. So long as we do the activity we can maintain mindfulness.
Paying attention to sound
The breath is an internal yet constant experience to latch onto. The sounds of our environment are also ever present, even if subtle. Unlike our breath the sounds of the environment vary in consistency and so provide an interesting path to mindfulness.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. During this time simply pay attention to the sounds that happen around you. Do not try to focus on any one sound. Simply allow the sounds to appear in your conscious attention.
Did you notice multiple sounds happening at once? Which one was most prominent in your conscious attention? Did your attention dart from sound to sound as the auditory landscape shifted? Or did you focus on a single prominent sound?
With other forms of meditation we can find the sounds around us to be distracting. By focusing on sounds themselves we learn that there are no distractions. All of our perceptions appear in consciousness.
Meditation on a Koan
Another form of meditation involves puzzling over a statement or short story called a Koan. These Koans often involve a dialogue between a teacher and a student but not exclusively so. It is possible to simply hear a Koan and achieve “instant enlightenment”, though the feeling itself may be fleeting.
While a Koan is designed to create an immediate realisation, such a realisation may not come for some time. You may need to think about the story or statement over many meditation sessions before coming to grips with its true meaning.
To keep things simple we will use a Koan made famous on an episode of The Simpsons, though if you’ve seen it you may wish to puzzle the value of Bart’s answer.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Then puzzle over this idea: two hands clapped together make a sound. What does it mean to listen to the sound of one hand clapping?
This particular practice of meditation usually involves a teacher familiar with the meditator. In this way they can present a story that challenges whatever is holding back the meditator. But you can also find many Koans online that present interesting concepts to think about.
What did you grapple with during a single minute with this Koan? The purpose of these exercises is to get you to realise something about the nature of consciousness. If you realise that one hand clapping produces no sound, then to pay attention to that is to pay attention to nothing. It is not thinking about the Koan that leads to meditative insight, it is trying to experience the insight behind the Koan for yourself.
If you wish to repeat the exercise try instead to pay attention to the sound of one hand clapping.
Paying attention to physical sensations
For this exercise we will focus on sensations of touch: pressure, pain, warmth, etc. What’s fascinating about these sensations is that they are internal like the breath but inconsistent and random like the sounds in our environment.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Then begin to pay attention to the sensations in your body. For example: How does your seat feel? Where are your hands resting? Do you have any pain? Simply become aware of each sensation as it arises.
At this stage it is worth reflecting on the range of sensory experiences we seem to ignore on a daily basis. While focused on the sounds of your environment were you aware of the physical sensations in your body? Why are they easy to pay attention to only when you set out to pay attention to them?
Focusing on a mantra
In some practices of meditation you will focus on a meaningless sound. Like many other types of meditation it is designed to give you something to focus your attention on and in this way is similar to visualising energy.
In some schools you will find a unique mantra that is specific to you. This is found through the guidance of a teacher. The exact value of this appears doubtful, if only because there are so many meditation practices worth exploring that do not have such a restriction. Still, it is worth exploring different practices to see which resonates with you.
For the purpose of this article we will simply focus on the mantra Om (pronounced Oh-m, with a deep “o” and stretched out humming of the “m”).
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Slowly and purposefully think the word Om. Use a soft voice in your head. Let the sound resonate in your mind’s ear. Repeat the sound over and over for the full minute.
Did you find it easier to pay attention for the full minute? Just as with the energy visualisation exercise it is important not to deceive yourself about your mindful state. The focus you give to the mantra is itself a kind of thought which can be observed. Use this kind of exercise to focus your attention like a spotlight.
Letting go of thought
As you’ve run through these one minute exercises you will have likely experienced the sensation of your mind wandering. You may even have forgotten you were meant to be meditating after a short time.
The purpose of this exercise is to use those wandering thoughts as our target of meditation.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Relax. As a thought enters your mind simply recognise it and let it go. If it is an important thought make a mental note to come back to it later, and then let it go. Whenever you notice yourself thinking simply pay attention to the thought and let it go.
It’s interesting how easily a thought can fade away once you become aware that you are thinking. And it is easier still to drift away and once again forget about this awareness.
Thinking as meditation
For this exercise we will once again use our thoughts as the subject of meditation. This time we will not attempt to let go of the thought but instead simply realise that it is as much a part of the conscious experience as anything else.
For this exercise to work it is important to have done some of the other exercises before. With earlier exercises you can get a sense of what mindfulness feels like. You will understand how having a mindful conscious experience is different to simply being lost in thought.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Let your mind wander. Simply try and stay consciously aware of your thoughts. Be mindful while your mind wonders. Treat your thoughts no differently to the breath or to sounds or sensations.
We have now come full circle. If we recognise that thoughts think themselves, and mindfulness is simply the experience of conscious awareness, then paying attention to your thoughts is no different to paying attention to the breath.
Gratitude as meditation
A lot of psychology research has shown the value of gratitude for our wellbeing. We can use this idea as a subject of meditation.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Think about someone you are grateful towards. Why are you grateful? For this minute think about that person. Imagine them being happy and fulfilled. Experience gratitude in whatever form it comes.
The purpose of this meditation isn’t to let your mind wander in thought. Just like we focused on the breath (or sound or energy) we can also focus on an emotion. Choosing a positive emotion like gratitude is a great way to meditate while also experiencing the benefits of being grateful.
The goal is the practice
The final exercise tries to combine many of the things you’ve learned from this article into a single practice. That’s not to say that any of the other exercises are worthless, far from it. This final exercise is merely a reframing of meditation practice.
To introduce it we need to think about some of the goals of meditation. That’s not to say that having goals is useful as a meditator. Instead we want to focus on the goals people believe they should have for meditation.
One potential goal is to be free from desire. And paradoxically this is itself a desire (which funnily enough is the basis of an interesting Koan). But what’s important to realise is that the conscious experience is already free from desire. Desires are thoughts and thoughts think themselves. Our conscious experience is the thing we call the self. And consciousness is the perception of thought, not the thought itself. To be mindful is to realise you are already free from desire (though even this realisation is itself an observed thought).
Another potential goal is to be free of thought, to “clear the mind”, or to achieve a sense of “emptiness”. But who is the one doing the clearing? The self is merely the observer of thought. The feeling that your mind is clear of thought is itself a thought. The self can do no thinking. There is no mind to clear.
With these ideas we introduce the final exercise which is to realise that everything you could hope to achieve with meditation already exists. That you are already free from desire and that there is no mind to clear. You are simply the experience of consciousness. Nothing more, nothing less.
Exercise: set a 1 minute timer. Simply try and be mindful. Notice that even the feeling of conscious attention is itself a thought. Notice that the feeling of directing your conscious attention to things is a thought. Notice that noticing things is itself a thought. Simply be present in the moment. Simply be aware. Just experience consciousness.
This final exercise is left to last for very good reason. Meditation certainly feels like it achieves something. It is difficult to come to grips with the idea that even that sense of achievement is a step away from the desired end goal. Instead it is simply worth realising that the goal need not be achieved.
With that said it is still worth using the other exercises in this article. This is because it is possible to use this final technique and believe that you have achieved a state of mindfulness simply because I have convinced you it is already there. Instead it is worth incorporating your understanding of this final exercise into your regular practice.
There are some additional things worth exploring:
– Try any of these exercises while standing. Rest your hands on your stomach, slightly bend your knees, and stand with good posture. You will notice that standing meditation is more difficult. Ponder on why that is.
– Try meditating with your eyes open and focus on your visual field. Notice how this manifests in consciousness. Do you feel like you are behind your eyes? Why?
– Do a walking meditation. Use any technique that we’ve explored. But also consider your observations of your environment and other people as thoughts to meditate on.
With regular practice it is possible to cultivate the state of mindfulness. For most it is not possible to be in this state for all of your waking moments. And it’s not immediately obvious that this is desirable. Instead you may notice a range of additional benefits in your life. In particular the ability to be mindful when you need it most.
A final note
You may have noticed that I failed to name many of the meditation exercises I’ve described. This is because many schools of meditation have overlapping ideas and techniques. Additionally many approaches to meditation involve a religious element which may put some people off from the value of the underlying practice. A good place to start is simply to do broad research on the area of mindfulness.
Should you wish to explore different schools in detail simply look up the meditative practices of different eastern philosophies: Buddhism, Daoism, Jainism, and Hinduism.
Additionally many secular and western approaches can be found through guided meditation recordings as well as apps in each of the popular app stores.
Where to from here
Like most skills, meditation requires practice. The best form of practices is daily (or at least multiple times per week). How do you start a daily practice? Pick some exercises that you found useful and dedicate some time every day to doing one. Start with just 1 minute. There is almost certainly 1 minute every day that you can spare. The best times are either first thing in the morning or last thing before you go to bed.
Once you can spare 1 minute every day, you gradually increase the time until you reach a point where it’s no longer helpful.