How To Meditate: The Beginner’s Guide To Meditation

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The Best Way To Learn Meditation For Most People

by | Oct 13, 2018

After spending hours analyzing the latest research regarding the science of meditation, Brenda Umana, (who holds a Masters of Public Health from Columbia University) has combined her eight years of practice in meditation in both the United States and in India to narrow down the key actions newcomers should take to most efficiently learn the skill of meditation.

Key Takeaways From This Guide:

Expert Recommendation - The Best Meditation Learning Resource:

The best resource you can buy is this time-tested book by Lawrence LeShan.


Expert Recommendation - The Highest Impact Learning Method:

According to the research, the best method for getting started with meditation is a technique called Mindfulness Meditation. This includes intentional breathing, body scanning, body sensation, and present-moment”

To get the best results practice sessions should be:

  • Between 10-20 minutes
  • Last a minimum of eight weeks
  • Take place either in the morning or in the afternoon

As a public health and wellness professional, I have a combination of skills that are somewhat contrasting. I hold a Masters of Public Health from Columbia University and have been teaching yoga and meditation for five years. I’ve been a student of yoga and meditation for about eight years and I find that that practice is never-ending. Most of the time these two obsessions conflict – one is based on science and analytics, the other is based on practice and philosophy. At times these two worlds of mine collide and I get so excited when they do! Like now.

For this guide, I spent many hours researching numerous studies through filters like ‘meditation outcomes’ and ‘meditation research studies.’ I found some like this one on PubMed showing me that as of 2014 there were 47 clinical trials and this one on Google Scholar on improving cognition. I even found a whole textbook from my local library (Meditation Practices for Health, eBook State of the Research). I then made an effort to gather information from studies between 2010 and 2018. Simultaneously I looked into what seasoned practitioners were saying, my own experience, and the trends.

Here’s the science-backed recommendation for the best way to learn meditation:

The recommended style is referred to as Mindfulness Meditation, including the techniques of intentional breathing, body scanning, body sensation, and present-moment awareness. To experience positive results, a practice should be roughly between 10-20 minutes, for a minimum of 8 weeks. Fruthermore, the research shows that practice should be completed in either morning or afternoon.

Why is this recommended?

In summary, we’ll look at the full details a bit further down, studies like this one show us how brief sessions of meditation can enhance attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. For the most part, they go through rigorous testing, procedures, and compare results to a “non-meditator” control group. The study did find significant differences between the meditators and non-meditators.

Studies like this one found that mindfulness meditation training was associated with diminishing stress related to hormones and inflammatory markers.

This qualitative study used a mindfulness meditation method called iRest or Yoga Nidra, demonstrated that at week eight, all participants felt iRest had helped reduced their PTSD symptoms to at least some degree.

  • I could not get my hands on the full text of this study but similarly, this pilot study is showing some degree of ability to manage stress on Women with Sexual Trauma.

This all sounds great but with roughly 80 different styles of Meditation out there (cited and practiced by Giovanni Dienstmann) where does one begin?

You may fall into the category of people that have never tried it but would like to or maybe you’re just curious about it, you may be wondering:

  • What is Meditation?
  • Why should I do it?
  • And/or what am I going to get out of it?

It’s hitting our social media feed and it’s showing up at our doctor’s office as “medication.”

I want this practical guide to be a resource for the following reasons:

  • To understand what method science is telling us is working with certain populations
  • To understand what the word Meditation means and,
  • Provide some takeaways if it intrigues you to try it

Let’s get more in-depth into the research and practice so that you can create the practice that makes the most sense for your body-mind type.

Meditation & Science

I found that on average, studies were asking participants to meditate between 10 – 20 minutes. This particular study, published in August 2018, emphasized 13 minutes using a recording by with results showing enhanced attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. I valued this study because not only did it emphasize non-experienced meditators, but it also ran different stress tests and brain functioning tests while keeping a non-meditator control group to compare results with.

Some other outcomes that a meditation practice has been proven to either reduce or enhance:

Eight-weeks of consistent practice seems to be the end goal in these studies whereas anything shorter than that saw inconclusive or very small results. I found it interesting that testing at four weeks may not show any results while a test at eight weeks did show positive signs of what they hypothesized with regard to attention, memory, and mood. Basso, 2018.

From a practical perspective based on my own biases, I would say the results started to become obvious to me at about one year. Not necessarily always having reduced anxiety or optimal cognition but having a different internal mindful awareness. I didn’t consistently have a formal practice everyday (Formal Styles of Meditation Techniques) but I did consistently try to include aspects of the techniques in my everyday life (Why I’m Encouraging You to Explore a Unique Meditation Program).

This particular study used mostly questionnaires to access their findings, a common way to find results among participants. While studies like this one used questionnaires and biological testing like saliva and blood. I find this important because we all know sometimes we answer those questionnaires based on what we think we need to experience or say or just to get it over with, whereas our body might still be showing signs of stress or anxiety.

Although I found less research around the time of day to practice, I did find it interesting that the same study noticed that meditating at night right before bed resulted in a poorer quality of sleep.

This could be for many reasons but I have a few hypothesis’ around this. One of them being that when we’re learning something new, it could be exciting, or we may be more curious about it so we think about it more afterwards. If we meditate in the morning or earlier in the day, we have more time to process, get excited about it, or talk with others. If we practice at night, we may be doing that processing while we’re trying to fall asleep.

Another hypothesis centers around phone usage. The study used a phone app for the meditation which is a very common medium to receive meditation now (HeadSpace, SimpleHabit, InsightTimer to name a few). It could be the use of phones activity at night. I didn’t dig too far into this, but it looks like there may be some correlation between phone activity at night and quality of sleep.

The type of meditation that is most researched and supported in these studies is referred to as Mindfulness Meditation or Mindfulness Training (not to be focused with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction which is also widely used and accepted in clinical medicine and psychology).

The term seemed to be used more as a blanket statement because there were definitely differences in technique from those describing to use Mindfulness Meditation. As I searched further for a description of mindfulness in a healthcare context it is confirmed (p. 1) that it varies from investigator to investigator and there is no consensus on the defining components or processes. Nonetheless, the techniques most consistently and repeatedly used including those outside the scope of Mindfulness Meditation are:

  • Intentional Breathing
  • Body scanning
  • Body sensation
  • Present-moment

Some of the most recent data shows us that:

  • 1 in 12 U.S. adults report having depression
  • 43% of U.S adults are experiencing pain
  • 31% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives
  • 5.2 million U.S adults are thought to have PTSD in any given year

And although science and healthcare have many resources for these symptoms already, Mindfulness Meditation could be just one for us to add that is cost-effective, and a low-stigma treatment approach.

Quotes or feedback from participants generally are not shared, but I did manage to find one from a participant completing an 8-week Mindfulness Meditation Qualitative studysuffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I feel I am more connected to the present. My lower back pain is getting better … I am able to stand back and look at things now. Am able to control my emotions better.”

As we’ve seen from some of the research above, meditation has been reasonably effective with those experiencing anxiety, depression, at-risk drinkers, acute pain, or PTSD. As well as enhancing one’s mood, increase attention span, and improved cognition.

I would add that because these studies range from one week to eight weeks, I would be curious to see the impact on longer studies.

Many longstanding practitioners, like Bhante Gunaratana author of Mindfulness in Plain English (PDF), mentions the importance of a long practice “Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight. Meditation is tough in some respects, requiring a long discipline and a sometimes painful process of practice. At each sitting, you gain some results, but they are often very subtle.” (p. 22)

Is the 8-week mark showing us too subtle of results? I’m not sure. I’ll leave that up for debate and open up the discussion.

So, why would we want to reduce these mental discomforts?

I would say different reasons for each individual. As an example, 50% of adults with depression said they had difficulty with work, home or social activities because of their depression symptoms. If reducing their depression by taking on a few minutes of meditation or supplementing their current preferred method to manage their symptoms to then continue with their regular work, home and social activities that may be a “win” or success in their life.

Mindfulness Meditation: The Most Common Techniques and How to Practice Them

Below is a description of the four techniques most commonly used by research studies. With each technique, I’ve provided a practical how-to with some helpful links. For the purpose of explaining the techniques they are separated, but these can be combined into one full session.

  • Intentional Breathing (p. 27)
    • This is active breathing. It involves conscious control of the inhale and exhale. This may be instructed through the mouth or nose. It may be instructed at a quicker pace or for a certain counted length of time. It may be a shallow intentional breath or a deep intentional breath. The intentional breath may even be directed toward a body part like the belly, which then gets into Body Scanning and Body Sensation.
    • Practical How-to: My go-to for intentional breathing is Equal Part Inhale and Exhale. Find a comfortable position. Then start to inhale and count to the number four, you’ll pause for four, you’ll exhale to the count of four, pause four once again, and repeat.
  • Body scanning & Body sensation (p. 36)
    • Body scanning and body sensation go hand-in-hand. Typically done lying down, you’re instructed to move from different regions of your body, the final piece of the body scan may be to notice the different sensation of those regions. Perhaps the back of the head or the neck or face. Throughout the entire scan, we’re trying our best not to anticipate the next move or move the particular body part.
    • Practical How-to: iRest or its original name Yoga Nidra, is a great practice for body scanning and body sensation. Here’s a 20-minute practice of iRest which is the same technique used in the PTSD study.
    • My personal favorite can be found on Spotify, Mona Anand
  • Present-moment (p. 82)
    • This type of techniques aims to welcome an awareness to whatever comes to mind. This may be in paying attention to the sounds around you. Or to notice where your awareness drifts to without creating a reaction toward them. In doing so, the breath may be used as an anchor to stay engaged with the present moment.
    • Practical How-to: “Whenever you realize that your mind has wandered, simply notice then you gently bring the awareness back to the breath”- Giovanni Diesntmann
    • My personal favorite for this is “I Don’t Meditate” led by Jason Crandell. You do need a subscription for this but check out the free trial option.

With all this in mind, I want us to think for a moment about our unique body types by bringing in a physical exercise analogy. We can physically see our different body types, and we generally adapt our physical exercise to our body type, goals, even our schedule. Furthermore, it would be unwise to give the same program, such as weights, reps, or speed to two individuals. One person might be 5 feet 100 lbs the other might be double that. One person could be completely new to running while the other is an avid marathon runner.

I found fitness experts to agree with this although it was challenging to support it with evidence-based research. See them Here & Here.

Similarly, your meditation “exercise” or program is the same. Our mind is part of our unique body, just a bit more hidden. For that reason, it may not be as obvious that we need different meditation programs. Many people may experience “meditation failure” or the “I didn’t get it” symptom from meditation. I would say, perhaps that wasn’t your program. Lawrence LeShan, author or “How to Meditate: A Guide to Self Discovery” explains:

“One of the reasons the formal schools of meditation practice have such a high percentage of failures among their students – those who get little out of the practices and leave meditation completely- is that most schools tend to believe that there is one right way to meditate for everyone and, by a curious coincidence, it happens to be the one they use.”

I found this explanation encouraging. As you start to explore Meditation, you may realize that your outcomes are entirely different than the ones listed above in the science-backed research.

Your experience is not wrong.

Definitions of Meditation

The word Meditation has come to be used as an umbrella term for a style of practices that share similar components and techniques. The word itself is derived from the Latin “meditari,” meaning “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” (Meditation Practices for Health Meditation Practices for Health, eBook State of the Research).

Historically, the aim or purpose of Meditation varied from spiritual growth, to enlightenment, to personal transformation, and transcendental experiences. Most recently, it has been adapted as a form of treatment or therapeutics for different sets of health-related problems.

Although the scientific literature does not have a general agreement on the definition of meditation, most of the studies I looked at categorized it as techniques emphasizing mindfulness, concentration, and automatic self-transcendence.

I found this explanation of Meditation by Lawrence LeShan, American psychologist, educator, and author, as one of the most succinct descriptions of meditation.

“Meditation is a tough-minded, hard discipline to help us move toward [our fullest “humanhood”]. It is not the invention of any one person or one school. Repeatedly in many different places and times, serious explorers of the human condition have come to the conclusion that human beings have a greater potential for being, for living, for participation and expression, then they can use. These explorers have developed training methods to help people reach these abilities, and these methods (meditation practices) all have much in common.” – From How to Meditate: A Guide to Self Discovery

Science has helped us understand so much of meditation and mindfulness in a health-related sense. On the other hand, meditation has been around for centuries among many different philosophies, cultures, and schools of thought. For that reason, I find LeShan’s definition much more encompassing.

The science shows us some of the health-related outcomes of meditation helping us understand the benefits while philosophy and history provide us with depth and wisdom.

In my opinion, it’s important to see both. The depth of the practice studied by philosophers, scholars and those deep in inquiry was established years and centuries before the science literature was out, and certainly way before our social medias said: “Keep Calm Meditate.”

Formal Styles of Meditation

For those that may be interested in the “formal” styles of Meditation, below is a very brief description of some of the most commonly heard or used. This list could be endless though and up for debate on what is formal or informal. To see a more extended list check out the book “Practical Meditation: A Simple Step-by-Step Guide” by Giovanni Dienstmann, he has a shorter list on his website here.

  • Zen Buddhist Meditation– Zazen (pg. 84)
    • Concentrating on the breath, or contemplating a question, statement, or riddle, or just sitting.
  • Vipassana (pg. 32)
    • Vipassana is the oldest of the Buddhist meditation techniques that include Zen (Zazen). Concentration is the basis of Vipassana- insight, awareness and letting go are its goal.
    • Mindfulness Meditation most likely adapted from Vipassana
    • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), originally developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. merged in 1979 as a way to integrate Buddhist mindfulness
      meditation into mainstream clinical medicine and psychology. The MBSR program was a group-based program designed to treat patients with chronic pain.
  • Vedic Meditation
    • A word or phrase repeated aloud or silently and used to focus attention.
    • May also be known as Transcendental Meditation (TM). TM was coined by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955 in India and the West. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Maharishi achieved fame as the guru to the Beatles, The Beach Boys, and other celebrities.
  • Taoism
    • Also known as Daoism is a Chinese philosophy and religion. Taoist meditation is ‘quiet, stillness, calm’ and ‘concentration, focus’.
  • Yoga and Yoga Nidra
    • I’m not going to get too far into yoga itself since there’s a lot to dismantle on what we know and see about yoga being that it’s so prevalent in our culture. I will highlight Yoga Nidra since it is a style that has been used in research studies. Yoga Nidra is a lying down guided meditation to attain a positive state of deep physical, mental, and emotional relaxation.
      • iRest (Integrative Restoration Institute) was developed by Richard Miller, Ph.D. in the 1970’s (I could not locate exact timing) based on yoga nidra, which has been adapted for therapeutic application.

As you can see all of these formal techniques require a lot of commitment to not only become familiar with their names, and discrepancies but to also test-drive them.

I would say we don’t need to complicate our lives just yet. If science is showing us that roughly 10-20 minutes for eight weeks, and using some of the techniques from Mindfulness Meditation brings in some of the benefits, let’s do that and start there.

Informal Styles Meditation

What the heck is informal meditation? Sometimes our actions my look different than the styles listed above. We might not be in a comfortable seat, sitting down on a cushion, or lying down listening to a Yoga Nidra guided meditation. But we may be just as mindful. And if we go back to one of those initial definitions, what are other ways we can be engaged with contemplation or reflection?

I remember when I was studying yoga philosophy in India, someone asked the main guide (some may refer to as a guru) “how can we take these teachings back with us, when our lives are so different in the city. We’re modern humans, and we may not have time for all this.” Our guide said “It’s all about your mindset. You may have all the time in the world to sit on a cushion and meditate or live in India and “find internal peace” but if your mind is somewhere else or if you have monkey-mind then all of that doesn’t matter.”

Here are a just few, but again this list can be endless.

  • Sound Meditation
    • Dr. Jeffrey Thompson studies the connection between sound or music and brain waves. The research was a bit limited. Nonetheless, the sounds are soothing and can be a compliment to your meditation practice or played as background music.
    • I turn this on when I’m having a frustrating or overwhelming day. I do notice a shift in my mood and state of mind but that definitely may be my personal bias.
  • Mindful Living
    • Mindful living is a way to incorporate mindfulness in your day or routine. It could be observing your breath while you’re doing the dishes or noticing your thoughts while you’re listening to someone else speak.
    • My favorite book for Mindful Living is the Little Book of Mindfulness. It is little and probably the size of your hand including very practical ways to be mindful.
  • Journaling
    • Journaling has been around for thousands of years. The Stoic Philosophy describes journaling as “[clarifying] the mind, provides room for quiet, private reflection, and gives one a record of their thoughts.” I debated whether to put this in the “formal” section of meditation, but I opted for this section because you won’t find it on many lists as meditation practices. I truly think it’s an overlooked meditation practice.

Common Problems (and Solutions) While Learning Meditation

I have found that many beginners fall in the following common learning traps when first learning to meditate. Save yourself some hassle and learn the following solutions as early as possible.

Learning Trap #1: Believing there is a trick or a method to staying focused the entire time during practice.

Solution #1: There is no way you’re going to stay focused the entire time. It’s totally normal that your mind will travel to other places. An analogy I like to give, just how our legs are meant to walk, our mind is meant to think. We also live in a society that is constantly “doing” or “on.” We practice meditation to quite the mind, not to silence it. During meditation practice, observe your thoughts but don’t ridicule yourself for having them.

It doesn’t matter how many times you drift off. When you notice that your mind has drifted, make a mental note “oh cool, that’s where my mind wants to wander to. Ok, should I bring it back to the present? Sure. I can take a deep breath to do that.”

Learning Trap #2: Believing that you must practice for a long time each and every practice.

Solution #2: Yes, generally more practice is better. However, the research is clear, practicing for 10-20 minutes is the most successful learning path for most people. Building a new habit is hard, give yourself a break and focus on small wins that are sustainable rather than big wins that will burn you out.

Two minutes of mindfulness meditation is better than not practicing at all. Practicing equal parts inhale and exhale can be a 2-minute practice.

Learning Trap #3: Expecting to see or feel results early or often.

Solution #3: The practice of meditation is cumulative and also very subtle. The more you practice, the stronger your meditation “muscle” gets. The problem is, this takes much time. The more we expect, the more disappointed we may feel. Try to set realistic expectations. Growth with meditation takes months, not weeks.

Try to identify your own personal measuring stick. Depending on your personality type you may want to keep a meditation journal, voice memo log or use an app to gauge your progress. Regardless of your choice, pick something and stick to it. Progress will be slow, but with consistency, it will be present.

Learning Trap #4: Reading about meditation is not the same as practicing meditation.

Solution #4: One could read all about how to play the guitar. Sure you’ll gain a few skills by becoming familiar with the layout of a guitar, but unless you pick up the guitar, you won’t learn the fundamentals. The same is right for meditation. It’s tempting to keep reading about it, the different methods, and to try to understand it all. However, the only way to gain some all of the benefits of meditation is actually to meditate.

If possible, find an in-person class in your community or a teacher you trust to guide you one-on-one. There’s something about signing up and physically going to a location that creates a bit more accountability, in my opinion.

Learning Trap #5: “I fell asleep, I must’ve done something wrong.”

Solution #5: Not at all. Especially for the lying down meditations, most meditators fall asleep (myself included!). wiSome lying down meditations are used to encourage sleep or replace sleep.

If you’re worried about falling asleep and not waking up, set a timer for yourself. Otherwise, embrace the fact that your body is tired and gift yourself with a nap.

Why I’m Encouraging You to Explore a Unique Meditation Program

Along with all of this meditation and science information we have, I want to go back to my point that our meditation programs may look different and why that’s such an important takeaway.

This is mostly based on me as a teacher and noticing the “struggles” with my students. This is also based on my practice and my understanding of why I sometimes say I don’t meditate every day. I forget to notice that journaling is a form of meditation, mindful living, curiosity, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, psychotherapy, or nature walks are all forms of my meditation program. And I get influenced by what the media is telling me meditation looks like. (For example: someone sitting cross-legged in some serene place.)

Based on the theories of health behavior change, social scientist study the nature of human behavior. Their theories are based on our lifestyle, environment, and our readiness to change. Each theory continually goes back to the point that we are humans with daily shifts which then affect our behavior day to day. Our behaviors change constantly and adhering to one practice consistently, forever, the same way, is impossible because of personal, environmental, and our interest in wanting to change. Once we’ve adapted a new type of behavior though, it’s okay if you’re not practicing every day. Most likely you’re in the stage of change that’s called “maintenance” – an ongoing practice of new behavior and chances to return to old behavior are few.

What to Look Forward to

Science has shown us that a brief meditation practice can prepare us to reduce certain mental or health discomforts. Having an understanding of meditation let’s you inquire whether we want to start a practice or not. It empowers you!

Similar to any type of practice, meditation prepares us to become better players, performers, conversationalists or whatever it is we are practicing for. Of course, it takes time and interest but in the end, the rewards are certainly worth it!

Expert Recommendation - The Best Meditation Learning Resource:

The best resource you can buy is this time-tested book by Lawrence LeShan.


Expert Recommendation - The Highest Impact Learning Method:

According to the research, the best method for getting started with meditation is a technique called Mindfulness Meditation. This includes intentional breathing, body scanning, body sensation, and present-moment”

To get the best results practice sessions should be:

  • Between 10-20 minutes
  • Last a minimum of eight weeks
  • Take place either in the morning or in the afternoon