If you’re wondering how to meditate, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve heard all sorts of things about how good it can be for you. People love to suggest meditation for a variety of reasons: to reduce stress and anxiety, to ease depression, to put you to sleep, to make you feel more present, to magically transform you into a better, more grounded human being. The claims go on and on. And while the benefits of meditation have been greatly exaggerated in a lot of ways, plenty of people find it to be a worthwhile practice and we agree. With everything going on in the world, it’s a solid time to explore meditation and whether it might be useful for you too.
Meditation may seem simple—and in many ways, it is—but people are often unsure where to start and whether they’re doing it correctly. To help you learn how to meditate and integrate it into your life, SELF asked meditation experts some of your most common meditation questions.
1. What is meditation, exactly?
First things first, there are many different kinds of meditation. “Meditation is generally used as a broad umbrella term that covers a wide array of contemplative practices, many of which are drawn from Buddhist traditions but have often been adapted and secularized for application in Western society,” neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., science director at the Mind & Life Institute and visiting professor of contemplative sciences at the University of Virginia, previously told SELF.
With that in mind, the questions of what meditation is and how to meditate aren’t exactly straightforward ones. It’s kind of like asking how to play sports, Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and the author of The Little Book of Being, tells SELF. “Just like there are many types of sports, there are many types of meditation,” she says. And just like different sports share important things in common (like competition and physical activity), meditation has core tenets too. “I define meditation as any practice that cultivates inward investigation,” says Winston.
For this article, we’re going to focus mostly on mindfulness meditation. Why? A few reasons. For one, mindfulness is at the heart of many different types of meditation. Plus, it’s very accessible to beginners and has the most convincing body of evidence regarding its mental health benefits (more on that later). It’s also a very popular form of meditation, especially in recent years. Chances are, if you’re interested in developing a meditation practice to support your mental health, the type of meditation you’re thinking of is mindfulness meditation.
Like meditation, there’s no single universal definition of mindfulness, but experts generally agree on the gist: focusing on the present moment with openness and without judgment. “If you check in on your mind at any point during the day, you’ll probably notice you’re thinking about the past or thinking about the future, or you’re generally planning, obsessing, worrying, and catastrophizing,” says Winston. “Mindfulness is getting in the practice of pulling our minds away from these places to come back to the present moment.” And so, mindfulness meditation is the formal practice of cultivating mindfulness.
If all that sounds like a little abstract for you, consider that you’ve probably meditated—or at least felt meditative—at some point in your life. “In my classes, I always tell my skeptical beginners to share their favorite hobby,” Laurasia Mattingly, a meditation and mindfulness teacher based in Los Angeles, tells SELF. “Then I tell them that they’ve meditated before. Any activity that allows you to be fully present without worrying about the future or the past is a doorway into meditation.”
2. What are the benefits of meditation?
Here’s where things get a little tricky. The proven scientific benefits of mindfulness meditation are hard to sum up (so much so that SELF has a whole separate explainer on it). The TL;DR is that there are three conditions with a strong and convincing body of evidence to support the effects of meditation: depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. Meaning, a not insignificant amount of meta-reviews and meta-analyses have found that mindfulness meditation can moderately help with symptoms associated with these conditions (or in the case of chronic pain, how people cope with symptoms, at least). For a full breakdown of what we do and don’t know about the health benefits of mindfulness meditation, check out this article.
Research aside, though, it doesn’t hurt to consider the anecdotal evidence, as long as you don’t buy into meditation as a magical cure-all. People find meditation very worth doing for tons of different reasons. “People report more connection, more gratitude, and more appreciation of life when they practice mindfulness,” says Winston, who has taught mindfulness for health and well-being in a variety of settings since 1993.
3. Why should I try meditating?
Why not? No, just kidding. Broad potential benefits aside, having a why to your meditation practice can help motivate you to keep your practice up, so it’s a good question to ask. Some meditations do that work for you because they have a clear goal (think sleep meditations to help you doze off), but there are a variety of reasons why you might decide to try meditating. Some of them might be practical, others might be personal.
“If you feel like you’re living your life on automatic pilot and you want more connection to yourself and to life, you might want to try mindfulness meditation,” says Winston. “It’s very also helpful for regulating negative emotions and cultivating positive emotions like kindness and compassion.”
Your why doesn’t have to be that deep, though—it can simply be what intrigues you about meditation. Why did you click on this article today? That might be your answer.
4. Okay, talk me through the basics. What does meditating look like?
Good news: People often imagine there are a lot of rules around how to meditate properly, but meditation is meant to be flexible and personalized. “A lot of people think you have to sit in a certain way, like cross-legged on the floor, which is absolutely not true,” says Winston. “You can sit in a chair. You can sit on the couch. You can lie down. However you’re comfortable.” Winston notes that people also think they have to do it for a certain amount of time—often a long time—but that’s another misconception. A few minutes is fine.
To give you an idea of what mindfulness meditation looks like in practice, consider this basic example: “A very simple way to meditate is to sit down in a comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed and bring your attention to your body,” says Winston. “See if you can notice your body breathing. Maybe you feel your breath moving in your abdomen. Maybe you notice your chest moving up and down. Some people notice the air moving through their nose. Then, just pick a spot to focus your gaze on and then stay with it, feeling the breath rising and falling in and out. When you notice your mind wandering away, return your attention back to your breathing and the spot that you’re noticing. Then just do that again and again. If you just did that for five minutes a day, you’d be golden.” It may sound too easy, but that might be all you need to incorporate a fulfilling meditation routine into your life.
5. How do I actually start meditating?
Despite how simple the above example sounds, a lot of people understandably find it difficult to do on their own without getting bored or restless. That’s where guided meditations come in. “It’s very helpful to have guidance because people get discouraged when they sit down to meditate,” says Winston. “So many people try and then they’re like, ‘Okay, what do I do now?’”
On top of gently easing you into meditating, guided meditations will also introduce you to a variety of specific meditations beyond focusing on your breath, such as loving-kindness meditations (which involve sending positive thoughts to others) or body scan meditations (which involve tuning into the sensations of your body head to toe).
Here are some guided meditation apps and resources to get you started:
Insight Timer (iOS and Google Play, free, or $10/month or $60/year for premium): Insight Timer has over 55,000 free meditations tracks, many of which are geared toward beginners. It also has courses, such as Learn How to Meditate in Seven Days.
UCLA Mindful (iOS and Google Play, free). Created by the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center and featuring recordings by Winston herself, this easy-to-use app has both basic meditations for beginners and wellness meditations geared toward people living with challenging health conditions. If you don’t want to download the app, you can listen to a few of their free meditations on their website.
Headspace (iOS and Google Play, $13/month or $70/year): Headspace comes highly recommended as a beginner app, thanks to its expansive library of guided meditations for just about every mood or goal. Plus, they have a lot of their own educational resources too, like this guide to different types of meditation.
Calm (iOS and Google Play, $70/year): Another frequently recommended meditation app for beginners in meditation apps, Calm is an all-around good starting point for guided meditation. You might like Calm if you prefer background nature sounds to silence.
Healthy Minds Program (iOS and Google Play, free): Created by a nonprofit affiliated with the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Healthy Minds Program app has meditations, exercises, and podcast-style lessons designed to build foundational mindfulness skills.
Tara Brach’s podcast (iOS and Android): Tara Brach is a psychologist and meditation teacher, as well as the author of Radical Acceptance and Radical Compassion. On her podcast, she shares a weekly guided meditation. Many fans love the intimacy of her meditations, like you’re practicing with a compassionate mentor. You can also find her guided meditations on her website.
6. How do I quiet my thoughts and keep my mind from wandering?
Aaaand here we have the most common misconception about meditation. Despite popular belief, the goal of meditation isn’t a completely blank mind. “Meditation isn’t turning off thoughts but rather learning to meet them with awareness and curiosity,” says Mattingly. The same goes for our wandering minds; you don’t have to keep absolute focus, either. In both cases, the key is noticing.
“When our attention wanders away or other thoughts are coming up, we notice what’s happening and then bring our attention back to whatever it is we’re focusing on in our mindfulness meditation, such as our breath,” says Winston. “And then we do that over and over. What we learn to realize is that that’s not a problem. That’s part of the process.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, of course. Paying attention to our thoughts and emotions can set off anxiety, judgment, and other things that feel like they interfere with mindfulness. But with practice, you can learn not to get pulled down into that spiral and instead incorporate these moments into your meditation. “[Meditation] allows us to take a step back and become the observer,” says Mattingly. “When we invite in curiosity, we’re able to notice the changing nature of all emotions and realize that these emotions rise and fall in everyone.”
7. How do I know I’m doing it right?
“Right” and “wrong” aren’t the point of meditation. Like okay, sure, technically there are ways you can meditate “incorrectly,” but they basically boil down to not actually trying. The only thing you need to do is make an effort. “If you sit down and ignore your guided meditation completely and decide instead to use the time to think about your to-do list for a day, you’re not really meditating,” says Winston. “But if you take a moment in the course of thinking about all the things you have to do to bring your attention back to your breathing and try to be present, you’re doing great.”
But in general, Winston suggests not dwelling in this mindset too much. “The really important thing is to be kind to yourself so you don’t turn meditation into another thing that’s wrong with you,” she says. “Try not to be judgmental. It’s not like you’re going to automatically do it perfectly. It’s a process.”
8. How do I make a habit out of it?
Like with building any habit, there isn’t a magic tip out there that will compel you to meditate every day. It takes persistence and commitment. That said, there are things you can do to make it easier on yourself to make a habit out of it. For one, the meditation apps above double as accountability tools; some let you track your progress and send push notifications to remind you it’s time to meditate.
All your run of the mill habit-building tips will serve you well with meditation too. Set a specific goal—instead of deciding you’re going to “start meditating,” decide you’re going to do one guided meditation as soon as you wake up. Build it into your morning routine with these tips or into your night routine with these. Start small, set reminders, find an accountability buddy who wants to start meditating too. At the end of the day, keeping a regular meditation practice is about making an effort and, well, doing it.
If you really don’t want to go out of your way, Winston recommends building it into something you’re already doing, also known as habit stacking. For example, meditate after you brush your teeth every day or while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew. A persistent habit that you don’t even have to think about anymore can serve as an anchor and a reminder.
9. What if I don’t have time?
That’s the great thing about meditation—it doesn’t have to take much time at all. Many guided meditations are five minutes or less. “Everyone has time for five minutes,” says Winston. “Meditation is adaptable and shouldn’t feel like a huge commitment you have to take on.”
Beyond being open to finding small pockets in your day to meditate, you can also build mindfulness into your life. When it comes to mindfulness meditation, there’s formal practice (like everything we’ve been talking about) and informal practice, when you take the skills you’ve learned in your formal practice and put them to use. “You can apply it throughout the day,” says Winston. “You can brush your teeth mindfully or remember to take a mindful breath when something stresses you out or be mindful during your daily walk. There are all sorts of ways we can make room for mindfulness even when it feels like we don’t have room.”
Mattingly also recommends the S.T.O.P. meditation as a quick meditation you can use on the go. It stands for: stop what you’re doing, take a breath, observe without judgment, and proceed. “This practice teaches us to check in with ourselves without judging our experience,” she says. “The ‘without judgment’ is the most crucial piece. For example, if we do this exercise and we notice anger or sadness or any difficult emotion, can we allow ourselves to honor how we feel without looking to ‘fix’ or ‘change’ any of it?” The R.A.I.N. meditation (recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture) serves a similar purpose.
10. How do I know if it’s working?
Depends on what you mean by working. It would be amazing if there was a universal sign that you were officially reaping the benefits of meditation, but that’s not how it goes. “Meditation isn’t prescription,” says Winston. “It’s not like ‘If you meditate this amount of time for this number of days, you will see this result.’ Our minds are very individual.”
Because of that, a lot of people give up without giving meditation a fair shot. Winston recommends two main things when it comes to judging whether or not meditation is working for you: checking in with yourself and sticking it out for a while. “Don’t try it once. Try it over time and then investigate how you’re feeling,” says Winston. “Is it benefiting me? Am I seeing the effects? Am I noticing that I’m a little bit calmer? Am I being a little bit kinder to myself and to others? Am I sleeping better? Am I enjoying having these small moments?”
All that said, though, if it’s not for you, it’s not for you. Mindfulness meditation has been pushed as some universal habit that everyone will benefit from and it’s easy to blame yourself if you’re not feeling it. Let go of those expectations. “Mindfulness meditation is not for everybody,” says Winston. “It’s extremely helpful for some people, but not at all for others.”
If you don’t know when to call it, Winston recommends giving it six weeks or so, based on her experience teaching students over the years, including through a six-week program. It’s by no means a magic number, but it’s long enough that you’ll probably get a sense of how you like meditation and how it’s working for you.
Also, remember: There are all sorts of types of meditation. If mindfulness meditation doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to swear off meditation in general. It might just be you haven’t found the right fit yet. Maybe movement meditation is more your speed. Or maybe you’d connect with mantra meditation. Or healing meditation. Or something else entirely. It’s worth a shot, right?