This is the second of a two-part exploration of meditation. To read the first, Meditation: What’s in it for you, click here.


Following the previous article Meditation: What’s in it for you, we go on now to how to start a meditation practice. The good news is that there are hundreds of forms of meditation. The bad news is that there are hundreds of forms of meditation. It is good news because that means that there are several forms to choose from, and that you can try a few until you find the forms that work best for you. The bad news is that it would take a lifetime to give them all a fair try.

All these forms of meditation can be classified into two broad categories: concentration and mindfulness. (You will also see “insight” or “Vipassana” instead of “mindfulness”). Buddhist teachings include both forms in order to be balanced. It is recommended to start with the concentration part, and in many non-Buddhist traditions it is the only category of meditation practiced. We will cover some concentration practices in this issue and consider mindfulness in a future issue.

Concentration is the training of attention to stay focused on a single object. Different traditions and teachers use different types of objects of meditation: the breath, a mantra (a word or phrase that you repeat silently), a visualization, a prayer, a feeling such as loving-kindness, a part of the body, the flame of a candle, etc. What object you choose to focus on is not as important as the practice of bringing the attention back, again and again, to this object every time your mind wanders. The most common object of meditation is the breath, partly because it is always available, and partly because it is found to have a calming effect when you focus upon it.

The basic instructions for meditation on the breath are: sit yourself comfortably, find the feeling of the breath such as the sensation of the air coming through your nostrils, or your belly raising and falling, and pay close attention to it. Do not try to change it, lengthen it, or slow it down. Just watch, that’s all.

Some traditions insist on keeping the eyes closed, others that you keep them half-open. Since there is no general agreement on this point, obviously it cannot matter that much. Same thing on how to keep your hands, how straight you must sit, whether to sit crossed-legged or not, on a cushion on the floor or on a chair, etc. You are free to experiment for yourself on all these points and find what works best for you.

Which begs the question: “How do you know when something works best for you?” What are the criteria that decide which practice to choose? Depending on your temperament and even your energy level on a given day, different practices may work better at helping you stay focused on your meditation object.

For example if you are feeling quite sleepy and have trouble remaining awake, then keeping your eyes half-open should help. On the other hand if your mind is very excited and distractible, then it might be better to keep your eyes closed. If certain postures produce so much discomfort that is all you can focus on, change slowly to a different position.

The bottom line is that you are free to experiment. Consider this an exploratory journey into your own mind. I can hardly be the one to rigidly advocate a meditation posture. I mostly meditate lying in bed or in a reclining chair because of a bad back (with permission from the teacher at retreats) and it has served me well over the years.

At the beginning it can be exceedingly difficult to keep the mind on the breath for more than a few seconds. The sheer amount of thoughts that keep piling into the mind is often a surprise for beginner meditators. Don’t worry about it. It is perfectly normal. One trick that may help is to give the mind something to do, like counting the breaths, one to ten, and start again when you get to ten or loose count.

Another trick is to paint a faint smile on your lips, even though you may have no reason to smile. This tricks your body into thinking that you do have a reason to feel good, and joy will arise spontaneously on its own eventually. Thus you start associating meditation with a pleasant activity and it reinforces your motivation to continue.

There are several places to turn to in order to get more detailed explanations and instructions. I have read literally hundreds of books on the subject and the most practical, by far, that I have come across is the highly acclaimed Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. Like any source of meditation teaching, it does come from a certain perspective (in this case Vipassana, a part of Theravada Buddhism), but it wears it lightly.

You can download guided meditation instructions from many sites. These are meant to be listened to while you meditate. A couple of good sites are: and

Some people get motivated by joining others to practice. If that is your case you can join a sitting group in your area. It also helps a lot to have a teacher to ask questions to and get guidance from. But every teacher comes as a package within a certain tradition, certain sets of beliefs, a certain personality, etc. It is important to shop around and be exposed to a few different traditions before deciding which works best for you.

For example, my first retreat was with a Zen teacher. I found that all the rituals were turning me off because they reminded me too much of my Catholic upbringing. My friend, a Zen priest who had invited me to attend the retreat, told me that she was attracted to Zen for precisely the same reason. She recommended that I try a Vipassana group, which in the West at least tend to have a more secular feel to them, and it worked for me.

Within a given tradition you will resonate more with some teachers than others. Try several. There is nothing that says that you must have only one teacher.

It can be highly beneficial to attend the occasional non-residential or residential retreat. These intensive practice range in duration from three days to two months, and even longer and are great ways to advance quickly.

Try to find time to sit every day, even if it is for 15 minutes or so. After a few days or weeks it will start to have a calming effect that will last for the rest of the day. Give it time though. Like running, it takes a while for the training to take effect. It is hardest to start. The rewards are worth it.

© Pierre Zakarauskas PhD 2009. Please request permission for any other use.

Illustrations are published under a Creative Commons License