Meditation is an umbrella term for mental training exercises—some thousands of years old—that are known to help people focus their attention and heighten their awareness. Many say it induces calmness and well-being. There are decades of research to suggest that regular meditation practice may help improve both health and quality of life—some studies show it may even help with depression and high blood pressure.
“There’s enough evidence to support meditation that if it were a pill, every doctor would be prescribing it,” says Gary Soffer, MD, a Yale Medicine pediatric allergist who also works with adult patients in Smilow Cancer Hospital’s Integrative Medicine Program. The program provides evidence-based guidance for complementary therapies commonly used by cancer patients and survivors.
The percentage of adults in the United States who say they had practiced meditation in the previous 12 months tripled between 2012 and 2017, from 4.1 to 14.2%, according to a national survey. But many people quickly give up on the practice, often because they think they aren’t doing it properly, Dr. Soffer explains.
He encourages them to try again. “People should be aware that meditating is not as hard as they think it is, and that no one is a ‘bad meditator,’” he says. “The most important thing is that meditation is about paying attention—beyond that, it’s a matter of keeping it simple.”
There are so many kinds of meditation that it may be difficult to figure out where to begin. To help, Dr. Soffer outlined the following steps to help beginners establish a basic practice.
Unlike some meditations that focus on breathing, this one is about simply paying attention to what you are doing and being present in the moment.
Step 1: Choose a quiet location.
Find a calm, quiet place where you can close the door to minimize distractions, away from your cell phone and other devices. If this is difficult, don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be completely silent, although, at the same time, you don’t want to meditate on a busy city street.
Step 2: Find a comfortable position.
You can sit in a chair, on a cushion or stool, or cross-legged on the floor. Your back should be upright—not rigid—and don’t slouch. You might imagine that there is a string tugging lightly on the crown of your head. Lying on the floor is also acceptable, although some people will find themselves struggling against falling asleep.
Step 3: Choose a focus point.
Know that this meditation practice is not about erasing your thoughts; it’s about focusing on a singular thing. You should pay attention to your point of focus, and if you realize that your mind is wandering, gently go back to that focus.
A popular area of focus is the nostrils, where you can concentrate on your breath feeling cool as you inhale and warm as you exhale. (Remember, no need to focus on inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Or counting. This meditation is just about maintaining focus.)
Or you can concentrate on the rising and falling of your stomach or the expansion and contraction of your chest as you breathe in and out. Some people prefer to use a mantra (a word or sound you repeat in your mind, such as "om" (pronounced with a hard "o" as in the word "home"). When thoughts come, acknowledge them, then gently return to your focus point. The goal is to stay present in the moment.
Establish a routine.
Dr. Soffer recommends 10 minutes a day as a manageable amount of time to start with—some say even a few minutes can help. Setting aside 10 minutes at the same time each day can help establish a routine. Additionally, you can set a timer to alert you that your practice has ended.
Don’t judge yourself.
If you find that you were distracted by your thoughts or a bodily sensation, like tightness in your neck or pain in your back, don’t worry. Even experienced meditators know that their mind is naturally going to wander sometimes.
It's important to know that meditation is not meant to be a one-time activity. “The real strength comes from practice and regular use,” Dr. Soffer says. “It’s like lifting weights—you can’t walk into a gym and suddenly lift 400 pounds. You build up to it.”
“Similarly, experienced meditators know that every 10-minute practice they do isn’t going to be perfect,” he says. “But if they do it consistently, they will start to feel better in both body and mind, and they will see the effects of their meditation reflected in their daily life.”