Thinking about starting a meditation practice? Or, maybe you’ve been working at it for a while but just can’t seem to get the hang of it? Then you’ll want to read this helpful guide to meditation for beginners, which focuses on 5 common mistakes beginners tend to make. And more importantly, what to do instead, so you can progress and support yourself in a fruitful practice.
Meditation for Beginners can be Frustrating
I often encounter beginners to meditation who are frustrated and/or feeling defeated. They’re not sure what they’re doing wrong, but they know something’s not working. Whether it be physical discomfort or their minds being uncooperative (too sleepy or too active), they’ve begun to wonder if they’re capable of doing it at all. They’ve heard of all the wonderful benefits of meditation and want to experience them too, but the meditative state seems ever-elusive.
I’ve also encountered many people who’ve already given up. They’ve tried enough times to convince themselves meditation just doesn’t work for them. And while I would never want to push something on someone, I do wonder in those moments if perhaps a tweak here or there could alter their experience of meditation.
So, I’ve gathered here five meditation mistakes common to beginners. Some of them I encountered along my own journey. Others are things I’ve noticed when talking with new meditators who are struggling. Happily, there are solutions for all of them.
No. 1: Assuming There’s Only One Way to Do It
This one’s a biggie. It can make all the difference in the world to find the right meditation techniques for you. There is no one-size-fits-all version of meditation. Unfortunately, for meditation beginners who’ve only been introduced to one method, believing there is can present a giant hurdle. If you try one method, give it your all, and it doesn’t work for you, you might just conclude you’re not cut-out for meditation.
And what a shame! Because the truth is, we all have different physical and mental tendencies. What works for me isn’t necessarily going to work for you. The beauty of the meditation tradition is that it’s evolved over thousands of years. There have been countless teachers who’ve shared what they’ve learned in their own practices. This means there are MANY techniques available to us to learn from. You just have to explore a bit to find the right fit for you.
What’s more, not only do we have different tendencies that might make one technique more accessible than another, these tendencies can change over time.
Case in Point
When I started meditating, I worked with the yogic techniques of breath control, sensory withdrawal, and deepening concentration on my breath. It was a good fit for me at that point in my life, a very disciplined approach. But, after several years working with these methods, I found myself at a point where concentration became more difficult. I had a lot going on at the time, and my mind just wasn’t settling as easily as it had before. I needed a different support, so I began exploring mantra meditation. Focusing on the repetition of a mantra helped my mind concentrate better than a focus on my breath did.
Still later, during a period marked by some painful losses, I found my way to mindfulness meditation. This felt like exactly what I needed at the time. The spacious acceptance of what is that characterizes mindfulness meditation was quite healing for me. It helped me sit with my grief and other painful emotions in a healthy way.
Today, because I’ve practiced a variety of techniques, I can choose which one is most useful on any given day.
Types of Meditation for Beginners
There are many meditation paths beginners can choose from. And within each, there are techniques that can help you overcome a variety of obstacles. While this article isn’t intended to provide a complete list, the following is a good start to help you begin exploring what options are out there.
- Mindfulness Meditation: This is a more Westernized approach, influenced by Buddhist tradition, that focuses on observing present moment experience without judgment.
- Vipassana Meditation: This practice utilizes mindful awareness and self-inquiry to cultivate deep insight into one’s true nature.
- Yogic Meditation: There are many yogic paths, most of which in some way lead to meditation. Here, I refer to meditation as described in the 8-limbs of yoga.
- Mantra Meditation: This technique uses the repetition of a word, or series of words, to focus the mind and lead you into deep concentration.
- Transcendental Meditation: This is a specific school of mantra meditation that offers workshops across the world.
- Movement Meditation: Meditation practices that involve movement of the body include Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and walking meditation.
- Metta Meditation: Also known as loving-kindness meditation, this practice focuses on expanding our capacity for love and kindness toward ourselves and others.
Which Meditation is Best for Beginners?
Which meditation path is best for you will depend on what you want to accomplish and what tendencies are present in your life right now. If you’re wanting your meditation practice to reduce stress and other psychological ailments, such as anxiety and depression, a good place to start might be mindfulness or transcendental meditation. They’ve both been found in research studies to support these goals.
If you’re seeking enlightenment, all of these paths can provide guidance. For inner peace, in my experience, mindfulness and the different movement meditations are all excellent pathways. That’s because they attend to agitation in the body and the mind at the same time. Metta meditation can be a powerful tool for developing forgiveness and compassion.
If you know you have difficulty concentrating, using a mantra can be a helpful tool for steadying your mind. If you know you have difficulty sitting still, one of the movement practices can eliminate that obstacle.
The great thing about being a beginner to meditation is you naturally have access to beginner’s mind. Which means, you can go into your meditation exploration with curiosity and openness. You don’t have to know the answers or be sure of anything at all. This is your opportunity to truly assess which practice feels right for you. Try some out. Figure out which one feels like you can stick with it long enough to progress and receive the benefits.
No. 2: Expecting an Idealized Experience
When we read or hear about other people’s meditation experiences, it can set an expectation for what should be happening for us when we meditate. While it’s nice to have a lighthouse shining the way to what is possible, these sorts of expectations can also get in our way. They can lead to discouragement if what we’re experiencing doesn’t seem to match up. They can even frustrate our in-the-moment, meditation mindset, as we question whether we’re doing it right or wrong.
While it’s true there are a wide variety of meditation techniques, all of them place value on the quality of non-judgment. When we’re in judging mind, we’re whisked out of our present-moment experience, away from our focal point of concentration. Worrying about whether or not we’re meditating right is one of the easiest ways for meditation beginners to lose focus. Or worse, to give up on the practice.
Meditation is a journey. It is a skill that’s developed over time, not a single-point destination. Yes, there may be moments of heightened awareness, of profound insight, of peak experience. But they’re not the whole story, and they’re not the measure of whether or not you’re actually meditating. You are meditating so long as you are actively engaged in the practice of meditation.
That is, so long as you are actively applying the meditation techniques you have chosen to practice. All meditators, not just beginners, have to work at applying those techniques. They don’t come naturally to any of us. It is the act of practicing them that places us on the meditative journey.
Patience & Curiosity is the Key for Meditation Beginners
As a meditation beginner, keep in mind that like any skill worth developing, your capacity for concentration and present-moment attentiveness will take time and repeated effort to refine. Every time you practice, you’re developing that capacity. Bringing patience to your practice, instead of expectation and judgment, encourages the spaciousness of mind meditation is intended to develop.
When you find yourself critiquing yourself, or searching for a specific, idealized state, simply redirect your attention to whatever your focal point may be. Your breath, your mantra, your body movement, etc. You might even label the mental activity as judging or seeking. Not to chastise yourself, but simply to acknowledge that tendency of the mind. Labeling mental activity can be a surprisingly effective way to let go of it.
Every time it arises, and you notice it, repeat the same process. And, while repeatedly redirecting your mind may seem frustrating, you can approach it all with a sense of curiosity. How curious it is that your mind tends to do this or that. You’re learning about yourself when you watch with curiosity. Which is very different than judging.
No. 3: Giving Up Too Soon
Often times, beginners come to a new meditation practice with high hopes. They’ve read or heard about the benefits. Or, maybe a friend has told them about the incredible experience or life-shift they gained from it. As a result, they’re excited to try it out and see what it’s all about.
Other times, beginners come to meditation reluctantly. Maybe a health care professional has recommended it. Or a loved one is asking them to join them on their journey. While they’re willing to give it a try, they don’t expect to get much from it.
Ironically, both situations can result in a new meditator giving up too soon. The person with high hopes can get quickly discouraged when the reality of the work required to produce results sets in. The person with low expectations can complete their own feedback loop after only a few tries, assuming there’s nothing to gain, just as they’d suspected.
Commit to a Set Amount of Time
Beginning meditators can benefit greatly from adding some discipline to their practice. We all can, really. But, it’s especially important when you’re just getting started. Not just in terms of how many attempts you make overall, but in terms of how long you stay with each meditation session.
If you’ve decided to give meditation a try, consider setting a goal for yourself. Decide how many days you’re willing to commit to practicing it before concluding whether or not it’s for you. Maybe make a 30-day challenge for yourself. Every day for 30 days (or however many you decide), commit to practicing meditation for a set amount of time.
Keep in mind you want it to be long enough to give yourself a chance to start to overcome some hurdles. You won’t overcome them all in that time, but at least begin to chip away at one or two. This way, you give yourself a chance to experience some measure of progress.
Use a meditation timer to help you keep your commitment to practice for a set amount of time. (Ten to twenty minutes is a good starting point.) That way, if you encounter any resistance, you’ll stick with it instead of just getting up. Resistance can come in many forms, including sneaky ones. Like sudden hunger or thirst. Remembering that task you still need to do. Or the increasingly annoying buzz of an appliance in the room. A timer helps you push past the urge to give in to your resistance.
Introducing this sort of discipline into your practice as a beginner can help you make a truly informed decision about whether or not meditation is right for you. Because you will have given it a real, honest chance.
No. 4: Ignoring Your Body’s Role in Meditation
It’s easy to think of meditation as only a practice of the mind. For the most part, it is. However, the body does play a role in meditation. There are things we can do to properly prepare our bodies for meditation. And there are things we can do to take care of our bodies during meditation.
Yoga postures were designed not only to keep our bodies in optimum health, but also to support our bodies during sitting meditation. To sit for an extended period of time can be challenging for your body, with or without injury or other physical limitations. The stretches and strengthening poses found in yoga can help us overcome this challenge. Additionally, the movements of yoga help to calm and balance energies in your body, which in turn supports a calmer, more focused mind.
You don’t have to do yoga to meditate, though. You can simply do some stretches that help you stay more comfortable when sitting for longer periods of time. Stretch your back, legs, hips, neck, and shoulders regularly. Do exercises that maintain core strength to help support your posture. Staying active (whether it be yoga, walking, running, or another physical activity) can help you balance and release excess energy in your body and mind. All of this supports you in your meditation practice.
Pay Attention to Your Needs
Many people say the only way to meditate is seated. While it may be true that seated meditation helps you stay alert, the fact is some people just can’t sit for extended periods of time comfortably. If this is the case for you, it’s okay to lie down. Or to sit in a reclined position. Of course, there’s also the option of walking meditation. The point is, listen to your body. You don’t get extra points for pushing your body to the point of serious pain. All that’s going to do is make you not want to meditate.
If you find your mind tends to drift toward sleep during meditation, it can be helpful to get your body moving prior to your practice. Get the blood flowing a little. I especially like to do inversion postures that place my head below my heart. The flow of blood to my brain wakes it up and keeps me more alert during meditation.
Lastly, some foods and drinks can get in the way of the focus we seek in meditation. Pay attention to how your body responds to things like caffeine, heavy foods, sugars, and chocolate. If they make you feel antsy, lethargic, or otherwise less capable of meditating, avoid them. Or at least, avoid them prior to meditating.
No. 5: Chasing the Bliss
This one is similar to No. 2, expecting an idealized experience. But not completely. It’s last on my list because it’s an obstacle that tends to come up once we’ve practiced long enough to have had a blissful session of our own. In No. 2, I’m referring to idealized states you might seek right at the beginning, based on what someone else has told you to expect. Here, I’m talking about chasing your own idealized experience.
This was a big hurdle for me early-on in my practice. I’d had a few beautiful, peaceful, and truly extraordinary meditation moments. They were hard-earned, after prolonged concentration. Then suddenly, bliss! Naturally, I wanted more of that. But what I found in the practice sessions that followed was the more I sought that bliss, the more it eluded me.
It took me a little while, but I realized the act of seeking-out that repeat occurrence was keeping me from really being in my present moment experience. The reality is every time we come to our meditation practice, it’s a whole new experience. We can apply the same techniques, but it’s a different moment. We’re different people each time we take our seat.
Layers Beneath Layers
Chasing a single blissful event limits what we can experience in meditation. It stunts our growth. I’ve learned so much about myself in meditation, and it’s definitely not all been pretty. Sometimes, it’s witnessing my fears, insecurities, wounds, and defenses. And yes, sometimes it’s seeing my capacity for love, forgiveness, and equanimity expand beyond what I thought possible. Meditation peels back layers upon layers of our psyche as we watch without judgment. If you’re only chasing bliss, you miss out on a lot of this.
I’ve found it remarkable to see how becoming aware of something I hadn’t been acknowledging about myself can transform it. Before I even take action. Just seeing it, with clarity, somehow shifts it. Meditation can shine a light on our mental tendencies. It’s not always comfortable, but it can be quite powerful. And interestingly, these internal shifts can be the best way to make those blissful moments of meditation more accessible.
In the end, you’re the only one who can decide what your meditation practice will be. And you’re the only one who can truly know what it is, because it all happens deep within you. It is a solo journey by its very nature. Whether you’re a meditation beginner or someone who’s been trying for a while, I hope this article helps you stick with it and take ownership of your practice.
May your practice grow and blossom. May it be an ever-flowing source for insight, transformation, and expanding love and light.
I’d love to hear about your meditation journey. Please feel free to ask questions or share your thoughts in the comments section below!