Look around you. Find a pen, book, or anything you can hold in your hand that will not break if you squeeze it. Pick it up. Squeeze the object as hard as you can for about five seconds. Feel the muscles in your hands and arm contract. Notice the tension in your stomach. Is your heart starting to beat faster? Feel your palm starting to warm as the blood rushes into your hand. Notice the thoughts running through your head. Don’t drop the object but slowly start to relax your grip. For the next ten seconds, use the least amount of effort possible to hold the object so it does not slip out of your hand. Notice the difference in tension in your body as you lightly hold it.
Congratulations! You just learned the first stage of meditation, which involves training your concentration and being aware and fully engaged in the present moment. You can use dozens of different meditation techniques to focus attention. Many of these methods involve focusing on the breath or a sound or repeating a word or group of words—a mantra.
When I was 19, I got the opportunity to experiment with lots of different techniques when I traveled to India for four months to learn meditation. I had such a great experience that I went back for another four and half months at age 22. I spent most of my time at Osho’s commune in Pune with thousands of other people from around the world. The commune was Disneyland for personal development. A multiversity with workshops, training, therapies, and personal sessions focused on meditation, healing arts, martial arts, and psychology.
Osho was an Indian guru. He was a great storyteller, teacher, and innovator. He developed new, active meditation techniques better suited to deal with the pace of modern life. And he was a curator of wisdom from Eastern and Western religions, philosophy, and psychology. His teachings highlighted stories from Buddha, Jesus, Lao Tzu, and dozens of spiritual and religious traditions. Osho was a flawed human, like many other great artists and teachers. But if you focus only on his cult following, you will miss a lot of insight.
Let’s examine some basics of what meditation is, what it isn’t, and how to establish a daily practice.
Meditation is a useful skill to reduce suffering
What’s the purpose? Why learn meditation? How does this practice benefit you in your daily life? The main reason to meditate is to reduce mental suffering. Meditation also enables you to read and regulate your emotions, better manage stress and anxiety, and punctuate more of your daily life with self-awareness.
Life provides a lot of challenges and opportunities for disappointment and not getting what you want. You get fired. You get dumped. Your business fails. You think you’re fat. You’re diagnosed with an illness. Your kids don’t want to spend time with you. How you internalize these experiences determines how you feel. Mental suffering is optional most of the time. You can train your mind to reduce mental suffering using meditation just as you use exercise to strengthen and train your body.
I dread going to the doctor to get a blood test or a shot. I hate the idea of needles piercing my skin. But my fear is completely irrational. I’ve had my blood drawn dozens of times, and it doesn’t hurt when the nurse slides the needle into my vein. However, I create anxiety and stress by mentally experiencing the needle piercing my skin over and over again in my mind—sometimes for days before my appointment. My fear creates a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety that has no benefit to me. Meditation can help control that anxiety so that I don’t create my own suffering.
Meditation is a way to influence your emotions and decisions
Meditation can help you learn to better read and regulate your emotions, which will help you make better choices and build better relationships. Taming your emotion gives you an advantage. The ability to stay calm when under pressure will improve your performance. Professional fighters understand this well. If they start fighting from anger, they risk wasting precious energy, clouding their judgment, and burning out quickly.
How you see and judge the world around you shapes your thoughts. Thoughts create emotions. Emotions drive behavior. Emotions are powerful but short-lived unless you feed them. If you are willing to sit in the emotion fully, instead of struggling to ignore or repress it, you will find the emotion is very short and usually lasts from thirty seconds to a few minutes—not hours.
Practicing meditation can also help you control your anger. Think back to the last time you were angry. Did it feel good? At that moment are you at your best? How long did your anger last? Can you force yourself to stop feeling angry? Will you make good decisions when you are full of rage? Sometimes anger can be useful to spur you into action, but most of the time it is not helpful. Even if you don’t express your anger outwardly, you will repress and internalize it.
Meditation isn’t easy
Taming your mind is difficult. I’ve been practicing meditation for years and still struggle with it every day. Don’t believe it can be that hard? Take out your phone and set a timer for 60 seconds. Close your eyes and watch your thoughts as you would watch a movie on a big screen. Where are your thoughts coming from? Can you control them? Do you have the ability to get rid of a thought? Can you focus on one thought for more than ten seconds? Don’t picture a pink elephant. Were you able to stop a pink elephant from entering your mind? You will quickly realize you have little control over what thoughts pop into your head or how long they stay.
Your mind lives in a constant state of fear and desire. If you inspect your thoughts, you will likely see you are addicted to thinking about the past or the future. If you dig deeper, you will notice your thoughts are driven by fear or desire. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged or not fitting in. Fear of not having enough money. Fear of getting hurt or sick. Wanting attention from someone you care about. Wanting your contributions to be acknowledged. Wanting to go somewhere. An endless stream of thoughts sucks your attention into the past or the future. It’s not easy to train your mind to be fully in the present, but you can do it with practice.
Meditation isn’t necessarily spiritual
Practicing meditation does not bind you to any religion, spiritual practice, or belief system. You can be atheist or a devoted Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or any other faith. With practice, meditation simply allows you to gain the ability to witness your thoughts, sensations, and emotions without reacting to them. It does not require you to focus on any religious or spiritual idea or doctrine, although it can be a part of religious practice.
Meditation isn’t about detachment
The opposite is true. By fully paying attention, you feel, smell, hear, and see everything more vividly and fully. The combination of opening your senses to allow a flood of sensation while simultaneously holding the least amount of tension in your body allows the opportunity to fully experience the present moment.
Most of the time, meditation requires you to focus on an object of attention. You may feel as though you are directing attention from the space between the back of your head and your face into your environment. However, there is a second stage to meditation, which happens spontaneously and cannot be forced. Stage two happens when the body and mind finally relax and let go. The subject–object illusion dissolves. You feel no distance or separation from everything around you. Instead of being aware “of” sensation, you’re aware “as” sensation. Your consciousness no longer feels it is being directed from the space between the back of your head and your face.
When this happens to me, I’m in a deep state of relaxation, and I feel the boundary of my hands, feet, and body disappear. Thoughts, emotions, and sensations arise and I witness everything without judgment or effort. I’m not grasping for the pleasant or pushing away the unpleasant. This experience cannot be forced, and the more you try to force it, the more elusive it becomes.
Mediation isn’t focused on peak experiences
Peak experiences feel like an orgasm in your head. They happen when your sense of self or ego melts away. It feels similar to an orgasm, but rather than being focused in your genitals, the sensation moves up your spine into your head. Sometimes this experience is referred to as “flowering” because it feels like a flower opening. People have described this experience as similar to the effects of being on psychedelic drugs (e.g., LSD, psilocybin mushrooms.) Although these types of experiences are pleasurable, they don’t bring a lot of utility.
I realize these types of experiences are difficult to describe and difficult to understand if you have never experienced them. I assure you the sensations are as real as the ones you get when you put your hand on a hot stove. But a lot more pleasurable. However, peak experiences can be a distraction from the main benefit of meditation. And the harder you try, the less likely you are to experience them.
How to create a daily meditation practice
You don’t learn to ride a bike by reading a book. You learn through practice. You start with training wheels or someone holding onto your bike seat so you don’t fall and hurt yourself. With practice, you learn how to balance your body weight until you no longer need support. Learning meditation works the same way.
Seek instructions and use meditation techniques to support you. Then learn through consistent practice. At first, it may feel difficult and frustrating, but it gets easier as you learn to train your mind. Eventually, you will not be dependent on the techniques and can start punctuating more of your day with awareness as you relate to other people.
Build your daily meditation practice by following these steps.
Step 1: Make meditation part of your identity. The most important step in creating a new habit is to embrace the identity of who you want to become. Identity is shaped by our beliefs, behavior, and worldview. Self-development requires continually learning and upgrading your identity. See yourself as someone who meditates—just as you see yourself as someone who practices a hobby, exercises, reads, writes, listens to music, or eats a healthy diet.
Step 2: Use “inversion” to identify and remove obstacles. Inversion is a thinking tool that allows you to flip a problem around and think backward. Inversion looks at the problem in reverse and identifies all the things to avoid. To avoid distractions and scheduling conflicts, wake up a little earlier to practice meditation first thing in the morning.
Step 3: Start with baby steps. The best way to start a new meditation habit is to make it easy to follow. Motivation and willpower are useful for getting started, but they are unreliable. Don’t make the mistake of setting goals and expectations too high. Build habits from the ground up and don’t impose big challenges. You are building new neural pathways in your brain, and you want to eliminate all friction and resistance. Repetition and consistency are more important than pushing yourself to do more. Start by meditating for five minutes or less every day. This may seem too easy, but resist the temptation to do more in the beginning.
Step 4: Make very small improvements gradually. Start small and make tiny improvements slowly. If you start by meditating for five minutes per day, advance to six minutes per day the second week, and then seven minutes per day the third week. Continue increasing weekly. Make sure not to push yourself too hard too quickly. As you increase the number of minutes, you’ll need to find the right amount so you can accomplish your goal without failure.
Maximum motivation occurs when you face a challenge that is not too difficult to manage but not so easy that it bores you. The point is not to see how many minutes you can meditate in a day, but rather to develop a daily meditation habit that you can follow for the rest of your life.
Step 5: Be consistent. The key to creating a new habit is doing it every day. Repetition and consistency are critical. The amount of time you invest is less important than repeated, deliberate, daily practice. Never miss two days in a row. Missing one day every once in a while will not have a big impact, but missing two days in a row will have a negative effect. This principle applies to any new habit.
Step 6: Focus on long-term benefits. Focus on small, incremental improvements over time. When I consider incorporating a new habit into my life, I ask myself the following question: Can I do this every day for the next three-plus years? Unless your new habit becomes part of your identity and lifestyle, it will not stick. This is why most people fail at dieting. They may lose weight in the short term, but they will most likely regain it because they cannot sustain the diet across time.
Here are a few more tips I’ve found useful in my meditation practice.
- Meditate first thing in the morning. I get up, splash water on my face, brush my teeth, drink a glass of water. And then I practice meditation before doing anything else.
- Don’t check your phone or computer for texts, emails, or news before you meditate. You risk introducing distractions. Your messages and the news can wait a few minutes. This is another reason to practice first thing in the morning before your mind fills with noise.
- Don’t drink coffee before you meditate. You don’t want caffeine coursing through your veins when you are trying to relax and let go.
- Practice meditation on an empty stomach. You will be more alert and less prone to becoming sleepy. It takes a lot of energy to digest food.
- Use a timer or meditation app. Your mind will be trying to calculate how much time you have left. Using a timer removes the fear of ending too soon or going too long and messing up your schedule. I use the Waking Up app by Sam Harris.
- Find a quiet place to meditate and turn off notifications on your phone. Although you can learn to meditate anywhere, it’s easier to start with fewer distractions.
- Be thankful for reminders. My mind constantly wants to plan my day and think about my to-do list while I meditate. Your brain is trying to be helpful. Silently thank your mind for the reminder and then bring your attention back to your breath. This nuance may seem small, but it can make a big difference. Acknowledging the reminder helps your brain relax and trying to push thoughts away is counterproductive.
Building a meditation practice has been one of my best investments. It has helped me reduce mental suffering, be calm under pressure, and improve my relationships.
But don’t take my word for it. Try it yourself. The benefits are tangible and self-evident. Now it’s your turn. You can do it. Let me know if you have questions or if I can help you in any way.