An effective meditation session, like a perfect playlist, a great meal, or a captivating story or song, has an arc to it: a beginning, middle, and end. When you work out or take a yoga class, the sequence is important, starting with warmups and stretches before increasing to greater exertions.
In sports, if you don’t stretch and warm up you can hurt yourself. Meditating too forcefully or with too strong of a goal can sometimes be harmful too, applying the opposite mental energy of the gentle acceptance you need to attune to your subtler self. And meditation can open you up in a way that, if you’re sensitive, can unearth psychological pain.
The way in and out of meditation is almost the opposite of sports, descending from the busyness of everyday life into subtler, slower states of mind. As you make this transition, being gentle with yourself is important, and for those with deeper or clinical states of suffering, meditation should only be used if it feels beneficial, or with the support of clinical help.
For those ready for mediation, it helps to follow the sequences and structures that lifelong meditators, and now scientists, have discovered and validated over centuries.
Arranging the body
Just like a workout, properly arranging your body is the first step in supporting meditation. Meditative traditions recognize a strong connection between the body and mind. If you’re a scientific materialist you believe this even more strongly, that the mind is an emergent property arising wholly from the body’s physical and biochemical state.
Based on millennia of experience, there’s empirical agreement that arranging the body in a cross-legged, straight-spined posture supports mental clarity. For anyone whose body doesn’t allow this, sitting in a chair with feet on the floor, and legs uncrossed is seen as equally beneficial.
Additional adjustments to posture can further enhance meditation. Placing the hands atop the knees, or the right hand atop the left in your lap, palms-up with thumbs touching, supports stable concentration, directing one’s mental energy inward.
Leaving a little space between your arms and torso allows air to circulate around your body, avoiding getting too hot or sweaty.
Slightly tilting down your head helps to remove the bit of tension in your neck from everyday activity. Then, directing your mind’s attention to your shoulders, brow, and the muscles of your face, and telling all these parts of your body to relax, further releases built-up tension. Another good technique to relax these muscles is to scrunch the shoulders up to you ears and then release.
You slightly open your mouth to let in a small amount of air, and touch your tongue to the roof of your mouth to diminish the accumulation of saliva.
Then, closing the eyes almost entirely is said to enhance inward concentration. But leave your eyes open just enough to let in a small amount of light, to keep you from falling asleep.
It’s important not to confuse sleep with meditation, which can become a hard habit to break once established. So, if you find yourself becoming sleepy, open your eyes entirely. You can meditate with your eyes open if you like, but try and defocus your gaze from any objects around you, resting your attention upon the space itself in front of you, and not on any objects.
After arranging the body properly, you can often immediately feel the alert, attentive focus of the meditative mind, as your posture supports the mind turning inward.
After arranging your body, the next “warmup” in meditation is to establish your motivation. Why are you meditating? It can be helpful to think personally of what you’re working on mentally at this moment: without feeling guilty or judgmental, to honestly assess the states of mind you’d like to diminish, and those you’d like to cultivate. The ones that cause you pain, and the ones that bring you meaning and happiness.
Then, more broadly, we consider the aspirational aims of meditation: to live a more meaningful, connected life; to be fully present to those around us; to better understand our inner and outer realities.
Here, it can be helpful to think of the noblest human qualities, those that this tradition says are our very nature, though our good nature is often obscured by pesky, recurrent disturbing mental states.
You can think of kindness, generosity, patience, and love, though not necessarily the complexity of romantic love, which can be burdened with craving, jealousy, and attachment. The simpler Buddhist version of love is merely wanting others to be happy.
Think of compassion, wanting others not to suffer. And imagine having a clearer sense of cause and effect, how to be effective in the world, with a constant awareness and understanding of the interdependent impermanent nature of reality. Imagine knowing and implementing the causes of happiness for yourself and for others, and creating the deepest, most meaningful connections with everyone around you.
When you think of these qualities, it’s sometimes useful to give them a visual component, imagining a warm bright light suffused with these positive mental states.
It can also be helpful to think of any people, living or historical, who manifest such human virtues. If you know someone who genuinely displays these qualities, thinking of them now can be helpful to make them concrete: kind people you know like nurses or caretakers or so many mothers; or historical figures committed to human rights and humanity’s well-being, often against great odds and great opposition.
For many of them, whose life stories are well-known, we know how they took a journey from mental disturbances just like ours toward clearer states of mind, lasting happiness, and a commitment to doing good in the world.
According to the meditative traditions, all of us equally have the same capacity to strengthen and even perfect these great qualities. Knowing that others moved along this path to greater awareness is encouraging.
Our capacity to care for others, to wish them to be free of pain and suffering, to wish them happiness, just as we wish for ourselves, is one that is greatly elaborated in this tradition, and often one we cultivate at the start of a session with a short heart-expanding practice that colors our meditation with a concern for others. Such selfless thoughts provide further motivation to meditate, knowing that through meditation we can expand our good qualities to enhance the joy and relieve the suffering of others. To some, meditating only for your own happiness can otherwise seem selfish or self-indulgent.
Stabilizing meditation on the breath can come next, a practice that calms and slows the mind. It’s good to end the stabilizing component while your mind is still fresh and alert—to quit while you’re ahead—so you build a positive relationship to meditation.
You can meditate on your breath for five or ten minutes, or even less if you’re just starting. The last thing you want is to hate meditation, and it’s easier to expand on a solid, pleasant meditation habit, however small, than to set unrealistic goals that make you feel uncomfortable and that you abandon after a few days.
After stabilizing the mind, you can move on to an analytic meditation, the narrative storytelling form of meditation. This technique is highly elaborated in the tradition we are drawing from, with thousands of patterns for analytic mediations that support diminishing delusions and cultivating virtuous states of mind.
Topics of analytic meditation range from cultivating love, compassion, and patience to the preciousness of life, the depth of the world’s suffering, and even the more mysterious states of consciousness, exploring what happens to our mind in sleep, in moments of sexual ecstasy, or during our last moments of life.
While following the basic outline of an analytic meditation, it’s possible to elaborate each topic with your own creativity, imagination, and investigation, like a jazz musician follows a song’s structure and scales, coloring the basic meditation structure with your own unique personality, insights, and style.
The last part of a meditation session is dedication. This is a reiteration of your motivation, where you can feel good that you’ve spent some time bettering yourself, gently letting go of disturbing states of mind and increasing the beneficial ones. There’s nothing better you could have done with this time—which isn’t something we can often say—so we can feel wholeheartedly satisfied that we’ve moved incrementally closer to expanding our natural good qualities.
When I first got into Buddhism, someone told me that it’s not as much of a religion as an invitation, an invitation to a set of practices for inner exploration. As you learn about what meditation is you become curious and even excited to meditate. If you feel such curiosity now, you may want to find a quiet corner and try out our first guided meditation podcast, “Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts,” which takes you through a complete meditation routine.