← Chetan Surpur

Mindfulness and Meditation

A Beginner's Guide

“There are no ordinary moments.” – Dan Millman

This is a guide to introduce the theory, benefits, and practice of mindfulness meditation to beginners like myself. This guide is composed mostly of what I have read about the subject, learned from talking to knowledgeable people, and a little from my (limited) experiences so far. It’s become clear to me that meditation has the potential to be a powerful and transformative mental tool. Therefore, I hope this guide will bring awareness and maybe motivate you to try mindfulness meditation and see for yourself.

What is mindfulness and why should I care?

Mindfulness is a state of complete awareness of the contents of the mind. In this state, you are consciously aware of all thoughts, sensations, and feelings as they arise, as if you are dispassionately watching yourself from a third-person perspective, without investment or judgment. There is nothing mystical or magical about mindfulness; it is simply an inherent state of consciousness (like sleeping) that you can practice and enter. But when you are able to sustain it, it has the potential to completely change the way you approach life.

Mindfulness is not an easy state to stay in, because we have spent our whole lives in the company of a persistent and overwhelming mental chatter. At every moment, we are lost in a sea of thoughts and feelings, our minds pulled in one direction or another without us even noticing. You can observe this phenomenon for yourself with a simple experiment.

Close your eyes for 30 seconds, and pay attention to your breath. Observe the air going in and out of your nose; concentrate on it. If you notice yourself thinking of something else, just make a mental note and bring your attention back to your breath. See what happens if you try this for a full 30 seconds.

How many thoughts popped into your head in that short period? And how many times did you find yourself lost in thought, maybe in a memory or a daydream, having forgotten completely about the breath? This kind of discursive thought is happening continuously throughout the day, entirely unnoticed.

Most of the time, when thoughts and feelings arise in our minds, we don’t even notice their presence; instead, we automatically become hostage to them. For example, the last time you felt fierce anger towards someone or something, were you aware of the feeling of anger, and what it was doing to your state of mind and body? Or did you just feel angry, overwhelmed by the venomous feeling coursing through your veins?

We feel identical to the voice in our heads. Thinking is necessary and useful, but what is not useful is being lost in thought, unaware of the existence of thoughts as simply objects that arise in consciousness. This lack of awareness is indeed the source of all our distractions, worries, and regrets. We cannot be in control of what we don’t even notice. If we could somehow create a space between a stimulus and our natural reflexive reaction to it, a space where we could simply observe what is happening for a moment, then we could consciously choose to respond skillfully to the stimulus and then just move on.

Thankfully, there is a technique for learning to awaken from our usual trance of discursive thought, if only for brief periods of time. Meditation is a practice that will train your mind to become fully aware of the flow of experience in the present moment. It certainly takes effort and patience, as all good things do, but it is a very simple practice that has been empirically shown to create dramatic, positive changes in people’s brains and in the way they live. With practice, you can learn to be in charge of what you focus on, how you feel, and the contents of your consciousness. Instead of being at the mercy of the next thought that arises in and then dominates your consciousness, you can tame your mind and turn it into an instrument under your complete awareness and control.

Benefits of meditation

Mindfulness meditation is for everyone. It’s not just for people who are seeking ultimate fulfillment, though there is potential to discover that too. There are more immediate, practical benefits to meditation that are relevant to anybody who employs a brain.

The first and most basic benefit of meditation comes during and right after a session of meditation. Your mind is calm and collected, like you just took a breath of fresh air amidst the ups and downs of a day of hectic activity. This alone is a good reason to meditate; we can all use a little break in the day. This period of rest also helps you be more alert and productive throughout the rest of your activities.

After a little practice, you may find that you now have a new mental tool available to you in difficult moments. At any moment you are stressed, emotional, or distracted, you now have the power to take a step back from your mental state and just observe the thoughts and emotions occurring in your head. This gives you a wonderful sense of detachment, freeing you from the burden of experiencing those things firsthand, and allowing you to address them without being attached to them. You’ll also find that you are more effortlessly able to concentrate without being pulled by distractions, seeing and consciously ignoring them as they appear in your mind.

Meditation is an exercise that sharpens the mind, like working out the body at the gym. Thus, long-term positive effects can be seen in all aspects of life. Scientific studies have shown that meditation can improve cognitive function [1] and ability to focus [2], reduce pain [3], anxiety [4] [5] [6], and depression [7], boost the immune system [8], increase social connection and empathy [9] [10], and even change gray matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory [11], emotional regulation [12], and self-awareness [13]. Surprisingly, many of these improvements have been measured in quite a short period of meditation, over just 20 minutes a day for four days. But lasting change surely requires patience and regular practice over a long period of time.

While these benefits are very desirable, the ultimate goal of meditation is an unbroken state of pure mindfulness, living in the present moment with complete awareness of the contents of consciousness. It is a feeling of being fully awake, a state of mind that is clear of the constant buzz of spontaneous thoughts, looking at everything with a totally present mind. As you can imagine, this does not come easily. You might spend your whole life meditating and only be able to sustain this state for brief periods of time. But it is nice to know that meditation contains this level of depth, that there is potential to discover a way of really living life to its fullest, if only for a few moments at a time. It’s a worthy goal to work towards, and other benefits are numerous and found along the way.

How to meditate

In spite of all this involved theory, meditation as a practice is actually very simple. It’s so simple you might be surprised that it can have such profound effects. Meditation is not about doing anything particularly complex, but rather just practicing regularly, applying active effort, and having patience.

Here are instructions for meditation (adapted from source):

  1. Sit comfortably, with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
  2. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting—feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
  3. Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly—either at the nostrils, or in the rising and falling your abdomen.
  4. Allow your attention to rest in the mere sensation of breathing. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go naturally.)
  5. As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to appear: sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in the field of awareness, and then return to the sensation of breathing.
  6. Every time your mind wanders in thought, notice and observe the thought itself as an object of consciousness until it disappears, and gently return your attention to the sensation of breathing.
  7. No matter what arises in your mind, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant a feeling or idea may be, consciously notice it, accept it as a part of yourself, and return your attention back to your breath.
  8. Continue in this way until you can merely witness all objects of consciousness—sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, and even thoughts themselves—as they arise and pass away, without being pulled away by them.

As you do this, you will find yourself repeatedly distracted from your breath. Don’t worry. This mental wandering is unpleasant, but it is the normal state of your mind. Don’t beat yourself up over it, and don’t think of it as an enemy. It is the simple reality of your mind, and the first step is to just see it as it is, without judgment or condemnation. Just notice it, and come back to your breath. Mindfulness is like a muscle; it gets stronger with exercise. Each time you notice a distraction and return to your breath, your mind has gotten a little stronger, and you win.

In spite of this advice, you will find yourself frustrated at the noise in your mind. That’s fine, just observe this frustration as yet another object in consciousness, and keep meditating.

The most important thing is regularity. Start by practicing just 10 minutes a day, and try not to miss days. Like a good habit, it’s easiest and most effective when you do it regularly. But don’t feel pressured to meditate; it should be an enjoyable activity, and forcing it defeats the purpose. Don’t overdo it and burn yourself out either; start small, and build up as you feel like practicing more and more.

Now regardless of everything you have read, when you begin your practice, enter it without expectations. The benefits of meditation are there to motivate you to at least try it. But when you do start, treat the whole thing as an experiment, just to see what will happen. The goal of meditation is to see reality as it is, without being colored by our preconceptions and expectations. So don’t worry about what you’ll get out of it, what the point is, or even whether it’ll be worth it. When you are meditating, store all these doubts away, and allow yourself to remain in a field of pure, open awareness. Don’t think and predict and fret, don’t try too hard and rush; just approach it with curiosity and see things for yourself in the present moment.

Guided meditation

For beginners, it can be challenging to embark on this journey alone. After all, you have probably never really tried to enter and stay in this state of mind before. So it’s helpful to use guided meditation recordings, at least until you get the hang of it.

  • Headspace is a beautiful app (available in-browser, on iPhone and Android) that navigates you through mindfulness meditation and helps you build a regular practice. It’s free for an initial 10-day 10-minute per day tutorial course, and then you can pay a subscription fee to unlock premium content.
  • Sam Harris has two guided meditations, of which the latter conveys a really profound insight on the nature of the self. Meditate to these after you are a little more familiar with the basic technique.
  • Perhaps attend classes and eventually meditation retreats, to learn from and meditate with other people. Hopefully you can find some great mindfulness centers in your area.

Mindfulness in daily life

Seated meditation is only a practice arena, a stress-free gym in which you deliberately sharpen your basic skills of mindfulness. The real game you are practicing for is the rest of your experiential existence. The purpose of meditation is to radically transform your entire cognitive experience, to experience unbroken mindfulness through every moment of your life. An accomplished meditator doesn’t spend her whole life sitting and meditating; she still comes back to seated meditation to keep from going rusty, but otherwise she lives a normal, full life, mindful all the way.

With that in mind, start by practicing mindfulness through seated meditation, but gradually bring over some of that mindfulness into your daily life as well, blurring the line between sitting and living. Remember, the breath is an arbitrary reference point of your meditation, just an anchor to pull you back from being lost in thought. There is nothing special or exclusive about the breath, it is just easily available and simpler to focus on. You can meditate on anything, either on the act of drinking tea, or walking down the street, or writing an essay. In fact, once you’re a little practiced, it’s quite fun to try and practice mindfulness while carrying out everyday activities, like eating an orange or washing the dishes. You engage in the same practice of full awareness of everything that appears in consciousness, gently bringing your mind back to the task at hand every time you notice it going astray.

Over time, you will get better at concentrating without distractions, at really living in the present moment, and at taking in all the beauty the world has to offer during anything that you do. The purpose of mindfulness is to make each second feel like it were the first and only second in the universe.

Practical tips and tricks

Meditators often find themselves in some common pitfalls. Typically, these things will resolve themselves if you wait long enough, but here are some tips and tricks to more quickly smooth out any issues you may face:

  • Don’t spend time thinking about your thoughts, just notice them and move on. I made this mistake early in my practice. I would think, “Oh, there is a thought. Oh, now I’m thinking about the thought. Oh, now I’m thinking about thinking about the thought. Oh, now…” I would get caught in a recursive cycle of thought, and never actually break it. Don’t have mental conversations with yourself; just silently and wordlessly observe the thoughts as they arise, and return your awareness to your breath.
  • If you find yourself constantly lost in thoughts, without hope or recourse, try taking it a bit at a time. Set a goal for focused attention on just the inhalation stage of breath, and then relax. Then set a goal for just the exhalation stage of breath. Then take it one full breath at a time. Gradually build up like this until you can focus without distractions for longer and longer periods of time. Remember to be gentle with yourself.
  • Meditation is an active, alert, and conscious activity. If you find yourself mentally slumping, relaxing into a stupor, consciously notice this state as you would any other distraction, and return with an alert focus to your breath. If you find yourself falling asleep often, try meditating at different times of the day. If you usually run with sleep debt, you might need to just get more sleep. Don’t try to meditate while lying down in bed, right before you sleep, or right after you wake up when you’re still groggy. You’ll just be fighting an uphill battle with your hormones. Sit upright and practice when you’re confident you can be alert without enormous effort. I myself find this very challenging, and am working through it.
  • Meditators sometimes experience odd sensations, strange visions, or even beautiful feelings. Don’t get caught up in them. They may be pleasant, but they are just side-effects; they are not the goal of meditation. The goal of meditation is unattached awareness during the rest of the day. Just notice these occurrences like everything else, and keep meditating.

Learn more

You can start practicing now, but I encourage you to research and learn more over time about what you’re practicing. You will likely encounter experiences during your meditation, both blissful and challenging ones, that are not mentioned here. There is a lot of information out there about meditation, as it is a very old and refined technique, and it may help with your practice. At the very least, it’s fascinating stuff.

  • 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works is a true story of the life of ABC anchor Dan Harris, and his experience with meditation from the perspective of a skeptic. It’s entertaining, hilarious, and full of relatable and practical information that will be sure to get the reader curious to see how meditation will improve their life. If you don’t have the time to read, you can watch his talk at Google that covers the same material.
  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunarantana is a clear book that covers both the theory behind mindfulness and how to practically go about achieving it. It contains invaluable knowledge and perspective on living with awareness.
  • Waking Up by Sam Harris is a secular guide to meditation and spirituality. It is a concise, informed book that encourages exploring the nature of self and consciousness through various means, the most prominent being meditation.
  • In The surprising science of happiness, Dan Gilbert shows that happiness comes from our perception of our lives, rather than what actually happens in them. Mindfulness is about becoming aware of this basic truth, and being fulfilled no matter what happens.
  • All it takes is 10 mindful minutes is a TED talk by Andy Puddicombe, the creator of the Headspace app. It’s a nice, short, shareable talk motivating the use of meditation in daily life.
  • The Peaceful Warrior is a beautiful movie about living fully. While it never mentions mindfulness by name, it is what the movie depicts visually; how to live, without fear or attachment, in the present. As the main character realizes, “The journey is what brings us happiness, not the destination.”
  • A fun tidbit: Louis C.K. on cell phones. With his characteristic relatable humor, Louis poetically conveys the message of mindfulness to a broad audience.

Parting thoughts

I think the following quote gets at the essence of meditation, and I find it motivating when the going gets tough.

“It is essentially the training of attention. The technique is simple but far from easy. It requires effort, and — like athletic conditioning — it can be quite strenuous. Its purpose is not to attain some remarkable experience during meditation but to master the thinking process. The rewards, therefore, come during the rest of the day. As your meditation deepens, you will find yourself stronger and more resilient, better able to face the challenges of life as the kind of person you would like to be: loving, creative, resourceful, and full of vitality.” - Eknath Easwaran from Conquest of Mind

Happy practicing!

Death isn't sad. The sad thing is: most people don't live at all. Dan Millman