Meditation is one of the more effective things you can do to improve mental and physical health. It isn’t for everybody, but for most, it’s amazingly helpful and well worth the time. There are dozens of different techniques drawn from every tradition, plus a dozen more that have no religious heritage. Here I’ll discuss some general concepts plus some suggestions for things to try.

I tell my patients that learning to relax/meditate is like learning to drive. If you’re like me, it took only a few weeks to learn the mechanics of going forward, changing lanes, turning, parking, and backing up. But I was awkward and had to think my way through everything; I didn’t become skilled for a number of years.

Similarly, you can learn the basics of meditation/relaxation fairly quickly, and you’ll notice an improvement in how you feel almost immediately. The more subtle benefits take a while. Take your time; it’s worth it.

It’s possible some things may occur at the very beginning that will frustrate you and drive you nuts. What if the more you try to relax, the more tense you become? What do you do if you get a case of the fidgets or “heebie-jeebies”? How do you know if you’re doing the process correctly? How will you determine if you’re getting any benefit?

Remember this: you can’t blow it. If you’re willing to stay with the process, you’ll find that these problems take care of themselves. You’ll discover they were your fear reacting to unaccustomed calmness, shortly before the fear faded away for a while.

There’s a great deal to say about meditation. The Bodhi Tree, a large spiritual bookstore here in Los Angeles, has shelves devoted to books on meditation. Rather than trying to cover the subject exhaustively, my intent is to get you started. We’ll go over how to pick a relaxation/meditation technique that suits your needs and style. You’ll be able to choose among some of the other reading materials on the topic. Let’s get started.

Create a space and a time

Begin by creating a tangible, physical reminder of your commitment to your-self, a sacred space.

Next, set aside a few minutes once or twice a day for your practice when you’ll be disturbed as little as possible. Early in the morning or late at night are often best. If appropriate, please ask family members not to disturb you during these quiet times.

Many beginning meditators become tyrants, insisting that no one in the household breathe or drop a pin. Not only is this obnoxious, it is unnecessary and will hinder your practice. All you want, if possible, is that people not scream or run around the house, not talk to you directly, and not walk around the immediate area where you are sitting. You shouldn’t be able to hear more than a low rumble from the television or radio. An interruption once in a while is par for the course and won’t be a problem, so long as it isn’t every five minutes.

Your household may be unsuitable for meditation. Your home may contain small children. Your friends or family might be actively hostile to your having uninterrupted quiet time. If your family can’t or won’t heed your needs, you’ll need to be more creative. Can you never be alone? Might you find a spot outside your home with a neighbor or in a church?

Regardless of where you choose to meditate, find a particular time of day. First thing in the morning is often best. Also you may greatly deepen the benefits by meditating a second time late in the evening, before you become so sleepy you can’t stay awake. But of course, when you meditate is up to you. If your usual time doesn’t work out one day, do it later that day when you can.

If you are unusually anxious, or if the intent of a particular meditation is to help you fall asleep, then by all means meditate lying down in a comfortable position. But usually your goal is not to pass out but to become fully alert, aware, and present in the moment. You may wish to use a timer (but not with a raucous buzzer!) set for a 15 to 30 minute period. Sit in a chair or on a meditation cushion, with your legs and/or feet firmly on the ground. Sit as upright as possible. Imagine that a string extends from the bottom of your spine through the center of the top of your head, tied overhead to the ceiling. You may wish to rock gently from side to side and front to back to find the center of neutral balance. Then sit still and focus on your meditation technique until the bell rings.

Pick a relaxation method

Feeling your belly breathe. One of my favorite techniques for anxious beginners may help you fall asleep at night when everything else has failed.

Lie on your back in a comfortable position, with your hands resting on your lower abdomen but not touching each other. Begin by feeling into your hands, concentrating on the sensation of your belly gently rising and falling with each inspiration and exhalation. Notice each breath is a little different from the last, just as each snowflake is unique. No breath is better or worse, right or wrong. Concentrate on the sensation of how your hands feel as they rest on your tummy and move with each breath. Do this for a few moments.

Now move your attention to your belly. Feel the sensation of your hands resting on it as each breath moves in and out. Feel the breath itself. What else do you notice in your belly as you breathe in and out? Spend about five minutes sensing your belly.

Now combine the two. Feel into your hands resting on your tummy as you breathe, and within your belly as your hands rest upon it and your breath moves in and out like the tide. When your concentration wanders, bring it back to your belly, hands, and breath.

Repeating a phrase, word, or prayer. Dr. Herbert Benson’s first book The Relaxation Response describes sitting comfortably repeating to yourself the word “one,” and simply repeatedly coming back to that word.

One Zen technique involves counting your breaths from one to four and then starting over again at one. When you lose count (trust me, it will happen), start again at one. You have your choice of counting each inhalation and exhalation, inhalations only, or just exhalations.

Many people of faith have a favorite one-line prayer that reliably returns them to their sacred focus. One such Christian prayer is, “Jesus, have mercy upon me.” Find the prayer that works best for you and keep repeating it. You may wish to coordinate it with breathing out.

Finally, a number of Eastern traditions emphasize “mantras,” sacred words or phrases that are believed to induce altered states of awareness. Two of the best known are “Om” and “Ah.” In many instances, the practice is to repeatedly say the mantra aloud.

Watching your breath. Particularly once you’ve mastered one of the preceding methods, this is one of the more effective techniques. Sit erect with your hands in your lap. Concentrating on your lower abdomen/pelvis, pay attention to your breath as you breathe in deeply and fully. If possible, hold your breath for a moment. Then breathe out completely, and again hold your breath briefly. Don’t hyperventilate. The goal is to move a lot of air but very slowly, with pauses at the end of inspiration and exhalation when comfortable.

Avoid meditation traps

  • Suddenly you feel suckered. You realize that I’ve tricked you into wasting your time doing something really dumb. All your friends and relatives will tease you for falling for this! How could you have been so stupid, so gullible?
  • Or you find yourself wondering if you’ve left on the gas on the stove. Is that smell coming from something burning in the oven? What’s that noise? Did I forget to lock the front door? Did the dogs get into the trash again? Ohmygod! Is that my car alarm going off?
  • I know I’m supposed to stay still but my nose really itches. I need to fidget. My leg is starting to go numb. How could anyone sit still like this for ten minutes?
  • I can’t believe I forgot to pay the gas bill. They’ll probably turn off the gas tomorrow, next week at the latest. Did I deposit my paycheck? Am I sure I have enough money in my account?
  • Am I doing this right? This seems so dumb. I always screw everything up. I know I must have been dumb again. Probably this is the wrong meditation technique for me, anyway. There must be a guru out there somewhere who can teach me something that will really work for me, for God’s sake. Why am I putting up with this?
  • What’s the point of this anyway? How do I know when I’ve gotten something out of it? This seems like a complete waste of time.

Later, when you’ve been meditating for a while, you may stumble upon some of the following:

  • Man, this is great. I’m really silent. My thoughts have stopped completely!
  • When am I going to see God/experience Jesus/become enlightened? I know I’m doing all the right things and nothing’s happened! Maybe this is it, all that’s supposed to happen. What a pain in the ass.
  • My god, I just had the most incredible spiritual experience. This is unbelievable. God is speaking to me directly.

The old adage is that when any of the above happens, just keep meditating. It will go away.

The purpose of our egos is to worry about our survival, reduce pain, and enhance pleasure. But in order to do its job, it has to turn every experience into a survival issue: a threat we have to avoid or a goodie we must grab. This is nowhere clearer than during meditation, when the survival messages become ridiculous. Over and over, you find yourself obsessed with things that aren’t real and don’t matter. You fear you’re losing control, which of course is the point: giving your ordinary consciousness a few minutes off.

I like the analogy that you’re sitting quietly in a living room watching the opposite wall, which has two doors. Every few minutes a gaudily dressed clown walks in through the left-hand door and tries to grab your attention, take your hand and get you to dance. After a bit you realize it’s just another clown. You let go, sit down, and return to your meditation. The clown exits through the right-hand door. The next clown comes in through the left-hand door, in an even more bizarre costume. Rinse and repeat.

Perhaps a more helpful analogy is to imagine you’re walking through a beautiful city park with your favorite 3-year-old niece or nephew. You love this kid like crazy, and you especially appreciate his/her spirit. Today your intention is to walk through the park to the other side, and not just wander around like you usually do. So you have a purpose and someplace to go. As you walk, he/she runs off to pet the bunnies. Gently and lovingly, you say, “No, honey, come back, we’re walking through the park.” After a moment she does so and you resume your walk.

Then he dashes off to roll in the grass. Again, “No, honey, come back, we’re walking through the park,” and you’re together again. A few moments later she stops to smell the flowers. He stands transfixed as someone’s blowing bubbles into the incandescent sun. She wants to join in a rousing game of Frisbee. Each time, you remind him with great affection, “No, honey, come back, we’re walking through the park.” You resume your walk.

From time to time you will have genuine moments of silence. With practice the silence becomes longer, deeper, and more reliable.

Meditation books and tapes

I recommend listening to meditation instruction rather than just reading about it. The problem with the written word is there’s no context, just content, which makes it harder to figure it out. My favorite source of audiotapes is Sounds True Audio in Boulder, Colorado. You can order online or via 1(800) 333-9185 Mondays through Saturdays. Though many bookstores carry their sets of tapes and CDs, you’re better off ordering directly. They have a lifetime no-questions-asked guarantee, so if you order something it turns out you don’t like, you can return it for a full refund. They offer spiritual instruction and inspiration from a variety of traditions, so you ought to be able to find something suitable. To my mind theirs is the best stuff available, which means about half of it is worthwhile.

If you prefer to read, here are some books you may find helpful:

  • Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield (available as a book, Audio CD, DVD, or videotape. If you get the audio version, be sure it’s unabridged)
  • How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence Leshan
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Stages of Meditation by Dalai Lama, et al
  • Spiritual Direction and Meditation by Thomas Merton