If you have questions about meditation, you’re not alone–and you’ve come to the right place. This FAQ will expand over time, so if you don’t see your question here (or don’t like our answer), please contact us.
Q: I can’t sit longer than five minutes. How do I sit still?
A: As with anything else in life, meditation just takes practice. There’s no real trick to it other than that. A lot of people have trouble sitting still for one minute, so consider yourself ahead of the curve. But if you remind yourself that learning how to meditate properly is like exercising a new muscle, then you’ll be more patient with yourself when you don’t instantly get the results you want.
This practice just takes time, effort, and commitment. Commit to sitting still for five minutes, day after day, until you’re ready to try for six. If you don’t make it the first time, try again the next day. Eventually, if you’re serious enough, you will learn how to sit as still as a Buddha for as long as you want.
Q: Do I need to be still to meditate? What about meditating while walking, running, or while engaged in simple chores?
A: No, you don’t need to be still to meditate–but it helps. A lot. Nevertheless, there is plenty of benefit to be found through bringing what the Buddhists call “mindfulness” to your activities whenever you can, and walking, running, or dishwashing are great opportunities to try it. Just pay attention to whatever you’re doing, bringing your awareness to every nuance of what you’re feeling and how you’re moving, absorbing yourself fully in the present moment and remaining undistracted by your thoughts.
If you find yourself daydreaming, bring your attention back to your body–to your footsteps, to the sound of your shoes on the pavement, or to your relaxed and steady breathing as you scrub intractable grime off a pan. In his book A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle calls this awakening to “stillness” and finding one’s “inner purpose.” No matter what you’re doing outwardly, he says, you should try to remain inwardly attentive to the unmovable essence of your being.
Q: If I choose to practice sitting meditation, does it matter if I sit on a traditional cushion or in a chair?
A: Not really. But you may find that sitting in a traditional cross-legged posture helps (it’s been done that way for thousands of years for a reason). The most important things are to be comfortable, so you can completely relax, and to keep your spine straight, so you can stay alert and awake (and so you don’t hurt your back).
Q: What do I do if I experience pain in my legs or back?
A: Even when trying to be perfectly still, it’s okay to adjust your body a little bit if you absolutely have to. But generally, any physical pain diminishes over time as your body gets used to sitting in that posture for extended periods. If you’ve been at it for a long time and still experience pain, then you may want to try a different posture, such as sitting on a chair or kneeling on a wooden meditation bench.
Q: Do I need a meditation teacher or can I learn how to meditate properly on my own?
A: If you’re asking if you need to seek the services of a professional meditator, yoga instructor, or spiritual master before you can start meditating, then the answer is no. You can learn the basics from this website or from many books and videos on the subject. But if you’re asking if a meditation teacher would help you more than books alone, then the answer is most definitely yes.
Trying to learn meditation on your own, by yourself, from a book or website is not all that different from trying to learn yoga or martial arts that way. You can get the basics down with enough practice, but to really explore the deeper dimensions of the practice, you typically need an in-person, expert guide to the territory.
Q: What’s a good length of time to meditate in order to actually reap the benefits of the practice?
A: This really varies from individual to individual, depending on where you’re at in your development in the practice of meditation. For beginners, trying to meditate for even five minutes straight is good, and twenty minutes is fantastic. For the more experienced, pushing yourself to the one-hour mark is significant, and trying for 90-sessions is admirable. Many meditation centers break their sessions into either 45- or 60-minute periods, punctuated by leg stretches and bathroom breaks. But the general rule is: The more you put in, the more you’re going to get back.
Q: Is it better to meditate on one’s own or with other people?
A: Both are needed to experience the full dimensions of the practice. If you have the opportunity to meditate with others—or even with one other person—then you should take it, because mutual support only helps, and meditating with others can also reveal new depths of meditation through the subtle “field” of consciousness that is generated between everyone. But don’t become so dependent on the support of others that you begin to lose your own independent strength and autonomy in the practice.
Often you’ll find it more tempting to scratch an itch or move around on your cushion when you know that no one is looking and you won’t be disturbing anyone but yourself. But learning to independently maintain your own internal resolve, willpower, and stillness when you’re all alone is a guaranteed way to build deep self-confidence and self-reliance through the practice of meditation.
Q: How does anyone find the time to meditate? I, for one, am incredibly busy.
A: Like all things in life, this is ultimately just a matter of priorities. If you realize that meditation actually provides you with important training for life, then you’ll start to see it as less of a hobby and more of an essential component of your daily routine, even if it’s only for five minutes in the morning when you wake up or before you go to bed at night. Everyone is busier than ever these days, but those who have tasted the power and benefits of a consistent meditation practice just make the decision that it’s something they can’t afford to skip.
Q: Is it better to meditate in the morning or evening?
A: This is a matter of personal preference. But if you can’t decide which works best for you, why not try both?
Q: Should I be chanting a mantra while I meditate? What do I do while sitting still?
Q: Is it better to meditate with my eyes open or closed? If I close them, I tend to fall asleep.
A: This is another matter of personal taste, but it’s often easier when starting out to keep your eyes open, or at least partially open. If you’re sitting on a cushion on the floor, try placing a grain of rice or a small pebble on the floor in front of you and keeping your eyes half-opened, gently gazing only at that small object and nothing else. Closing your eyes does increase the likelihood of getting lost in mental fantasies and thoughts, as well as falling asleep, but it’s also a good way to learn to train your attention and stay focused. So…experiment with it and see!
Q: I can’t stop my mind. I just keep thinking and thinking no matter what I try.
A: Congratulations! You are officially a human being. The idea that you should be able to stop your mind completely is a common myth in spiritual circles, and while there are some arguments to be made for it, it’s generally not the case at all. Read this for more on the topic.
Q: I don’t know if I’m actually meditating or not. How can I tell if I’m actually meditating?
A: Is your breathing relaxed and regular, and is the tension in your body slowly disappearing even as you remain perfectly still? Are you deeply relaxed, completely at ease, and at the same time fully awake and attentive? Does your awareness feel wide-open, spacious, and without any clear boundaries? Do thoughts and feelings come and go freely, as you find yourself able to observe them, detached, not getting caught up and lost in them? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then you’re probably meditating properly and on the right track!
by Thomas Dixon
About the Author: Thomas is a freelance writer, student of martial arts, and an avid practitioner of meditation. He has been practicing for over 15 years in the traditions of Zen Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta, and also cites Adi Da as one of his primary spiritual influences. Thomas contributes articles on the fine points of how to meditate. He comes to About Meditation with a passion for writing about the nuts and bolts of how to meditate. You can read more of his work at www.aboutmeditation.com.