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A guide to meditation for people who think they can’t meditate

The no-rules approach to building a meditation practice.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

If you’ve ever, in an anxiety-induced haze, googled ways to reduce your stress, it’s quite possible the internet has suggested you meditate. A regularly discussed antidote to our demanding times, meditation is a mental and physical exercise meant to help cultivate qualities like mindfulness, inner peace, or spiritual enlightenment. You may have even scoffed at the idea: Who has time for meditation, anyway? Who can possibly quiet their mind for that long?

A common meditation misconception, according to Marvin G. Belzer, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA, is that you must totally clear your mind to reap the benefits of the practice. “The mind, at times, will be racing,” says Belzer, who is also the associate director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. “If we try to fight the thoughts to make them stop, that’s a losing battle.” Instead of squashing a wandering mind, Belzer says to focus thoughts elsewhere: on the breath, the body, ambient sounds.

At its core, meditation is fairly straightforward. While there are many types of meditation — like transcendental meditation, mindfulness meditation, and spiritual meditation — most have a central similarity: focusing your attention on your breath, the sounds around you, or your body movements.

Meditation doesn’t need to be an inherently spiritual practice, says Dawn Mauricio, a Buddhist and mindfulness meditation teacher. Many people are drawn to meditation for the benefits beyond the spiritual. Regular meditation has been linked to improved anxiety and depression, chronic pain, and insomnia, according to research. Over time, you’ll develop more mindfulness, too, Belzer says. Mindfulness, he says, is the ability to be aware of what’s happening in the present moment and can be applied not only to meditation but to other areas of life, from conversations to household tasks.

“Mindfulness is the byproduct of our meditation practice,” says Shawn Moore, a meditation teacher and mindfulness educator. “You cultivate mindfulness from your meditation practice and you can carry that mindfulness into the things that you do every day.”

Those looking to dip a toe into the pool of mindfulness shouldn’t worry about dedicating a lot of time or space — physically and mentally — to meditation. (Or feel overwhelmed by the plethora of meditation apps out there.) All you need is a few minutes, a little bit of focus, and maybe an app (if you want), experts say.

Before you start, determine when, where, why, and for how long you’ll be meditating

The best meditation practice is a consistent one, Moore says. “It’s better to meditate in smaller increments more consistently,” he says, “than to inconsistently meditate for a really long time.” Figure out what time of day makes the most sense for you to meditate. Moore dedicates time in the early morning; you might want to settle in for a few minutes after lunch or before bed. Think about what works best with your schedule and routine.

Meditation doesn’t need to be a huge time suck to be effective. Belzer recommends setting aside three to five minutes every day to the practice. Even if you’re stretched for time, just a few minutes a day can help cultivate mindfulness, experts say. The days you’re feeling the most frazzled and short on attention are probably the moments when you need to take a step back and meditate. “Our meditation practice creates that opportunity for us to slow down and get an aerial view of what’s happening in our mind,” Moore says, “to start to make more conscious choices around what we’re observing, what we’re seeing, and what we’re experiencing.”

As for the location, experts stress that you can meditate anywhere — on a bus, at your desk during the workday, in your bed, while you wait for a pot of pasta to boil. However, it can be helpful to have a dedicated space for meditation, says Andre Humphrey, the founder of Inner City Bliss, an organization providing trauma-informed mindfulness and meditation programs in the Bay Area. “It’s good for habit-building,” Humphrey says. Whether it’s a corner of your child’s nursery or your garage, you can create a calming scene with pillows, a blanket, candles, sage, incense, crystals — whatever makes you feel calm. You’ll want this place to be relatively quiet and free of distractions, Belzer says. If this sounds like too much work, that’s fine; a dedicated meditation space is a nice-to-have, not a prerequisite.

You may be more inclined to stick with a meditation practice if you can articulate why you want to meditate, Humphrey says. Do you want to be more mindful in conversations with loved ones? Are you looking to minimize anxiety? Do you need help falling asleep? “Once you figure out your why, you’ll be more motivated to continue to meditate,” Humphrey says.

As a result, you may become a better listener, avoid freakouts while driving, or not let feelings of anxiety cloud your thoughts. “It’s not that the anxiety gets any less intense, but sometimes we can see more clearly,” Mauricio says. “Suddenly, we can see the thoughts that are spiraling that are making us more anxious. Then we realize, wait a second, I don’t have to buy into all of these.”

You don’t need much to meditate — but apps can help

Just as a meditation space isn’t essential, you don’t need any fancy cushions, yoga mats, or special clothes to effectively meditate. You can grab a pillow from your couch or bed if you want to sit on the floor or use other items in your home, like a chair or your bed. “Do you have a favorite hoodie? Do you have a favorite blanket?” Moore says. “Bringing those things into your practice really helps ground you.”

Beginners will find meditation much more accessible when they’re being guided either by a teacher or by a recording. “If someone just sits down to [meditate], it can seem like how in the world could this possibly help?” Belzer says. “That’s where the impact of a teacher or a group can be good, just to help us feel confident.” Belzer recommends the UCLA Mindful app, with free recordings walking you through each meditation. Other meditation apps like Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and Headspace offer guided meditations but require a yearly subscription. YouTube and Spotify are also good options for free meditations, but make sure you’re choosing one from a trusted channel, like Headspace, Goodful, and Calm. If you’d rather have an instructor in the room with you, you can search for local meditation or yoga studios for group classes.

What to do when you’re meditating

You’ve set aside time to meditate in your bedroom after dinner and chose a guided meditation. Now what? First, tell the people you live with — roommates, partner, children, parents — not to disturb you for a few minutes. Make sure the room is relatively quiet and free of distractions — that means turning off notifications on your phone, closing the door so pets can’t get in, and keeping the TV off.

Popular culture frequently depicts meditation posture as sitting on the ground cross-legged. But this can be uncomfortable, and chances are you’ll focus on your discomfort instead of your breath, Mauricio says. The best meditation posture is one that is comfortable: standing up, lying down, sitting in a chair. “When I first started meditating,” Humphrey says, “I meditated lying down for years.”

Begin the meditation session and follow the instructions. If you feel your mind wandering — to your to-do list, to a twinge in your side, to birds chirping — simply acknowledge whatever has caught your attention and then focus again on your breath, Belzer says. This is what helps build mindfulness: simply addressing what’s happening without judging it or trying to change it.

Remember, the goal isn’t to turn off your brain, but to let go of thoughts as they arise. “It’s about not getting caught up in the content of thoughts,” Mauricio says. “We’re not trying to stop thinking, but just don’t get caught in them.”

Don’t worry if your thoughts diverge multiple times or you don’t feel calm. Just like with any hobby or activity, there will be some days that feel better than others, Moore says. “If you sit and you get frustrated, cool, that was Monday’s practice,” he says, “What does it feel like Tuesday? What does it feel like Wednesday?”

Falling asleep while meditating is completely normal, Humphrey says. “If you fall asleep during a meditation, that’s an even better meditation because you were in deep relaxation,” he says, “and ultimately, that’s the goal.” However, those prone to dozing off while meditating might not want to practice in the middle of the workday.

What to do if you get frustrated and want to quit

Belzer frequently encounters people who tried meditation in the past but gave it up because they couldn’t clear their mind and believed they were not meditating correctly. “You’ve had a false belief about meditation, that you were failing and that you couldn’t do it,” he says. “Because you were trying to do something impossible and something that we don’t really need to do.”

If you think you lack the time or concentration to dedicate to meditation, try focusing on an object in the distance. Belzer instructs students to keep their attention on his hand should they claim they can’t focus.

Mauricio recommends trying a specific meditation practice for 10 to 14 days. If you still don’t feel calm or centered, try changing the time of day, location, or duration of your meditation.

While meditation can minimize depression and anxiety, it’s not a panacea for all that ails you. You may still feel anxious or agitated after a session and perhaps need to pair meditation with therapy, Moore says.

Give yourself credit for showing up and focusing on your breathing for a few minutes. Any new hobby can be difficult at times, especially one that requires mental focus. Be kind to yourself throughout the process. “We might hold ourselves to a high standard in our practice, because that is what helps us succeed in our daily life,” Mauricio says. “In our practice, the mind will wander — that is not a problem.”

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