Interest in meditation has grown a lot since I originally wrote this introduction for Quora back in 2010. There are now thousands of books on various contemplative practices—enough to give anyone beginner's paralysis.
Luckily, getting started with mindfulness meditation is quite easy. Here's how:
Sit on the floor with your back straight, but not tense. Use a pillow or chair, if you need one to get comfortable.
Close your eyes and be aware of your breathing.
When you notice thoughts popping into your head, acknowledge them and let them go.1
If you get stuck focusing on a thought, try counting your breaths.2
Do this for as long as you want. Set a timer if you want to meditate for a certain length of time.
That's really all it takes to get started with mindfulness meditation. Don't worry if you're bombarded with thoughts during your first few sessions. The first time I tried meditation, my mind was such a jumble of concerns that I gave up after 20 seconds. You'll quickly learn to let those thoughts go and in no time you'll be meditating for 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, and soon, longer than 20 minutes.
As you learn to put your everyday thoughts aside, you may find that new thoughts begin to arise. Those new thoughts may help you learn about yourself, your relationships and your surroundings. With practice, you may even begin to feel a greater sense of peace and connectedness with the universe and everything in it. (As with anything, there are aspects of meditation that seem a little crazy to people who've never done it before. Don't let this stop you from getting started.)
When you're ready to learn more, I recommend the Introduction to Meditation course taught by Gil Fronsdal at the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California. The sessions from that course are free and available online.
These five steps are all you need to start practicing mindfulness meditation.
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For example, if you notice that you're hungry, acknowledge it and release the thought from your mind. It you don't release it, you'll construct a conversation of follow-up questions in your head about what you're going to eat, where you'll get the food, who you'll eat with, etc. ↩
Just count "1" while breathing in through your nose, and "2" while exhaling out through your mouth. 1, 2, 1, 2, over and over. This will help you move past thoughts that are stuck in your head. ↩