Unlike other so-called “spiritual practices,” mindfulness meditation does not require one to forfeit reason. It does not require belief in karma, rebirth, chakras, or Deepak Chopra. It simply requires a trait woefully lacking in the cell-phone-driven, distraction-obsessed world we live in: close, intimate and nonjudgemental attention to the present moment.*
And unlike other philosophical insights one might gain from reading a book or taking a class, mindfulness meditation can only be experienced. It is not a purely intellectual exercise. It is like the difference between reading a book on sex or actually having it.
There seems to be very little evidence that sitting on the floor or in traditional postures such as full lotus holds any particular benefit. If it is more comfortable, or you find you can stay alert and focused better on the floor, then do it. Otherwise, sit in a chair comfortably and upright, like this:
2. Pay attention to your breath
There is a good reason to pay attention to your breath during meditation: It is happening at every moment and thus seems to act like an anchor to the present.
The breath also has the quality of being both in your control and not in your control. For meditation, it is best to simply let the breath flow in and out, observing it as though you are watching waves on the beach.
Pick a point where you notice the breath, either in the rise and fall of your abdomen, or the soft coolness at your nostrils.
3. Return to the breath. Watch the machine.
The human mind is a machine of chaos. Its natural state is to be thinking—churning up old memories, fantasizing about a future activity, or judging and qualifying whatever it likes or doesn’t like. But there is another state to be in, one which sees the mind machine but does not move to pull its levers. This state is called mindfulness, and it is meditation’s “goal”—although that word falls feebly short.
The old arcade machines gave us something that modern video games do not—a prerecorded session of play that would run on a continuous loop until someone came along and put a quarter in. What meditation asks you to do is simply resist the urge to put a quarter in. Watch closely, and you’ll see that the machine plays itself.
This is an insight that comes slowly, over the course many of sessions, and is strengthened each time you return your focus to the breath.
4. Keep sitting
As you attempt to focus on your breath, a tornado of thoughts and distractions will swirl through your mind:
“What am I gonna have for lunch today? Should I eat a sandwich or salad? Should I go Paleo? What happens if…”
“My head itches.” (breath).
“I’m so bored. How do I know this meditation thing is working? I’m probably doing it wrong and…”
And on and on. It is likely to continue like that for many sessions, and in a way, it never actually stops doing that. It’s just that over time it becomes easier to drop back and watch it happen, like eavesdropping on a conversation rather than being at the center of it. It is not clear what the optimal amount of time for meditation is. Considering the general stupor that most of walk around in, it is safe to say that “some” is better than “none.” It will also depend on your temperment, and, I suspect, how quickly you see benefits from it and where you are at in your life generally. A good starting point is 10 to 15 minutes a day, although I would encourage you to occasionally, gently push yourself a bit further.
* Mindfulness, or being “present” is not to be confused with its adolescent cousin—that attitude young people take when they say, “I live for the moment,” and then proceed to make irresponsible decisions that disregard their safety or well-being in the future. There is certainly a difference between living in the moment and living for the moment. The latter is not mindfulness.