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The ABCs of Zen

A beginner's guide to meditation

JF Benoist is a Hawaii-based counselor who's worked with people struggling with addiction, mental health and relationship issues for over 20 years.

July 6, 2023 3:21 pm

There are many tools out there to help you get into meditation — from courses to apps (I’ve had success with the 4-4-6 breathing method (in for 4, hold for 4, out for 6) and don’t get me started on the amazing Headspace) — but before you start your own journey, it helps to have a basic understanding of the practice. To that end, we reached out to JF Benoist, the founder of Avive la Vie, a holistic wellness center, and author of Addicted to the Monkey Mind, a best-selling book on mindfulness. Here’s his quick primer on getting started. Ready, set, g-om.

It’s all about breathing

A basic beginner breathing technique is to imagine that you have a balloon stretched from your belly button to your chest. Breathing in through your nose, you want to fill up the balloon. Start filling it at the bottom, by your belly button, moving up to your chest. Once it’s inflated, breathe out, and start the process again.

Time is of the essence

I think 15-20 minutes is ideal, but it’s important that you work your way up to it. For someone just starting out, I’d recommend doing two minutes once or twice a day, then five when you’re comfortable, then ten. And so on. Ideally, I’d recommend breathing twice a day — right when you wake up and just before you go to sleep.

Sitting cross-legged is overrated

A lot of people think that sitting cross-legged is the best way to meditate — I’ve found that isn’t true for many. Instead, I recommend sitting in a chair with a straight back. I like to sit near the front of the chair, so I’m in a more active position of breathing, rather than simply “sitting.” The key is to have your chest and upper body upright, while supporting your legs and the rest of your body.

Beware of a common mistake

Too often, people unconsciously hold an agenda; they want to meditate to be happier or more enlightened or calmer. But meditation is a practice of witnessing — witnessing our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and breath — and remaining present in your body as you breathe. If someone is trying to get a specific outcome from meditating, they’re going to be disappointed.

Stick with it

One of the hardest things to overcome is allowing yourself the time and space to meditate. When you first start meditating, you’ll notice your mind will start coming up with excuses for other things you should be doing. Our minds are very good at persuading us that meditating isn’t worth the time. But this is a case of practice — once you’ve completed several meditation sessions and can start to feel the calming effects afterwards, you’ll experience firsthand its importance. Another tip is to always use a timer. Our mind will try to tell us it’s time to stop, so commit yourself to sit and breathe until the alarm goes off.

Let it happen

It’s a common misunderstanding people have with meditation — that we should attempt to control what the mind thinks. You don’t want to control your mind during meditation. You simply want to witness what thoughts come up. Sure, sometimes you’ll go down a path of thinking how you need to throw in a load of laundry or send an email, and that’s okay. The skill to try and develop is to be able to have those thoughts, and then come back to being in the present moment and focusing on your breath.

A Zen Master isn’t made overnight

What helped me the most when I started meditating was telling myself that this wasn’t going to be easy — that for 15 minutes, I was going to be uncomfortable. This sounds counterintuitive, as we’re normally looking to do things that make us feel good. But when I told myself this, I knew what to expect. Then, after I was done meditating, I could reap the rewards that naturally accompany meditation, like feeling calmer and more at peace. (Though again, these are pleasant side effects and not the reasons I was meditating.)

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