For a First Taste of Meditation, Just Start Paying Attention

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A woman meditates at sunset on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, California, on New Year's Eve, December 2010. Meditation can help calm your mind, make you grow more brain and slow the cognitive decline that comes with aging. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Meditation may calm your mind, make you grow more brain and slow the cognitive decline that comes with aging. But what if you don't have time to take a 10-day meditation retreat? Here are a few techniques to introduce yourself to mindfulness.

[Related: The Neuroscience of Meditation, and the Virtues of Shutting Up]

Start slow.

If you are reading this while sitting on the train or at your desk, direct your attention to your feet. Can you feel each toe and where it makes contact with the ground? What about the soles of your feet? Next, do the same with your hands: Notice how each finger feels on whatever surface they are resting. Go through them mentally one by one, pausing for a few seconds at each. Then try to feel them all at once. How does the air feel as it touches the skin on your hands?

Get interested in your breath.

Close your eyes in a quiet place and spend three continuous minutes focusing on your breath. Breathe normally through your nose. Which nostril is the air passing in and out of? (Fun fact: For most people, breath typically passes through only one nostril at any given time.) How does it feel? As you focus on your breathing, try to calm down your thoughts. If a thought comes up, try to put it aside and refocus on noticing the pace of your breath and how it feels.

Wake up your body.

When you wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed, spend a few minutes awake with your eyes closed. Direct your attention to each arm, then each leg and so on, focusing on how each section of your body feels. Can you feel where the blanket comes in contact with your skin? Does the foot outside the blanket feel cooler than the foot that's inside? Do they feel heavy? If some part of your body feels unpleasant, notice that too, but try not to let it bother you for a minute or two: Just acknowledge discomfort without feeling upset by it. Spread your attention over your body, in sections, pausing for a second or two to notice how each section feels. It's a great way to wake up and readjust to daytime life.

Don't worry about getting distracted, just try again.

If you get frustrated—maybe your mind won't stop wandering, or you keep opening your eyes—notice your frustration but don't get too wrapped up in it. Direct your attention back to your breath passing in and out of your nostrils, and start again. Meditation isn't easy, and your experience with it can vary from day to day. Why get upset? Just begin again.

Find a group to learn from.

Find a meditation circle in your town or city. If you live in a big urban hub, there's bound to be many groups out there, practicing several styles of meditation. Some may even work with a different technique each session. Most if not all will be free. It's a great way to get the support you need to learn to meditate properly.

For a First Taste of Meditation, Just Start Paying Attention | Culture