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How to Meditate 101

Odin with the ravens Thought and Memory

I get questions on this, so here it is. This is basic concentration meditation (Shamatha) but it will lead to insights.

Try to do it regularly. If you can do only five minutes, that’s fine, but push towards an hour to to two hours a day. Treat it like exercise, you’re training your mind, just like you’d train your body.

Step One: Choose an object of attention. Standard Buddhist is your breath. Standard Hindu is a mantra – words you speak or think (move towards thinking them) while paying attention to the sound of them. If you use a mantra it should be something emotionally neutral or unalloyed positive (don’t meditate on God, say, if you fear going to hell).

I suggest breath, but some mantras are:

  • “Roots” (an emotionally neutral word)
  • Om Mani Padme Hum
  • Om Nama Shivaya
  • Om Ah Bee Lah Hung Chit (Vairocana mantra)

If you use a mantra, you should do so with the breath. One syllable or word should be said or thought on the exhale or inhale.

If you use the breath, attention stays on the negative part of it–when you’re not breathing.

Step Two: Intend to notice when you are no longer paying attention to the object of attention.

Step Three: Put your attention lightly on the objection of attention.

Step Four: At some point, you will notice that you are not paying attention to the object. Pat yourself on the back for noticing that you aren’t paying attention the breath. Be pleased. Then:

  • Look at whatever you’re now paying attention to, appreciate it for a second or two without judgment, then think to yourself either “this isn’t important,” or “I’ll deal with this after meditating”.
  • Move your attention back to your object of attention.


Do this for either as long as you can stand to, or a predetermined time (set an alarm).

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You should do this with your spine straight. You can sit on the ground, in a stiff backed chair, on lie on your side with  your knees drawn up. Sitting without support has the advantage that if you start to fall asleep, falling will make you wake up. That said, due to illness I did almost all my meditation lying flat on my back for years, which is not how you’re supposed to do it. It isn’t as important as doing it.

This style of meditation is training your meta-attention: Training you to notice when you have stopped paying attention to the object of attention. You can do it with any object of attention: homework, your little finger, staring at a fire, watching a boring presentation, work you’d rather not do, the feeling of the position of your body as you walk, etc.

So you can do it during your daily life if you wish. Just decide what you should be paying attention to, intend to notice when you stop, be pleased that you notice, decide that whatever grabbed your attention isn’t important or can wait, and go back to your original object of attention.

Eventually you will get to the point where you rarely lose attention on your chosen object, at that point you’re actually pretty accomplished, but there’s further to go. At that point (or if you’re interested), the best book I’ve read on this style of meditation is The Mind Illuminated, by Culdassa.

This sort of meditation will lead to important insights about your mind, as well, by the way: how it works, who you are, and so on. It’s not unalloyed “concentration,” it includes insight.

Enjoy. (If this is popular enough, I’ll do a second article on how to improve your ability to concentrate.)

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  1. ktron

    Thank you for yet another thoughtful post .

    “ the ravens Thought and Memory”

    are aka Huginn and Muninn

  2. mago

    Too heady, amigo, for straight up shamata meditation practice, but thanks.

  3. You should not worry about whether “they” like it. Just do it. Again. Again. Again.

  4. Ian Welsh

    People who like things, tend to do more of them. Positive reinforcement works.

  5. I have been pondering of late Hawkins’ hundred year warning and wondering if it were indeed possible to torch off Jove and warm those planets for habitation, and how long it would take. I’m not sure we have the time. Whatever form depopulization takes will require sealed habitats wherever: surface, sub-surface or orbital for generations unforseen, regardless where.

    I am of the persuasion that were we to make that step and eventually beyond we remain behind encourage the eventual debate of just we came from.

  6. George Vockroth

    Hi Ian, Your instructions here, which I intend to pass along to potentially interested parties, offer a concise and practical summary of Culadasa’s approach. In the context of my own practice I found this line of yours interesting -“If you use the breath, attention stays on the negative part of it: when you’re not breathing.” Though it may not be what you intended, I take it to mean that one’s attention is focused or grounded in the pause at the bottom of one’s exhalation, before the next inhalation. In my experience, this pause is a place of still awareness, relative to both the sensory content of active respiration, and the arising of any cognitive/emotive content (as in the genesis of mind-wandering in relation to either internal or external perception). It is also the place that with sufficiently stabilized attention, (concentration) such arising is instantly recognized (clarity), and released (equanimity). Which is to say, it is the means by which one comes to discover and cultivate continuous meta-cognitive attention/awareness, or mindfulness in the broadest sense of the term, (sati-sampajanna) leading to meditative insight. All, with proper motivation and intention, from attention to, “when you’re not breathing.”

  7. Ian Welsh

    Yes, the use of the word “intention” is very specifically Culdassa, though the general instructions are what you also get from the crowd around Shinzen.

    The non-breathing point, as you say, is the point of cessation, and the longer it goes on the more likely you are to get insight, it’s also a place where thoughts/sensations are least likely to arise, so it’s a good place to dwell. In time breath dies down so much that between breath is most of the time but even before then one can extend it a bit if one wants, I used to do that quite a bit, with good results.

    No breath is the most important part of following the breath. 🙂

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