The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Basic Pattern to Most Meditation

There are hundreds of types of meditation — maybe thousands. But most of them have a simple pattern.

1) Do something.

2) When you notice you aren’t doing that thing, go back to doing it.

Breath meditation:

  1. Follow the sensations of your breath.
  2. When you notice you aren’t paying attention to your breath, go back to paying attention to your breath.

All types of concentration meditation are similar. Here’s mantra meditation:

  1. Say a mantra (a series of words) over and over again, either out loud or mentally.
  2. When you notice you aren’t saying the mantra, or aren’t paying attention to it, go back to the mantra.

Discursive meditation (beloved by Western ritual mages, but not exclusively):

  1. Pick something to think about.
  2. When you notice you aren’t thinking about it, go back to the last thought you had that was on topic and continue.


  1. Sense a feeling in the body. Mentally say what it is: “itch, pressure, warmth, happy, love, fear, hatred.” Go on to the next sensation you notice.
  2. Notice you are no longer doing the above, go back to it.


  1. Find or generate a loving feeling.
  2. Concentrate on that loving feeling.
  3. If you notice you aren’t concentrating on it go back to it. If you notice it’s gone away, generate it again.

Do-nothing meditation (just sitting, Mahamudra, etc…):

  • Don’t try to control your attention.
  • Notice when you are are controlling or intend to control attention. Don’t.

Of course there are details, and techniques and subtleties, but if you just remember “do something, notice I’m not doing it, go back to it” and stick to it you can make a lot of progress. This also means that you shouldn’t switch meditation types mid-season — that would break the “go back to it” part.

Notice here that the important part is “notice when I’m not doing it.” This develops “meta-attention” which is the ability to know what you’re doing. It may seem like you know what you’re doing all the time, but a few minutes of attempting to concentrate on your breath or an object should convince you otherwise.

This also develops your ability follow your intention; it trains your mind to do what you want it to do. All we really have is our intentions, but, as we know from when we decide to do something and fail, it isn’t actually easy.

Now, of course, what you intend to do and do matters. Different types of meditation have different effects. But most types of meditation have a loop which is, at its heart, really this simple even if you intend to do multiple things, like sit in a specific way, or have the tip of your tongue touching the roof of your mouth and have your hands resting on your knees with forefinger and thumb touching while doing nothing else, or concentrating on your breath or whatever.

The basics really are this simple, though the permutations are vast.



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  1. Joan

    Ian’s point a couple of posts ago about how meditation can make unresolved mental health issues worse is a very good one, and one I have personal experience with. If you’re ignoring taking control over your own life, getting out from under the control of an abusive parent, and taking care of yourself, then your mind might try to insist you tend to yourself by means of panic attacks. If you then pursue mindfulness meditation to try and get rid of the panic attacks without solving any of the things that led to them, then the mind will keep bringing it up again and it’ll get worse.

  2. Ché Pasa


    It’s a great luxury to be able to “just sit” (as in zazen) or engage in other forms of meditation as a means to recognize, accept or clear emotions, thoughts, sensations, etc., and truly, no matter what gurus might say, it’s not for everyone.

    Ian’s series on meditation has been a valuable reminder to me of my own journey, why and how. We can practice for a lifetime and never find enlightenment, and that’s ok. Keep practicing if you can (with caveats as mentioned). No harm, no foul.

  3. Stirling S Newberry

    Mediation goes beyond rationality.

  4. Willy

    As a kid it seemed that everybody was into self-improvement since changing the world through “peace and love” had failed. So why not improve yourself instead? I subscribed to a course and failed badly, with anxieties only increasing because I couldn’t get rid of them no matter how hard I tried… which led to depression.

    Years later I met a successful financial advisor who after retirement, began experiencing debilitating anxiety attacks. It was only after he joined into social activities, not easy for a deeply thinking introvert, did these subside. One activity was leading his community organization in its fight against a multinational energy company and their lawyers trying to put high tension power lines down their attractive neighborhood boulevard. (They succeeded in achieving a compromise, laminated wooden poles down one side instead of ugly metal ones right down the middle greenbelt destroying all the landscaping.)

    I think his mental state improved because his new goals moved his thoughts away from his natural born anxiety. He’d already developed some skill at this through his career, since the best technical performers (self-employed unless lucky enough to have good employers) have usually disciplined their future-thinking anxieties into a caution which enhances expertise. (It’s usually the fearless Dunning Krugers who leap without looking, straight into failure, or become grifters.)

    I think meditation works best if used in conjunction with goal setting activities, provided one always self-endorses after every success, and disciplines sessions of lessons-learned after any failure.

  5. Jessica

    To “go back to doing it”, I would add “go back to doing it without making any kind of big deal about it”. Blaming oneself or trying to figure out why you stopped or anything like that is not “going back to doing it”.
    Just mentioning it because the first time that bit was explained in a way that got through to me, it made a big difference. Big enough that I can picture the time and place, yo these many years later.

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