How to Start a Meditation/Mindfulness Practice

The human brain is naturally distractible, and our phones are making it even harder for us to maintain our focus on one thing for more than a few seconds at a time. Thankfully, it’s possible to reverse these effects.

One of the most effective ways to do so is to start a meditation practice. Why? Because meditation specifically trains you to maintain your focus on one thing (usually some aspect of the present moment, such as your breath) for a sustained period of time.

If you have never tried meditation, there are some great apps that can help you get started. (I believe that this is a great use of your phone!) But a quick spoiler alert: meditation is not a blissful experience for most people. It’s hard, especially if you have been spending the past few years of your life training your brain to seek constant distraction. Success doesn’t mean managing to banish all thoughts from your mind. Success means noticing when your mind wanders—which it will—and then gently bringing it back, again and again and again.

I'm a big fan of 10% Happier, the meditation app created by Dan Harris from Good Morning America. Its subtitle is "meditation for fidgety skeptics," and it brings a real sense of humor and playfulness to mindfulness practice. (My favorite meditation on it so far is Jeff Harris's "Flush Your Thoughts.")

Another favorite app for beginners is Headspace. In its free version, Headspace offers a series of 10 ten-minute guided meditations designed to help people establish their own regular practices—and is an easy way to experiment with meditation to see if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing.

I also really like Insight Timer and The Mindfulness App. (The paid version of The Mindfulness App offers meditation challenges that feature meditations from well respected teachers such as Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg.)

As for guided meditations offered online, I recommend that beginners search for “Free Guided Meditation UCLA” and do the 5-minute “breathing meditation.”

Also, the University of California Los Angeles also offers 8–week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) courses that you can take online. The University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society also has a great searchable database of classes and teachers.

If you're the journaling type, you might want to check out a guided journal that I wrote called, appropriately enough, Mindfulness: A Journal. It has an introductory essay explaining mindfulness, and lots of writing prompts, exercises and quotes all designed to help you begin your own practice. 

And as a general happiness-building tool, I recommend Awakening Joy (both the book and the app) by James Baraz.

Lastly, if you’re looking to spend your newly strengthened attention span on a book about mindfulness, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.

For practical, tech-focused suggestions, I also recommend David Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Yale University Press, 2016) and Nancy Collier’s The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World (Sounds True, 2016).

There are many other great apps, books, and online resources available—if you'd like to leave additional suggestions, please do so in the comments section.