If you are not the religious sort and prayer is not your thing, there still is something that you can do to improve yourself that isn't so out there to make you have to believe something that can't be proven,
meditation clears the mind and enables you to focus and delve deeper into your own psyche, it helps you relax and gives you insight into being more successful in all aspects of your life, even if you are religious, it isn't something that would open you up to evil, it is a proven way to explore your own sub-conscience to resolve problems and expand your horizons,
if done properly, and often, it can also change aspects of your personality to enable you to be a better person, it can help heal what ales you and give you insights into things that normally you would never realize, I use it to work out complex problems that normally would confound me, it guides me to a healthier life and answers questions before I even ask them.
If you are planning to only live in the here and now, and this life is going to be the only one you are going to ever live, this practice can help you immensely, it can be like having another brain working for you while you sleep and even sometimes while you are awake, mostly it consists of relaxing completely, concentrating on your breathing and nothing else.
There are many techniques that can be followed, and I suggest that you try a few before you decide to stick with one, the mind is a highly under utilized wonder that has developed every cool thing on this planet and you can tap into it's power to help you in most every aspect of your life.
Meditation can help you no matter what your beliefs are, it can most definitely help you explore the unknown, positive results are proven and documented over the centuries, it is a first step in changing the way you are, it leads to self hypnosis which can program your mind into being the exact person you want to be,
I say self hypnosis for a few reasons, first, which is my biggest concern and that is I don't want anyone else in my mind besides me, my first self hypnosis sessions were used to insure this, where now I cannot be hypnotized by anyone other than myself, my second concern was that I wouldn't be able to afford having to go to someone every time I wanted to change something about myself and third, it is much more convenient to be able to hypnotize yourself anytime you please.
With a combination of both of these practices, you will be able to delve deep into your psyche, if you are one that has broad beliefs and wishes to develop some extrasensory abilities, this is an excellent practice.
I find that mental exercises such as these will work better if your body has somewhat better than good health, a good regular exercise regimen, helps with clarity of thought, it gives you a purpose,
now there is a slight variation to this if you believe in God or not, as prayer gives you another way to help tackle problems that ordinarily could not be handled otherwise, try to keep your negative thoughts somewhat repairable and try not to dwell on stuff out of your control.
For those of you that will be using meditation to contact your "true self", one thing that has eluded many after trying for years and years without success is quite simple and easily over looked, I had these problems also where it just seemed that no matter how hard I tried again and again, I just couldn't get where I wanted to be,
it was my diet, or to be more exact it was when I meditated, If I thought that I could meditate after dinner, I was wrong, The meal I just had was using the blood in my body to digest it, and it made my mind sluggish,
and if I thought that I would meditate just before I went to sleep, this didn't work out as I planned also, because more often than not I would just fall asleep. Meditation, although used to relax, must be done with great attention,
you really need to be awake and alert and not bogged down with a meal, this is why some people find meditation more effective when done in the morning, before you have had breakfast, but are awake enough to not still be groggy.
Buddha has suggested that a two meal day would make for a healthy life, where you would have breakfast and your second meal at noontime, this would be your last for the day, this would give your stomach plenty of time to digest your food and keep your mind clear for meditation in the evening,
now there are those lucky ones that can meditate almost anytime and anywhere after anything they wanted to eat was eaten, well good for them!, if you are getting up in the years, your metabolism is probably changing and your eating habits are also changing, never the less, meditation as a daily routine is very good for self realization and enlightenment.
As for positions to be in when you meditate, there are many to try, I do not think it would be bad to try as many as possible until you are comfortable with your results, basically, keeping your spine straight is the first priority,
whether you sit cross legged, half lotus or full lotus position, will have to be tried to tell what works best for you, it may be quite difficult to get into a full lotus position if you are not use to this or are getting up in the years, probably starting with the half lotus position until your legs and hips are use to the strain is a more wise idea,
although it seems that most of the adepts and Guru's in India prefer the full lotus position, even just sitting in a chair with your back straight has proven to be good for many people, I would not recommend laying down unless you are wide awake or you may just fall asleep.
The amount of time suggested for doing this would be at least 30 minutes, if you are also doing concentration exercises, I would split it up with the meditation as it is also a form of meditation.
The best results I have obtained was with deep breathing and focusing on one specific point, I like to focus on my third eye (my pineal gland), it looks like a small pine cone, I just picture it in detail,
I do not describe it to my self, use no thought words only the picture and nothing else, a prerequisite to this might be relaxing your entire body starting with your feet and working to the top of your head relaxing every portion one by one, soon you will be on your little meditation trip.
Now, Meditation does not have to be the horribly hard practice that has to be practiced daily for years before an insight into your true self (soul) is attained, it can also be a conduit into the universal consciousness,
it can be used to convey love, peace and kindness into the world where it is sorely needed. Be it called prayer or meditation, the result is the same, the increased vibration of good thoughts being sent to the world is a good thing and makes you feel good also,
It has been proven on many levels that this type of activity is beneficial to mankind, let alone to yourself.
A Point of Focus...
When it comes to meditation, there are a few things that I strive for and there are some preparatory measures that I take, this may not be necessary in all cases, but in my case I have certain distractions or problems that seem to interfere with my concentration, first off, I like to meditate first thing in the morning, before breakfast or any food is taken, I will have had the last food of the previous day eating before 7PM, I like to allow at least a 12 hour fast before any such activity is attempted due to the digestion process gets my false personality fueled for chaos.
Now this does not mean that you are limited to only mornings, evenings can and do work for many, just be sure you are not very tired as you don't just want to go to sleep.
A morning meditation has also worked for me because at the time of this writing I had a day job and it gave me a great start to the day, during the work week I would only meditate for 30 minutes, I would set a muffled timer ( as not to shock me) and start my meditation, on weekends I would set my timer to 1 hour.
Since I find it impossible to think of absolutely nothing, I use usually one of a few techniques for the entire session, this is done to also help my concentration, I don't want to be all over the place, I suggest not switching techniques in the middle of a session and to try all of these techniques for at least a week each to get a better Idea what works for you, eventually you will find it beneficial to rotate these techniques as they will prove to be different doors to the same room which you will wish to have access to.
There is the technique of being in the here and now, it is important to not talk to yourself aloud or silently, do not spell out words or even think of them, rather just close your eyes and listen, listen for every sound that exists at that very moment and picture what is making that sound, be careful to not explain to your self what is making that sound, only picture it, and as a new sound arises, change your attention to that, a refrigerator compressor starting, air conditioner cycling, a dog barking, a jet flying overhead, a truck or car or motorcycle going down the street, birds singing etc, do nothing more than picture this in your mind without explanation or internal discussion, no judgement or questions why or how, no scenarios, no analyzing only visualize the sound.
You could possibly expound on this by picturing a certain style of truck or see the passengers in the plane or notice how the dog looks, (especially if you know). These sounds can also be coming from you as the sound of blood pounding in your head or a hissing or buzzing in your ears or even your stomach growling, as a new sound appears, change your attention focus to that, I will usually pick the loudest sound at the time.
There is also a technique of saying a mantra, which is used in transcendental meditation, either softly aloud or silently to yourself, I personally have more success with saying it aloud as my mind likes to multitask and I find myself thinking about something as I chant the mantra in my mind, if it is aloud, that seems to be enough distraction to keep me from thinking about anything other than the mantra, since the mantra is usually composed of words or spoken sounds, this opens the door for false personality to enter and add it's two cents worth of concern or opinion, the mantra can be essentially anything, probably the shorter the better, OM is a classic, the Hare Krishna chant would be the longest I would attempt as I would fall deeper in my meditative state, I would realize that I have missed portions of the chant, this is not bad, but a short, less complex chant may avoid these problems, the only thing that should be going through your mind should be the chant.
In "I am in all, All is in me" you might picture your energy penetrating everything around you and everything's energy is going through you, be sure to not distract yourself with explanations of the chant, no words other than the chant should be going through your mind.
Sometimes I would try to use breathing only as my focus of concentration, either alone or in concurrance with a chant, I would picture the atoms of the atmosphere going in and out of my lungs or in the case of a silent chant, I might inhale while thinking Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna and exhale while thinking Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, then Hare Rama, Hare Rama on the inhale and Rama Rama, Hare Hare on the exhale, the purpose of all of this is to keep your mind under control with a simple task and to keep any erroneous thoughts from invading.
Another non word type of meditation would be to concentrate on one simple thing, just picture it in your mind without any analysis or explanation, only visualization, one of my favorites is a pine cone, I would picture it open or closed, up side down as it hanks from a tree or pointy side up as it may sit on the ground, I explore every intricate detail of it, from every angle sometimes picturing it young with seeds in it and still green, this can be done with any object, a cross, a candle flame, usually I choose something that is either natural or has a spiritual importance, be careful to not describe it to yourself, use no words in your thoughts, only imagery alone.
Combinations of the techniques can also help especially when you are getting use to the routine of daily meditation, regular deep breathing along with a chant, along with the single image that is the center of your focus.
The most important thing to remember is to keep total control of the situation, if you are one that has trouble with controlling your wandering mind, you may try to focus on a specific thing that is spiritual, exploring it's every facet, in this case, it may be OK to mentally talk or explain to yourself about this belief or question that you ponder, by being able to juggle 3 different aspects of your mind in a controlled exercise of breath control, specific imagery and spiritual contemplation or chants and not think of how you are going to pay bills or what you are going to eat for breakfast or how you are going to attack your next project at work or even at home, you will be off to a great start to your meditation.
There are many other techniques of meditation that can be realized by searching the internet, there are various methods of Yoga that help with that discipline, lastly, if there is an internal chatter wall blocking any sort of advancement towards your goal,
another technique known as mindfulness can be tried, it consists of letting the chaotic thoughts come into your head, acknowledge them and then release them or dismiss them and then continue to trying to think of nothing, eventually this will condition you to have much more control over your thoughts.
Another goal I will sometimes strive for is to "stop time", I know that I can't really stop time, but I can make it seem that it is not progressing, or even seem like it is in some sort of small loop,
as your mind runs open and thinks of thoughts or thinks of problems, a sense of time passes as you analyze the questions that you present to yourself, if you are saying a chant, it is repetitive and seemingly loops over and over,
the same can be said of your breathing, but when you visualize that single thing, it is like staring at a photo without thinking of anything, time appears to not be progressing and this is where you may have a good chance to approach the state of "oneness",
if during your endeavors, one of the actions that you are juggling stops and you find that you also are not thinking of anything, just go with the flow until you start thinking again, and then continue with your disciplines,
remember, your goal in all of this is NO GOAL, have no expectations except the quieting of your mind, if something cool happens, don't count on it happening again for awhile.
As to positions, sitting is preferred to laying down. In a chair or on the floor with or without a pillow, your back should be straight and you should be comfortable, your hands can be on your lap, open, one inside of the other with thumbs touching, or if you wish they can be on your thighs palms down,
or even resting on your knees making the OK sign, most importantly you must be completely relaxed and not tense. If you insist on laying down, keep your eyes open and fixed on one spot or object, hands at your side with palms up, be relaxed completely and not tensed up.
When I first began meditation, I found that I would become rigid, my hands would grip each other or grip my legs, and some part of my body would tense up a few times in the duration of the meditation, everything seemed to bother me, my nose ran, I would sneeze, I found myself swallowing all of the time,
noises seemed to be endless (which is a good reason to start with the here and now technique), even my posture would shift as I have scoliosis, my head would shift, I had about every problem that could be thought of,
I even started to believe I was being tested as sometimes the cat would want to enter the room purring loudly and scratching, just keep your focus, but even though I had a rough start, I found that I was much more at peace and much more relaxed when I completed a session than otherwise.