The word “meditation” is typically used to designate broadly similar practices, or sets of practices, that are found across many cultures and traditions. A general consensus is that meditation is a mental technique that the meditator practices repetitively in order to attain a subjective experience that is usually described as silent, very restful and of heightened awareness, and is often accompanied by a state of bliss. What is considered to be meditation can include almost any practice that trains the attention, which seems to be the only invariant of all the usual definitions.
Meditation has been practiced since antiquity in many varied religious and secular traditions and beliefs. Since the nineteenth century, it has spread from its origins to other cultures where it is now commonly practiced in private and business life.
In the Buddhist tradition, the word “meditation” is equivalent to a word such as “sports” in the United States. In other words it is a family of self-regulation practices that focus on training attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control and thereby promotes general mental well-being and/or specific capacities such as calmness, clarity, and concentration.
Benefits of meditation
Meditation is sometimes used with the aim of reducing stress, anxiety, depression, and pain, and increasing peace, perception, self-concept, and well-being. Meditation is being researched to discover its potential health (psychological, physical, neurological, and cardiovascular) and other effects.
Studies have already documented the following short-term benefits of meditation to the nervous system: lower blood pressure, improved blood circulation, lower heart rate, less perspiration, slower respiratory rate, lower anxiety, less stress, lower blood cortisol levels, increased feelings of well-being, and deeper relaxation.
Researchers are now exploring whether a consistent meditation practice yields long-term benefits, and noting positive effects on brain and immune function among meditators. However, it is important to remember that the purpose of meditation is not to realize benefits. An Eastern philosopher would say that the goal of meditation is no goal. It’s simply to be present. In the West we often do guided meditations that do have a goal.
Buddhist philosophy believes the ultimate benefit of meditation is the liberation of the mind from all attachment to anything it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. The liberated or “enlightened” practitioner no longer needlessly follows desires or clings to attachments or experiences, but instead maintains a calm mind and sense of inner harmony.
Meditation also helps you heal from emotional trauma, helps you grow in your relationships, and even unlocks your intuitive and creative side.
Forms of meditation
Western philosophers often think of meditation in two broad categories: concentrative (or focused) and mindfulness (or open monitoring).
Concentrative meditation consists of focusing on a single point. This could involve following the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong, or counting beads on a mala.
During this form of meditation, each time you notice your mind wandering you simply refocus your attention on the chosen object. Rather than tracking random thoughts, you simply let them go. This process also improves your ability to concentrate.
The idea of mindfulness meditation is for the practitioner to observe his/her thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is to not judge them or even get involved with them at all, and to simply be aware of each wandering thought chain as they arise. Typically one will set aside a specific time for mindfulness meditation and will use one of several methods. These methods include a body scan or just letting thoughts arise and leave, or being aware of what s/he is doing, such as being very aware of the taste of food while eating, or the feel of the ground under the feet while walking.
Using mindfulness meditation one can notice how their thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time the practitioner becomes more aware of the tendency to quickly judge any given experience as good or bad, right or wrong, pleasant or unpleasant. Continued practice develops inner balance.
Other meditation techniques
Some meditation schools teach a practice that is a combination of concentration and mindfulness.
There are numerous other meditation techniques. For instance there is a daily meditation practice among Buddhist monks where the practitioner focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This entails envisioning an event she or he believes is “negative” and reframing it as a “positive” event by transforming it through compassion.
There are moving meditation techniques for times when the practitioner is walking, exercising, or doing something like tai chi, qigong or even washing dishes.
Some yoga movements focus on thoughts ceasing. The idea of these methods is on not experiencing any thought activity at all. The practitioner is supposed to be fully aware and alert but not have any thoughts whatsoever. This is different from the concentrative methods discussed above where the practitioner has thoughts but does not judge them and is detached from them.
Other typologies include Chakra meditation, guided meditation, and transcendental meditation.
Common practice timings
Many meditation techniques recommend meditating at least twenty minutes two times every day, usually shortly after getting up in the morning and shortly before going to bed at night. Some experienced meditators will practice for two hours at a time. For those who are just starting to meditate, the usual suggestion is 5-10 minutes two times every day and then building up gradually.
Physical postures and techniques
Positions such as the full-lotus, half-lotus, Seiza, Burmese, and kneeling positions are popular in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. Other postures such as sitting, supine (lying), or standing are popular in the West. Meditation is also sometimes done while walking or while doing a simple task mindfully.
Most groups recommend you do not lie down to meditate, especially initially, as many people fall asleep when trying to meditate lying down. Some groups recommend you learn while sitting, and then as you make progress, try standing and walking to fully embody it, and afterwards lying down to integrate it.
How to meditate: Simple meditation for beginners
Each meditation practice typically requires a different mental skill. It is often extremely difficult for a beginner to sit for hours and think of nothing or to have an “empty mind.” In general, the easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on the breath (see concentration meditation above).
The following meditation exercise is an excellent introduction to meditation techniques.
- Sit comfortably.
- Close your eyes.
- Do not attempt to control your breath in any way. Just breathe naturally.
- Focus your attention on the breath. Observe how your body moves with each breath. Pay attention to the movement of your body as you breathe, especially your chest, rib cage, shoulders, and belly, as you inhale and exhale. Whenever your mind wanders, gently return your attention back to your breath.
Start out doing this meditation for two to three minutes. After you are comfortable doing it, try extending it for longer periods of time.