Meditation is an age-old practice of introspection that increases self-awareness and cultivates connection to a higher consciousness. You might already have a mental picture of what meditation “should” look like. But, you don’t have to resemble the Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom to successfully practice meditation. In reality, it is a highly adaptable and diverse practice. Here we’ll take a look at some meditation tips and benefits to help you get started with your own practice.
What is Meditation?
Meditation, simply put, is a practice of fixing your attention on a single point. You can also think of it as “awareness training” for your mind. The goal of any meditation practice however can vary greatly depending on each individual’s needs and desires.
Originally, meditation served the purpose of gaining deeper insight and connection to the divine, mystical forces of life. In a recent study, the CDC describes meditation as “the act of engaging in mental exercise to reach a heightened level of spiritual awareness or mindfulness.” Many people recognize meditation as a useful tool for reducing stress and promoting positive emotions.
The first record of humans practicing meditation comes from wall art in the Indus Valley around 3,500-5,000 BC. The drawings depict images of people sitting in cross-legged positions with narrowed gazes – a familiar and recognizable posture for meditation.
Written records of meditation date back to 1500 BCE, in the Vedic texts of India. These texts mention “dhyana” (the Sanskrit word for “meditation”) as the 7th limb of yoga. Other writings from the 3rd-6th centuries BCE describe the meditative practices of Doaist philosopher Lao-Tze in China.
Many people associate meditation with Buddhism. Siddhartha Guatama, the original Buddha, spread his teachings of enlightenment throughout India during the 6th century BCE. With him, meditation began its global spread by way of the Silk Road, transforming slightly as it reached each new culture. As a result, many religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity incorporate meditative-like practices.
Meditation in the West
Meditation was an interest primarily to philosophers up until the 20th century. It was around the turn of the 20th century that a renowned Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda, helped introduce Eastern spiritual ideas to the general public. In 1893, he gave an address at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. This presentation inspired great intrigue in Eastern philosophy, and influenced several other spiritual teachers to migrate from India. These leaders established well-known organizations like Himalayan Institute, the Self-Realization Fellowship, and Transcendental Meditation.
Meditation fully entered into Western popular culture the 1960s and 1970s. Mindfulness as meditation began to spread through the era’s hippie culture. This was, in part, thanks to celebrities like the Beatles and Mia Farrow publicly embracing Transcendental Meditation. It weren’t only hippies and artists however who were interested in meditation. Modern science was catching on. Dr. Herbert Benson (Harvard) and Jon Kabat-Zinn (MIT) conducted the first studies investigating the medical and biological benefits of meditation.
Modern Adaptation of Meditation
For a time, meditation remained on the fringes of mainstream culture. That is, until the mid-1990s. With the release of Deepak Chopra’s best-selling book, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, celebrity culture helped catapult Eastern philosophy-based practices into the spotlight after Oprah featured Chopra’s book on her show. Fortunately, the medical science community continued to study the benefits of meditation as more and more people adopted the practice. Today, meditation is no longer on the outskirts of culture, nor is it reserved for solely spiritual purposes.
The modern use of meditation serves many different purposes, especially for maintaining positive mental health and well-being. In fact, mindfulness and meditation practices are on the rise as many people open their minds to these ancient traditions. In the United States alone, the percentage of people who had tried meditating more than tripled over just five years.
Throughout history, meditation adapted to each new culture it encountered. For modern practitioners of meditation, this means there are a wide variety of methods and philosophies to try out.
Types of Meditation
Meditation is an incredibly diverse practice, ranging from spiritual to secular, stationary to active, silent to sound-focused. And all forms of meditation encourage awareness. By practicing meditation, you can connect to a higher consciousness–individual and universal. And, there are many varieties of meditation that can enhance your life.
Mindfulness is perhaps the most popular type of meditation for Western practitioners. The popular app Headspace describes mindfulness as “the quality of being present and fully engaged with whatever we’re doing at the moment.” Two different approaches to mindfulness are focused-attention and open-awareness meditation.
Setting your focus on your breath is the simplest and most accessible form of mindfulness meditation. You can practice anywhere and anytime by directing your attention to the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
With open awareness or “non-directive” meditation, you set your focus on your thoughts. Your awareness should remain open to experience any thoughts, feelings, or memories as they come up. The goal in present-thought awareness is to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude towards one’s own thoughts and emotions.
Concentrative meditation helps train your mind to hold your attention on a single point. The object of your focus may vary. You may visualize a mental image, set your gaze on a physical object, or focus on a specific body part. Certain physical activities like counting mala beads, or even painting work to develop concentration as well.
You can also fix your awareness on a repeated sound such as a gong or chime. For instance, mantra meditations–repeatedly chanting a word or phrase –is a popular technique for cultivating concentration. Transcendental Meditation is a widely-known form developed by Maharishi Manesh Yogi that incorporates chanting a personalized mantra.
Vipasana meditation from the Buddhist tradition combines mindfulness with concentration. In this technique, one strives for balance. Noticing thoughts and emotions calls for sensitivity, and focusing on one point requires power of mind.
Also referred to as “loving-kindness” or metta, compassion meditation holds the specific goal of shifting your perspective. The aim is to be less self-centered, while cultivating sympathy for the suffering of others. It prompts the acknowledgement that all beings simply wish to be happy.
To practice compassion meditation, first begin by directing loving-kindness towards yourself. You can repeat the phrase, “may I be happy, may I be peaceful, may I be free from suffering.” Next, send the same message to a person you care about (change the script from “I” to “you”). Continue the process, moving on to an acquaintance you have neutral feelings towards. Then send the same loving-kindness to someone with whom you have conflict, or find to be problematic.
Over time, practicing compassion meditation will help you experience greater happiness and improve relationships in your life.
Body scan meditation is a type of mindfulness practice. It is useful for developing self-awareness, and learning how the physical body experiences different emotions. In this method, you scan every inch of the body with open curiosity. Begin with the tip of one toe and end at the top of the head. It is important to note all positive, neutral, and negative physical sensations, as well as any emotions that arise. Body scan meditations reveal how our bodies can hold onto stress and other emotions in our life.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a type of meditation used to reduce muscle tension. The PMR technique follows a specific sequence, moving through the body while flexing and releasing specific groups of muscles. Over time, people who practice PMR may notice patterns related to where they hold tension in their bodies. With this information, they may be able to prevent ailments like tension headaches caused by stress.
Meditation doesn’t always have to be a seated, stationary activity. Moving meditations foster greater connections between the mind and body. There are several traditional forms of moving meditations. Perhaps the most popular of these is yoga. Breath and movement are connected by performing a sequence of asanas or postures with focused concentration. Kundalini Yoga, or the “yoga of awareness,” is one tradition that combines controlled breath practices with specific yoga postures to induce a meditative state. Besides yoga, there are two Chinese traditions, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, that also combine physical movement with breath, to develop balance and awareness. If yoga or Tai Chi aren’t really your thing, a simple walking meditation can be just as effective.
Thich Nhat Hahn, a master of meditation, explains that a walking meditation, holds no specific destination. There is no need to hurry through the practice. The goal of a walking meditation, according to Hahn, is to feel happy and serene. Focus on sensory awareness, notice different sights and sounds from the environment around you. Each step brings you back to the present moment.
Benefits of Meditation
Scientific research on the potential health benefits of meditation is on the rise. Modern medical science seeks to confirm what practitioners of this ancient tradition know to be true: meditation can improve health and well-being in a number of ways.
One study concluded that meditation can help with pain management for those suffering from chronic illness. Participants in the study experienced results after just 4 days of beginning a daily practice. In 2018, a Harvard study produced evidence that meditation caused changes in 172 different genes associated with regulating inflammation, glucose metabolism, and circadian rhythms. Ultimately, the results showed a decrease in blood pressure in participants.
Anxiety and depression are amongst the most common reasons people begin a meditation practice. And, the science exists that can back it up. Meditation works. Several studies have shown that meditation can alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety. This happens by reducing activity in the pre-frontal cortex and the amygdala. These two regions of the brain play a key role in how we respond to negative or stressful situations. In the research of Dr. Herbert Benson, meditation contributed to a decrease of general stress by maintaining steady blood circulation and regulating hormonal balance. By inducing a state of physical and mental ease, studies show that meditation aides in sleep. Those who regularly meditate fall asleep quicker and stay asleep longer than non-meditating participants.
Meditation and the Brain
Neuroscientist Sara Lazar describes how meditation is related to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and learn in response to experiences. One of Lazar’s studies compared MRI scans of people who regularly meditate versus non-meditators. The scans of meditators had more grey matter in regions of the brain associated with working memory and executive decision making. This area usually decreases as we age, resulting in forgetfulness and memory loss. The study showed however that a 50-year-old meditator’s brain scan closely resembled that of a 25-year-old. This leads to the theory that meditation practice may delay age-related decline of memory.
A second study also conducted by Lazar investigated the effect of regular meditation. Participants completed an 8-week “mindfulness-based stress reduction program,” which included meditating 30-40 minutes each day. Afterwards, Lazar compared their brain scans before and after the course. After 8 weeks of daily meditation practice, researchers noted several changes in the scans. First, grey matter increased in the left hippocampus, which assists in learning, memory, and emotional regulation. An increase of grey matter also appeared in the temporoparietal junction, which plays a role in developing empathy and compassion. Furthermore researchers noticed a decrease in matter in the amygdala, the stress response center of the brain.
Other Areas of Life
The biological benefits of meditation spill over into all areas of our lives. By expanding our empathy and compassion, we can experience improved relationships with our loved ones. Better sleep, memory function, and attention can increase productivity wherever we focus our efforts (work, education, learning new skills). Reduced stress and negative thoughts resulting from meditation contribute to the overall well-being of physical and mental health.
How to Meditate for Beginners
Step 1: Why Meditate, Setting an Intention
To begin your own meditation practice, first determine your intention for practicing. This will help guide what type of meditation you should try first. Are you seeking to reduce tension, enhance awareness, cultivate positivity, or develop stronger concentration? Choose a type of meditation best suited to your preference.
Step 2: Finding a Comfortable Seat
Wherever you choose to meditate, just make sure you are comfortable. You can sit on a chair, a cushion on the floor, indoors, or outdoors. Sit with your back as straight as you can so you can breathe naturally. If using a chair, keep both feet firmly planted on the floor in order to stay grounded. If at any point you become physically uncomfortable, simply reposition yourself and redirect your attention back to your meditation.
Step 3: Set Your Gaze
Many people prefer to close their eyes during meditation in order to avoid visual distractions. Others however may opt to keep their eyes open and fixed on an object in order to practice concentration. It is a matter of personal preference. If you choose to keep your eyes open however, set your gaze low and avoid letting your eyes wander.
Step 4: Focus on Your Breath
Bring your attention to the natural patterns of your own breath. Focus on the sound of each inhale and exhale. First, notice the sensation of your belly filling with air as you breathe in. Second, feel your belly deflate as you breathe out. Feel the air pass in and out of your nostrils. You may even find it helpful to mentally say “in” as you inhale, and “out” as you exhale. Try and observe your breath with ease, not forcing or altering the natural rhythm.
Step 5: Observe Your Thoughts
Now draw your awareness to your thoughts, to simply notice what’s there. Try to avoid judging any of your thoughts as subjectively good or bad. Just let them come and go as naturally as your breath. Be a neutral observer of your own mind.
Step 6: Let Your Thoughts Go
As you notice each thought, acknowledge it and let it go. Certain visualizations may help with releasing your thoughts. Try this: imagine a word written on a piece of paper which dissolves when placed in a bowl of water. Picture your thoughts as leaves floating on a stream, or clouds rolling through the sky. Allow them to pass in and out of your mind without holding on to anything.
Step 7: Give it Time and Practice
There’s a common saying that meditation is a practice, not a perfection. As with any new habit, beginning a meditation practice takes time and consistency. Start small and start simple with 5 minutes of focused breath awareness each day. Don’t feel frustrated or discouraged, meditation can be difficult at first! When your mind wanders, gently redirect your attention back to your breath. Once you feel comfortable meditating for 5 minutes, then try increasing the amount of time you sit.
Tips for Using Meditation Music
Music can be a powerful tool to enhance your meditative experience.
Here are a few tips when using music during meditation:
Choose Something Relaxing
It sounds a bit obvious, but choose music that will help you physically relax. Steer away from music with fast tempos, lots of percussion, or impressive vocal performances. While entertaining, it may stimulate your mind too much and distract you from your present experience.
Instrumental vs Music With Lyrics
Music with lyrics may stir up specific memories or internal dialogue. Classical music not your thing? There are plenty of other genres of instrumental music like jazz, new age, and other ambient styles.
Try Using Headphones
Listening to music through headphones will help block out any external noise, thus providing a more immersive listening experience.
Keep the Volume Low
Use your music of choice as a backdrop for your meditation. Setting the volume at a low level will keep the music from becoming distracting or intrusive.
Meditation and Psychedelics
The desired effects of meditation and psychedelic trips are quite similar. As it turns out, both are helpful in achieving ego-dissolution. This refers to the loss of one’s sense of self and sense of boundaries, while creating a sense of unity with a higher collective consciousness. Self-consciousness is multi-layered. It encompasses autobiographical memory, self-related thoughts, and mental time travel. We experience self-consciousness in physical ways as well, including body ownership and bodily awareness. Thus, consciously pairing a psychedelic substance with meditation can take your experience to the next level.
Tips for Using Psychedelics With Meditation
The right psychedelic substance can help take your meditation to new heights.
Here are a few tips when using psychedelics during meditation:
Prepare yourself both mentally and physically. Maintain a regular meditation practice until you feel ready to intensify your experience with a substance. Also, make sure your physical setting is comfortable and will support your desired experience.
Be Flexible With Your Intention
Pairing psychedelics with meditation may reveal insights you didn’t even realize you were looking for. Remember that with both meditation and psychedelic trips, you are not trying to control your experience. Psychedelics may actually help you “get out of your own way” to achieve an even more transformative experience than with meditation alone.
Be Mindful of Dosage
Be mindful of dosage. Start small and work your way up to find the right balance in order to avoid letting the substance take over your meditative experience.
Select your psychedelic according to your intention and preferred method of meditation. For instance, MDMA stimulates physical senses and pairs well with external stimuli like music, for a focused attention meditation. Ayahuasca and psilocybin can intensify more contemplative, introspective forms of meditation like mindfulness.
How Long Should a Beginner Meditate?
Hali Love is a wellness coach, yoga teacher, and devoted meditation guide and practitioner. We asked her some tips for those interested in meditation. She suggests beginners start with just 5 minutes of meditation per day. Once you feel comfortable, increase the time of each meditation session, or up your practice to twice per day.
If it feels challenging in the beginning, Love suggests choosing one thing to focus on, “for example – you can keep your eyes open and focus on a picture or a lit candle flame in front of you.”
What if I Feel Distracted, or I Can’t Sit Still?
It is completely natural to feel distracted or physically uncomfortable at times. Let go of what you think meditation “should” look or feel like. This goes for your physical positioning as well as the thoughts or emotions you experience. Love explains that meditation isn’t about stopping your thoughts, rather observing them. She encourages new meditators to “lean into your experience versus trying to control it.”
I Tried Meditation Once and Didn’t Dig It– Now What?
Try again! Reassess your intention for practicing meditation, then consider a different method. Some people may find they concentrate better through visual methods; others prefer closing their eyes and focusing on their breath. Moreover, Hali Love reminds new meditators: “there are many ways to get to the end result of mindfulness and presence. Start off with the one that seems the most simple and effective for you, and try different ones from there.”
With a bit of effort, you are sure to find the perfect style of meditation to fit your needs.
How Do You End Meditation?
As your practice comes to an end, allow yourself a few moments to return from your relaxed, meditative state. Bring your awareness to your body. Then, notice the parts of your body touching the ground. Shift your attention from inward to outward as you gently blink your eyes open. A gentle stretch (like this) can help you transition out of your stationary seat and back into normal activity.
What is Meditation Used For?
Meditation is widely popular across many diverse industries.
In the NBA and NFL for example, coaches Phil Jackson and Pete Carroll both include meditation as part of their teams’ training. Generally, athletes are encouraged to meditate in order to build up mental resilience and reduce stress.
Off the field, regular meditation can help you succeed in business. In his book Tribe of Mentors, author and podcast host Tim Ferriss interviewed many different business entrepreneurs. He noticed a common thread: many of the most successful business-people maintain a daily meditation practice.
Schools are implementing meditation practices with enormous success. A school in Baltimore reported that suspension rates dropped significantly after replacing detention with meditation practice.
Furthermore a meditation practice can help those overcoming addiction. By letting go of negative thoughts, developing healthy routines, and following through with commitment, meditation can lead to greater success in recovery.
In the end, no matter your reasons for wanting to begin a meditation practice, it is sure to transform your life in many positive ways – physiologically, socially, and spiritually.
Contributor | Joanne Highland