Most people, when they hear the word mindfulness, immediately think of meditation. Unfortunately, they then think of sitting in the lotus position chanting “Om mani padme hum” for six hours a day. And that’s certainly one way to do it. But for those of us who aren’t Buddhist monks, there are many, many more ways to meditate.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a set of techniques that are meant to evoke a heightened state of both awareness and focused intention. It’s also a method of changing your consciousness that’s been shown to have a variety of benefits in terms of psychological well-being.
Meditation significantly reduces stress, depression, anxiety, and pain. It enhances peace of mind, perception, your self-concept, and your overall well-being.
There are two basic forms of meditation: contemplative and mindfulness.
Contemplative meditation is a centered observation of a specific idea, situation, or question. It holds the intention of receiving insight or guidance from the still small voice, your inner wisdom, or the divine. Its purpose is to seek answers from whatever higher power you believe in, or from your higher self, if you have no belief in deity.
Guided meditation is a form of contemplative meditation where someone gives you guidance about what to focus on. They may ask questions or tell you to envision imagery relevant to your questions. For example, they might tell you to imagine yourself in the safest place you can think of, before asking questions designed to help you cope with traumatic memories.
Mindfulness meditation combines mindfulness practices and meditation. Mindful being is a state where you’re fully focused on the moment you’re living in. This allows you to acknowledge your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judging them. Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice where you learn to slow your racing thoughts, release negativity, and calm your body and mind.
Techniques vary, but most involve structured breathing and an awareness of your mind and body. You don’t need anything more complicated than a comfortable place to sit and a minute of your time. Make sure to set a timer for however long you want to meditate, since you can easily lose track of time.
As you mindfully meditate, you’ll focus first on your breath, noticing the rise and fall of your chest and the expansion of your diaphragm. As thoughts arise, your job now is to notice them, acknowledge them, and watch them float on by. If you find yourself overwhelmed by thoughts or feelings, go back to concentrating on your breathing.
There are many ways to practice meditation. Here are just a few of them.
Spiritual meditation focuses specifically on forging a connection with a higher power. Some use prayer beads, like Catholicism’s rosary or Islam’s misbaha. Spiritual meditation is similar to prayer, in that you’re seeking a connection with the Divine, however you define it.
Meditation is practiced in one form or another in most major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, Baháʼí, and Neo-Paganism.
When you’re concentrating on your five senses when you’re meditating, you’re practicing focused meditation. You can keep your attention on something internal, like your breath, or something external, like:
scents of incense or essential oils,
sounds of a gong or singing bowl,
the sight of a mandala or candle flame,
the taste of sacramental wine or a consecrated wafer,
or the touch of prayer beads or a mat you’re kneeling on.
When your thoughts wander, you bring your focus back to whatever it is you’re contemplating.
Movement meditation can be as simple or complex as you make it. For example, you could practice walking meditation, with a step taken after each breath. Or you might be a Sufi Islamic whirling dervish, with complicated patterns of dance and whirling.
Yoga and tai chi are popular types of movement meditation. You could also reach a meditative state while doing simple activities like hand-washing dishes or gardening.
This is where chanting “Om mani padme hum,” or another mantra, comes into play. Your mantra could be as simple as repeating “om” over and over. Or it could be as complicated as reciting a prayer like the Hail Mary for a certain number of repetitions.
It doesn’t matter if you say your mantra out loud or quietly whispered. After several iterations, you’ll find yourself more alert. Better in tune with your environment. More aware of yourself and the world around you. Some people find mantra meditation easier than focused meditation, because the focus is on the words and nothing else.
Transcendental meditation, or TM, is a technique using a personal mantra. It’s practiced for 20 minutes twice a day, sitting comfortably with your eyes closed. TM was created and popularized by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1955. His first global tour teaching it was in 1958. He’s said to have taught 40,000 teachers and founded thousands of learning centers.
The Maharishi grew in popularity when he became the guru to The Beatles, the Beach Boys, and other celebrities. Advocates of TM say that it reduces stress and reduces the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Also known as body scan meditation, progressive muscle relaxation is a practice where muscles are slowly tensed, then slowly relaxed, one muscle group at a time. In some cases, you’re asked to visualize a gentle wave working its way through your body.
Body scan meditation can be helpful when you’re trying to go to sleep, but having trouble relaxing enough to do so. It’s also great for relieving stress.
There have been hundreds of scientific studies on the health benefits of meditation. Here are just a few of those benefits.
Reducing the amount of stress they’re under is one of the main reasons people try meditating. Normally stress is created by the hormone cortisol. Cortisol releases cytokines, which are inflammatory chemicals. It also disrupts sleep; increases blood pressure; worsens depression and anxiety; and contributes to brain fog and fatigue.
Numerous studies have shown a reduction in stress hormones and a decrease in stress-related symptoms.
A reduction of stress levels will also decrease anxiety. One study of 1300 adults showed that this effect was strongest in people with the highest initial levels of anxiety.
Another study showed that meditating increased positive self-talk, better reactions to stress, and stronger coping mechanisms.
Better attention span
Practicing focused meditation is like lifting weights for your attention span. It helps strengthen your attention and gives it better endurance. One study showed that people who listened to a meditation tape performed more with more attention and accuracy than those who didn’t.
Another study demonstrated that meditation could even reverse brain waves that contribute to worry, poor attention, and mind wandering.
Almost 50% of the population will suffer from insomnia at one point or another. One study indicated that people who meditate will stay asleep longer and have less insomnia than an unmedicated control group.
Getting good at meditation can help control and redirect the racing thoughts that often lead to insomnia. It also helps you relax both your mind and body, putting you in a more peaceful state, leading to improved sleep.
Better pain control
Perception of pain is related to your peace of mind, meaning that when you get stressed out, your pain levels increase. One review of 38 research studies showed that mindfulness meditation could relieve pain, improve your quality of life, and reduce depression symptoms in people with chronic pain.
A larger analysis of studies encompassing some 3,500 participants showed that meditation is associated with lower pain levels.
People who meditate and people who don’t have the same causes of pain, but people who meditate are better at coping with their pain, and will experience a reduction in it.
Lower blood pressure
Meditation reduces stress on your heart by lowering your blood pressure. High blood pressure makes your heart work harder than it needs to. It also leads to atherosclerosis, narrowing blood vessels that can cause heart attacks and strokes.
Studies have shown that different types of meditation can have a positive effect on your blood pressure. Meditation relaxes the nerve signals that involve heart function, tension in blood vessels, and the fight-or-flight response that heightens your alertness during stressful situations.
How to start meditating
There’s a saying that goes, “You should sit in meditation for twenty minutes everyday — unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.” That said, it’s best if you start with small moments of time. You can reap the benefits of meditation in as little as one minute.
There are hundreds of apps you can use to help you meditate. The one I use, H*nest Meditations, has two-, five-, 10-, and 15-minute guided meditations. (Don’t download it if you’re offended by swearing — the app is billed as “mindfulness for the rest of us.” Here’s their most well-known video, “F*ck that: an honest meditation“)
One simple technique you can start with is called box breathing. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Breathe in through your nose to a slow count of four. Hold the air in for a slow count of four. Breathe out through your mouth to a slow count of four. Hold the air out for a slow count of four. I’ve found that this kind of breathing helps me after as few as 3 repetitions.
Whatever meditation technique you choose, make sure you practice it every day to get the best results, whether you’re looking for stress relief, beter sleep, less anxiety, or overall well-being.