What exactly is meditation? That’s a heavily loaded buzzword. Depending on whom you talk to, it might imply a powerful complementary medicine approach to empower you and help you live your life more fully — or it’s a waste of time, something that’s just way too “out there” for you.
Science doesn’t help defining what is meditation. Within its large body of research (a quick PubMed search yields nearly 10,000 studies), meditation carries many definitions, from an astute self-discipline for training the mind to reaching enlightenment to an easy-breezy approach where you observe your thoughts and relax.
Types of meditation include contemplation, concentration, nature sounds (like the ocean), guided meditation (more on that in a minute), meditative movement exercises like yoga, tai chi, and qigong, and breathing exercises. Some are easy to learn and practice, while others are very challenging (sometimes leading novices to give up the practice easily). (1)
That’s enough to easily baffle most novices who want to learn how to meditate, so let’s back up and look at the word’s origins. “Meditation” comes from two Latin words: “meditari” – to think, to dwell upon, or to exercise the mind, and “mederi” – to heal. The Sanskrit derivation is “medha” or wisdom.
You’ll find various types of meditation including Vipassana Meditation, a type of meditation rediscovered by Gotama Buddha over 2,500 years ago and taught as a universal remedy for universal ills. (2)
At the same time, covering the full range of meditation techniques – including chakra meditation, healing meditation, walking meditation, Zen meditation, and relaxation meditation – far exceeds this article’s scope.
Let’s instead look at a few popular, well-studied types of meditation and how they might benefit you. One is Transcendental Meditation (TM), founded by the Yogi Maharishi Mahesh in 1957. TM trains participants to restrict the focus of attention to a single word or mantra. When your attention wanders, you bring it back to that word without judgment.
Transcendental Meditation nails several aspects found in many forms of meditation including present-moment awareness on a single thing – in this case, a word – and not judging yourself when your attention veers.
Mindfulness meditation is another heavily researched form of meditation. In mindfulness meditation, you bring your attention back to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner.
Mindfulness meditation “is intended to cultivate continuous and clear attention to ongoing subjective experiences, combined with an attitude of acceptance and openness to whatever experiences may arise,” write Teresa M. Edenfield and Sy Atezaz Saeed. (3)
Benefits of meditation?
Why would you choose to learn how to meditate? After all, you can do so many other things with your time. You can surf social media, catch up on chores, take a nap (I like naps), or go bowling. Why choose meditation?
Let’s start with the physical benefits of meditation. Hopefully you’ve got a day or two to read about them, because a quick PubMed search will turn up numerous benefits of meditation.
Take meditation for anxiety.
“Given the fact that meditative therapies are so easy to carry out without any known adverse effect, and the fact that no existing treatment is effective for all patients or for all anxiety disorders, clinicians may consider recommending meditation for patients of anxiety and promoting meditative therapies for anxiety and related disorders,” researchers concluded in a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials about meditation to reduce anxiety. (4)
Among its uber-impressive health-benefits resume, studies show meditation can also lower stress (5), reduce physical and psychological pain (6), improve memory (7), lower blood pressure (8), and improve telomerase activity and telomere length. (9)
Meditation can also help you age better. Research shows long-term meditators have a significantly younger biological age compared to short-term meditators and controls. (10)
The benefits of meditation can even help lower healthcare costs. One study looked at the highest-spending 10 percent of 1,418 Quebec health insurance enrollees who practiced Transcendental Meditation compared with the highest 10 percent of 1,418 subjects who were randomly selected from enrollees of the same age, sex, and region.
Researchers found over five years, there was a cumulative reduction of 28 percent with high-cost meditators compared to high-cost non-meditators, suggesting meditation could help reduce physician costs. (11)
Another study – this one a randomized, controlled trial of 201 African-American men and women with coronary heart disease – looked at the benefits of meditation versus health education. After five years, the meditation group had a 48 percent risk reduction in deaths, heart attacks, and strokes as well as a significant drop in blood pressure and significant reduction in psychosocial stress factors. (12) What I have observed is that, all too often, particularly when faced with health challenges, it’s easy for us to forget about the power of the mind — and the healing impact of peace.
I haven’t even begun to hit the non-physical benefits of meditation – it can make you kinder and more patient, compassionate, and self-aware – but you get the point. Altogether, these and other benefits could never be replicated in a pill or any type of conventional medicine. Meditation is that powerful.
Is Meditation Anti-Religious or Anti-Science?
Among some faiths and religions, meditation has developed a cult-like or anti-religious tone. That might mean anti-prayer, anti-biblical, occult, or Eastern overtones among meditation or a meditation practice. Likewise, some skeptics might dismiss meditation as woo-woo or pseudo-science (even though a large number of studies confirm meditation’s benefits).
If you feel meditation is anti-religious, I’d like you to reconsider that perspective. Meditation is not prayer. Meditation involves silencing the mind, and it carries medical and other benefits regardless of your religion.
I’ve known many people who attend church every Saturday or Sunday and also meditate. The two complement each other, and for them, meditation is not religion. It is a tool that helps strengthen and calm the mind from the countless distractions that inundate us in modern-day society. While deceptively simple, learning to calm the mind creates huge benefits on your health and happiness.
If you object to the word meditation for whatever reasons, try calling it something else instead: Maybe mindfulness or calming the mind. Whatever you call it, you’ll still get all of its benefits.
What is Mindfulness?
Another term that gets used often in meditation circles and elsewhere is mindfulness.
“The terms ‘meditation’ and ‘mindfulness’ are tossed around quite a bit these days,” writes Lecia Bushak in Medical Daily. “The terms are often used interchangeably, and sometimes, in their simplified forms, refer to the same general thing — the idea of calming your frenzied mind.”
Bushak says the differences between mindfulness and meditation have been debated and interpreted in thousands of ways. While they complement each other and often overlap, they also carry their own definition.
Meditation, she says, is a large umbrella term that can involve many techniques or practices to reach a heightened level of consciousness including compassion, love, patience, and of course, mindfulness. Mindfulness, the act of focusing on being in the present, is a type of meditation along with other techniques like yoga and deep breathing. (13)
“To be mindful is to be in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally [sic],” says Dr. Steve Noonan. “The present moment may be the only real moment we ever have. Rather than appreciating the present, common defaults are reliving the past or anticipating the future which may be associated with emotions such as regret or worry. As a result, living outside the present can be a great source of anxiety. The irony is we create suffering, thinking about an event long past or one that may never come.” (14)
Put another way, when you are practicing meditation, you are probably being mindful. And when you are being mindful, you may or may not call it meditation. It could just be staying present or being in the moment. You can practice mindfulness when you are eating or really any activity including cutting vegetables, eating, and walking.
Organizations like the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence and the National Health Service argue that mindfulness can help mental wellbeing (15), and you can’t discuss the word without mentioning Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Jon Kabat-Zinn began using mindfulness-based stress reduction decades ago at the University of Massachusetts Medical School to manage mental health and chronic pain patients who weren’t responsive to conventional therapy. The eight weekly classes teach basic relaxation and breathing techniques, meditation and simple yoga, and maintaining a gratitude journal and a positive events log.
Compared with controls, the mindfulness-based stress reduction group scored significantly better on standardized psychological tests with lower pain scores. Every measure improved their quality of life.
The first published mindfulness study from Jon Kabat-Zinn on PubMed dates back to 1982. He employed mindfulness meditation as a 10-week Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program with 51 chronic pain patients who had not improved with traditional medical care. Among their pain categories included facial pain, non-coronary chest pain, and gastrointestinal pain.
At 10 weeks, mindfulness meditation had lowered pain in 65 percent of the patients, allowing researchers to conclude mindfulness meditation can be used as the basis for an effective behavioral program in self-regulation for chronic pain patients. (16)
Today, Noonan says over 1,300 scientific papers reveal the benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction to improve mental health, physical health, and mental acuity.
Mindfulness has become mainstream. (Did you catch Anderson Cooper’s coverage of mindfulness on 60 MInutes?) Mindfulness-based programs, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, have been employed in various workplace settings like healthcare, educational, and criminal justice. (17)
“There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment,” says Harvard Health Publication’s Positive Psychology: Harnessing the Power of Happiness, Personal Strength, and Mindfulness. “This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.” (18)
You can see how that definition overlaps with meditation: Present-moment awareness and focus without judgement. Mindfulness meditation, which researchers call “a mental training framework for cultivating the state of mindful awareness in daily life,” is one way to practice mindfulness.
Research shows mindfulness meditation can improve self-reported measures of disease symptomatology and potentially impact specific markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging (though researchers argue those latter benefits are tentative). (19)
While mindfulness meditation has benefited people with various conditions including cancer, you don’t need to be sick to get its benefits.
One meta-analysis analyzing 29 studies found mindfulness-based stress reduction could moderately reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and distress as well as improve the quality of life of healthy people. (Of course, researchers concluded we need more studies to substantiate those benefits.) (20)
Overall, research over the past two decades shows mindfulness meditation provides beneficial effects on physical and mental health including cognitive performance. (21)
Should You Choose Guided or Unguided Meditation?
One little detour before we discuss how to meditate. While other forms of meditation certainly exist, here I’ve mostly focused on mindfulness meditation. Within that framework and other forms of meditation that are important to mention are guided versus unguided meditation.
The former is a broad category, and might:
- Involve a practitioner or teacher who guides participants in meditation
- Occur in person or in some sort of media (text, audio, video)
- Use music, verbal instruction, or some combination guiding you through the process
- Include visualizing or other mental stimulation
- Evoke strong emotions or feelings (22)
Unguided meditation, on the other hand, would typically not involve external cues such as an instructor or music. You don’t become dependent on anyone or anything to guide your meditation practice. Focusing on your breath, for instance, would typically not involve any guidance (although you can find apps to help monitor your breathing).
Hatha yoga instructor Ntathu Allen argues both guided meditation and unguided meditation have advantages and disadvantages. While guided meditation makes a great practice for newbie meditators, she says over time you might become dependent on those external cues to meditate. Unguided meditation can help you go deeper into your practice at your own pace, but some people thrive on structure for meditation. (23)
Worth noting: Some types of meditation incorporate both guided and unguided meditation. One unguided meditation practice I found, for instance, incorporates regular mindfulness bells occasionally to help center your practice.
How to Meditate
Choosing meditation is like going to the gym: The correct one is the one you’ll actually do. If sitting still 20 minutes twice daily sounds akin to minor dental surgery, you aren’t going to like Transcendental Meditation (TM). If the idea of paying major money to get a mantra you’ll use in meditation sounds crazy – well, again, TM probably isn’t going to be your type of meditation.
Some people do better with movement like tai chi or yoga. Others practice mindfulness throughout the day. And still others prefer sitting in the lotus position for 30 minutes or longer and going into deep, restorative meditation. If you loathe the term meditation, practice mindfulness by reminding yourself during specific times of the day to be fully present in the moment. (You don’t even need to call it mindfulness.) What matters is what works for you and what you’ll stick with.
I’m not knocking TM, yoga, or any other mindfulness and meditation practice. Just know what your goals are, define how much investment you’re willing to put into that practice (including time and money), and once you’ve found the right one for you – this could take months or years – commit wholeheartedly to get the many benefits of meditation.
The good news about learning how to meditate is that there are so many free resources, and you can find meditation techniques that require just minutes a day. Put another way: Time and money should never be barriers to get the benefits of meditation.
Meditation for beginners needn’t be complicated, though you can quickly get overwhelmed with options about what form to take. These seven strategies can make learning how to meditate easier.
1. Commit to five or 10 minutes.
The hardest part of meditation might be sitting down and actually doing it. While Jon Kabat-Zinn recommends 45 minutes of meditation at least six days a week, this isn’t a contest and time restrictions might inhibit you from actually sitting down and trying it. What matters is that you do meditate, period. Make a commitment to yourself that for the next 30 (or however many) days, you will meditate just a few minutes. And yes, that meditation might just be mindfulness while you’re cutting vegetables or doing the dishes.
2. Be patient with yourself.
If you’re like most people, you’ll find your mind wanders at first practicing meditation or mindfulness. Training your mind is sort of like training a puppy. Be patient yet firm about guiding it back to your focus, whether that be your breath, mantra, or whatever center of attention you’ve chosen.
3. Don’t judge.
Humans have a tendency to label things as good or bad. If your mind stays focused during meditation, you might feel like you’ve had a good meditation. If thoughts stray, you’ll probably feel you didn’t do your best. But meditation or mindfulness isn’t about judging your thoughts, but simply to bring your attention back to the present. So-called bad meditations can actually reveal deeper truths, so what feels unproductive becomes productive in the big picture.
4. Find a group or an expert.
A teacher can show you how to meditate properly, including meditation posture and other techniques about how to meditate. Alternately, you might choose a meditation retreat or find a meditation center to learn how to meditate. You might find a group on Meet Up or elsewhere to support your meditation practice. Or you might go it alone.
5. Try an app.
If you decide to go it alone, you can find many types of free or nominally priced guided meditations online or with an app. One mindfulness app, called Headspace, claims to teach your meditation and mindfulness in just minutes a day. (24) (Note: I have no affiliation with this or any other mindfulness app, and Headspace offers a free Basics pack.) Researchers note among its benefits, nurses and health professionals could use the Headspace app in clinical settings. (15)
6. Morning meditation might work best.
Endless distractions can quickly derail your plans to meditate. Many people choose morning meditation as an ideal way to wake up. You’ll probably feel more refreshed and focused doing 10 minutes or so of meditation than scrolling through your social media or checking your email. (Not to worry: Everything will still be there after you meditate!)
7. Keep a journal.
The benefits of meditation and mindfulness can be subtle, and oftentimes we aren’t aware of the impact they have on our lives. Maybe you sleep better or you’re less likely to succumb to sugar cravings at the office. Perhaps you’re less snappy with your partner or children. Writing these things down can help you notice positive patterns and provide incentive to stick with your practice.
If you’re ready to get started right now, Noonan offers five mindfulness exercises to incorporate mindfulness-based stress reduction into your life (I am quoting them here verbatim):
- Take five slow cycles of respiration, feeling the air enter and leave your body just prior to seeing a patient.
- With closed eyes reach slowly to the sky while breathing in for five seconds then slowly return your arms to your side and exhale — repeat five times.
- Try eating your lunch as slowly as you can, savoring every bite and body sensation; you may be surprised at the flavor and your sensation of fullness.
- Choose a random object in your immediate environment such as a pen, a flower, or your stethoscope and observe it very carefully for 60 seconds; see what you can observe that you may never have seen before.
- Take a slow 10-minute walk and synchronize your inspirations and expirations with your footfalls — amazingly relaxing.