What Is Meditation?
Meditation can be defined as a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention. Meditation is also a consciousness-changing technique that has been shown to have a wide number of benefits on psychological well-being.1
Some key things to note about meditation:
- Meditation has been practiced in cultures all over the world for thousands of years.
- Nearly every religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has a tradition of using meditative practices.
- While meditation is often used for religious purposes, many people practice it independently of any religious or spiritual beliefs or practices.
- Meditation can also be used as a psychotherapeutic technique.
- There are many different types of meditation.
Meditation can take on many different forms, but there are two main types: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation:2
- Concentrative meditation involves focusing all of your attention on a specific object while tuning out everything else around you. The goal is to really experience whatever you are focusing on, whether it’s your breath, a specific word, or a mantra in order to reach a higher state of being.
- Mindfulness meditation includes, among others, both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness can target different issues, such as depression, which means that its focus may be different from practice to practice. Overall, it involves the state of being aware of and involved in the present moment and making yourself open, aware, and accepting.
How to Practice
While there are many different forms of meditations and ways to practice, learning a basic meditation for beginners is a great place to begin.
- Choose a quiet spot that is free of distractions. Turn off your phone, television, and other distractions. If you choose to play quiet music, select something calm and repetitive.
- Set a time limit. If you are just getting started, you might want to stick to shorter sessions of about 5 to 10 minutes in length.
- Pay attention to your body and get comfortable. You can sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair as long as you feel that you can sit comfortably for several minutes at a time.
- Focus on your breathing. Try taking deep breaths that expand your belly and then slowly exhale. Pay attention to how each breath feels.
- Notice your thoughts. The purpose of meditation is not to clear your mind—your mind is inevitably going to wander. Instead, focus on gently bringing your attention back to your breath whenever you notice your thoughts drifting. Don’t judge your thoughts or try to analyze them; simply direct your mind back to your deep breathing.
Impact of Meditation
Consciousness is often likened to a stream, shifting and changing smoothly as it passes over the terrain. Meditation is one deliberate means of changing the course of this stream, and in turn, altering how you perceive and respond to the world around you.
Research has shown that meditation can have both physiological and psychological effects. Some of the positive physiological effects include a lowered state of physical arousal, reduced respiration rate, decreased heart rate, changes in brain wave patterns, and lowered stress.1
Some of the other psychological, emotional, and health-related benefits of meditation include:
- Better management of symptoms of conditions including anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorders, pain issues, and high blood pressure
- Better stress management skills
- Changes in different aspects of attention and mindfulness
- Increased self-awareness
- Improved emotional well-being
- Improved working memory and fluid intelligence
- Improved immunity
- Greater empathy for yourself and others
- Headache relief
Tips for Meditating
If you are interested in trying meditation, there are some tips and tricks that will help you get started on a beneficial meditation practice.
- Start slow. Begin by doing short sessions of around 5 to 10 minutes a day, and then work your way up progressively to longer sessions.
- Set a schedule. Try meditating at the same time each day—for a few minutes first thing in the morning, for example.
- Get comfortable. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is one option, but comfort is the real key. You need to be in a position where you can sit for several minutes without getting uncomfortable, stiff, or restless.
- Focus on what you’re feeling. Breath naturally and notice the feelings and sensations that you experience as you breathe in and out.
- Don’t try to suppress feelings. Your mind is bound to wander as you meditate—and sometimes this can lead to thoughts and feelings and are uncomfortable or even distressing. The goal isn’t to clear your mind of such thoughts. Instead, acknowledge these thoughts without judging them, and then gently guide your focus back toward your breathing.
Meditation can have a wide range of benefits, but there are also some potential pitfalls to watch for. As you are starting a new meditation habit, it can be easy to expect too much too quickly. The reality is that it takes time and practice to build a habit that can have an impact on your health and well-being.
Don’t expect meditation to solve all of your problems. Instead, treat it like a part of your self-care routine that plays a role in helping you feel better and less stressed.
It is also important to be aware that meditation is not without some risks. One study found that meditation often led to troubling feelings and thoughts that were difficult to manage. The study also found that meditation might worsen the symptoms of some mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.
Some reports suggest that meditation may trigger or exacerbate psychotic states, so meditation may not be recommended for people who have conditions such as schizophrenia.3
History of Meditation
While meditation has recently grown in popularity in the U.S., the practice actually dates back thousands of years. The practice has been associated with religious traditions, particularly Buddhism. Meditation was used throughout Asia but finally began to make its way to other parts of the world during the 20th century. It rose to prominence in the West during the 1960s and 1970s and was often associated with hippie culture.
Over the last few decades, meditation has also been incorporated into different treatment modalities including mindfulness-based stress reduction, an approach that incorporates mindfulness and meditation to help people coping with stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.
The use of meditation as a therapeutic aid will likely to continue to develop as researchers learn more about the benefits and applications for this practice.
Everyday ways to practice meditation
Don’t let the thought of meditating the “right” way add to your stress. If you choose to, you can attend special meditation centers or group classes led by trained instructors. But you can also practice meditation easily on your own.
And you can make meditation as formal or informal as you like, however it suits your lifestyle and situation. Some people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, they may start and end each day with an hour of meditation. But all you really need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation.
Here are some ways you can practice meditation on your own, whenever you choose:
- Breathe deeply. This technique is good for beginners because breathing is a natural function.Focus all your attention on your breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.
- Scan your body. When using this technique, focus attention on different parts of your body. Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether that’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation.Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different parts of your body.
- Repeat a mantra. You can create your own mantra, whether it’s religious or secular. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus Prayer in the Christian tradition, the holy name of God in Judaism, or the om mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
- Walk and meditate. Combining a walk with meditation is an efficient and healthy way to relax. You can use this technique anywhere you’re walking, such as in a tranquil forest, on a city sidewalk or at the mall.When you use this method, slow down your walking pace so that you can focus on each movement of your legs or feet. Don’t focus on a particular destination. Concentrate on your legs and feet, repeating action words in your mind such as “lifting,” “moving” and “placing” as you lift each foot, move your leg forward and place your foot on the ground.
- Engage in prayer. Prayer is the best known and most widely practiced example of meditation. Spoken and written prayers are found in most faith traditions.You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help section of your local bookstore for examples. Talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or other spiritual leader about possible resources.
- Read and reflect. Many people report that they benefit from reading poems or sacred texts, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect on their meaning.You can also listen to sacred music, spoken words, or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.
- Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention on a sacred image or being, weaving feelings of love, compassion and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination or gaze at representations of the image.
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated January 2, 2019.
Xu J, Vik A, Groote IR, et al. Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Front Hum Neurosci. 2014;8:86. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00086
Sharma P, Mahapatra A, Gupta R. Meditation-induced psychosis: a narrative review and individual patient data analysis. Ir j psychol Med. Published online October 31, 2019:1-7. doi:10.1017/ipm.2019.47
Meditation: A Simple, Fast Way to Reduce Stress. Mayo Clinic. 2014.
Hockenbury DH, Hockenbury SE. Discovering Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers. 2007.
Shapiro SL, Schwartz GER, Santerre C. Meditation and Positive Psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2002.
Xu J, Vik A, Groote IR, Lagopoulos J, Holen A, Ellingsen O, Haberg AK, Davanger S. Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014;8(86). doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00086
- Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2014 Jan. (Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 124.)