All About Meditation

All of a sudden, everyone seems to be meditating. Whether itís for greater health and wellbeing, improved productivity or deeper spirituality, meditation has something to offer everybodyóincluding you.

Some people think that they canít meditate because they donít have time, they canít clear their minds, or they donít want to sit on the floor. The truth is, there are enough ways to meditate that everyone can find their style, and all forms of meditation lead to the same destinationógreater insight, more energy, deeper personal connections, relaxation, a healthier mind and body, and a greater sense of compassion for yourself and others.

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is a technique that allows practitioners to harness the mind, focus attention, and allow us to slip into a deeper state of consciousness. It's considered a mind-body practice, according to the National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). While most forms of meditation practiced today have roots in ancient religious and spiritual traditions, meditation itself is non-denominational. Sitting on the floor isnít mandatory and clearing the mind of all thoughts is rarely the goal.

Why Meditate?

Meditation offers many benefits, but its primary goals are to help you reach a state of deep relaxation and increase your ability to manage your thoughts and attention. As your practice gains skill and depth, youíll find yourself less easily distracted, less stressed, and less focused on negative emotions and experiences. Many people report that adding regular meditation to their lives has increased their productivity, creativity, and sense of purpose.

Meditation is good for your physical health, too, NICCIH research shows. During meditation, measurable biological changes take place in the brain and body. These can

  • Reduce stress, anxiety, depression, mood disturbances and pain.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Reduce muscle and joint pain.
  • Help cancer patients tolerate treatment.
  • May reduce illnesses caused by inflammation.
  • Ease irritable bowel syndrome and colitis.

Meditation is increasingly recommended by traditional medical practitioners.

Swami Prakashananda, a meditation teacher at The Movement Center in Portland, Oregon, has taught and practiced meditation for 40 years. He knows firsthand how important meditation is for oneís health: "A few years ago, I had a heart attack. I was rushed to the hospital with severe blockages in four arteries. The cardiologist said, 'I canít figure out why youíre still alive.' I told him, 'Well, I meditate.' He looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'Thatís why youíre alive.' Meditation helped my body deal with an intense crisis and activate my own ability to heal."

What Kinds of Meditation Are There?

"Practices range from simple breath awareness, to use of mantra [a phrase], to walking meditations and more," Prakashananda says. Whatever style you choose, the goal is to sit in a quiet place, focus on something beautiful, and create a connection between your awareness and the higher power that does the healing, thinking, breathing and living through us. The practice could be anything from 'think about something' to 'think about nothing.' All techniques are doorways to higher experiences.

Most of the types discussed here encourage practitioners to sit quietly, concentrating on the breath. When your mind wanders (it will!), just return your awareness to your breath. Here are some types to consider:

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulnessóthe constant awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiencesóis a part of every meditation practice and its history goes back thousands of years. Its popularity in the West began in the 1970ís with Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program.

Mindfulness meditation focuses on present moment activities, whether that's breathing and sitting or any other activity. For instance, you can practice mindfulness throughout your day while you walk (concentrating on each step) or wash your hands (concentrating on the warmth of the water and the slipperiness of the soap).

To turn mindfulness into a more formal practice, sit comfortably in a chair or on a cushion on the floor, or lie on your back. Concentrate on each breath as you inhale and exhale, and notice the coolness of the air and any resistance or constriction you feel.

If you realize that you're no longer fully immersed in mindful hand-washing, for instance, but are instead thinking about your to-do list, just recognize that you're thinking and return your focus to your hands.

Zen Meditation

Zen meditation developed when Buddhism spread to China approximately 600 years after Buddha lived. It continued to evolve in Eastern Asia for thousands of years; Zen meditation reached the US in the twentieth century.

Like mindfulness, Zen meditation encourages you to focus on the breath. Sit with your back straight and your eyes closed or open but unfocused. Practitioners follow their breath and try to stay in the present moment. They observe the thoughts that pass through their mind without holding on to them. When they find their minds wandering, they return to the breath and start again.

Vipassana or Insight Meditation

Vipassana is an ancient meditation technique that formed the foundation of Buddhaís practice more than 2,500 years ago. It made its way to the U.S. in the 1970s, when meditation leaders Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein opened the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.

With Vipassana meditation, you use your awareness of your breath and/or an object, which refers to might be a color, sound, odor, tactile sensation (including bodily movement), flavor, or feelings, desires, and thoughts.

If you become distracted, you label what youíre aware of (for instance, hearing a car horn beep is labeled "hearing") and return to your meditation.

Hindu Meditation

The earliest written records on meditation are found in Hindu Scriptures dating back to approximately 1,500 BC.

Meditators use a mantra to keep the brain busy during practice. Prakashananda explains, "Mantras are traditionally ancient Sanskrit words or phrases that are repeated silently during practice. Different mantras have different intentions; for instance, to promote healing, pay respects, or remove obstacles. They give your mind something to focus on besides your problems and patterns and the things that keep us stuck. The word 'mantra' actually means 'to protect,' and itís meant to protect us from worry, stress, and fear."

How Do You Start?

Itís always best to start with a teacher. Search online, in the phone book, or at your local community center to find a teacher or meditation center that near you. You may want to try a few styles until you find one that suits you.

To get started at home, follow these steps:

  1. Set aside 15 to 20 minutes for daily practice.
  2. Find a quiet spot where youíll be free of distractions.
  3. Sit with your back straight, but in a comfortable position that you can maintain for your entire meditation.
  4. Close your eyes.
  5. Touch your index finger and thumb together and drop your hands palm up on your thighs.
  6. Take a few slow, deep breaths and observe your mind and body as it settles into meditation.
  7. Continue focusing on your breath as you inhale and exhale and observe any thoughts or feelings that come up; then return to your breath.

Swami Prakashananda reviewed this article.

Sources

Swami Prakashananda. The Movement Center. Phone interview, May 19, 2016.

Figen, Dorothy. "Beginning Insight Meditation." Vipassana Fellowship. Accessed May 18, 2016.

"Meditation." National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. April 4, 2016.

"Meditation Types." Institute of Noetic Sciences. Accessed May 18, 2016.

"How to Meditate." Vipassana Dhura Meditation Society. Accessed June 1, 2016.

"John Kabat-Zinn - Biography." Center for Mindfulness. Page accessed June 14, 2016.

"Celebrating 40 Years." Insight Meditation Society. Page accessed June 14, 2016.