We all have some vague sense of what meditation is: an image comes to mind, perhaps of a monk or a sage sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed, in absolute silence.
What’s harder to grasp from an observer’s standpoint is the most fundamental part of meditation - the work going on behind the scenes that defines the experience.
The infamous peace of mind associated with meditation is undeniably something we all wish to have; however, the idea of meditation quickly takes on a mystical, inaccessible quality, and I’ve heard it so many times before: “That sounds great, but it’s not for me.”
I challenge you to put aside your preconceived ideas of what meditation is, and likewise to let go of your self-judgments that you are in some way unfit. Many of the reasons people have for abstaining from meditation can be chocked up to common misconceptions about what it is in the first place.
The Benefits of Meditating regularly
Once you start, it won’t take long before you too experience the many benefits of meditation, including:
A study conducted by the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies found that participants who practiced meditation prior to a laboratory concentration task performed better than their non-meditating counterparts. (1)
In fact, meditating for only four days has a significant impact on your brain’s executive functions, working memory and visual processing: improving your ability to complete tasks and increasing self-control.
Meditation brings about actual changes your brain: particularly in the areas that are responsible for our response to stress.
An experiment at Stanford on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) showed reduced amygdala activation, and greater activity in areas associated with emotional regulation following an 8-week course in meditation.
These changes are directly related to our ability to manage stressful situations and lower our reactive impulses. (2)
Lowered risk of heart disease
In turn, when we are more relaxed our blood pressure is better controlled; thus, meditation is now recommended by many as a complementary treatment for hypertension.
A scientific review of the research on the effect of transcendental meditation on cardiovascular disease performed by the Institute of Natural Medicine and Prevention revealed that meditation can result in a significant decrease in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Meditation is likewise associated with a reduction in other CVD risk factors such as cholesterol levels and tobacco and alcohol use. (3)
Practicing meditation improves both the duration and quality of sleep, and the effect has been observed to increase with prolonged practice.
An EEG study published in the International Review of Psychiatry documented enhancement of both REM and non-REM sleep, as well as a reduction in the number of awakenings between sleep cycles in seasoned meditators. (4)
Scientists at Harvard compared the effect of a meditation course to one on sleep education and found that meditators suffered from less insomnia and fatigue at the end of the six week program. (5)
Heightened immune system
Stress levels greatly impact our immune system’s performance; by decreasing stress meditation increases our bodies’ ability to fight infections.
Researchers at the American Psychosomatic Society observed higher levels of flu antibodies in meditating subjects than a control group 8-weeks post vaccination. (6)
Meanwhile, another group from the Ulleval University department of Medicine in Norway showed that meditators have an greater levels of T-cells, leading them to propose that a meditation practice may help counter the immuno-suppressive effects of prolonged stress. (7)
Understanding What Meditation IS By Understanding What It Is NOT
Meditation is not an action, it’s an experience. This may at first glance be a seemingly unimportant distinction, but if you hang in there I’ll convince you of its significance.
We often use the word “meditate” to denote contemplation or reflection - “I’ll have to meditate on that” - while meditation is a great way to get to know yourself better, this time is not intended to be spent mulling over your work assignments or the last argument you had with your significant other.
This brings us to another misinterpretation of meditation: That you must be absent of all thoughts. While yes, the ultimate goal is to achieve a completely silent mind, this is the end result of many years - often a lifetime - of patience and practice.
Now that we’ve cleared up what meditation isn’t, you may be feeling somewhat confused as to what it is you’re supposed to be doing.
What Meditation IS
You’ve likely gotten a taste of what it feels like to meditate before, without even realizing that’s what you were doing. Every time we partake in an activity which requires an intense focus, yet is pleasing and quiets our ongoing internal dialogue we are - in a way - meditating.
Think about knitting, or painting or perhaps mowing the lawn - whatever simple task you find enjoyment in which gives you a moment of peace: This is the essence of meditation.
In developing a more structured meditation practice you are simply building on this experience: incorporating tried and tested tools and techniques to help you reach this inner state of calm and bliss.
“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.”
- The Buddha
While there are many different styles of meditation, each technique works by transforming the mind itself: training it to be clearer, calmer and kinder. (8)
It’s amazing how simple changes to our inner dialogue can not only improve our outlook on life, but drastically change our actual experiences.
Taking The Plunge
With all that said, the hardest step in meditation is getting started.
Remember that you possess all the tools necessary to be successful - all you need to do now is to put them into practice; but, to help you along the way here are my top 5 tips to get you on the right track.
Top 5 Tips To Establish Your Meditation Practice
1. Get comfortable
The importance of comfort cannot be stressed enough - if you sit down to meditate and soon after find yourself tugging at your shirt sleeves, shivering in a cool breeze or suffering from low back pain this is a recipe for defeat.
You may wish to prepare yourself for meditation by changing into comfortable, loose fitting clothing. I find any jewelry to be distracting and advocate going with the most minimalist attire possible.
Choose clothing appropriate for the temperature: keeping in mind that the body tends to become colder when still for prolonged periods of time. I recommend keeping a sweater or blanket nearby - just in case.
However, there’s no need to get changed in order to successfully meditate! Whether you’re in your pajamas, yoga pants or a button down shirt you’re perfectly dressed for the occasion.
Now that you’ve taken care of your wardrobe, it’s time to turn our attention to your position. There are several things to keep in mind when choosing which position you’d like to rest in for meditation - the most important being to pick what works best for you!
Lotus Pose is often depicted as the king of meditation postures. The way the legs are entwined serves as a firm, stable base for the rest of the body to stack on top of, and enables one to sit motionless without much effort. (9)
However, there are many other options that are equally suited for meditation that don’t require you to be a flexible yoga master.
In fact, you can meditate where you are sitting right now! Sitting upright in a chair - including your desk chair - is a great way to sneak in some meditation during a busy day.
Mindfully plant both feet on the ground and rest your hands in your lap, placing your palms on either leg or one on top of the other. Voila - a perfect meditation pose.
Other yoga poses designed for meditation include easy pose (cross-legged) and Hero’s Meditation which rotates the hips inwards rather than outwards and is often much more comfortable for those with tight hips.
Propping the hips up on a block, pillow, blanket or combination is a great way to reduce tension in the lower back and to prevent nerve compression leading to pins and needles when sitting on the floor.
Ideally you want your knees to be in line with your hips - so if tight inner thighs prevent your knees from lowering down to the floor, these props are a great option.
There are also meditation seats you can purchase to help with your posture. From simple cushions to back support, each style uniquely addresses the needs of the user.
If no matter how you sit you are overcome by discomfort that is cutting your sessions short, you could try meditating lying down; but be careful not to drift to sleep - unless you are meditating before bed that is.
Finally, take a few moments before delving into your practice to relieve any tension in the body.
Try a few gentle stretches to open up the hips, stretch the shoulders and release the back. After a long day of working our bodies are far from their optimal alignment. Stretching gives the muscles a chance to fully relax and return the body to a state of equilibrium.
Think about stretching in all dimensions - sideways, backwards, forwards and twisting.
2. Create the right space
It’s not always easy to retreat to an idealistic location to meditate; but don’t worry, there are some simple alterations you can make to any space to make it more conducive to meditation.
When we are surrounded by too many objects we become overwhelmed, and the composition of our environment can affect how we behave. (10) The ideal meditation location is free of clutter, clean and airy. So, pack up those knickknacks and pass the broom!
See the space around you as a reflection of your inner space: Since the goal of meditation is to de-clutter the mind, start with your surroundings and work your way in.
Different types of lighting work for different people: what is most important to keep in mind is to choose lighting that makes you feel good, calm and yet still able to focus. (11)
Personally I prefer either natural light (from windows - or take your practice outdoors); or - if meditating late at night - I opt for soft lighting from shaded lamps and candles.
Himalayan salt lamps come in a variety of sizes and are a great addition to any meditation space.
While claims have yet to be fully demonstrated by science, there are some preliminary studies that support the idea that the negative-ions produced by these lamps are beneficial for your health: purifying the air we breathe, reducing stress and improving concentration. (12) I also find the warm orange/red tones extremely soothing and cozy.
While there is much debate about whether or not music should be include in a meditation practice, many find that it can be a powerful tool in setting the right tone. Although, obviously not all music is created equal for this task!
Choose tracks that are soothing, with a steady rhythm and calming melody. I caution against the use of music with too many vocals - as these tend to draw us away from our inner experience.
Finally, lower the volume. Now is not the time to test the limits of your new subwoofer. You want to play your music at a level that is pleasant and unobtrusive.
If you’re looking for some inspiration on what music to choose, we have reviews and recommendations for you.
Chanting Om is a great way you can set the tone and open your meditation practice. The vibrations produced by this simple activity are believed to work not only on the body and mind, but also on the surrounding environment: purifying and bringing them into synchrony with the Cosmos. (13)
If you are new to chanting it may feel silly at first, but I highly encourage you to give it a try; or, alternatively you could begin with a music track that includes OM if that’s more to your comfort level.
Yogis have long affirmed that chanting OM reduces stress, increases concentration and clears the mind - and scientists have observed measurable effects on the nervous system in response to the chant. (13)
Focus on the way the sound resonates through you: becoming mindful of the subtle changes in your body and mind as you chant.
3. Find your focus
Choosing a focus for your meditation is a personal process. Again, you may need to play with different types in order to find what works best for you.
It has long been understood by Yogis that where we direct the gaze, the attention follows. (14) In this way, choosing a focal point for meditation is a great technique to help quiet the mind.
All of these options serve the exact same purpose: directing your mind to a single-point. From this point it is far easier to let go completely than in our usual state of fragmented attention.
Meditating on a visual object is one of the most accessible starting points for beginners, as it provides a very concrete subject for concentration.
While the object you choose to use can vary widely - perhaps a candle, a rock or flower - it must fit two criteria: (15)
- Be small enough that it can be viewed all at once (without having to move your head).
- Be large enough that you can make out its finer details.
Once you have chosen your object, place it in front of you at a distance and angle that allows you to maintain the alignment of the neck. You don’t want to be leaning forward or tilting your head upwards in order to view it. (15)
“By contemplating or concentrating on whatever objector principle one may like, or towards which one has a predisposition,the mind becomes stable and tranquil.”- Patanjali (Sutra 1.39)
The next step is to concentrate: fully envelop yourself in the experience of seeing the object. Start by appreciating the object as whole, and then begin to make more subtle observations: the differences in light/shadow, the complexities of pattern and shape. (15)
If, after a time, you’re overcome by the desire to close your eyes DO IT! You can continue to meditate on the object with your eyes closed, or perhaps switch to another point of focus.
While visualization and object meditation have many similarities, visualization is a much more subjective practice. (16)
Visualizations can vary from extremely minimalist - a light or sphere - to very complex journeys into the subconscious mind. The imagery used can include visuals, sensations (heat/cold), sounds and smells - the more of the senses called upon, the deeper your immersion in the meditation.
You may choose a mantra - a sound, word or phrase - as the focus of your meditation.
The mantra can either be repeated aloud or internally: both ways have their own benefits. I prefer to begin externally and then bring the mantra internal, as this maintains the experience focused on the internal realm without incorporating accessory stimuli of the sound.
If you began your practice chanting OM, you can simply continue to repeat the chant and slowly come to silence.
While we think of mantras as typically being in Sanskrit - this is not necessary. You can follow along with your breath saying: “I breathe in, I breathe out” - or simply repeat the affirmation: “I am.”
You can also opt for a focal point that is not visible to the eye: the two most common being the breath and the third-eye center (the point right between the brow bones). (14)
Focusing on the breath is one of my favorite meditations. The idea here is not to control the breath - as in breath exercises - but rather to simply observe the breath as it is.
“The mind is also calmed by regulating the breath,particularly attending to exhalationand the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice.”- Patanjali (Sutra 1.34)
When the mind wanders, simply bring yourself back to your chosen focus. With practice you will find it becomes easier and easier to fully envelop yourself in the experience of your focal point - and you may begin to get a sense of complete stillness.
Whether or not you choose your breath as the focus of your meditation, the way you breathe is the extremely important.
Shallow breathing - as many of us are guilty of doing throughout our day-to-day lives - maintains us in a state of heightened alertness, as our body’s fight-or-flight response remains activated. (17)
Instead, use full - diaphragmatic breathing as you meditate. Deep breathing has been demonstrated to reduce levels of stress and anxiety, increase muscle relaxation and stabilize blood-pressure (18) - mainly through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system: our body’s rest-and-digest mechanism. (19),(20)
A simple exercise to become acquainted with the full yogic breath is to lie down on your back and place on hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest.
As you inhale, feel the abdomen extend followed by the chest - and on the exhale the belly falls and then the chest. Lying on your back allows you to explore expanding the thoracic cavity in all three dimensions. Feel how the contact points along the back of your ribs change as your lungs fill with air.
Remember, the mind-body connection is extremely powerful: use it to your advantage!
5. Let go of expectations
Most importantly: stop judging yourself!
When we go into something with certain expectations, when these are not fulfilled we end up feeling negatively about the entire experience. It is too easy to lose track of the present moment and become muddled up in feelings of inadequacy or frustration.
Meditation involves the suspension of judgment and the practice of equanimity - the quality of approaching all experiences with calm, and in the absence reactivity: (21) Taking a step back from the hamster wheel of thought, and becoming an observer of your own mind.
As thoughts come - and they will - try simply to acknowledge them without labeling things as good or bad, as stupid or clever.
The concept of non-attachment is extremely predominant is all meditation traditions, and it is a powerful tool - once mastered, it will serve you in all aspects of life.
Remember that whether or not you succeed in being a passive observer of your mind - whether or not you achieve that “silence” - whether or not you catch a glimmer of your True Self - you are meditating and the process is working on your body and mind.
If you hit a road bump, don’t fear! There are many resources available at your fingertips to get you back headed in the right direction.
Whether you are simply looking for tips to deepen your practice, or are on the hunt for full-length guided meditations, YouTube is a great place to get started. With a wealth of videos to choose from you are certain to find something that speaks to you.
But, we are here to offer up some of our own guidance with this list of the 10 Best Guided Meditation Videos.
Headspace is an amazingly innovative application cofounded by former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. (22) Their “Take 10” program - 10 minutes per day for 10 days - is a great way to take the dive into mindfulness meditation: and 100% free.
They also offer a series of more specialized programs which target particular areas of concern including improving relationships and honing performance.
The guided and unguided exercises range from 2 minutes to an hour - so you’re certain to find one that works for you.
Art of Meditation course
The Art of Living Foundation offers courses in “The Art of Meditation.” The course requires no previous experience, and focuses on teaching the classical method of meditation, along with an exploration of yoga philosophy.
Your teacher will provide you with your own, personal mantra and set you on the right track to achieving your meditation goals. You can find a course near you by using their helpful search function.
Founded by entrepreneur Lorna Borenstein, Grokker is another fantastic resource for people interested in wellness and developing habits for a healthy lifestyle - including meditation.
With new videos posted daily, their website and iOS app are specifically designed to allow you to access content anytime, anywhere. With a free 14-day trial and only $9.99/month after that - Grokker certainly beats a gym membership in both value and accessibility.
Now there is only one thing left for you to do: Practice, practice, practice. The benefits of meditation are best accessed through consistency.
Already in reading this article you have taken significant steps down your path to not only a successful meditation practice, but also - and most importantly - towards becoming better acquainted with yourself.
Stay committed: whether that means taking five minutes, or spending over an hour meditating daily is completely up to you and your lifestyle. The key is to keep going forward.
Peace of mind is just within your reach, all you have to do is grab it!
- MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., Saron, C. D. (2010). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science. 21, 6. 829839
- Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulnessbased stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 8391