Our beginner’s guide to meditation explains how (and why) to train your mind just like you train your body.
What is meditation?
The English word “meditation” stems from meditatum, a Latin word meaning “to ponder.”
In the Buddhist tradition, meditation is seen as a collective of activities — not just a single practice; a different meditation practice requires a different set of skills, much like how different sports require different skill sets, as well. Meditation is a means to transform the mind; it is a group of techniques that are used to encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and calmness in seeing the true nature of the world around us. As you delve deeper into your meditation practice, it offers a way to cultivate a new, more positive way of being.
While the origins of meditation are found in Buddhist India, meditation also spread through Taoist China as far back as the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. However, whether it’s Buddhist meditation, Zen meditation, or Taoist meditation, the practice adapts to the cultures of where it was taken up but still remains true to the original principle.
Meditation vs. Mindfulness
Despite being similar concepts, mindfulness and meditation are not synonymous.
Meditation usually refers to a seated practice that focuses on several aspects — opening your heart, expanding awareness, calming the mind, finding inner peace, and much more. It is an intentional practice whereby you focus inwards. In doing so, you increase calmness, concentration, and balance by bringing your awareness to your breath — inhales and exhales — to guide the mind to a single point of focus. Meditation can range in length lasting anywhere from a minute to more than an hour.
On the other hand, mindfulness is about awareness, which is essentially a meditation component. Through the practice of being mindful, you are actively aware of your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and movements; this also includes being aware of your effect on the individuals around you. Whereas meditation is often done in a seated, stationary position, mindfulness can be practiced virtually anywhere at any time. Most often, people are not present — in the sense that they are mindlessly going about their daily lives — but when we practice being mindful, we are fully engaged in the activity with all of our senses instead of allowing the mind to wander.
In a study conducted at Harvard University, researchers found that people spend as much as 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something they aren’t doing. According to Killingsworth and Gilbert, “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
Through the practice of mindfulness and meditation, one learns to focus on the present rather than focusing on the past or future, thus increasing enjoyment, pleasure, and happiness.
Forms of meditation
When it comes to meditation, there is more than one way to do it. Here are a few of the most popular forms:
- Concentration meditation — Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single point. This could be an image, your breath, a specific mantra or single word, a noise, or an object in the room. During a focused meditation, the mind can easily wander. When you find this happening, simply refocus your attention on the chosen object. Rather than allowing your mind to focus on these new things, let them go.
- Visualization meditation
- Breath-awareness meditation
- Mantra-based meditation
- Guided meditation — Guided meditation is a great option for beginners with little experience. In these, a teacher guides you through the basic steps of the practice to allow you to experience the most from your practice. Most guided meditations follow a similar format: the teacher explains the behavior of the mind, leads you through specific meditation techniques, and explains how you can integrate meditation into your daily life. Guided meditations come in a variety of lengths suitable for your preference.
- Mindfulness meditation — A mindful meditation practice means that you are fully present with your thoughts. During this practice, you are aware of where you are and what you are doing; your thoughts are not focused externally on what is going on around you. When practicing mindfulness meditation, you observe your thoughts and emotions but let them pass without judgment.
Why you should meditate
Beyond simply feeling good, meditation is highly beneficial for the body and the central nervous system for several reasons:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Improves circulation
- Decreases heart rate
- Lowers breathing rate
- Reduces anxiety
- Reduces stress / lowers cortisol levels
- Deepens relaxation
- Reduces symptoms of anxiety
- Improves sleep
Getting started with meditation
If you’re just starting out with meditation, don’t get frustrated if your mind starts to wander — it’s natural. As you become more accustomed to the practice and you become better, you can slowly increase the length you meditate to a point in which you are comfortable.
Here are a few tips to help with your meditation practice:
- Choose a comfortable position, either sitting or lying. (Note: be careful not to fall asleep if you are lying down). Investing in a meditation chair or pillow may be beneficial to increase comfort.
- Close your eyes.
- Do not try to control your breath — breathe naturally, slowly, and deeply.
- Focus your attention on your breathing and let any other thoughts flow in and out of your mind. Pay attention to how the body moves with each inhale and exhale. Notice the movement of the body with each breath.
- Simply focus your attention on your breath without controlling it — let its pace and intensity flow naturally. If your mind wanders, return your focus back to your breath.
Guided meditations are also a great option for beginners or even novice meditators who want a bit of a guide. As you get used to meditating, you’ll find it becomes easier and more natural each time. As with anything else, practice makes perfect.
Curious about meditation?
Looking for more ideas on how to de-stress and relax? Check out our article here to learn about different techniques that are highly beneficial and super easy!