Meditation is an age-old practice that has been a part of our human journey and evolution for millennia; most likely from the very beginning of our journey on this planet. In fact, when we examine the entire multitude of living beings on this planet, it can even be reasoned that many, if not all, of them meditate. How we will understand this, of course, will all depend on how we understand the practice of meditation itself. In this essay, we will explore the many sides of meditation and how to do it for optimal mind, body, and spirit benefits.
In modern times, we may hear about the various benefits of meditation via popular media, friends, family, or centers and studios focused on holistic disciplines. Many people talk about meditation, but the very first thing that each of us have to understand is that, as with most things in life, we are not all talking about the same thing. Meditation has many meanings and associations. Depending on the version we are first introduced to, we may be attracted to it or repelled by it. This is partly due to the fact that there are many kinds of meditation, or many ways of doing it.
In its simplest form, meditation teeters on the practices of silence, stillness, reflection, and contemplation. Any of these states can, thus, be considered meditation. This simplest form is so easy and so natural for each of us to do, yet so few of us do it. At a time in our civilization’s evolution when we need meditation more so than ever perhaps, we do it the least. Of course, this varies by region and person, but as a collective we are in serious deficit on the meditation front. Our world has become so busy and so noisy today, and is reflected via our minds. It also shows in our levels of health and happiness. Ancient societies may have done most things in more primitive ways compared to our modern abilities, but they got one thing right: they prioritized the inward journey that meditation affords us.
Today, especially in the Western World and many parts like it, our entire lives are externally directed. Our material possessions, accomplishments, titles, and physical experiences drive our entire human experience. Even our religions, which one may think would guide us inward, today revolve around satisfying external practices, rituals, and entities. Yet all too often we feel and we know that something is missing, but we assure ourselves that it is around the next corner, propelling ourselves further into vicious cycles of chasing our own tails. We have become disconnected from each other, nature, and most importantly ourselves. If we have any shot at evolving this planet further along a track of love, peace, joy, and compassion, we must change our game plan. As I see it, we are truly standing at the crossroads, two timelines diverge ahead of us, and the time to choose one is now. One timeline takes us down further into the materially-driven external world, while the other lifts us up into the spiritually-driven internal realms. Which will you choose? So many factors will influence your choice, with one of the main ones being meditation.
Meditation holds the power to change our lives and our world; life on this planet as we know it. The fact that we are at transformational crossroads in our humanity today is certain; we can see signs of it all around us, and most importantly within many of us. Only details may perplex or illusively divide us: Should we call it a transformation, awakening, shift in consciousness, or other? Regardless, something is accelerating and not a moment too soon. More and more of us each day are changing our ways—our thinking and our habits. Meditation often has a large role to play in this. It provides one of the best ways to open up our channels of perception to a higher state of being. It is an amazing exercise that can relax, calm, and train the mind to be used to our benefit, rather than against us. We can use meditation for so many purposes from de-stressing the body, to aligning the body, mind, and spirit. We can can use it to heal, to harmonize, or to explore the many other realms of existence that exist beyond this one.
Some people embrace this activity and incorporate it as part of their daily life, while others resist the practice and may even be skeptical of its purpose and outcomes. Again, it will all depend on how you understand and envision meditation. Meditation can frustrate us, it can bore us, it can enlighten us, it can strengthen us. The possibilities are many and the outcome will be highly dependent on how you walk into this experience. Of course, for many of us, there is no doubt about the amazing benefits of meditation, unfortunately we deny ourselves these benefits by telling ourselves a very common story: the story of not having the time to do it. Our choices, however, are shaped by our perceptions. Our perceptions are shaped by our thoughts, beliefs, and most importantly our priorities. I know I do not have to convince you that when something becomes a priority in our life, a window of time always seems to open up to experience that which we seek or feel aligned with. The key is to find that alignment, which can make anything feel welcome and even effortless.
The Many Forms of Meditation
Despite the many forms that meditation can take, beyond the different techniques and options, meditation is a practice that has at its foundation consciousness, awareness, and mindfulness. It can be a tool used to calm or empty the mind, relax the body, connect with spirit, reflect on a dilemma, or cease thoughts. There are many ways of practicing it, and many outcomes that can result. The uniting element that is always present however, in all cases of true meditation, is the element of awareness. We must be aware of what is taking place within us—within our mind and/or body. Let’s therefore explore the several forms that meditation can most commonly take.
Informal Meditation: For some, meditation is simply a practice of quiet contemplation, where the attention is focused inward, rather than outward. Some people may use meditation to contemplate a situation, find a solution to a challenge, or reflect on some aspect of life. All of this is possible; meditation does not mean we will never allow thoughts. We simply must differentiate between unconscious rumination and conscious meditation. If you are fully aware of the thoughts that you are thinking, you may be in a state of meditation. This is why some people do not see meditation as an isolated practice, but as a lifestyle. If you are not aware of your thoughts, where your mind is running through conditioned programming, stories, and judgements, you are not in a state of meditation.
Visualization Meditation: Some forms of meditation can have their entire practice based on visualization and this is often one of the easier ways to start a meditation practice. In visualization your mind is active and you are bringing to your mind’s eye images. This process can be contemplative and calming, and it can be one of the best processes for conscious life creation; to visualize yourself as you wish to experience your next highest self, your life, your health, etc. The most important thing to keep in mind about visualization meditation is that it is not a way to manipulate the Universe or our lives into being a certain way. You can try, but the Universe/your Higher Self/Inner Being do not work that way. So if you are doing visualization meditation, it has to be conscious, honest, and heart-centered.
Guided Meditation: This is the most common form of meditation that I often recommend for beginners. This form alone can take many forms. However, its essence is simple: you listen to someone else guide you into a state of consciousness and meditation, and give direction to your mind. No, it is not hypnosis or trance or anything like that; those are different states of being altogether. The teacher will simply take you on a visual and/or auditory journey. It can involve visualization, intention, chanting, or mantras and other elements. The Chopra Center provides some excellent, free guided meditations.
Transcendental Meditation: This form of meditation is more specific in terms of a distinct technique. This technique and entire movement were introduced in India in the mid-1950s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and are rooted in Hinduism. TM, as it is often referred to in short, involves the use of a sound or mantra and is commonly practiced for 15–20 minutes, twice per day. This meditation form has been extensively studied and linked with various physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits. It is also correlated with the Maharishi Effect*, which proposes that only the square root of one percent of the population practicing the specific TM program, together at the same time and in the same place, have an effect on the environment, such as increasing “life-supporting trends”. For full details and resources about this technique, visit the official transcendental meditation site.
Mindfulness Meditation: This is perhaps the most powerful type of meditation, and one which has the most spiritual and scientific backing behind its plethora of benefits. Mindfulness meditation is a technique adapted from the Buddhist Vipassana meditation. It involves some specific techniques, but the most integral element of its foundation is to see and experience things just as they are*. Vipassana (mindfulness meditation) is India’s most ancient technique of meditation, rediscovered by Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) more than 2500 years ago and taught by him as a universal remedy for universal ills. Its aim is to fully eradicate mental noise and pollution and give rise to the highest level of joy and liberation. The technique invokes a high degree of conscious awareness about one’s own state of mind, breath, and body and present moment living. Where as the untrained mind is most often ruminating in the past or future and negating what is, resisting against this, or wishing for that, mindfulness meditation teaches us to simply experience without judgement or attachment. The benefits associated with mindfulness meditation, also, span all areas of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. More so than anything perhaps, this form of meditation is one of the best for training our minds to be effective—sharp, focused, clear, at peace, conscious, etc. Here in the west, mindfulness meditation has been greatly popularized and studied thanks to the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn; you can visit his site for mindfulness meditation resources. You can also participate in various mindfulness meditation classes or retreats to gain a good foundation of this technique, like the Vipassana Silent Retreats.
(*Both transcendental meditation and mindfulness meditation can be self-guided or teacher-guided.)
Are You Meditating Correctly?
Although most meditation teachers are truly heart- and spirit-centered and outstanding, there are instances where teachers incorrectly guide students or make them believe that meditation can only be done a certain way, or else it is wrong. Hopefully as you can deduce based on what I shared above, there are many forms of meditation and it is not a rigid, one-way type of practice like some may make it seem. Experiment with various techniques and find one that works well for you. Don’t be afraid to alternate your practice as well. Some days you may feel like sitting calmly in the silence of your own mind, while other days you may be called to include a mantra with your practice. Either way, meditation should not be forced and I encourage you not to become too fanatical about it either. It is not about reaching some state of meditative perfection, like mastering one of the techniques or never skipping a day. You need to make this practice real and have its benefits translate readily into your daily life. It is not just the simple act that will improve your life, but your conscious engagement with it and application of it in your daily life that will play the determining role as to how much you benefit. We have enough dogma, religion, and ritual in our society, don’t make meditation one of them. The whole point of meditation is not to see if you can sit, breathe, and clear the mind, but how mindfully/consciously you will live.
So if you are wondering if you are meditating correctly, the answer to this will depend on two factors: one, what type of meditation you are doing, and two, how much is your quality of life, health, and wellbeing improving. It is the practical aspect that is most critical here. Consider the following questions along your journey and practice:
- Are you more conscious in your daily activities?
- Are you more effective in your decision making skills, knowing what is right for you, why, and when?
- Are you better able to connect the dots between actions and consequences?
- Are you more focused and alert?
- Are you living with less fear, anxiety, or insecurity?
- Are you more patient and loving with yourself and others?
- Are you living with more compassion and inner peace?
Use these aspects as a reference point for how well you are doing with your meditation practice. Of course, be sure to give it a fair try and amount of time. Your mind has been in free-rein mode for years and it will take some time before you can interact with it effectively. For some people benefits will appear within days, for other weeks, months, or years. This is not a competition, isolated task, or test. This is a life-long practice. Along the journey, simply be sure to listen to your inner being and adjust accordingly.
What Can I Expect From Meditation?
We have thousands of years backing up the many beneficial effects of this practice, for our mental, emotional, physical, and most importantly, spiritual wellbeing. Today, we even have scientific backing for the many benefits of transcendental and mindfulness meditation. Of course, each of us are unique and results will vary based on many factors. However, here is what you can generally speaking expect from most meditation practices:
- Meditation can help us achieve a sense of inner peace and tranquility.
- It can balance our being and bring out more of our spiritual side that is largely muted in today’s society.
- It can offer a deeper sense of knowing of your purpose and connection to meaning.
- Meditation is amazing at melting away stresses and concerns. However in order to reach this level efficiently, one usually has to practice meditation for some time.
- It can help balance our mood and enhance our self-esteem.
- Meditation can also decrease symptoms of depression, as it allows one to connect with themselves on a higher plane and transcend the drama, negativity, and triviality of everyday life.
- People who practice meditation are also found to be calmer and more easy going as well.
- Meditation can reduce stress and make us more effective at dealing with stress, which is in many cases the precursor for most of our physical ailments.
- Due to its calming properties, meditation has also been found to reduce blood pressure, alleviate headaches and other general aches, decrease the heart rate and anxiety, and boost the immune system.
- It can decrease or eliminate pain and inflammation.
- It can treat insomnia and even fertility issues.
When done on a regular basis, it has the power to be a truly transformative experience in all three of the above areas. You can, therefore, practice meditation for any and all of the reasons mentioned, as well as many others. However, we should always keep in mind that meditation is the MOST powerful practice for training the mind. You know that if you want to master something, you have to practice it. You also know that if you want a fit body, sculpted muscles, and such, you have to train accordingly. The same applies to our mind. Our modern minds are running a muck, literally out of control, and so unnecessarily sabotaging our health, happiness, and inner peace. Through meditation you can expect to take back the reins and effectively direct your mind in focused ways. This, alone, changes the playing field of life, transforming the very way we think, speak, and act.
How to Meditate
Many teachers, experts, and resources have come and gone on this topic, and you need to find what or whose work will resonate with you at any given time in your journey. Whichever form of meditation you choose, there are several key areas that should always be taken into consideration for the most beneficial and enjoyable experience.
Location & Setting: Where you choose to meditate can vary; you can be indoors or outdoors. The most important thing to consider here is simply to find a space where you will feel comfortable and not be distracted. It is advisable to be in a quiet area. There can be slight music in the background, but it should be soothing, soft, and non-vocal. You may consider music with vocals, but only if the vocals are in a language that you do not understand, otherwise the mind will become busy processing the words, meaning, etc. Many people enjoy Sanskrit music or mantras. New Age tones, instrumental music, binaural beats, and nature sounds are also common choices. If you are indoors, you can create a personal sanctuary in your own home that may include candles or incense as may be desired. Either way, it is best to meditate in a clean and uncluttered area.
Props & Attire: Many people choose to have various cushions on which to sit for their meditation practice, others simply choose to sit on the floor, as is, or in a chair. While sitting on a carpeted surface may be fine, sitting on ceramic is not advisable as it is too cold and hard. Wood or cork surfaces are just fine, but the firmness without any cushions will take some time getting used to for the novice meditator. You can put a yoga mat down on which to mediate as well. In terms of clothing, any comfortable clothing will do. Breathable, natural, non-itchy fabrics work best. Keep in mind the external temperature. Meditation tends to lower our body temperature, so adjust accordingly to be comfortable and stick with your intended practice. It is very helpful to have a blanket near you that you can use as may be needed.
Spinal Alignment: One of the most important things regardless where you choose to meditate, is to have a long, not slouched or curved, spine. It is best to sit in a comfortable, upright position or possibly lay down flat on one’s back. You want to avoid falling asleep though; while the benefits of sleep are great, they are not the same as those of meditation. Many of us may be familiar with the famous Buddha images where one sits cross-legged in a full lotus pose with their hands aligned in a certain mudra. Although this is great and can offer additional benefits, it is not necessary. Find a position that works well for you, and modify as time goes on and you become more skilled in your practice and comfortable sitting still for longer periods of time.
Eyes & Breath: There are types of meditation that include keeping one’s eyes open, but nearly all of them are best practiced with the eyes closed. Part of this reason is that we want to focus consciously on the inner world, rather than be distracted by the external surroundings. We want to avoid any visual distractions that our mind can use as an excuse to focus on or analyze. When you become more experienced with consciously focusing the mind, you can experiment with keeping your eyes open. With respect to our breath, it is the most elementary part of any mediation practice. In fact, there are entire meditation practices centered around breath alone. Regardless of which meditation form you choose, the breath should always be our primary centering and grounding point for entering into a heightened state of awareness. Breathing should typically be done through the nose on both inhalations and exhalations, unless you are practicing some specific breath technique.
Duration & Frequency: In terms of time of day, you can mediate anytime during the day. In the morning, meditation can provide a conscious and grounded start to our day. In the evening, meditation can provide a calming and relaxing end to our day. The most important aspect here is simply not to meditate after a meal. We typically want to meditate on an empty stomach, or before meals. If you practice yoga, meditate after, not before, your yoga practice. You can meditate once or multiple times a day. You can meditate daily or as your time or needs dictate. The point is to make a conscious and serious commitment to your practice by making it a priority. Otherwise, we can find 99 other things that we think are more important to do than sit down to meditate. In terms of duration, I recommend to start with as little as 5 minutes a day and work your way up gradually, but consistently, to 10, 15, 20, 30, or more minutes at a time. This is helpful especially for those of us who feel that we have no time or who are not used to sitting still for prolonged periods of time. As you practice regularly, both your mind and body will strengthen and adapt to handle longer meditation sessions. Having a regular yoga practice is also very powerful and beneficial for strengthening the mind and body.
Ultimately, as much as I, or anyone else can say about meditation, the best understanding of it will come via personal practice. You can also explore the various styles, philosophies, histories, and scientific research related to meditation, but it is the practice that will provide the most significant life changes.
Keep in mind, also, that meditation may not come easy to most of us in today’s society. It is hard for many people to sit still or sit in silence or sit and try to observe one’s breath or thoughts. There is nothing wrong with you if this is the case and don’t be quick to turn away from meditation thinking that you cannot do it or that it is not for you. As mentioned at the start of this essay, we are so bombarded today with aggressive visual, written, and auditory stimuli that our minds are in extreme information and sensory overdrive. Our thoughts are scattered, programmed, and unconsciousness most of our waking life. There are deep divides between our heart, mind, body, and spirit. While all this makes meditation that much more challenging and uncomfortable, it is also all the more reason why we need meditation today more so than ever. So be patient and loving with yourself, but do apply some discipline and consistency. This is when you can expect meditation to begin to transform your state of happiness, health, and wellbeing, empowering you, liberating you, and unleashing the fullest potential of YOU!