Meditation. What mental image does the word conjure? Do you imagine the serenity of Buddhist monks? A Druid’s requisite for restoring their spell slots? Perhaps you pictured some New Age hipsters babbling about the benefits of sitting and breathing. Maybe you even imagined a Jedi’s solemn contemplation of the Force before Anakin and his personal legion of Clone Troopers busting in and wrecking up the place. Meditation has been practiced and portrayed many different ways over the centuries, and despite being over 3,000 years old (that’s just recorded history), it can be just as relevant to you today as it was to a Hindu Dhyana monk thirty-five centuries ago. There will be more posts regarding meditation on this blog in the future, so I decided I’d share this introduction as a primer.
First off, the single most prominent misconception must be addressed: the practice is more than sitting and breathing. It is understandable why a skeptic would think this way. After all, sitting still, seemingly doing nothing seems like an odd way to relieve stress, focus thoughts, and all-around improve one’s mental and physical health. If you desire to walk the path of meditation, this misconception must be dispelled. It is something that can be utilized by spiritual and non-spiritual people alike. Enough benefits have been identified by scientific study (which I’ll get into shortly) that an argument can be made for even the most rationally minded person to try meditation. It has been utilized by Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, scientists, yogis, politicians, billionaire CEOs, actors, musicians, and many more people from all walks of life worldwide.
A Super Soldier Serum…for the Mind
Meditation boasts so many documented health benefits that it can sound like a snake oil sales pitch, or another sly trick by the Magikarp Salesman. But these are not the claims of a conman or a New Age hippie’s placebo. Medical professionals have conducted numerous tests and confirmed benefit after benefit, which include:
- Stress Relief: A clinical trial test investigating the impact of a mindfulness meditation (MM) program on stress relief found that participants reported reduction in mood disturbance was 65%, with a 31% drop in symptoms of stress.
- Decrease of Depression: Another study found that a control group of people diagnosed with lifetime mood disorders such as Bipolar Disorder or Clinical Depression, who took part in an eight week MM course reported an overall decrease in ruminative thinking (basically, bad thoughts). This was primarily attributed to the meditation program.
- Boosted Immune System: Stress is commonly linked to a weaker immune system, so one could reasonably assume the stress relief that comes with meditation would boost the body’s response to disease and infection in turn. The International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology (a global organization that studies links between psychology, immunology, and neurobiology) published a study that seems to confirm this supposition by demonstrating a control group that partook in a six week compassion meditation course displayed reduced stress-induced immune and behavioral responses.
- Improved Emotional Intelligence and Social Connections: Loving-kindness meditation was linked to fostering social connection and positive feelings towards others in a study that involved leading half of a study group in a meditation exercise. That same group was observed to exhibit more empathy and positive responses when introduced to random strangers. Meditation provides an outlet to logically analyze our lives and problems. In this serene space, we can more understand the points of view and emotions of others, which can prevent many a conflict or disagreement.
- Self Control and Emotional Regulation: As the old saying goes, know thyself. In addition to helping understand the thoughts and feelings of others, meditation helps to understand the noise and disorder in one’s own head. The Stanford School of Medicine found that a group of adults who participated in a nine week meditation course displayed higher capacity for emotional regulation and self control, as well as decreases in stress and worry.
- Improved Focus: You guessed it, another study involving a months-long mindfulness course found that the group that participated in the course scored higher on attention and alertness tasks. Many practitioners would describe their improved focus skills as a benefit of ‘pausing’ the chaotic world around them to dedicate themselves to tasks and thoughts that matter the most.
Select Your Meditation Class
If that list of stat boosts caught your fancy, you may be wondering where to start. With several millenia of practice and millions of habitué around the world, it should come as no surprise there are many, many forms of meditation. They vary from the spiritual, to the ritualistic, to the philosophical, to the secular. Among the most well known and widely practiced forms are:
- Mindfulness Meditation: This is, without a doubt, the most prominent and widely discussed form of meditation in our modern era. At the center of mindfulness is to be completely aware of one’s surroundings and environment. The mind is free to float from one thought to the next, which helps the practitioner to examine issues and feelings in an environment free from distraction and disruption. This form is considered to be the most beginner friendly, as all one must do to get started is to read some brief instructions, find a quiet place, and let their thoughts flow freely.
- Focused Meditation: While mindfulness seeks serenity by allowing the mind to wander, focused cultivates inner peace by focusing on one thought or object for the duration of the session. This object of focus can be a physical object in the room, a repeated mantra, or a specific emotion. Many forms of Buddhist meditation rely on focus, such as Zazen (or Zen) or Samatha, meanwhile many Hindu practices utilize mantras. Loving Kindness meditation also deserves special mention, as it encourages the practitioner to focus on feelings of love and compassion. For a great introduction to Zazen and focused meditation in general, check out Brad Warner’s book Hardcore Zen, which I’m going to continue advocating until the day I die.
- Spiritual Meditation: Spiritual meditation seems to be the source of New Age stereotypes surrounding the practice. Transcendental is without a doubt the most prominent form of spiritual meditation since it was introduced to Europe and the Americas in the 1960s by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and gained celebrity when adopted by The Beach Boys and The Beatles. As the name suggests, it focuses on achieving spiritual experiences by repeating Hindu mantras. Unlike focused and mindfulness practices, a barrier of entry sits on transcendental. It must be taught by licensed instructors who do not come cheaply.
- Physical Meditation: Not all forms involve sitting! Several practices utilize movement to seek bliss within the body and the mind. As you might guess, several forms of yoga cross into the realm of physical meditation, Additionally, the Chinese practice of Qigong mixes martial arts with deep focus to cultivate one’s qi (go ahead, get the anime jokes out of your system) for greater awareness and health. A less ritualistic practice is walking meditation, which some favor over sitting. Don’t worry, you get to walk with your eyes open.
- Guided Meditation: Sessions directed by an instructor are also popular with beginners who may not be sure how to practice on their own. The words of an instructor give a point of focus and take one on a journey through different emotions and thought processes. Guided sessions can take elements from many different forms of meditation and often have a specific focus (such as overcoming anxiety and grief or promoting creativity and positivity). Instructors are easy to find, and even if one isn’t near you, many prerecorded routines can be found on the Internet.
Of course, there are many, many more forms of meditation. Take the list above as a small but wide-reaching sample to get an idea of the wide variety of practices to try, and research what feels best for you personally.
Get Ready, Get Set, Sit!
Once you have identified a form to experiment with, the next step is to thoroughly integrate it into life. For it to be truly effective, it must become a habit and be practiced regularly, instead of haphazardly sitting down whenever. Stories of monks sitting for hours on end certainly sounds intimidating to a newbie, but an effective habit can be cultivated with just five minutes each day. Don’t worry about achieving Enlightenment, just focus on carving out a brief window to guarantee you can practice each day. After becoming comfortable with five minute sessions, build up to ten, fifteen, twenty, or more! Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, starts his day with a thirty minute meditation. Incremental progress is how to get there, you just have to begin.
I’ve personally found that mornings are an optimal time to meditate, as it is less likely the chaos of life will derail your session. No time in your morning routine? Try waking up five to ten minutes earlier. Of course, mornings don’t work for everyone, so experiment with whatever time of day works best for you. Make the time, whenever that is.
Lastly, I’d like to give special mention to the Insight Timer mobile app, available on both iPhone and Android. It features both a timer and a vast selection of guided meditations (over one thousand). Basically, one can get a taste of any form that catches your fancy and then some. Insight also promotes community with discussion boards and meetups, as well as an interactive map showing users worldwide meditating at the same time. There are many more helpful apps, such as Buddhify or Omvana, but this one in particular has been immensely helpful for me in developing my daily practice over the last few months.
It isn’t hyperbole to state that adopting meditation into your day to day life will bring many positive changes, both mental and physical. It’s time to look past the stereotypes and give it a whirl. You’ll begin to see the benefits in no time. As always, I’m interested to hear your experiences or personal stories if you already practice. Now, pause your chaotic and hectic life, sit down in a quiet place, and liberate your mind.