Meditation is one of the most valuable practices that someone interested in personal development can utilize. As with so many things, meditation is very easy to learn, but difficult to master.
I’ll be the first person to admit that I am not a great meditator. I’ve stopped and started a meditation practice more times than I can count. I’m far from an expert. Meditation is something that I am actively working on, and am hoping to improve at, not something that I am qualified to lecture you on.
I wrote this post in large part as a means of getting more knowledgeable about it myself and to help motivate myself to practice. Don’t take my word as gospel. But as long as I am putting in the time and effort to educate myself about it, it would be rude of me not to share my findings with you!
In this post, you (we) will learn about the many benefits of meditation, answer some common objections to it, learn some meditative techniques, and how to make meditation a part of your life. Keep in mind that there is a wonderful variety to the world of meditation, and this discussion is inherently limited. This article – and no article, for that matter – can possibly be a comprehensive guide. If you are interested in meditation, follow the links I’ve provided and do your own research as well.
Benefits Of Meditation
After spending some time studying up on the benefits of meditation, it almost seems as though regular meditation practice can make you superhuman. The mental and physical benefits that meditation can provide are nothing short of astounding, particularly when you consider how simple meditation really is.
Many of these benefits stem from the mindfulness, or the moment-to-moment awareness, that meditation can instill in us. Mindfulness is something that we have access to at all times, and some effects of meditation can be felt very quickly. As little as ten minutes of mindfulness meditation was enough to change peoples’ perceptions of time, for instance.
But most people assume that they won’t be able to feel the benefits of meditation until they become experts; it is only the Buddhist monks who isolate themselves from the world and meditate all day, every day, who can get the superpowers that meditation provides. While it is certainly true that you will get more out of meditation if you put more into it, the benefits aren’t reserved only for the truly dedicated. In one experiment, meditating for 20 minutes per day for five days was enough to reduce stress, even compared to a muscle-relaxation group. And significant structural changes to the brain have been demonstrated in meditators after just 30 minutes per day for 8 weeks. A little bit goes a long way.
If you are interested in some more detail about the significant quantity of research on how meditation changes the human brain, take a detour and read this and this. That second link has a fantastic description of how to perform a mantra meditation as well, so keep that in mind as we discuss types of meditation later on.
Now, where was I? Oh yeah! Meditation improves attention and reduces mind-wandering. Meditators are better at disengaging from distracting thoughts – thoughts become less “sticky." And this tends to make people happier. On a similar note, meditation reduces “cognitive rigidity," which means that creative problem solving might be easier.1 The mindfulness that meditation engenders improves executive function and allows for superior emotional regulation. It reduces the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts, and helps curb automatic or impulsive behaviors. It also improves self-esteem, at least in the short-run. To summarize, mindfulness meditation improves cognitive ability in general, pretty much across the board (although more research confirming these findings and elaborating on them would be great).2
Based on the above, it should come as no surprise that mindfulness meditation is helpful in treating anxiety disorders and depression. There is no shortage of research demonstrating this.3,4,5,6,7,8 If you like reading the more nerdy science aspect, I suggest diving this fascinating literature review from 2011 on the subject of mindfulness meditation and psychological health. Here’s something likely related to the anxiety-reducing effects of meditation: it turns out that mindfulness also helps treat sexual dysfunction, which means that it can be a valuable practice for the many millions of people who could use some work in this area.
“Mental problems feed on the attention that you give them. The more you worry about them, the stronger they become. If you ignore them, they lose their power and finally vanish.” – Annamalai Swami
There are physical benefits to meditation as well. Notably, meditation improves immune function, so those who meditate may get sick less often.9 Meditation may also slow, prevent, or even reverse age-related brain degeneration.10 Given the immense toll that dementia has on the elderly and their families, I think this provides everyone with a strong reason to meditate. Transcendental meditation has been shown to improve cardiovascular health measures and decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.11
Both yoga (what I would consider an especially awesome kind of meditation) and transcendental meditation have considerable health benefits, including improved cognition, respiration, reduced cardiovascular risk, lower body mass index, and reduced blood pressure and risk of diabetes. Yoga also strengthened immunity and ameliorated joint disorders (though transcendental meditation did not).12 Yoga reduces inflammation from stress and improves general health in many ways.13
Mindfulness also leads to healthier eating habits and weight control – obviously, another area that many individuals struggle with. In general, mindfulness meditation is related to positive health measures and outcomes in a variety of areas. For the nerds, I suggest reading this paper for more of the specifics.
Last but not least, Carson et al demonstrated that a mindfulness intervention improves relationships and relationship satisfaction.14 Specifically, “the intervention was efficacious in (a) favorably impacting couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, closeness, acceptance of one another, and relationship distress; (b) beneficially affecting individuals’ optimism, spirituality, relaxation, and psychological distress; and (c) maintaining benefits at 3-month follow-up."
Clearly, meditation has a lot to offer. I’m sure more benefits will be discovered over the coming years, but this should be plenty to convince most people that meditation is something worth adding to their lives.
Objections To Meditation
That being said, many people are still quite hesitant to try meditation, for a number of interesting reasons. A fascinating article by Jill Suttie discusses a few of these.
Meditation is just some New Age BS. Or a related objection: Meditation goes against my religion. First of all, meditation need not be a religious thing at all. While meditation is often associated with eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism or Taoism, it is also a component of all western religions, and is just as easily a secular pursuit. You are in no way betraying your religion by meditating, nor are you necessarily doing something religious if you are an atheist.
And it isn’t just New Age hippies doing meditation either. This may have been true a few decades ago, but meditation has gone mainstream since then. It is incredibly popular among many segments of the population, including sports stars and other public figures. Plus, it has been heavily studied, so there is a strong scientific rationale for meditating.
“This is universal. You sit and observe your breath. You can’t say this is a Hindu breath or a Christian breath or a Muslim breath.” – Charles Johnson
Mindfulness will make me less productive, or be less of a “go-getter" at work. This objection I can understand. After all, meditation makes people more content and accepting of the world as it is. But remember: one of the major benefits of meditation is increased focus and attention, something that is clearly applicable to the working world.
“In one 2012 study from researchers at the University of Washington, a group of human resource professionals were trained in either mindfulness meditation or relaxation skills over an eight-week period and were tested on how they handled complex multitasking. Participants who received mindfulness training remained more on task, with less task-switching, and reported better moods, than those who underwent relaxation training or were on a wait-list to receive training. This suggests that mindfulness helps us focus more efficiently on a task."
And since mindfulness meditation decreases “cognitive rigidity," those of you who require more creativity at work will be more likely to think outside the box and come up with new ideas and solutions related to the task at hand.
Meditation also helps with impulse control. Resisting your urges will help you make more thoughtful decisions, and enable you to think through the consequences of your actions in advance. This is very important in a work environment.
“For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it’s better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you’d be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand."
Meditation takes too long, and I simply don’t have the time for it. As you can probably guess, people who feel this way are likely the individuals who would benefit most from some mindfulness meditation. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate concern: who has the time to sit around for twenty minutes doing nothing?
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
Meditation doesn’t need to be time consuming. Even just five minutes a day can have a significant impact. Numerous studies have shown that it doesn’t take much time to reap the rewards that come from meditation. For instance,
“In a 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin, non-meditators were trained in mindful attention meditation over a five-week period and tested on brain activity patterns using an EEG. Mindful meditators who practiced on average five to 16 minutes a day saw significant, positive changes in their brain patterns—patterns suggesting a greater orientation toward positive emotions and connections with others—as compared to those on a wait-list for the training."
And if meditation makes you more productive, that seems like a great investment of time.
A Beginner’s Guide On How To Meditate
Finally, we’re getting to the good part! In the next section I will discuss some of the many varieties of meditation, but for now, I will stick with some good practices that you should begin with.
Just like with physical exercise, meditation is best practiced with a “warm up" and a “cool down" period included.
First things first, you’ll need to find a quiet, comfortable place that is free from distractions. Make sure your noisy kids are in the other room, your phone is silent, and that you don’t have anything that you need to do during the period of time you set aside to meditate. If you are expecting an important call, then pick a different time to meditate. Many people believe that the morning is the best time to meditate – it’s quieter, people are less likely to bother you, and you don’t have as much time to talk yourself out of it! Of course, whatever time works best for you is fine; this is just a suggestion.
“If you can’t meditate in a boiler room, you can’t meditate.” – Alan Watts
I would also strongly advise against meditating after a large meal. Feeling uncomfortably full will be very distracting. Conversely, meditating on an empty stomach, if you are hungry, will also make it more difficult to concentrate.
When you are ready to meditate, there are a few steps you should take to set the tone for your session:
- Commit to practicing your meditation for the full time you’ve set aside (be it five minutes, an hour, or whatever), even if you feel bored or that it isn’t going well. You will complete your meditation, even if you find your mind wandering. That’s kinda the point…
- While it is not necessary, taking a few minutes to stretch or do some yoga poses will help you relax and make the meditation session easier. Stretching loosens your muscles and tendons, which allows you to sit or lie more comfortably. I’ve found that my post-yoga meditations are vastly more productive.
- Before starting, take a moment to remember why you are meditating in the first place. This could be anything; personally, I’m terrified of Alzheimer’s disease, so I might think about how my meditation practice is keeping my brain healthy. What you focus on here is just a quick reminder that you are doing something worthwhile.
- Meditation is better when you are in a good mood, so take a moment to practice gratitude. Think about one or two things that demonstrate why your life is awesome.
- Finally, affirm your intentions. Say to yourself something like: “I am going to spend the next X minutes meditating. There is nothing else for me to think about or to do during this time."
By performing the above “warm up," you are priming yourself for a more valuable meditation session. Now it’s time for the meat of your meditation.
It is often a good idea for beginners to set a timer for the duration of the meditation before beginning. Your meditation will be less effective if you are concerned with looking at the clock and wondering when it will be over. Feel free to use this online meditation timer, or an app for the same purpose.
It’s time to get into position. There is no single “correct" position, but most people will meditate while sitting on either a chair or cushion. Many people meditate in the “lotus" position, with their left foot on their right thigh and vice versa, but this is not required. The most important thing is that your back is straight, with good posture. No slouching! You can also lie down, but then you risk falling asleep. If you find yourself dozing off when you meditate, try doing it with your eyes open to allow more light in. If you have back problems or simply can’t maintain good posture for some reason, try out these back-friendly meditation positions.
The basic meditation itself involves focusing on your breath. Breathe deeply, preferably through your nose, and exhale out your mouth. Aim to have your exhalations longer than your inhalations. There are many different kinds of breath work you can do – one that I just tried today and found very satisfying is to repeatedly count to ten breaths. Count one breath in, one breath out. When you reach ten, start over again. Inhale: one, exhale: two. When you get better, count each inhale/exhale combo as one.
While focusing on your breath, it is inevitable that thoughts will arise, distracting you. If you lose your place while counting, don’t get mad – just start over again from one. You don’t “win" by counting as high as you can or anything, so there’s no reason to get frustrated!
Here’s an incredibly important point: meditation is not about stopping your thoughts, but rather about letting go of them. So when a thought does arise, you haven’t failed. Just take that thought, observe that it happened, let go of it, and get back to your counting. You’re never going to completely quiet the mind, nor is that the goal. The purpose of being mindful is to calm your mind and be able to observe your thoughts with clarity.
Matt Valentine explains a related point quite well, and I strongly recommend reading his post about meditation tips for beginners.
“Don’t get confused, while mindful awareness itself is nonjudgmental- that is, while being mindful you’re simply observing without purposely thinking anything and making any judgments- it doesn’t mean no judgmental thoughts will arise while being mindful.
Mindfulness and mental activity are two totally separate things. Mindfulness observes this mental activity nonjudgmentally, but the mental activity itself sprouting from you while meditating encompasses all of you, and that includes thoughts that have to do with your beliefs and opinions."
Being mindful doesn’t mean being perfect at shutting thoughts and judgments out of your mind. It means being aware of those thoughts as they occur.
As you meditate, you develop mindfulness not so much by being able to focus on the object of your attention (breath, in this case) for longer, but rather by noticing those moments when you are distracted. When you find yourself distracted from your breath, that means that you were unable to notice the pull of the first thought which began another whole train of thought and robbed you of your attention. So make a game of trying to catch that first thought that is trying to draw your awareness away from your breath. Just keep doing this until the allotted time is up.
When your meditation session is complete, you should do two things to “cool down" and ensure that you make the most of the experience.
- Just as you did before the meditation, spend a minute or two practicing gratitude. Keep the good vibes going!
- Have a clear idea of what you are going to do next, be it making a cup of tea, reading the news, brushing your teeth, etc. Allow the mental clarity from the meditation to continue through your next activity, rather than quickly abandoning it and moving on to the rest of your frenetic day.
And that’s it! You’ve completed your formal meditation for the day! But that doesn’t mean your mindfulness practice is over – you should continue to have moments of clarity and awareness throughout your day. Here are a few suggestions for ways that you can integrate mindful awareness into your daily grind:
- Take a break from whatever you are doing every once in a while and breathe deeply for a few moments. Try to do this several times per day, for 20 seconds to a minute. You can try using the Meaning to Pause bracelet, which gently vibrates periodically in order to remind you to be mindful. For a discount, use coupon code LIVEANDDARE.
- Play “the noticing game." Take a moment to become fully aware of your environment. Notice everything around you through as many of your senses as possible. This is a good time to appreciate the beauty in the world around you.
- Use “touch points." Pick something you do routinely, more than once per day, such as turning a doorknob or opening your laptop. Each time you do it that day, become aware of what you are doing and the physical sensations of your hands. This is a way that you can become mindful of something you normally take for granted.
- Become fully immersed in music. Pick a song (perhaps one you’ve never heard before), put on some headphones, and try to tune in to the intricacies of the sounds. Notice the interplay of each of the instruments.
- Practice mindfulness while doing chores, like folding laundry or washing dishes. Normally, these are mild nuisances, but you can turn them into mindfulness practice by paying attention to all the sensations that occur while you perform them.
- Take mindful showers. Feel every sensation during the shower – how does the water feel on your skin? What does the temperature and pressure feel like? Notice how the drops of water run down your body.
- My favorite: make a game of “noticing" the next thought that pops into your head, whatever it is. Usually, this allows you to have mindful awareness and clarity for at least a few seconds before a thought arises. Once it does, you’re ready for it, you notice it, and you can play the game again.
For insightful and detailed answers to many questions about meditation, read this article. And even if you don’t have any questions, read it anyways.
The Many Types of Meditation
What I’ve described above is just one of many kinds of meditation. But I strongly encourage you to experiment with other kinds and continue doing whichever methods work best for you. I will briefly cover a number of these in a moment, but you can find many more options here.
In the basic meditation described above, the object of your attention was your breath. Breath is a great choice for two main reasons: it’s always available to you, and it is something that happens both consciously and unconsciously. But it is far from the only choice. You can try doing similar mindfulness meditations, but focus on an image, a word or phrase, or even a flickering candle in a darkened room.
Another great option is mindful eating, where you make yourself truly aware of all the features and sensations that food can evoke. The “classic" example of mindful eating is the raisin meditation, which involves eating a single raisin and experiencing it fully with each of your senses. But you can do this with any food.
One of my personal favorites is the body scan meditation, which I do for a few minutes after every yoga session. This meditation consists of focusing your attention on each individual part of your body, noticing how they feel, and progressively relaxing each part. This feels great, and helps you discover which parts of your body might be carrying excess tension.
Mantra meditation is another option, though I have personally never done it myself. It consists of repeating a specific mantra (for instance, “om") over and over in your mind throughout your meditation session. This seems like a fairly easy one to integrate into your daily life, simply by mentally repeating your mantra while doing whatever else you’re doing. Here is more information on how to perform mantra meditation.
An alternative kind of meditation that has an entirely different set of benefits from mindfulness is the lovingkindness meditation. It consists of wishing happiness and well-being for all, often by silently repeating a certain mantra. These meditations tend to involve focusing first on oneself, then a close friend, followed next by someone you feel neutral toward, then a difficult person, all four of the above equally, and finally on the whole universe. Here is a guided meditation that can walk you through this. And here is a related compassion meditation.
All of the above meditations are usually performed while in a seated position, but walking meditation is often easier to do for longer periods of time, since it is easier to maintain a good posture. Focus your mind on the physical sensations of walking, such as how the soles of your feet feel as you take steps. Imagine your feet kissing the earth with each step. This is a good explanation of how to perform a walking meditation, and this article details several different forms of walking meditations.
Finally, I’d like to point out that, especially for beginners, guided meditations are often easier than meditating on your own. I’ve included my favorite below, but you can find a ton of these online. Try a few out and see what you like!
At the request of one of my readers, redditor thesegates, I am including a brief section on hypnosis. I was not all that familiar with the subject, but apparently one of my favorite YouTube guided meditations is actually hypnosis, performed by renowned hypnotist Michael Sealey. Funny coincidence!
Hypnosis is very much related to meditation, and one could argue that they are just two different ways of achieving the same state of mind. The primary difference with hypnosis is that there is usually a more direct goal involved – overcoming a fear, gaining confidence, quitting smoking, etc. Hypnosis is a procedure in which suggestions are given to the subject while they are in a state of focused awareness – a meditative or hypnotic state.
Popular thought regarding hypnosis is generally that it is bunk; however, over the past fifty years or so, extensive research has documented that hypnosis is quite real, and has several very real benefits. In fact, about 95% of people are at least mildly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, but the degree varies considerably, and appears related to an individual’s ability to become effortlessly absorbed in things like reading, music, or daydreaming.15 The Mayo Clinic in 2005 concluded that “patients treated with hypnosis experienced substantial benefits for many different medical conditions."16 More research is needed, but hypnosis has been shown to be very effective at reducing pain, and can also reduce allergy flare ups, be used as a form of surgical anesthesia, control warts and other dermatologic conditions, relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal issues, control headaches, reduce the negative side effects of chemotherapy, improve asthma symptoms, reduce impotence, improve mental health, and a handful of other things. A more recent review has confirmed these findings.17
How can you use hypnosis to your benefit? Unfortunately, this is simply an area in which I am incapable of providing solid advice. You’ll need to do your own research (and if you find any good resources, let me know in the comments). One option is self-hypnosis, which you can read a little more about here. You can also try watching some hypnosis videos online, such as the one I inadvertently watched:
You can check out other hypnosis videos by Michael Sealey here. If you know of any other good ones, please let me know.
How To Establish A Consistent Meditation Practice
Probably the most difficult thing about meditation is getting yourself to actually do it consistently. I have tried this many times and failed, but am determined to succeed this time around. In this section, I will describe a method for making sure the meditation “habit" sticks. This method draws heavily upon my previous post, How to Achieve Your Goals in 3 Simple Steps, as well as this post at Live and Dare.
The obvious place to start is to make sure you are as motivated as possible to establish a meditation practice. To this end, it helps to understand the benefits that meditation can bring to your life. I imagine that there are incredible benefits that can only be discovered through actually practicing regularly, but reading through the first section of this post is a good start.
You’ll also want to connect your meditation practice to your deeper values. Of course, this requires some reflection on what your values are in the first place! It can help to ask yourself the following questions:
- What do you spend most of your time thinking about?
- What do you spend most of your money on?
- How do you spend your time?
- In what area of your life are you the most reliable and disciplined?
- Imagine yourself 10 years in the future. Looking back, what are you most proud of?
After pondering these questions, you should have a pretty good idea of what is important to you, what your goals are, and what makes you “tick." Now you need to tie these values to meditation. How might meditation help you achieve your goals and live more in alignment with these values?
A personal example: I want to spend more quality time with my girlfriend, but I often find myself distracted. Meditation would help me stay more focused and able to listen more intently to her, without my mind wandering to the assorted tasks I feel the need to accomplish. It would also help me accomplish those tasks themselves more easily and without distraction, freeing up time.
If you really care about advancing your career, meditation can make you more productive at work. If you want to be a better parent, meditation will help you avoid snapping at your kids when they do the things that kids do. If maintaining optimal health is important to you, meditation has many health benefits in and of itself, but can also help you eat better and be more focused at the gym.
Now that you’re sufficiently motivated, it’s time to make it happen. This requires having a healthy mindset towards forming habits. There are two different mindsets I can think of, and you might find one more effective than the other, though the second is usually a safer bet if you do it right.
- The “do the right thing in this moment" mindset. This might be less likely to make meditation stick as a habit, but it could also result in you meditating more by being more flexible. Instead of thinking about habit change as a long-term process, focus only on what the right behavior is at this very moment. It can seem daunting to think about needing to meditate every. Single. Day. And that might be intimidating enough to stop you from the get-go. But you know meditating is the right thing to do, so if you have time to do it right now, just commit to meditating right now. I describe this mindset in more detail here.
- The long-term, habit-forming mindset. Rather than thinking of meditation as an option, treat it as a given part of your day, like showering or sleeping. This mindset involves more planning, and can sometimes fall apart if the right conditions don’t hold on a given day. But when done effectively, it can make the decision to meditate happen on autopilot. To do this, you must plan in advance what time you will meditate, how long your sessions will be, where, and what specific kind of meditation you will do.
If you elect to go with the second mindset, I advise you to make meditation a part of your morning routine. You must be consistent, and mornings are generally the time when you’ll have the fewest excuses to deviate. You should also go easy on yourself with respect to the length of your session – try committing to a shorter period than you can handle in order to get into the habit. Even two minutes a day can become a habit, and can then be steadily increased.
Despite having it all planned out, there will be times when you just don’t feel like meditating. Tough shit, just do it anyways. And if you mess up and don’t follow through, don’t let it be an excuse to continue slacking. Get right back to it the next day.
To make the habit stick, you can take advantage of your psychology and hack your way into making it easier. Set up triggers that you associate with meditating. When that trigger is pulled, you know it is time to meditate; over time, you can condition yourself in this way such that you no longer need to actively decide to meditate, you just do it. Set up something in your environment that reminds you to meditate at your scheduled time, such as
- A phone alarm at your chosen time
- Post-it notes placed in strategic locations as a reminder, such as your bathroom mirror
- Have specific clothes you wear while meditating, and set them out the night before
Feel free to get creative with your triggers.
Next, you’ll want to set up a reward system for sticking to the program. Eventually, you might feel that meditation is its own reward, but it probably won’t seem that way at first! So feel free to treat yourself. Of course, your reward can’t be destructive (“Every time I meditate, I’ve earned some heroin!"). Perhaps give yourself a square of dark chocolate. It is important that your reward be scarce – if you treat yourself to chocolate after meditating, then you should never have chocolate when you aren’t meditating. Perhaps a better reward system is to treat yourself when you’ve accomplished certain milestones, such as meditating for seven days in a row, 30 days in a row, etc.
Finally, you need to make yourself accountable. I’m doing this (in part) by writing this post; I’ll be embarrassed if one of you asks me how my meditation is going in a few weeks and I haven’t been doing it. So go tell people that you intend to make a habit of meditating. Join a meetup or hang around with other people who meditate.
One very effective way of making yourself accountable is to put money on the line. Give your friend $140 at the beginning of the week, and have them give you back $20 for each day you meditate. If you don’t meditate, they get to keep the money.
By following these steps, you give yourself the greatest possible chance of succeeding in establishing a meditation practice. And while I can’t say this from experience, I imagine that once you’ve been doing it for a little while, the pleasure of meditation itself will make it very easy to continue.
Meditation is one of the greatest treats you can give yourself. I plan on making this a part of my daily routine, so here I am, announcing it to the world.
Do you have any experience meditating? How has meditation helped you? Do you have any tips to share?