With meditation apps, retreats, and guru workshops on the rise, chances are you’re familiar with the idea of meditation. Ask any yoga instructor and you’ll learn that this isn’t a modern phenomenon. Meditation is actually an ancient practice, dating back to thousands of years B.C. In fact, many historians believe that meditation could have been practiced as early as 3000 B.C.
The earliest documented methods of meditation were elements of Vedantism, a school of Hindu philosophy that originated in India. Derived from Sanskrit, Vedanta refers to the Upanishads—ancient Hindu texts—to get at the “ultimate reality and the liberation of the soul.” Today, this feeling of liberation is still one of the most sought-after outcomes of meditation.
Throughout the following centuries, new forms of mediation were developed to emphasize Taoist and Buddhist practices. These have served as an integrated means of teaching ancient principles of moral salvation, contemplative concentration, and lasting freedom through a greater understanding of the world, and many of these schools of practice continue to do so to this day.
According to a history of meditation by scientific writer Susan Chow, PhD, and owner of Illuminate Science Communications, meditative practice spread significantly throughout China then to Japan when Japanese monk Dosho discovered Zen Buddhism during his travels. As time passed, meditation grew more and more popular, as many religions—including Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—adopted it into their practices. The 18th century marked the turning point during which the popularity of meditative and contemplative practices exploded in Western cultures. Today, studies show that nearly 1 in 10 Americans has meditated.
The term “meditate” was introduced in the 12th century A.D. by a Catholic monk and originates from a Latin word that means “to ponder,” according to Chow’s history. In today’s culture, however, meditation is most often associated with tuning out the external world and tuning into oneself. Meditation has come to refer to what the American Heart Association calls the “family of mental practices that are designed to improve concentration, increase awareness of the present moment, and familiarize a person with the nature of their own mind.”
Why should you meditate?
Those who commit to a meditative practice—whether it’s informed by Zen, mantras, yoga, prayer, or any of the diverse meditative traditions that exist today—have a few important lessons for the rest of the world. The benefits of meditation are as impactful as they are vast. With nearly two decades of comprehensive research to back them, the neural, cardiovascular, and metabolic effects of meditative practices have been well documented.
There are both acute and long-term neurophysiological changes associated with practicing ongoing meditation, according to a statement of the American Heart Association (AHA). Findings include increased electrical activation in the brain and dramatically increased gray-matter density in the part of the brain responsible for the autonomic nervous system and cardiorespiratory regulation.
What’s the cumulative significance of these kinds of changes? Well, as the areas of the brain are modified by meditation, so is their activity and functional connectivity—or more simply put, how well they communicate with one another. One study in particular found that the revision of pathways instigated by a month-long practice of gratitude meditation directly contributed to participants experiencing greater emotional well-being due to neuroanatomical improvements in emotion regulation and self-motivation. Positive changes in the autonomic nervous system and cardiorespiratory systems can contribute to better breathing and heart functioning, better overall health, and fewer debilitating experiences such as headaches and migraines.
The physiological benefits of meditation, which include cardiovascular disease risk reduction, further amplify its relevance and legitimacy. According to the AHA statement, meditation has a positive impact on blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and hypertension. In fact, individuals who were involved in a Transcendental Meditation study showed a 23 percent reduction in general mortality and a 30 percent reduction in cardiovascular mortality specifically.
In addition to these benefits to the body, it’s no surprise that the most commonly touted advantages of meditation pertain to its psychological impact. The AHA statement notes that published research has reported improvements in mood, anxiety, depression, sleep quality, and levels of stress associated with adherence to meditative practices. These outcomes are largely due to the marked changes in the body’s response to stress. The sought-after relaxation response realized by many during their meditative practice has been shown to reduce both inflammatory and cortisol-related processes. As a result, not only is stress balanced, but so are metabolism, mitochondrial function, and insulin secretion.
As meditators’ bodies approach internal homeostasis, it’s no surprise that this translates to improved balance in their external lives as well. As the body functions more smoothly in the now, meditators may also be preparing themselves to respond more healthfully to future stress. Individuals who exercise mindfulness are significantly better equipped to manage their expectations, moderate their emotions during stressful waiting periods, and mentally prepare themselves for unfavorable outcomes. This in turn contributes to enhanced resilience and can contribute to a more positive outlook on life.
According to Marcio Guzman, PsyD, co-owner of FLOAT STL, a center for sensory deprivation therapy in St. Louis, Missouri, “Meditation practitioners or those otherwise known as ‘slowing down’ practitioners can experience greater connection with the present moment during their sessions. They gradually become more aware of their emotions, which contributes to heightened emotional intelligence.”
This allows the individual to operate from a more authentic and peaceful place. In turn, he says this type of “shift in being creates opportunities for a remarkably different type of human interaction.” Guzman notes that it’s important to highlight that meditation practitioners still experience difficult emotions, stresses, insecurities, and fears and must cope with trials of adversity and interpersonal conflict. Even with the greatest set of tools, these feelings and obstacles are unavoidable simply due to the fact that they are uniquely woven into the human experience. However, with meditation, there is a newfound ability to “not get so stuck in and debilitated by the suffering,” according to Guzman. Instead, there is an understanding that although those emotions are entirely valid and worth feeling, they are never a life sentence.
Finding peace in the present allows an individual to reduce the amount of time spent mentally traveling between the past and future, which further helps them understand the impermanence of experiences.
It’s important to note that individuals experience the greatest changes when their meditative practice becomes a way of life, so get ready to tune in and bear witness to your transformation.
A Few Key Methods
Mindfulness is an umbrella term within the meditation and wellness worlds that’s used to characterize practices that relate to attention, awareness, memory, and acceptance and non-judgement. Although many of these practices first originated in ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions, they’ve gained a great deal of recognition recently in American mindfulness-based stress reduction and similarly informed practices.
The concept of mindfulness is now commonplace in discourse on health, wellness, and larger social systems. Despite the fact that mindfulness has no “one universally accepted technical definition,” it can be understood as follows: Mindfulness is at play when one consciously attempts to attend to what’s happening both internally and externally and in the space one is moving through. This may sound like an oversimplification, but take a second to think about the millions of directions your thoughts are pulled in throughout any given day and what it means to really focus on our present state and the space you’re currently in.
Although it takes practice, as is the case for any form of meditation, mindfulness is the innate and basic ability to be fully present in the passing moment, aware of what you’re doing and accepting of what’s going on around you. This pillar of acceptance and non-judgment is related to the practice of non-attachment—a tenet that is espoused in almost all meditation traditions. Individuals witness and experience their thoughts and emotions while intentionally letting go of judgmental reactions. You can think of mindfulness as waiting on a platform, watching a “train” of thought whiz by. You don’t try to catch the train, stop it, or worry that you’re missing out on something as it passes. You observe it and the affects it has on you, then the thought train is gone so another one may come and go in its time.
One of the wonderful aspects of a mindfulness practice is its accessibility. Anyone can practice mindfulness during routine daily activities (sitting, walking, driving, eating, exercising, etc.) and doing so doesn’t require a class pass, studio space, or any equipment whatsoever. Mindfulness eventually transforms from a short activity into a way of living, but it always boils down to noticing. Just notice, friends.
Focused-attention meditation (FAM) is a good practice to venture into as you dive deeper into your meditative pursuits. FAM requires you to center your attention on one specific object or event, such as a candle flame or—as researchers point out in a study published in Frontiers in Psychology—your breathing. Because the breath is internal (and constant), the study points out that focusing on the breath is a good discipline for FAM beginners. To maintain this focus throughout the meditation, your concentration must be carefully monitored and consistently drawn back to your breath, the flickering flame, or whatever you’ve determined to focus on when the mind wanders. While other forms of meditation allow the individual to acknowledge fleeting thoughts or emotions, this practice requires a narrower, more structured focus.
Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) integrates certain elements of focused-attention practices, particularly in that it requires a steady focus on cultivating love and compassion. First and foremost, this is done for yourself. As you master this fundamental core of the practice, you’ll extend your thoughts of love and kindness toward others. One key aspect in this practice is sending love even to those we may deem “unlikable.” The aim is to replace all negative feelings and associations that rise up during this process with positive, compassionate ones. According to the Frontiers in Psychology study, LKM improves individuals’ conflict resolution. It can also help you cultivate a strong sense of empathy for yourself and the world at large.
Transcendental Meditation (TM) is quite different from the previous forms discussed, specifically due to the absence of heavily focused attention or careful monitoring. Instead, individuals take part in a process called automatic self-transcending (taught by a trained and certified teacher), through which they can experience quieter and more peaceful levels of thought. Some refer to this state as a restful alertness—a state of mind often described as pure consciousness. TM may be a more suitable practice for individuals with anxious thinking patterns, as there is no need to control or empty the mind. Instead, the individual, their thoughts, and the process of thinking all converge into a unified field of perception. In other words, individuals are in a “state of being aware simply of awareness itself.”
Let’s get started.
All you need to begin your meditation practice is dedicated time, a genuine willingness to learn, and a quiet location. Think of a place that gives you the most peace. Is it a cozy corner of your home with candlelight and burning incense? Or is it the worn bench tucked away in a grove of fall-painted trees at your local park? Where are you most comfortable? Decide, and choose this as your destination. It’s often best to begin your journey with seated meditations, as these allow you to close your eyes. Because meditation begins and ends in the body, it’s important to cultivate a deep sense of self-awareness. As you can imagine, closing your eyes will help you tune out distractions, tune in to your natural rhythms, and ground down in your practice.
If you’re particularly sensitive to sound or can’t ensure silence in your selected spot, consider headphones (some meditative practices incorporate music or you can opt for a noise-cancelling option) or earplugs.
What you’re sitting on matters less than your posture. Make sure that you have a stable seat and your back is upright (or, if you need to lie down, aligned and lengthened depending on the position you assume). For some, a meditation cushion may be perfectly comfortable. If you have back problems, find a sturdy chair or bench to sit on. If you have the ability to cross your legs, go ahead and do so. The seated lotus may eventually be your go-to yoga posture during future meditations.
Notice your trunk and begin to straighten the length of your back, but be careful not to hike up your shoulders. Instead, allow them to softly fall toward the back of your body and notice how your neck relaxes. Gently drop your hands to the top of your legs, without force. Finally, drop your chin just slightly and allow your gaze to fall in front of you at a 45-degree angle. At this point, you can close your eyes and mentally lean into the stillness.
Start to notice your breath. Count your inhalations and exhalations, feeling the sensations of each—mindful of the expansion and release that occurs rhythmically throughout your body. Your breath is your mind–body–spirit link, allowing you to fall into complete consciousness. What begins with ordinary breathing can lead to a higher awareness of what is both behind and beyond the breath; this paves the path to recognizing the presence of your own spirit and most authentic sense of self. Notice how your body begins to relax and your mind quiets as you find this space. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgement. Simply return to your breath—your sacred touchstone.
From here, you’re ready to begin your unique practice. Whether it’s FAM, LKM, or TM—whatever meditative approach you choose should truly be your own.
When to Meditate (and for How Long)
Some individuals prefer to meditate upon waking as they find it helps them start their day on the right foot. This can be instrumental in setting the tone for how everything else follows, good or bad. The feelings of peace and clarity from your morning meditation can carry over into your daily activities. Others, however, choose to meditate at night. It helps to calm their minds and releases them from the day’s burdens.
If you’re prone to nighttime contemplations and racing thoughts, practicing meditation before bed to clear your personal energy may be most beneficial. There is no right or wrong way, nor is there a right or wrong time. Perhaps you could use a little taste of both. Simply center your practice on compassion and use your newfound bodily awareness to determine when you may need meditation most.
If you’re working on your own to develop a practice, it may be easier to start with 5- to 10-minute sessions and gradually work up as you become familiar with your natural tendencies. Over time, this can increase to deeper and more centering 45- to 60-minute sessions.
If you have an instructor, as in the case of TM and certain other meditative practices, you’ll likely receive specific feedback to guide the amount of time you spend in your practice daily or weekly. Whether you’re flying solo or have a guide, throughout your journey, keep in mind that there’s no rush. Simply be.
Still hesitant? Here are some options that can help ease you into a meditative practice.
Not everyone can get cozy with the notion of stilling their mind and body to meditate on their own, but that doesn’t make meditative experiences inaccessible.
Guzman and his team at FLOAT STL, for example, have created a safe and comfortable place for both meditators and those who have never meditated before to experience the extensive benefits of slowing down. Using FLOAT’s state-of-the-art pods and tanks, individuals have the opportunity to spend 90 minutes resting in zero gravity, free from heavy environmental stimuli while soaking in 850 pounds of powerful Epsom salts. Guzman suggests this provides floaters an opportunity to learn the crucial difference between being and doing.
During a float, the line differentiating where an individual’s body ends and the water begins becomes unrecognizable. In this space, Guzman says, “the mind is free to mull things over without distraction, the brain pumps out dopamine and endorphins, and the body gets to rest, de-stress, and heal.” Guzman explains that “the nature of floating also allows a wider range of individuals to achieve a state of meditation. Ideally, the experience can inspire them to explore a deeper meditation practice and connect with themselves with an unparalleled level of awareness.”
Another more active form of meditation is walking meditation—a practice that might suit you if you aren’t ready to sit still but want to explore the benefits of mindfulness. University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) recommends a practice that takes just 10 minutes a day. GGSC’s walking meditation guide is an excellent resource for beginners.
If being alone in complete silence with your thoughts makes you skittish, consider guided meditations. Spotify, Amazon Music, iTunes, Play Store, and the App Store make these options—which often include voiceovers and soothing music—readily accessible.
Books and soundtracks can provide excellent support for both beginners and those maturing into their meditative practices. Depending on the resource you choose, you’ll be introduced to breathing techniques, philosophical and spiritual approaches, and the mantras (chants and centering thoughts) and mudras (hand gestures that cue particular states of mind) that lend various meditative practices their auditory and aesthetic allure.
Now that you have the knowledge and guiding principles behind meditation, you’re ready to give it an honest try. Remember that everything improves with practice, even slowing down. Think of the myriad physical and emotional health benefits of meditation and identify a few of them that you truly want for yourself. These desires can serve as your motivating forces. Consider what style of meditation may suit you best in your current season of life, and trust your intuitive decision. Then jot a daily or weekly meditation session in your planner and bestow upon it as much importance as a grocery store run.
With this one act, you’re creating space in your life for self-care, and we all know how important that is, right? Your wellness is our priority. Trust us when we say it should be one of yours too.