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You don't have to be a Buddhist monk to start meditating. You don't have to travel to a Himalayas retreat to learn how to practice it. You can enjoy the benefits of meditation from the comfort of your home. All you need is some patience, determination, and effort.
In this article, we'll talk about the health benefits of meditation, different mediation techniques and share some beginner's tips to help you get started.
But first, let's see what meditation is and what you can expect from it.
What Is Meditation?
Meditation is a more than 3000 years old practice, most commonly associated with Eastern philosophy and tradition, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism. However, during the 70s and the hippie culture, it started making its way into the West.
Meditation does for our mind what physical exercise does for our body. It's the training of our awareness and focus, helping us be aware of ourselves and our environment, alleviate stress, and feel the power of the present moment.
Perhaps, understanding what meditation isn't can help us better understand what it is. As Andy Puddicombe, the co-founder of Headspace, nicely put it:
Meditation isn't about becoming a different person, a new person, or even a better person. It's about training in awareness and understanding how and why you think and feel the way you do, and getting a healthy sense of perspective in the process.
Different Types of Meditation
Over the centuries, meditation has taken on many different forms, such as visualization, compassion cultivation, walking meditation, transcendental mediation, tai chi, qigong, and many others. However, all of these different techniques could be grouped into two main categories: focused-attention meditation and open-monitoring meditation.
Focused-attention meditation is about concentrating or focusing your attention on a single object or word, trying to tune out everything else around you. It entails focusing on either a mantra (repeating a single word), a candle flame, breathing, repetitive gong sound, or counting Japamala prayer beads.
For example, in transcendental mediation, you focus on silently repeating a mantra, a single word usually without any meaning. Once you notice your thoughts are wandering away, you let them go and simply refocus on your mantra.
The goal of this type of meditation is to increase focus, improve memory, learn to remain calm and grounded, and eventually reach a higher state of being.
Open-monitoring meditation involves being aware of yourself and your surroundings. It also entails observing your train of thoughts, feelings, and impulses.
For instance, mindfulness meditation combines both open-monitoring meditation and focused-attention meditation. Here, practitioners are encouraged to observe their surroundings, body sensations, as well as thoughts and feelings that emerge without judging them and labeling them good or bad. Then their attention shifts to their breathing. Once they realize they started drifting in their thoughts, they simply refocus on the breath.
This type of meditation aims to honing your awareness, learning how to be present in the moment, and becoming more open and accepting.
The Impact of Meditation on Body and Mind
Research shows that regular meditation practice positively impacts all aspects of life, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It improves our overall health as well as psychological wellbeing.
How Does It Work?
First of all, meditation stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system in our body, which reduces stress hormones release.
Stress is a major factor that causes many health issues, from anxiety and insomnia to diabetes and heart disease. It triggers the sympathetic nervous system, resulting in spikes of stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, in our body's bloodstream. Chronic bursts of these hormones can lead to serious illnesses, like a suppressed immune system, strokes, and heart attacks.
Through meditation, we teach our body and mind how to relax on demand, and therefore, cause it to stop releasing stress hormones. Studies show that cortisol levels are much lower in people who regularly meditate, and they can manage stress more effectively [source].
Furthermore, meditation can also physically change our brains. It literally rewires it, as it causes negative neurological connections to the 'me center' of the brain, or the medial prefrontal cortex, to decrease, stifling anxiety, fear, and stress. At the same time, it plays a role in building new positive neurological connections to the parts of the brain responsible for focus and decision-making.
Additionally, research shows that both cortical thickness and gray matter in our brain increase with regular meditation. The human cerebral cortex is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In comparison, the gray matter area is responsible for emotions and problem-solving. Plus, the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates how we react to fear and anxiety, shrinks in size as a response to regular meditation practice.
What Are the Benefits?
Here are just some of the many meditation benefits:
Better stress management;
Alleviating anxiety, sleep disorders, and related health issues;
Promoting self-awareness and reducing depression;
Increasing attention span;
Improving memory and reducing age-related memory loss;
Helping fight addictive behaviors;
Reducing headaches and chronic pain;
Greater empathy and acceptance of yourself and others;
Decreasing blood pressure and improving the immune system.
According to the Buddhist philosophy, however, these benefits are only the welcome side effects of meditation. For them, the ultimate purpose of meditation is to reach the state of enlightenment. In other words, it's learning how to liberate yourself from the things you can't control and achieve complete calmness and inner harmony.
Tips on How to Get Started
If you've decided to start practicing meditation, here are some simple tips and tricks to help you get started:
Tip #1: Find a Comfortable Position.
You don't have to sit crossed-legged in a lotus position if that's uncomfortable for you. Finding a position that's the most comfortable for you is the key since you should stay that way for several minutes without getting restless or stiff.
You can either sit on a chair or couch but without slouching. You can also lay on the floor and put your feet up on a chair. Choose whatever works for you.
Tip #2: Take Baby Steps.
Your mind will naturally try to resist any attempt to focus on something, be it your breath, body, sounds, etc. For this reason, beginners usually find it difficult to meditate longer than a few minutes.
That's why you should start slow and do sessions no longer than 5 minutes in the beginning, or even less. Otherwise, you'll associate your meditation with obligation, and you won't be able to enjoy it. So, do short sessions every day, and slowly work your way up to longer sessions of 10, 15, or 20 minutes.
Tip #3: Do It First Thing in the Morning.
It's essential to have a regular schedule and try meditating at the same time every day. Practicing it for a few minutes first thing in the morning will help you with regularity, and, over time, it will prep you to deal with daily challenges better.
To get into the habit of morning meditation, set yourself a reminder and take a few minutes to meditate each morning as soon as you wake up.
Tip #4: Try to Relax Before Starting.
It's important to be calm when you begin your session. If music calms you, you can put it on for a few minutes. Once you start meditating, you should turn it off.
Tip #5: Don't Worry About Whether You're Doing It 'Properly.'
This is something many beginners start wondering about sooner or later. Remember, there's no right or wrong in meditation, proper or improper way. The only right way is the one where you feel comfortable and relaxed.
So, don't compare your experience with the experiences of others as everybody is different. What might feel right for one person won't necessarily work for you.
Tip #6: Don't Try to Block Your Emotions.
Many people experience bursts of different emotions during meditation, from positive ones, such as love, happiness, and excitement, to negative ones, such as sadness. You should never fight against your emotions and try to block them. It's crucial to get to know them, learn where they come from, and how to live with them.
Tip #7: Be consistent.
It's important to note that consistency is the key to unlocking all the great benefits meditation has to offer. Even if you meditate only once or twice a week, you'll likely feel improvement in your overall health and psychological wellbeing.
However, daily meditation can help us decrease the intensity of emotions that tend to hold us down more efficiently, shift how we respond to certain feelings and thoughts, and eventually reach a greater sense of calm and clarity.
Beginner-Friendly Meditation Techniques
As far as meditation techniques go, there are two beginner-friendly techniques you could try: focusing on your breath and doing the body scan.
Focusing on Your Breath
Once you've found a comfortable position, become aware of your own breath. Breathe normally and notice the airflow through your nostrils as you inhale and exhale. Keeping your eyes closed and counting your breaths can help you focus on them better.
Of course, your mind will often wander away. Instead of getting frustrated, accept your thoughts and feelings and slowly bring your focus back to your breathing.
The body scan technique involves observing all the physical sensations within your body without analyzing them or trying to change them.
With your eyes closed, slowly scan your body, starting at the top of your head and ending at the tip of your toes. Simply notice what parts of your body feel relaxed or tense, light or heavy. Naturally, thoughts will come and distract you. Once you become aware of them, gently return to where you last left off.
The goals of these techniques are practicing awareness, familiarizing yourself with your thoughts and feelings, and learning how to be present in the moment.
We would recommend trying guided meditation in the beginning. There are countless free-of-charge resources online that you can try out until you find what best works for you. Popular examples are Tara Brach's guided meditations and Headspace.
Don't get discouraged if you're not happy with the results at the very beginning. It's not easy calming all the screaming thoughts in your head. It's a process that takes time and patience, and there's no room for analysis and frustration.
There's plenty of different meditation styles and techniques, each with different goals and benefits. The best thing about it is that you can do it anywhere, without any special equipment, and that only a few minutes of daily meditation can have a major impact on your life quality.