Around 15 years ago, I bought myself a copy of Meditation for Dummies. I’d always been interested in starting a practice, but couldn’t build momentum. Was it as simple as closing your eyes and daydreaming? Was I supposed to levitate, turn my back on the world, and set up shop in a cave in the Himalayas? Even having bought the book, meditation didn’t feel accessible or achievable. So I let the book cover dust.
Eventually, as meditation became increasingly popular, I started to use guided meditations to learn how to meditate. Soon enough I took to the practice, and never looked back. Since then, meditation has become a huge part of my life and profession, and I’m fortunate enough to teach others how to develop this powerful skill.
In this article, we’ll cover the basics of how to meditate. This is an in-depth guide that will cover the benefits, different meditation techniques, and, most importantly, certain myths about meditation that could cause your practice more harm than good. By the end of this guide, you’ll have a clearer idea of what meditation is all about, and be ready to start your practice, from the comfort of your own home. Or a cave in the Himalayas, if you wish.
Benefits of meditation
Did you know both Oprah and Paul McCartney are dedicated meditators? Well, when it comes to the benefits of meditation, the number 3,000 is significant. Firstly, because that’s roughly how many years ago Buddha taught the popular mindfulness meditation technique, who he himself adapted from even older traditions. Since then, millions have verified the effectiveness of meditation, from all types of cultures and backgrounds.
Away from the spiritual roots of meditation, there are now over 3,000 scientific studies showing the benefits of meditation. In recent years, research has been boosted by the use of fMRI and EEG scans, which can directly capture the effects of meditation on brain activity. In summarising key findings, UCDavis list 10 standout benefits, which are:
- Reduced stress
- Improved memory
- Increased attention
- Enhanced willpower
- Better sleep
- Less pain
- Lower blood pressure
- Less anxiety
- Less depression
- Greater compassion
What’s most significant about the research into the benefits of meditation is that, although the short-term sense of stillness makes the practice itself enjoyable, there are many long-term benefits that spread far beyond 20 minutes of sitting. The four areas meditation benefits the most are mental health, physical health, performance, and spirituality. Let’s look at these in more detail below.
Mental health benefits
Many teachers describe meditation as a workout for the brain. Unsurprisingly, the mental health benefits of learning to settle the mind are far-reaching. Studies have found that mindfulness meditation, the most widely researched, can be as effective as drug treatments in treating depression and reducing anxiety. Not only that, but due to an increase in self-control, meditation can be helpful in overcoming addiction.
Most remarkably, brain-scanning technology has discovered that the practice of meditation changes the physical structure of the brain. The concentration of grey matter related to emotional regulation, learning and memory, and processing information have been shown to increase following a period of meditation.
And, in talking of long-term benefits, a study from UCLA found meditators’ brains don’t show as many effects of aging as non-meditators. The authors say these findings “add further support to the hypothesis that meditation is brain-protective and associated with a reduced age-related tissue decline.”
The changes in the brain from meditation display the overlap between mind and matter. But the physical results don’t end there. A study from 2012 separated 200 high-risk individuals into two groups: one who focused on health and diet, the other who focused on transcendental meditation. Five years later, the researchers discovered that those who turned to meditation had a 48 percent reduction in their risk of heart attack, stroke, and death.
There are multiple studies that demonstrate how meditation can reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system, and lower stress levels. In addition, one of the biggest studies into meditation, with over 3,500 participants, showed that meditators were better able to handle chronic and intermittent pain.
Meditators have been found to fall asleep quicker, and experience better quality sleep, too. Considering sleep is one of the most vital aspects of overall health and wellbeing, sitting for a few minutes with your eyes closed before… lying down with your eyes closed, is more than worthwhile.
Due to the brain’s cognitive boost from meditation, performance is enhanced, too. The big benefits of meditation include increased attention span, memory access, and mental sharpness. Another significant benefit of meditation on performance is its ability to promote divergent thinking — this style of thinking is open, receptive to new ideas, and more likely to join dots and find creative solutions.
Whilst a growing body of research is showing scientific evidence for the benefits of meditation, spiritual traditions have understood the importance of stilling the mind for millennia. Whilst I value meditation being taught away from a spiritual context, there is an abundance of wisdom that complements the practice and can support a deeper spiritual connection — to yourself, and to the world around you.
Personally speaking, meditation completely transformed my worldview. I was an atheist before I started my practice. But having had a feeling of “coming home” when I started meditation, I was then motivated to explore the teachings that added context to the techniques I was learning.
Myths about meditation
When teaching meditation, it’s common that the biggest hurdle for most people isn’t the practice itself, but the myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions they have about meditation. Without gentle guidance, these myths prevent a lot of people from beginning or prevent them from building momentum once started. Below are common myths about meditation that can hinder your practice:
Myth #1: You can be good or bad at meditation
You’d be amazed how many people start a meditation practice and then give up because they believe they’re “no good” at it. Part of the reason for this is a culture that encourages a mindset of success is linked to certain outcomes. That might be a certain level of productivity, or having a high level of a particular skill.
Meditation goes against most modern conventions. Even the practice of being in total acceptance of whatever surfaces during meditation is difficult for most people, because they have a preconceived idea of what being “good” at meditation is all about. That could include beliefs around being able to sit perfectly still, or having no thoughts for extended periods of time.
A solid foundation for a meditation practice is to understand there’s no such thing as being good or bad at meditation. That’s not to say there aren’t good or bad techniques, but that’s a different matter altogether.
Myth #2: The purpose of meditation is to silence the mind
Although meditation and mindfulness are now popular in the West, it’s likely you’ll have some stereotypes of Zen monks sitting in a state of bliss for hours on end. The strong and often unconscious link between meditation and “zen” states is one that can create expectations about what meditation is supposed to be like. The biggest expectation is that the purpose of meditation is to silence the mind.
Understandably, it’s an attractive goal. Who wouldn’t want to reduce the background noise and turn off the self-critic? The purpose of meditation is to fully witness the mind and all of its noise. That’s it. The beauty is, the more you can relax into this state of acceptance, and witness thoughts, feelings, or emotions in their fullness, then the mind begins to settle all by itself.
There’s a grain of truth in this myth. Meditation does quieten the mind. But this inner-stillness is a byproduct of steady, relaxed practice. One of the paradoxes of meditation, that most Zen monks will smile at, is that any attempt to quieten the mind will likely see the mind become even busier!
Myth #3: Meditation makes me anxious (or sad, or angry…)
I hear this a lot. People turn to meditation because they’re attracted to the idea of switching off the mind, or finding inner stillness. They hear of the benefits and they’re ready to get started. Then, they begin meditation, and at some point they start to notice a strong surfacing of difficult emotions, from anxiety to sadness to anger. The meditation practice is then blamed for these emotions.
The truth is, meditation is a powerful technique that often surfaces deeply suppressed emotions or memories. This can be disconcerting. And without quality instruction or guidance, it can be difficult to know where to turn. Sticking to the qualities of the technique will allow these emotions to be processed and to lose their hold. But this comes with an important caveat.
Meditation isn’t always the answer for people who find themselves confronted with challenging emotions. In days gone by, monks or spiritual disciples would have had a guru or advanced teacher to lean on for support. Our culture doesn’t offer the same type of support, and it could be that the surfacing of such emotions is too much to handle alone.
When this is the case, I’d recommend seeking a professional — either a therapist, if this is linked to trauma or intrusive, overwhelming emotions, or a meditation teacher.
Myth #4: Meditation is about results
A similar thread of the idea of being “good” or “bad” at meditation is focusing on results or outcomes of the practice. This is a myth that is easy to fall into, especially with growing bodies of scientific research displaying a host of benefits from meditation. It can become tempting to meditate just for the results or benefits. In a similar way of trying to silence the mind, attempting to meditate for its benefits can cause difficulty.
To explain this in a different way, there’s an element of faith with meditation. Even away from its deeply spiritual and metaphysical roots in Eastern traditions, there has to be some trust that the technique is beneficial. Results aren’t always immediate (although often the shift is noticeable after only a short period in meditation) and the focus always has to be on the practice — which might feel too simple to be beneficial.
Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg shares a beautiful story that highlights the need for patience with the results:
“I was running around upstairs in the flurry of having to leave. I was standing in one of the bathrooms and I dropped a jar of something, which shattered into a thousand pieces. The very first thought that came up in my mind was: ‘You are really a klutz, but I love you.’ And I thought, ‘Oh wow! Look at that.’ All those hours, all those phrases where I was just dry and mechanical and I felt like nothing was happening. It was happening. It just took a while for me to sense the flowering of that and it was so spontaneous that it was quite wonderful. So: Not to struggle, to try to make something happen. Let it happen. It will happen.”
“Praying is talking to the Universe. Meditation is listening to it.” – Paulo Coelho
Now we’ve got a few myths out of the way, it’s time to explore different meditation techniques. Although the practice itself is fairly straightforward, there are certain techniques that have stood the test of time. They’re verifiable and have shown concrete results. Following the techniques below will help add structure to your practice:
This is arguably the most popular form of meditation. Although the terms are usually lumped together, there is a distinction between mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is based in Buddhist philosophy. It’s the quality of being aware and present, with a non-judgmental attitude towards thoughts, feelings, and sensations. It applies to all moments. Meditation, on the other hand, is dedicated time to practice the quality of being aware.
Mindfulness meditation uses an “anchor” as a place to focus attention. It can be the breath or a particular part of the body, such as the feeling of your feet on the floor. Using the anchor to refine concentration, you then start to notice when your mind wanders, and return attention back to the anchor. The technique is noticing distraction and returning focus, repeated over and over again.
Body scan meditation
A body scan meditation is similar to mindfulness meditation. Rather than use an anchor to focus on, you use meditation to scan your body from head to toe. As you bring awareness to different parts of the body, you’ll notice a richness of sensations and feelings that you might not have noticed previously. Again, the mindset of relaxed, non-judgmental awareness is required.
This is an eye-opening practice, because it shows how, when on autopilot, we become disconnected from the body and all of its ever-changing, alive sensations. It’s also incredibly grounding, as it tends to move attention away from the mind, into the body. I personally find that this quietens the mind.
Another Buddhist practice (also called the Metta Bhavana), loving-kindness meditation is a heart-centered technique of cultivating kindness, love, and compassion to ourselves and others. The full Buddhist technique encourages the development of “sending” compassion. It begins with yourself, then moves onto someone you love, then someone neutral (such as the person serving you coffee), and then onto someone you dislike (the most challenging!) before moving onto all beings.
There are two techniques to work with this. The first is to picture these people in mind, whilst reciting a mantra, such as: “May you be happy, may you be well, may you be peaceful, may you be loved.” You repeat this a few times for each person, including yourself. Another technique is to use visualization, such as imagining a bright white light, which represents love, compassion, and kindness, and seeing it radiate from your heart to theirs.
A few pointers with this technique: most people struggle a lot with sending loving-kindness to people they dislike, and even more with sending it to themselves! This is sadly common. It can pay to start the technique by focusing on people you love, before leveling up to yourself and those you have challenging relationships with.
Just like how mindfulness meditation uses the breath as an anchor, mantra meditation uses a silent phrase to refine focus and attention. Although the word mantra has become part of everyday speech, its Sanskrit origins lie in Buddhism and Hinduism. Split into two parts (“man” = mind and “tra” = vehicle), the sacred meaning of a mantra is a vehicle to transcend the usual mental activity, leading to deeper levels of presence and awareness. It can be an entire phrase, a word, or a syllable.
Different meditation techniques place different values on the mantra itself. The popular transcendental meditation (TM) technique uses a mantra that has no inherent meaning, which helps the practitioner avoid being caught up in additional thoughts. However, some, such as the loving-kindness meditation above, use mantras that have a deliberate purpose.
This offers a nice bridge between focused meditation, and mindfulness applied to every moment. Walking meditation is a practice of being fully aware, present, and non-judgemental as you move through the world. You might try this in a meditation space, walking in circles, or while out walking through nature. Buddhist teacher
Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the pioneers of mindful walking. He explains:
“Walking meditation is first and foremost a practice to bring body and mind together peacefully. No matter what we do, the place to start is to calm down, because when our mind and our body have calmed down, we see more clearly. When we see our anger or sadness clearly, it dissipates. We begin to feel more compassion for ourselves and others. We can only feel this when body and mind are united.”
A simple practice is to walk slowly, placing attention on each step. Attempt to align your steps with your breathing at a rate that feels comfortable for you. For example, you might take three steps for every exhalation. Hanh recommends a mantra to assist the practice. For each inhalation, try “I bring peace to my body” or “I know Mother Earth is in me”.
Which type of meditation is right for me?
There’s no one-size-fits-all meditation. I always recommend people try different techniques and see what feels like a good fit for them on an intuitive level. For most beginners without a teacher, this is best achieved through guided meditations. If you find a teacher or course that is accessible, it’ll offer you a solid structure to build the foundation of your practice.
A technique that feels enjoyable but encourages enough discipline to concentrate the mind (for example, to avoid “meditation” being an excuse to sit and daydream!) is a perfect balance. There’s no dogma when it comes to your meditation practice, so feel free to have flexibility. But I’d stick to one technique for a period of time to give it a chance.
And, although I’ve shared that meditation isn’t about results, it does help to have an idea of your goals, or intentions, with starting your meditation practice. Are you looking to understand the psyche? Are you looking to reduce anxiety? To ease stress? To feel more compassion or love for yourself and others?
My personal journey with meditation began by using the Headspace app, which offered guided meditations based on mindfulness meditation (with elements of loving-kindness meditation, too, due to creator Andy Puddicombe’s Buddhist background). After using the app for a while, I started to meditate alone. Then, I attended a Vipassana retreat which was a nice extension of what I’d learned, before serendipitously finding a teacher who shared a transcendental meditation technique with me.
That now forms the basis of my meditation practice. But, I get a lot of nourishment and joy from loving-kindness meditations (particularly with visualization) so I make sure I add that to the end of my practice or go through spells where heart-centered meditation is the focus, especially if I’m being hard on myself, or my heart feels closed.
Now you’re equipped with knowledge and hopefully clarity on how to meditate. We’ve explored common myths that can keep you stuck, covered the benefits of starting a practice, and shared a number of meditation techniques. All that’s left is to get to action, to set aside time to start applying what you’ve learned. It’s easy, right?
Not quite. As Ram Dass said: “If you meditate regularly, even when you don’t feel like it, you will make great gains, for it will allow you to see how your thoughts impose limits on you. Your resistances to meditation are your mental prisons in miniature.” Building consistency with a practice is part of the practice. For so many people, making time to sit in silence and meditate is the hardest part.
I encourage you to be patient as you establish this new habit. Let go of any idea of being good or quieting the mind. Just do your best to find five to 10 minutes each day to sit and start practicing a technique, and give it time for the results to take care of themselves. Be easy on yourself if you skip a session or if you struggle to concentrate — it’s all part of the journey!