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The renowned mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn once said that meditation is “simplicity itself.” “It’s about stopping and being present,” Kabat-Zinn said. “That is all.” (Fortney, 2010)
In many ways, that nicely sums up what most meditation practices are all about. Whether you’re trying to pay close attention to your breath, body, thoughts, or some aspect of the world around you, meditation is all about focusing your mind on the here-and-now.
That may sound like “simplicity itself.” But that simple practice is associated with many medical and psychological benefits (Fortney, 2010).
What is meditation?
Defining meditation can be a bit tricky. That’s because the word “meditation” is used to refer to a diverse range of activities and practices. For example, “meditation” can refer to mindfulness training. It can also refer to a number of similar practices that are closely tied to Eastern spiritual traditions (Thomas, 2014).
But, in a nutshell, experts often define meditation as a mind-body practice centered around non-judgmental present-moment awareness. It’s about paying attention to some element of the present without reacting to it with emotions or judgments (Fortney, 2010). Meditation has also been loosely defined as an exercise in “mental and emotional control” (Thomas, 2014).
Most forms of meditation share four common elements (NCCIH, 2016):
- They involve a quiet place that is relatively free of distraction
- They involve a comfortable position or posture—usually sitting, lying down, or walking
- They involve focusing your attention on something in the present, such as your breath, your body, or an object
- They involve letting distractions come and go without judging or reacting to them
Morning meditation: benefits and how to get started
The benefits of meditation
As you’ve probably heard, meditation is associated with numerous health benefits. These range from psychological and cognitive improvements to pain relief and the reduction of disease risk factors (Cherkin, 2016; Gaylord, 2011; NCCIH, 2016).
There are many different forms of meditation—each of which may have slightly different effects or benefits. But much of the recent research has focused on mindfulness-based training. That work has found that meditation may be beneficial for the following conditions:
Depression and anxiety
Research has found that mindfulness-based meditation can help treat both depression and anxiety disorders. In fact, some work has found that meditation may be as effective as psychotherapy or prescription drugs to treat these mental health conditions. While mindfulness training by itself may provide benefits, research on mental health and meditation shows that combining mindfulness with medication or psychotherapy is particularly helpful (Saeed, 2019).
Some research has found that mindfulness-based training may be even more effective than traditional treatments—including the use of prescription drugs—for the relief of chronic pain disorders. For example, mindfulness has been found to reduce pain and improve functioning among people with chronic low-back pain (Cherkin, 2016).
Some research has found that mindfulness training may strengthen the immune system. Specifically, mindfulness has been linked to a more robust antibody response to certain viruses (Davidson, 2003). More work has linked mindfulness to a lower risk for common illnesses (Fortney, 2010).
Researchers have also found that meditation practices may be helpful for the treatment or relief of (Fortney, 2010):
- Gut disorders
- Tension headaches
- High blood pressure
- Unhealthy blood cholesterol
- Heart disease
- Arterial disease
- Poor cognitive functioning in old age
- Psychiatric disorders
Pick a medical condition, and there’s probably some research to suggest that meditation can help with it in some way.
Not all the benefits of mediation are medical in nature. The practice is also closely linked to improvements in (Fortney, 2010) (Ricarte, 2015):
- Stress reduction
How does meditation produce these benefits?
There are many answers to that question. But most of them seem to tie back to the activity of your nervous system—and specifically the “fight or flight” arm of your nervous system. This fight-or-flight arm is known as the sympathetic nervous system.
Stress tends to elevate sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity. In the short term, this can crank up your heart rate and cause other internal changes. Over time, too much SNS activity, often driven by chronic stress, is associated with diseases or dysfunctions of the heart, brain, immune system, and gut (Househam, 2017).
Meditation for anxiety: does it work?
Meditation seems to reduce stress and SNS activity by increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is sometimes called the “rest and digest” arm of your nervous system. By helping to balance SNS activity with greater PNS activity, meditation may cause or contribute to the huge range of health benefits mentioned above.
In line with this research, some work has linked meditation to improvements in blood pressure and heart-rate variability—both of which tend to head in the wrong direction during times of stress or heightened SNS activity. Meditation is also associated with shifts in brain molecules and hormones that seem to counteract stress, increase calm, and sharpen cognitive functioning (Househam, 2017).
The different types of meditation
When it comes to specific meditation practices, there are many to choose from—too many to list here. Some popular types include mindfulness, transcendental meditation, Buddhist meditation, and loving-kindness meditation.
While there are dozens and maybe hundreds of distinct practices, pretty much all of them fall under two overarching categories (Colzato, 2017). Those categories are:
Focused Attention Meditation (FAM)
This form is derived from Buddhist meditation practices. It involves concentrating on a specific part of your here-and-now experience—such as your breath. To do this, you must constantly monitor your thoughts. As distracting thoughts arise or intrude, your goal is to recognize them and set them aside. Then you’ll return your attention to the present moment (meaning to your breath or some other locus of attention) (Lutz, 2008).
Open Monitoring Meditation (OAM)
In some ways, your focus during this form of meditation is just the opposite as it is during FAM. Rather than trying to focus your attention on one thing, you’re trying to take in everything that happens in the present moment. This means you’re aware of—but not stuck on—any sights, sounds, thoughts, emotions, or other things that pop into consciousness while meditating. OAM is a practice many meditators pick up once they’ve become adept at FAM (Lutz, 2008).
How to meditate
There is no one right way to meditate. Also, the ins and outs of each practice can involve years of study or fill whole books.
However, the essential components of a mindfulness-based practice are relatively simple (Fortney, 2010):
- Find a quiet place and sit in a comfortable position
- Try to focus your attention on the sensations of breathing. Deep breaths aren’t necessary. Simply pay attention to your breath.
- Observe the thoughts or feelings that appear in your mind as you breathe. For example, these could be sensations in your body, such as a feeling of tension in your forehead or shoulders. Or they could be thoughts about your life related to work or your health.
- Try not to react or analyze these thoughts or observations. Think of yourself as a witness observing what appears in your mind without passing judgment.
- As you notice things appearing in your thoughts or awareness—such as feelings, daydreams, memories, or worries—try to gently drop them and return your attention to your breath.
Mindfulness exercises: benefits and where to start
Most new mindfulness meditators start out trying to practice for just 5 or 10 minutes a day. Daily meditation practice is often recommended.
Setting your phone’s timer and then silencing all alerts or texts can help you keep track of time and limit tech-based distractions. Using some kind of guided meditation tool—a meditation app, for example—is a great way to get started.
Meditation techniques and tips
Once you’re familiar with the basics of meditation, there are some other things to keep in mind that may be helpful. Think of these as helpful tips that can improve your meditation experience (Fortney, 2010).
Some people imagine that meditation involves sitting a certain way—with perfect posture or on the floor with legs crossed. It’s unnecessary to strain or force your body into one of these positions if they’re not comfortable for you.
Don’t get wrapped up in “clearing” your mind
The idea that meditation is all about emptying or clearing your mind is a bit misleading. Meditation is about observing what pops into your head in a nonjudgmental way. Especially in the beginning, you may find specific repetitive or distracting thoughts flood your mind whenever you try to meditate. Mind-wandering will happen. Your goal isn’t to stop those thoughts but to work on recognizing them and trying not to react to them with emotion or judgment.
Movement may be helpful
You may find that gentle, deliberate movement is helpful when you meditate. Walking, swimming, yoga, tai chi, qigong, and other movements incorporating mindfulness practice or meditation elements may be worth trying.
Work with your experience
You may find that meditation reveals personal insights or realizations that teach you about yourself. Keeping a journal or talking with a therapist or meditation teacher about your self-discoveries may help you make the most of these revelations.
Meditation can seem intimidating. But with regular practice—even from as little as a few minutes a day—there’s evidence that it can promote an almost staggering array of health benefits.
- Cherkin, D. C., Sherman, K. J., Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Anderson, M. L., Hawkes, R. J., et al. (2016). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction vs cognitive behavioral therapy or usual care on back pain and functional limitations in adults with chronic low back pain: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA, 315(12), 1240–1249. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.2323. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27002445/
- Colzato, L.S., Kibele, A. (2017). How different types of meditation can enhance athletic performance depending on the specific sport skills. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement 1, 122–126 (2017). doi: 10.1007/s41465-017-0018-3. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41465-017-0018-3
- Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564–570. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. Retrieved from https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2003/07000/Alterations_in_Brain_and_Immune_Function_Produced.14.aspx
- Fortney, L., & Taylor, M. (2010). Meditation in medical practice: a review of the evidence and practice. Primary Care, 37(1), 81–90. doi: 10.1016/j.pop.2009.09.004. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20188999/
- Gaylord, S. A., Palsson, O. S., Garland, E. L., Faurot, K. R., Coble, R. S., Mann, J. D., et al. (2011). Mindfulness training reduces the severity of irritable bowel syndrome in women: results of a randomized controlled trial. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 106(9), 1678–1688. doi: 10.1038/ajg.2011.184. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21691341/
- Househam, A. M., Peterson, C. T., Mills, P. J., & Chopra, D. (2017). The effects of stress and meditation on the immune system, human microbiota, and epigenetics. Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 31(4), 10–25. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29306937/
- Lutz, A., Slagter, H. A., Dunne, J. D., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Attention regulation and monitoring in meditation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 12(4), 163–169. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.005. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2693206/?_escaped_fragment_=po=3.57143/
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). (2016). Meditation: In depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Retrieved July 19, 2021 from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-and-mindfulness-what-you-need-to-know
- Ricarte, J., Latorre, J., & Beltrán, M. (2015). Mindfulness-based intervention in a rural primary school: Effects on attention, concentration and mood. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 8, 3. doi: 10.1521/ijct_2015_8_03. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Jose-Latorre-2/publication/277331488_Mindfulness-Based_Intervention_in_a_Rural_Primary_School_Effects_on_Attention_Concentration_and_Mood/links/56b057c508ae9ea7c3addffd/Mindfulness-Based-Intervention-in-a-Rural-Primary-School-Effects-on-Attention-Concentration-and-Mood.pdf
- Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and anxiety disorders: Benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10), 620–627. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/pubs/afp/issues/2019/0515/p620.html?cmpid=em_AFP_20190318
- Thomas, J. W., & Cohen, M. (2014). A methodological review of meditation research. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 5, 74. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00074. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2014.00074/full
Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.