What is mindfulness?
Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodeling the physical structure of your brain.
Meditation is exploring. It’s not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, utterly undistracted. It’s a special place where each and every moment is momentous. When we meditate we venture into the workings of our minds: our sensations (air blowing on our skin or a harsh smell wafting into the room), our emotions (love this, hate that, crave this, loathe that) and thoughts (wouldn’t it be weird to see an elephant playing a trumpet ).
Mindfulness meditation asks us to suspend judgment and unleash our natural curiosity about the workings of the mind, approaching our experience with warmth and kindness, to ourselves and others.
Other Meditation Techniques
There are various other meditation techniques. For example, a daily meditation practice among Buddhist monks focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This involves envisioning negative events and recasting them in a positive light by transforming them through compassion. There are also moving meditation techniques, such as tai chi, qigong, and walking meditation.
If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response” after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Contemporary researchers are now exploring whether a consistent meditation practice yields long-term benefits, and noting positive effects on brain and immune function among meditators. Yet it’s worth repeating that the purpose of meditation is not to achieve benefits. To put it as an Eastern philosopher may say, the goal of meditation is no goal. It’s simply to be present.
In Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate benefit of meditation is liberation of the mind from attachment to things it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. The liberated or “enlightened” practitioner no longer needlessly follows desires or clings to experiences, but instead maintains a calm mind and sense of inner harmony.
Consistency Is Key
Consistent practice matters more than long practice. This means that it’s better to meditate for five minutes, six times per week than for 30 minutes once a week. The former can calm your body’s stress response several times in a week, while the latter may calm your body into a deeper state of relaxation, but it will only reverse your stress response once.
In addition, you are more likely to stick with a regular meditation practice if you can start with short, daily sessions than if you feel you need to find time for longer sessions in order to practice. It is more likely that this self-imposed pressure will lead to you not finding time for it, then losing the motivation to try.
Practice Doesn’t Mean Perfect
Regular practice matters more than “perfect” practice. This means that, rather than concerning yourself too much about what position to sit in, what technique to try when you sit, how long to sit, or what time of day, you should just sit and meditate.
The rest will fall into place if you just begin, but if you feel the need to work these details out before you can start, you may find it more challenging to get started. There really is no “wrong” way to meditate anyway; any meditation is better than none.
It’s OK for Your Mind to Wander
If you notice your mind wandering, that’s good. Meditation can be challenging for some people, particularly perfectionists. We sometimes fall into the trap of wanting to do it “right” and becoming frustrated with ourselves when our mind drifts off. The thing to remember is that if you notice this happening, that’s a good thing—you noticed.
Noticing and redirecting your thoughts back to the focus of your meditation (your breath, the present moment, or whatever you are choosing as your focus) is the real point of meditation. It’s virtually impossible to prevent your mind from wandering anyway.
There are many forms of meditation that bring these fantastic benefits. Two major types of meditation include concentrative meditation (where attention is focused on a specific point) and mindfulness meditation (which focuses on building awareness and acceptance of the present moment).
Some may feel more comfortable for you to practice than others, so it’s a great idea to try a sampling of them and repeat the techniques that seem to fit best for you. If you practice meditation while you are not in the midst of a stressful situation, you will find it easier to use it as a calming technique when you need it.
Begin at a Relaxed Time
Even if you plan to use it only as needed and not as a daily exercise, it is a good idea to practice meditation when you aren’t feeling particularly stressed first, rather than trying it for the first time when you’re feeling overwhelmed—unless, of course, you can’t find a time when you don’t feel this way.
Focus on Your Breath
If you don’t know where to start, you may simply focus on listening to your breathing for five minutes. To do this, relax your body, sit comfortably, and notice your breath. If you find yourself thinking of other things, simply redirect your attention back to your breath.
Another simple strategy is to count your breaths. When you inhale, count “one” in your head, and then count “two” as you exhale. Keep going as you breathe and start over at “one” if you notice you’ve become distracted by other thoughts.
Some people will find counting easier to practice than simple breathing meditation, and others will find it more challenging. Remember, your best meditation techniques are the ones that resonate with you.
Use Guided Meditation
Guided meditation is a practice that involves being directed through the process by another person. This guide often helps people focus on mental imagery, describes breathing exercises, utilizes mantras, guides the process using other techniques.
There are many different types of guided meditations available including podcasts, websites, apps, online videos, and online streaming services. Yoga studios may also offer guided meditations as group classes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Meditation can be done at any time of day, but it is often easiest to find the time in the morning or evening. If you are new to meditation, it may be helpful to set aside a specific time each day for your practice. Once you have established a regular practice, you may find that you can meditate anywhere, anytime.
Yes, meditation can be very helpful for getting a good night’s sleep. If you have trouble falling asleep, or if you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep, try meditating for 20 minutes before going to bed. You may find that your mind is calm and clear, and that you are able to fall asleep more easily.
Yes, you can meditate lying down. What matters more than the meditation posture is if you can hold that posture comfortably for a period of time. Lying down is one option, but you can also try sitting in a chair if it is more comfortable.
There is no hard and fast rule for how long you should meditate. If you are just starting out, you may want to start with 5-10 minutes per day. Once you have established a regular practice, you can increase the time to 20 minutes or more per day.