In order to achieve mastery, you must commit yourself wholly. That's why LeBron James strives to eclipse the incredible records set by Michael Jordan, Ronda Rousey shatters glass ceiling after glass ceiling for female athletes in the world of mixed martial arts, and Tom Brady continues to play in the NFL well past the age most quarterbacks retire. Despite what we might daydream about, most of us lack the requisite genetics and training required to achieve that kind of superstar status with our athletic endeavors. When it comes to meditation, however, we all have the capacity to attain true mastery. So why not try for it?
After all, meditation can be practiced by anyone, anywhere, at virtually any time. The scientifically validated benefits of meditation include:
- Decreased stress
- Enhanced sense of calmness
- Greater mental clarity
- Increased happiness
Though the thought of beginning a meditation practice may intimidate you, the process of learning how to meditate is quite simple. Long before you've mastered the nuances of this time-tested means of improving mental health as well as physical well-being, you will begin to experience its benefits.
If you're ready to set out on the path toward inner peace, read on to learn about:
- The goal of meditation
- How meditation works in practice
- The benefits of meditation for your mental and physical health
- Different forms of meditation
- Strategies for building a meditation practice
Take a deep breath in, release your worries and hesitations with a long out-breath, and prepare to learn how to truly relax.
What's the Purpose of Meditation?
Before delving into the specifics of different meditation forms, let's cover some basics on the purpose of meditation.
The belief that you can achieve your best self here and now forms the basis for the entire practice of meditation. Though meditation can certainly have spiritual elements, the practice itself is both concrete and practical.
If the entire purpose of the art of meditation had to be boiled down to a neat phrase, it might be this: the goal of meditation is to increase awareness.
Awareness of what? Any number of things. The answer varies from person to person as well as from session to session. To help make this abstract concept something you can grab on to, here are several examples of what meditation might bring into your awareness:
- Your most pressing thoughts, both conscious and unconscious
- Novel solutions to recurring personal problems
- Your own unique intuition
- Reflections on spirituality and the interconnectivity of things
- Your core identity
By attuning yourself to these critical touch points, you can give your overall well-being a boost. What’s more, your new awareness can be mastered through sustained hard work and healthy doses of determination.
How Does Meditation Work?
"Meditation is a training of our attention," Tara Brach, a sought-after meditation teacher and author of the books Radical Acceptance and True Refuge: Finding Peace & Freedom in Your Own Awakened Heart, told the New York Times. “It allows us to step out of distracted thought, and helps us arrive in the present moment in a balanced and clear way.”
By meditating, you can train your mind. This will likely feel quite unfamiliar the first time you try it. Most of us spend little time consciously directing our minds. Left to their own devices, our minds wander freely. We ponder what the future might hold or replay events from the past. Very rarely do we stay completely rooted in the present moment.
By meditating, we can bring ourselves back to the here and now. Rather than fretting about what was or fantasizing about what might be, we can inhabit what is. This practice can bring with it very tangible benefits—studies have even shown that meditating can lower your blood pressure levels.
7 Proven Benefits of Meditation
Modern life brings with it just as many problems as conveniences. From pollution to the constant stream of bills to workweeks that stretch to 60 hours (or beyond), it can feel like every day has its share of obstacles that must be surmounted.
It can be easy to feel that the world is conspiring against you, trapping you like a hamster on a wheel, running in place and unable to think about anything other than putting one foot in front of the other. But we are more than the sum of our daily functions, and it's vital that we make time and space in our lives to recognize that.
This is where mastering meditation comes in. As it builds awareness, meditation reintroduces you to your inner self—the one that got lost in the hustle and bustle of modern living. By committing to a meditation practice, you can begin to live a more fulfilling life.
Not convinced yet? Here are seven scientifically validated ways meditation can benefit your mental and physical health.
1. Increase Sense of Self
In 2011, a team of Harvard-affiliated researchers documented for the first time that meditating can change the brain's gray matter. The study's authors found that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program produced measurable changes in brain regions associated with:
- Sense of self
The impact on sense of self may prove particularly significant. Previous research, such as this study conducted at the University of Utah, shows that a stronger sense of self correlates with a higher degree of overall well-being.
And remember, the remarkable changes documented in the Harvard study came about after a mere 8 weeks of meditation. The changes seen in the brains of long-term meditation practitioners are even more impressive.
2. Relieve Stress
Of all the reasons people try meditation, perhaps the single most common is stress reduction.
According to a meta-analysis of clinical trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine, meditation delivers the stress-relieving results practitioners hope for. Based on data from 47 trials that enrolled a combined total of 3,515 participants, mindfulness meditation programs can reduce "multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress."
Another study looked specifically at the ability of meditation to decrease the physical inflammatory response associated with psychological stress. The researchers rigorously compared an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention to a well-matched active control intervention, the Health Enhancement Program (HEP). They found that mindfulness meditation resulted in "a significantly smaller post-stress inflammatory response."
The stress-reducing capacity of meditation is so pronounced, it has even been successfully used as a complementary treatment to alleviate symptoms of stress in cancer patients.
3. Reduce Anxiety
Studies show that meditation can reduce anxiety just as effectively as stress.
Anxiety and stress often present in similar ways. While stress is your body's response to a specific trigger and tends to be a short-term experience, anxiety is a sustained condition. Stress commonly triggers anxiety, but the anxiety can linger long after the initial threat that set off the stress response has retreated. When left untreated, anxiety can adversely impact your social life, your work, and your closest relationships.
Researchers have found that meditation can lower long-term anxiety levels to the same degree it quells short-term stress. According to a large systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, meditation can measurably reduce anxiety symptoms.
It also appears that the benefits of a meditation-centric intervention can be quite long-lasting. A very interesting study published in General Hospital Psychiatry shared the results of a 3-year follow-up on the effects of mindfulness meditation on anxiety.
The initial study found that an 8-week outpatient stress reduction intervention that taught participants mindfulness meditation led to clinically and statistically significant improvements for subjective and objective symptoms of anxiety and panic. Repeated measures at 3 months and 3 years showed that the improvements endured. Plus, most of the participants maintained a meditation practice after the study ended. The authors concluded that mindfulness meditation can bring about "long-term beneficial effects in the treatment of people diagnosed with anxiety disorders."
Further research has shown meditation can treat specific symptoms of anxiety disorders, including:
- Social anxiety
- Paranoid thoughts
- Obsessive-compulsive behaviors
- Panic attacks
4. Enhance Concentration
Meditation exercises affect your attention span the same way weightlifting exercises affect your muscles: the more time you put into your training, the stronger you get.
A study published in Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience showed that mindfulness meditation sessions can help you develop and improve your powers of concentration. The authors found that meditation improved participants' alertness, ability to orient themselves, and conflict monitoring skills. They state that the results of the study suggest mindfulness meditation can enhance the function of specific neurocognitive subcomponents of attention.
Another study which looked specifically at the benefits of meditation for human resource workers found that those who meditated regularly could stay focused on a task for longer and were better able to remember the details of their tasks than peers who did not meditate.
Plus, a review found that meditation can reverse abnormalities in a network of brain neurons called the default mode network that are associated with mind wandering. While mind wandering may sound harmless, these abnormalities can predispose you to depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It appears, however, that meditation can reverse some of those abnormalities, which can result in improved concentration among other benefits.
Delightfully enough, it appears that the beneficial effects of meditation on your ability to concentrate set in quite quickly. One study found significant improvements to participants' visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning after only 4 days of meditation sessions.
5. Alleviate Sleep Issues
One out of every two individuals will struggle with insomnia at some point in their lives. Research shows that meditation can help you fall asleep more quickly and stay in a state of sleep throughout the night.
According to a 2015 review that evaluated mindfulness meditation as a means of treating insomnia, randomized controlled trials consistently show that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI) result in an overall reduction in sleep latency (meaning participants who meditated fell asleep faster) and total wake time (meaning fewer instances of waking up over course of the night) and increase in total sleep time (that one's self-explanatory). The researchers concluded that mindfulness matches the effectiveness of other methods for treating insomnia, comes with fewer side effects, and is more readily available.
Experts have theorized that one of the reasons meditation may help with sleep is that it helps you react more skillfully to the racing thoughts that might otherwise keep you awake. Meditation can also teach you techniques for relaxing your body, releasing tension, and entering a peaceful mindstate.
6. Treat Pain
The physical pain you experience stems from signals transmitted back and forth between your body and your brain. Meditation can change the way your brain processes pain signals, resulting in decreased physical sensations of pain.
One study published in the Journal of Neuroscience used a novel MRI technique to investigate how meditation affects pain-related brain processes. The authors recorded baseline measurements for each participant at the beginning of the study. Participants then went through 4 days of mindfulness meditation training including breathing exercises. By practicing meditation techniques when exposed to painful stimuli during the MRI, participants were able to reduce pain by 40%, and their brain scans showed increased activity in regions known to control pain.
7. Lower Blood Pressure Levels
One of the most striking physical benefits of meditation documented so far has been its ability to lower blood pressure levels, which in turn reduces strain on your heart muscles and boosts your overall cardiovascular health.
According to a review of randomized controlled trials as well as systematic reviews, transcendental meditation can be beneficial for individuals with hypertension. Pooled results from a combined total of 996 participants indicated an average reduction of systolic and diastolic blood pressure of -4.36mm Hg and -2.33 mm Hg respectively compared to the control groups. The effect on systolic blood pressure was greatest among older participants, those with higher initial blood pressure levels, and women.
A separate review also found promising data on the ability of meditation to lower blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease. The authors found that regardless of the form of meditation, practitioners experienced better blood pressure control, enhancement in insulin resistance, and reduction of lipid peroxidation and cellular senescence. They concluded that meditation can produce beneficial effects on the cardiovascular system, particularly the vascular aspects.
A third review noted that benefits of meditation for blood pressure control appear to come from its positive effects on the nerve signals that regulate heart function, tension in blood vessels, and the fight-or-flight response that raises alertness in stressful situations and that can become problematic in the context of modern life.
Choosing the Best Type of Meditation for You
Meditation has a long, rich, and varied history. Some of the earliest records of meditation come from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism and can be dated to around 1500 BCE. Other records indicate that the Taoist and Buddhist traditions of meditation emerged sometime in the 6th to 5th centuries BCE.
As you might imagine, we now have many, many different types of meditation to choose from—both religious and secular. In recent years, mindfulness meditation has become the most popular form of meditation among Western practitioners.
The Basics of Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is a deceptively nuanced practice. The central concept is simple: to exist attentively and acceptingly in the present moment. Despite what you may believe, the aim is not to empty your mind or to wipe it clean like a chalkboard. Even advanced meditators have thoughts crop up during their sessions. Instead of fighting against distracting thoughts, the goal is to register where your mind has wandered to, what emotions have been stirred up, and any physical sensations you're experiencing without judgement. This practice can yield profound results.
Though mindfulness meditation has roots in Buddhist practices, it's quite possible to take an entirely secular approach to it. Many meditation teachers emphasize how it can be used for benefits such as stress reduction, improved focus, and a greater sense of tranquility rather than spiritual enlightenment.
“There’s a misconception that mindfulness is religious,” Atman Smith, a meditation teacher who has worked with underserved and high-risk youth in Baltimore City Public Schools, drug treatment centers, wellness centers, and colleges since 2001, told the New York Times. “What we have to explain is that it’s a stress reduction technique and a way to get yourself stronger mentally. It’s a self-care practice.”
Differentiating Between Mindfulness and Meditation
It's common to see the terms "mindfulness" and "meditation" used as if they are synonymous; however, that's really not the case.
The word mindfulness encompasses a way of being. To be mindful is to be open and aware of the moment in which you're currently existing without succumbing to reflexive judgement, criticism, or distraction.
Meditation can certainly involve being mindful, and when practiced regularly, it can expand your capacity for mindfulness.
Meditation teacher Tara Brach expressed the differences between meditation and mindfulness like this: “Mindfulness is your awareness of what’s going on in the present moment without any judgment. Meditation is the training of attention which cultivates that mindfulness.”
Another reason why it's helpful not to use the words mindfulness and meditation interchangeably is that mindfulness meditation is not the only form of meditation. Transcendental Meditation, another type that's quite popular, promotes relaxation through the recitation of a mantra.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
One of the wonderful things about mindfulness meditation is that you can practice it all on your own and in practically any setting. The point of mindfulness meditation is not to relinquish control over your thoughts and allow them to wander at will nor to attempt to empty your mind. The core of the practice is to pay close attention to the present moment, and to your own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations specifically.
Those who are new to meditation often find it helpful to listen to guided meditations. Eventually, it's helpful to learn to meditate on your own in order to establish a complete, thriving meditation practice. But in the beginning, having the guidance of an experienced teacher can be invaluable. Many expert meditation teachers have recorded perfectly paced instructions to lead you through the experience, help you stay rooted in the present moment, and release any thoughts or judgements that crop up.
Basic mindfulness meditation tends to involve sitting quietly and focusing your full attention on your breath for a set amount of time. However, there are many variations on the practice. As you explore meditation, you may wish to try the following techniques to move you closer to your elusive—but achievable— goals of mastery and self-awareness.
- Body scan: Rather than using the breath to keep you grounded in the present moment, this meditation technique asks you to apply your focus to a series of sensations and areas of the body. Typically, you start either at the toes or the head and move slowly toward the other end of the body.
- Walking meditation: Even if you struggle to sit still, it's best to start with sitting meditation before progressing to walking meditation. While there's no rule to enforce that order, since walking meditation involves more inputs, it can be substantially more difficult to attain the desired mindstate.
- Mindful eating: As with walking, this technique requires more intense focus than a basic meditation session. Rather than eating on autopilot, take time to fully appreciate the smell, taste, and mouthfeel of your food. You can begin even before you take your first bite by tuning into the physical sensation you experience as you sit down for your meal.
Cultivating Effortless Presence
Effortless presence meditation has much in common with mindfulness meditation. Rather than concentrating your focus on your breath or physical sensations, however, effortless presence allows you to access the benefits of meditation by doing the exact opposite.
This type of meditation puts the focus on reaching a state in which your attention isn’t actually concentrated on any particular thought or thing. In effortless presence meditation, you work only on being. As in, not striving for any one particular thing. While only being, you should avoid thinking about your bills or mulling the future. When taken to its full expression, effortless presence involves not even acknowledging yourself as a person. While this may sound strange or even impossible, practitioners find it revelatory and remarkably beneficial.
Sustained practice of this technique is thought to reveal the most natural state of your existence to you, one in which your Ego vanishes along with your efforts to control things. We know, this may be a challenging concept—especially during the age of Netflix, Instagram stories, and the never-ending status updates—but why not give it a try? All you have to lose is yourself (in the best possible way).
To perform effortless presence meditation, simply sit and do nothing else whatsoever—just be. Far from emptying your mind, however, effortless presence is about achieving the elusive state of self-awareness mentioned earlier.
To deepen your understanding of effortless presence, watch this video from meditation master Peter Russell.
The Art of Loving Kindness (or Metta) Meditation
If you like the idea of boosting your ability to empathize with others on your journey to self-mastery, you should look into loving kindness, or Metta, meditation.
The focal point of this form of meditation is developing feelings of kindness and benevolence toward yourself and others.
To start, you work on accepting and loving yourself. After all, as the inimitable drag queen and cultural icon RuPaul puts it, "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love anybody else?"
Try following along with this progression:
- Take a very comfortable posture.
- Focus on breathing in and out from your solar plexus (an area of the chest practitioners of this form of meditation often call the “heart center”).
- Anchor your mindfulness only on the sensations emanating from your heart center.
- Begin to generate feelings of kindness toward yourself while feeling and freeing yourself from any mental blockage, numbness, self-judgment, or self-hatred.
- Continue to breathe in and out. Then, either think or say one of the traditional phrases (or an original and personalized iteration) encapsulating the idea: “May I be happy.”
Once you’re able to generate loving feelings for yourself, the next step is to gradually apply your benevolent feelings to other people and then to the entire universe. There are, naturally, many steps along that path and it can take years of sustained practice to even begin to approach that lofty goal.
To continue to explore the nuances of loving kindness meditation, watch this video from Emma Seppala, Ph.D, author of “The Happiness Track.”
Building a Meditation Practice
To reap the benefits of meditation, especially if you're new to the practice, it's important to set aside time for a formal meditation session. This will help you establish a routine and become more comfortable with the various elements that go into meditating.
“Some people complain about taking time out of their day,” said meditation teacher Atman Smith in a New York Times interview. “Practice is important though. It’s a tool you can use to bring yourself back to the present in stressful situations.”
While it is important to make time for meditation, you don't need to block out an hour from each day. Simply committing to meditate for a few minutes daily can make an incredible difference to both your mental and physical health.
While mastery of anything takes long-term, sustained effort, the first hurdle is to establish the correct mindset. Tentative efforts lead to tentative outcomes, so when you set out to master the art of meditation, know that committing yourself fully to that pursuit will yield the most impressive results. As part of that commitment, you should strive to meditate every day, even if only for a short time. We create new brain pathways based on the activities we perform each day, making us more effective at performing them, so daily meditation will help you move as rapidly as possible toward the goal of meditating like a master.
With your foundational mindset now firmly in place, here's some expert advice you may find helpful as you work to achieve your goal.
Handling a Wandering Mind
While meditating, a moment inevitably comes when the mind wanders. Perhaps you will begin to notice something happening in the room or a stray thought will hook you and lead you off on an internal journey. Don't worry when this happens. This does not make you a bad or unmindful meditator. It's just as natural for the mind to wander as it is for the lungs to breathe.
When you notice your mind has wandered, note what it is you were thinking about or distracted by. Don't try to immediately and forcibly redirect your attention. Pause, let go of the thought or distraction, broaden your attention, then gently redirect it to your breath—or whatever the focus (or non-focus) of your meditation session might be.
Just as inevitably, your mind will wander again. And when it does, again, remember this is natural. The goal is not to prevent the mind from wandering, but to develop a skillful way of detecting when that has happened and reorienting our attention.
“Where we build our skill is in the practice of coming back,” Tara Brach said in a New York Times interview. “Coming back again and again. Notice it — thinking — and then pause, and then come back to the present moment.”
Using Mantras to Build Focus
There's a reason mantras are such an enduring component of multiple forms of meditation. Repeating the same words over a sustained period of time can help you develop calm and focus.
If you find mindfulness meditation or effortless presence too passive, you may do better with a form of meditation centered on mantra chanting. You can choose from a number of Sanskrit mantras or develop your own. Mantras can even be as simple as the word Om.
Setting a Time to Practice
Especially in the beginning, it can be quite beneficial to choose a particular time of day for your meditation practice. The idea is that, as with any habit, it will be easier to follow through on your intention if you build it into your routine. If your schedule varies from day to day, it may be more helpful to link meditation to another activity that's already part of your routine (like brushing your teeth) rather than tethering it to a precise time.
Many people find it easiest to meditate first thing in the morning. Others find it a refreshing addition to their lunch hour, a wonderful way to mark the end of the work day, or a relaxing element to work into a bedtime ritual.
No matter when you decide to meditate, try your best to be consistent with it.
Locating the Best Spot
In the same way that it can be helpful—especially for meditation novices—to meditate at the same time of day, choosing a specific spot where you will meditate can help you build a lasting practice.
Identify a location where you can sit comfortably and where there will be minimal distractions around you. The fewer the distractions, the easier it will be to stay in the proper meditating headspace.
Don't worry about folding your legs into a lotus position, and if you find it uncomfortable to sit on the floor, don't. The key is to find somewhere you can sit upright in a comfortable position with your shoulders rolled back and your spine straight, breathing easily.
Purchasing Essential Meditation Accessories
Despite what advertisers would like you to believe, there are no essential meditation accessories. You may find that using a meditation app, or sitting on a dedicated meditation cushion or stool helps you, but it's certainly not a requirement for the practice.
The one true essential for meditation is willpower, and no one has found a way to bottle and sell that.
Carrying Mindfulness into Everyday Life
By embracing the techniques and advice outlined in this article, you’ll be well on your way to mastering the art of meditation. Remember, your thoughts are powerful, and the more insight you gain into how your mind works, the better.
Remember, too, that there's no need to abandon mindfulness when you stop meditation. Ultimately, mastering meditation means being mindful in all areas of your life. The more you meditate, the more you can show up for whatever life might bring your way with an open mind and heart.