Meditation is a topic that has a lot of strong opinions surrounding it. Increasingly, meditation is being pedalled by websites, health gurus, and app developers as a “quick fix” for all the ailments we deal with due to our modern lifestyles. There are plenty of influencers on social media who have taken to this idea, and it’s common to see pictures of people sitting in front of sunsets and candles.
But on the other side of the equation, there is still a lot of resistance to this idea. Many people associate meditation – incorrectly – with mysticism and religious practices. Many think it is ineffective, or that they need to practice for decades to become “enlightened.”
Many just don’t have the time to give it much thought!
The truth about meditation though is extremely simple. There is nothing mystical about this practice, and in fact it is a simple tool you can use anywhere. The results are determined by the work you put in, and by the goals you are pursuing.
In this post, you’ll learn everything you need to know about meditation and how to practically use it to build calmness, focus, cognitive performance, and resilience to stress.
What is Meditation?
There are many different types of meditation, ranging from mindfulness meditation, to transcendental meditation, to religious meditation.
Meditation can be religious then, but it doesn’t need to be. It is entirely up to you how you approach it.
What all of these different types of meditation have in common, is that they teach you to focus on just one thing and to let all of your thoughts and concerns fall away as a result.
One of the best known forms of meditation is transcendental meditation. This form of meditation involves clearing the mind of thoughts, which you accomplish by focussing on just one thing: called a mantra. This is normally a word or phrase that you repeat over and over again. You could even just hum.
By doing this, you empty your mind of stress, and you enjoy a sense of calm. For those that suffer with anxiety, learning to simply ignore stressful thoughts can provide a huge sense of relief.
If you should manage to completely shut down your thoughts for long enough though, you will eventually experience different regions of your brain “switching off.” This can result in some strange experiences such as ego death – where you lose your sensation of being you and therefore feel “at one” with the universe. This is the aim for some people, but it is certainly not required to feel the full benefits of meditation!
Another form of meditation is mindfulness1. Here, your aim is to focus on the contents of your thoughts. In full mindfulness meditation, you spend some time reflecting on the contents of your thoughts. You can do this while sitting in a quiet place. Close your eyes and simply “watch” the contents of your thoughts. The key though, is not to get caught up in them: not to let them control your emotions.
By doing this, you become more aware of what you are thinking at any time. This then allows you to catch yourself in bad thought patterns throughout your waking day. Often, mindfulness practitioners will preach the benefit of rising above fleeting thoughts and instead taking the time to feel “in the moment.”
The last example we’ll consider is religious meditation. Many different religions practice some form of meditation. In Christian meditation, a practitioner will take a passage from the bible and then focus their mind on it entirely: considering its meaning, the way it makes them feel etc. They might alternative meditate on a prayer, and on their connection with God.
This form of meditation can help to stir up powerful, healing emotions. At the same time, they help to make people feel closer to their chosen religions.
The Health Benefits of Meditation
While these three forms of meditation seem different, the key factor that unites them all is focus. One way or another, you are deciding to take conscious control over your emotions and thoughts, rather than letting them run away with you.
This has many profound effects on brain health.
For one, this will help you to practice your own focus. Most of us are not in control of our thoughts and have a hard time preventing ourselves from thinking about things other than the matter at hand. This has the effect of making us anxious, confused, and easily distracted.
By practicing focus, you learn to choose where to place your attention. This makes us more engaged in conversation, less prone to forgetfulness, and better able to stay on-task when we are being productive. You can overcome urges like food cravings, and you can withstand periods of quiet without feeling constantly “bored.”
This is closely linked with working memory. Working memory is the part of our memory we use to hold numbers, pictures, and sounds for just a few moments while we’re working on them. It is closely linked with IQ and mental performance2 and is connected further to attention and meditation3.
Meditation practice has also been shown to bring about physical changes to the brain that are linked with heighted IQ. These include brain plasticity (the brain’s ability to grow and change shape in response to stimulus), cortical thickness (the density of grey tissue in the front of the brain), and more4.
How to Get Started
To get started with meditation, you can try following a guided meditation using an app like Headspace. You can also find many free guided meditation on YouTube.
A simple practice to use thought is something called a “bodyscan meditation.” This form of meditation involves focussing on your body in order to help detach yourself from your usual thought processes.
To begin, sit somewhere quietly and comfortably, though not so you are likely to fall asleep.
Now you are going to concentrate on the muscles in the very top of your head, like your forehead. Try to relax them as far as possible, releasing all tension and imagine them melting away. You will find you hold a lot more tension here than you might realise!
Now move down to your ears and do the same thing, let them fall completely naturally. You’re then going to proceed down your entire body in the same way, feeling your face relax and your cheeks, letting your shoulders lower themselves, letting your arms relax by your sides, and so on.
Once you have finished relaxing the very tips of your toes, you are then going to focus on your breathing, counting each breath as it comes in and out. Stay like this for ten minutes, then gradually reawaken yourself.
Congratulations, you just did your first meditation!
Some Powerful, Lesser-Known Types of Meditation
While these are some of the better known forms of meditation, there are actually countless other methods that are less talked about. These often have additional benefits, in that they help us to focus on aspects of our physiology or psychology that often goes overlooked. That way, they can improve our performance in exciting new ways.
Here are just a few.
Tai Chi is one example of moving meditation. This involves performing a martial arts form very slowly, and then focussing the mind purely on performing those movements with not a single bit of tension throughout your body.
The powerful benefit of Tai Chi comes from realizing that you can meditate while moving. Once you master this, you can achieve that sense of calm no matter where you are, or what you are doing.
Meditation doesn’t have to be a purely passive and calm activity! Just as you can focus on calming and repetitive things, you can also meditate by focussing on a problem or an issue you have in your professional or personal life. You might meditate on a creative work you’re brewing, or on trying to come up with an exciting new idea.
Either way, you’ll this way learn to better focus your mental faculties on a single problem, and you’ll be more likely to come up with a breakthrough idea! You can combine this with “big idea thinking,” by trying to solve problems and issues that are huge in scope. How would you design the perfect city?
Image streaming is a form of meditation that involves letting your imagination run riot. Here, you allow your mind’s eye to dream up all kinds of visualizations without trying to control what comes up. You then explain out loud what you are seeing.
The power of this form of meditation, is that it allows you to better develop your own powers of visualization, to the point that you will be able to
Yoga Nidra is a form of meditation from yoga that has a lot in common with a body scan. The aim of this meditation though is to relax you as much as possible without putting you completely to sleep. The argument is that very few of us ever really relax. Even when we think we’re relaxing, we’re actually focussed on a book, or perhaps a movie. These actually cause physiological arousal!
Yoga nidra is said to offer some of the same benefits of sleep, even helping to make up for a lack of sleep that night!
As you can see then, meditation comes in a huge range of different flavours and can have countless different benefits, depending on your goals. Don’t write it off: try incorporating it into your regime!