Meditation is a common mind-body strategy. While there are many types, meditation is any activity in which you control your attention. This mind-body technique helps you achieve a "relaxation response," a term used by Herbert Benson to describe the physical changes tied to a state of relaxation—decreased heart rate, respiration rate, and blood pressure.
There are two general forms of meditation, each with slightly different methods and goals: concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness is the other main type of meditation, also known as vipassana or insight meditation. Mindfulness involves intentional, non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness.
Like TM, mindfulness begins with one-pointed attention, but expands to a wider scope of observation. You observe thoughts, feelings or sensations as "mental events"—without judging or analyzing.
By observing thoughts and emotions in this more distanced and accepting way, you can approach a stressful situation with a mindful response and without reacting in a way that may increase your stress. Mindfulness meditation is also known as insight because the intention is to gain insight as to the true nature of reality. While concentration involves the practitioner focusing their attention on a single object, in mindfulness meditation practice, every aspect of experience is welcomed and appreciated.
Benefits of Meditation
There are many reasons why people meditate. For some it is part of a spiritual journey and has to do with expansion of awareness and how they perceive and experience life. Some simply want to relax, and this benefit of meditation is self-evident. Other people are very specifically interested in the benefits of meditation for health and general well-being. The effectiveness of meditation comes from deep relaxation. When we are deeply relaxed, the body and mind are refreshed and revitalized. This brings many benefits that are both immediate and long lasting. Some major health benefits of regular meditation include:
- Lower blood pressure
- Better sleep
- Less anxiety
- Faster healing
- Decreased use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes
- Lower cholesterol
- Stronger immune response
Different postures affect how the energy flows through the body and how alert the mind is in meditation. For most meditations, we suggest sitting upright with the spine erect while still being comfortable.
When to meditate
When you meditate will partly depend on what kind of meditation you are doing and the purpose of the meditation. Although you can meditate at any time, the ideal times are usually in the morning as a start to your day, or in the late afternoon in order to unwind from the activity of the day and be refreshed for the evening.
How often to meditate
The ideal frequency of meditation may vary from person to person depending on many different factors. Generally speaking, once or twice a day is ideal. A regular routine of meditation is invaluable.
Thoughts in meditation
Thoughts arise spontaneously in the mind. They are a natural part of meditation. The goal of meditation is to become more at ease, relaxed and at peace with whatever is happening. Therefore, it is important to not resist anything that comes in meditation, including thoughts.
Don’t try to push out thoughts or resist them. Simply notice that thoughts are present and let them go the way they come — effortlessly. When you find that the awareness has been caught up in a train of thought, easily come back to the focus of your meditation. Don’t purposely follow the train of thought. Let it go. Let go of the meaning of thoughts. Let thoughts be a meaningless activity in the mind!
Our experience of thoughts may change as we meditate.As we disengage the gears of the mind, the mind has an opportunity to settle down. We may experience more subtle levels of the thinking process. Thoughts may become more vague, or may even be an intuitive felt sense of something — a knowing that does not get translated into words and concepts. Allow this process of the changing experience of thoughts to happen.
It’s enjoyable to meditate in a quiet place, but it is not always possible. All of the meditations on our website can be done in a noisy environment. The key is to not resist noise. Don’t try to ignore the noise or to block it out. Simply let it be and continue with your meditation.
It’s important to take time to come out of meditation slowly. When we are deeply rested in meditation, it can be jarring to suddenly get up and start our activity. Remain with your eyes closed for a minute or two. Stretch, move around a bit, and gradually become more active. When you are ready to open your eyes, you can open them downcast at first. Take your time!
DIFFERENT KINDS OF MEDITATION
Breath Awareness Meditation
Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Take a few moments to “simply be”. Notice whatever is being experienced in the moment — sounds, physical sensations, thoughts, feelings — without trying to do anything about it. Continue like this a little while, allowing yourself to settle down.
Now bring the attention to the breath. Simply notice the breath as it moves in and out as the body inhales and exhales. Notice how the breath moves in and out automatically, effortlessly. Don’t try to manipulate it in any way. Notice all the details of the experience of breathing — the feeling of the air moving in and out of the nose, the way the body moves as it breathes, etc.
The mind will wander away from the breath — that’s fine, it doesn’t matter. That’s a part of the meditation! When you notice that you are no longer observing the breath, easily bring your attention back to it.
Let all of your experiences — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations — come and go in the background of your awareness of the breath. Notice how all of your experiences — thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, awareness of sounds and smells — come automatically and effortlessly like the breath.
In time, you can become aware of the tendencies of your mind. You will see how it resists certain experiences and tries to hold onto others. The natural settling down of the mind allows you to notice these underlying tendencies and creates the possibility to let them go. If you experience a resistance to what is occurring, an attempt to change what is happening, a tendency to hold on to some experience — let it go.
Basic Nature Meditation — Eyes Closed
These meditations are done outside in natural surroundings. They help to enliven the basic intelligence of nature in our awareness and physiology. Our being resonates with the sight of a flower, sound of birds, feeling of the breeze. These experiences wake something up inside of us, and help to set our lives into a more natural rhythm. Nature lovers have discovered this secret without ever studying meditation!
Find a comfortable position sitting or lying down. Begin with a few deep breaths, breathing deep into the belly, to help you relax and to bring you to the sensations of the present moment. Now close your eyes and be present to what is being experienced with your eyes closed. Notice how your body feels, as well as the activity of your mind and emotions. Experience whatever is present without resisting anything or trying to change it. Do this for about a minute.
Now bring your awareness to everything that you can experience in your surroundings. Feel the temperature of the air on your skin, the feeling of the breeze and the sun. Notice the sounds around you — birds, bees, crickets, flowing water. Listen to the symphony of nature. For the rest of the meditation, continue to experience these feelings and sounds. Whenever your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the experience of nature.
As you meditate, you can see where your attention is naturally drawn, or purposefully scan for different experiences. You can also focus on one experience and notice the experience in greater detail. If it is a bird’s song — notice the quality of the sound — as if you are going more deeply into the sound. (It may seem to have a shape or texture.) Don’t analyze the sound and label it with your mind — simply notice the quality of it.
Once again, whenever you notice that the mind has become absorbed in thoughts, easily bring it back to the sounds and sensations of being in nature. At times both awareness of the sensations from the environment and thoughts will be present. That’s fine. Just easily favor the experiences of nature.
There is a tremendous richness of experience to become aware of as you walk. The body loves movement, and will reward you with pleasure if you pay attention to how it feels! So much of the time we are caught up in our mental worlds — thinking of the past or future, planning, imagining… Paying attention to the body as you walk will help you to enjoy simply being alive.
This meditation is best done outdoors. We recommend setting aside at least 20 minutes for your walking meditation, and not trying to combine it with anything else like going on errands or walking briskly for exercise. Let this be a walk just for meditation so that you can sink into the experience with your undivided attention!
Before starting to walk, spend a little time while still standing still. Allow your awareness to be with your body. Take some deep breaths, inhaling deep into the belly. Put your full attention on the sensation of breathing. Then allow the breath to return to normal and notice it going on its own for a little while. Now bring your awareness to your body, noticing how your body feels as you are standing, and becoming aware of all the sensations going on in your body.
Now begin walking. Walk at a relaxed, fairly slow but normal pace. Pay attention to the sensations in your body as you walk. It is natural to find your attention drawn to the sights around you as you walk, but keep bringing your attention to what is going on internally.
The idea is to have your attention on the physical experience of walking. If the mind starts getting caught up in thoughts, easily bring your attention back to the experience of walking. Notice how the body feels in great detail as you walk. The entire body is involved in the act of walking — from alternation of the left and right foot to the swinging of your arms and hips.
Notice how the soles of your feet feel — the contact they make with your socks or shoes, the textures of the fabrics touching them, the way they feel as they bear the weight of your body and the sensations in them as your walk along. Feel the entire foot, being aware of how it moves as the heel is placed on the ground, and then the movement rolls to the ball of the foot and toes. Notice how it feels as the foot lifts and moves forward. Allow your awareness to move up through every part of the body, noticing the sensations as you walk. Gradually scan all parts of your body as you bring your attention to the ankles, skins, calves, knees, thighs, hips, pelvis, back, chest, shoulders, arms, neck, head.
When you become aware of tension anywhere in the body, let it go. Allow that part of your body to relax. Allow your ankles, belly, shoulders, arms, neck — all of your body — to relax. Let your hips swing loose. As you do this, the walking will become more enjoyable.
Variation: Keep your attention on the rhythm of the walking — the alternation of left and right foot. Simply notice the experience of left-right-left-right motion. Keep bringing your awareness back to this experience when the mind wanders in thoughts or distractions of the environment.