How to Meditate
2021 Beginner’s Guide
What is meditation
A brief history of meditation and its current state in the western society
You might be new to meditation and often wonder, what is meditation and how is that achieved? Meditation is an experience and as most experiences it is different from person to person. To give a simple yet profound umbrella of what meditation captures, I will use quotes from an unknown person who described meditation as being in tune with the inner universe and spiritualist Maya Jaya Sati Bhagavati who described meditation as “quiet the mind and the soul will speak”.
Meditation practices can be traced back to between 5,000 and 3,500 BCE in India with some notable wall art showing people in meditative posture like lotus, a sitting position we will further explore in this guide. While the history of meditation is a subject of debate among researchers and scholars (1), meditation has been long practiced in Hinduism and there is significant anthropological evidence such as Buddha statues and wall art in India where he is sited in a meditative state (Lotus position with half eyes closed). Almost all Hindu religious books such as Vedas (1,500-500 BCE) mention meditation in one form or another. Through the silk road, Buddhism along with meditation was spread from India to other Asian countries such as China (2). It is important to note that there were also meditation practices in other religions such as Judaism as in the first books, Moses goes to “lasuach” in a field which is commonly referred to as the Jewish meditation(4). This would be long before meditation came to the west and became a practice appreciated by everybody from a working mom to a professor to a naturalist.
Meditation began in the west in the 18th century when texts containing meditation techniques and texts such as the Baghavad Ghita were translated in European languages (3). In this era meditation was viewed as a practice of the intellectuals and philosophers such as Schopenhauer and Henry David Thoreau who famously said: ”In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of Bhagavad-Ghita, in comparison with our modern world and its literature seems puny and trivial.” It was until the 1900’s that a presentation by an influential yogi Swami Vivekananda in Chicago swept through America and created a high surge of interest in eastern religions and practices by westerners particularly Americans. With the involvement of celebrities such as Oprah meditation become synonymous with positive thinking, healthy living and so much more (5).
Currently yoga and meditation are the most popular body and mind practices. To note the popularity, it is important to jot down some statistics. Since 2012, the number of people who meditate has tripled (6) and a Pew Research Center article in 2014 noting that at least 40% of American adults and 5.4% of U.S children meditate minimally once a week (7). The reasons why American adults meditate can be psychological such as decreased depression and improved memory to physiological such as managing blood pressure (8). With reported benefits, it will be long before this trend slows down.
Benefits of Meditation
A healthy cardiovascular system
Meditation improves the cardiovascular system by reducing the heart rate, reducing the risk of hypertension which would be a game changer particularly in unprivileged communities without easy access to alternative treatments. Significant number of peer reviewed articles demonstrate that meditation practically lowers the heart rate. For example, in a study by Telles and her colleagues in 2013 involving 30 participants, they observed a decreased heart rate in a significant portion of the participants. Similar results were found in clinical trials reported by Sala Horowitz. This study was conducted on African American teens with high risk of hypertension. Echoing Telles results, they observed lower heart rates in the study group with an intervention of meditation compared to the control without meditation. This shows that meditation has the potential and the ability to reduce cardiovascular diseases and, in the process, save lives. Hypertension is the main underlying condition to most cardiovascular diseases. Considering that 647,000 Americans annually (11) pass away from cardiovascular diseases and the diseases cost Americans over two hundred billion annually, ten to thirty minutes of meditation daily can go a long way.
Managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Though the cause of irritable bowel syndrome is not fairly understood, it causes abnormal pain, bloating, the trots, and constipation. Several studies have reported mixed results about the role of meditation in managing the symptoms of IBS, one 2011 NCCIH-funded trial on 75 women reported that meditation reduced the severity of these symptoms after eight weeks of continuous meditation (12).
Decreasing the intensity of common menopausal symptoms in women
Menopausal symptoms can include hot flashes, disturbance of normal sleep patterns, mood swings, muscle and joint pains. Though it is not commonly practiced and there are not enough studies to draw from conclusive results, users of meditation-based menopausal treatment programs reported decreased frequency and intensity of the above symptoms (12). Meditation can help women as they transcend into another amazing phase of their adulthood and womanhood.
Meditation can reduce stress associated flare ups of ulcers. Though there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that meditation reduces the severity of ulcers, meditation is known to reduce stress and anxiety hence can possibly reduce the frequency of stress associated flare-ups which is common in ulcer patients.
Help in the transition to quit smoking
Mindful meditation reduces the urge and need to smoke. This might be due to the fact that meditation lowers the rigorousness and activity of the craving associated part of the brain. This is extremely useful when people are in the process of smoking cessation and continuous meditation has been proven to prevent relapse. This demonstrates that meditation can be used in combination with other smoking cessation plans to create better results on the rough and rigorous ceasing to smoke journey. Reducing smoking reduces the frequency and severity of smoking associated diseases such as cancer, lung diseases and other pulmonary diseases in our community.
Lower cholesterol levels
When cholesterol levels are high, fatty deposits along arteries are common. This can block blood flow and increase the risk of heart diseases. Treatments to lower cholesterol levels can cost anywhere from $4,500 to $14,000 annually. Meditation and dieting are long term alternative treatments that are more affordable, feasible and healthier options to cholesterol reducing drugs such as Lovastatin. This is not only cost effective but sustainable in the long for the practitioner.
Reduced carbon dioxide production and increased oxygen use efficiency
Meditation helps in reducing carbon dioxide production in the body in both arteries and veins. The above conclusion was drawn from a study on 30 participants in China (13). Meditation also helped in increasing proper carbon dioxide elimination from the body which serves as a form of body cleansing.
Increased oxygen utilization has also been associated with meditation. To understand how important this is, let us look at the physiology of cells. Our cells use oxygen to turn simple sugars into energy that keeps us alive and moving. Increased oxygen utilization through meditation ensures that resources in our body are appropriately used hence more energy to our minds, bodies and overall improved performance. Combining reduced carbon dioxide emissions and improved oxygen utilization, it is easy to see that meditation improves overall efficiency and functioning of our cells and body.
Though there is not enough scientific research in this field, one study suggested that meditation increased the number of lymphocyte cells. This increases the ability of the body to fight against toxic cells hence creating an immune system against the development of certain diseases like cancer (33).
Increased DHEA Sulfate levels
Meditation increases the level of DHEA-S production. This a male hormone found in both males and females. For men, this is important in the production of testosterone. Testosterone influences a wide range of elements such as body and bone mass, body hair growth, sperm production, libido and platelet aggregation. For women this hormone helps in the production of estrogen. Estrogen contributes to bone health, proper function of the heart and arteries, formation of breast tissues and breast development. In both men and women who meditate twice a day, there is a higher production of DHEA sulfate. As Glaser and colleagues concluded in 1993, “These findings suggest some characteristics of transcendental meditation are modifying the age-related deterioration of DHEA-S secretion by the adrenal cortex.” This demonstrates that meditation in a way slows aging, slows loss of brain function, helps maintain higher hormone levels associated with youthfulness and sustains an active sexual life in the older section of the population.
While results from several studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative have reported mixed results on the ability of meditation to reduce pain, it is important to mention some of their findings. In a 2016 study on the role of meditation in reducing back pain, they compared therapy, meditation and the “usual care”. Initially they found similar results in all three treatments. However, more improvement after 26 and 52 weeks was only found in participants who used the meditation-based approach or therapy. The continuous reduction in pain also meant the patients regained the ability to do some activities they could not previously do. This same institution also discovered in another study that meditation reduced pain without using the brain’s natural opiates (natural pain relievers). This shows that meditation alone can reduce pain and in higher levels of pain combining it with other forms of treatment would be beneficial.
Other physiological benefits of meditation include increased blood flow to the brain, increased gray matter content in the brain, and higher connectedness of the brain tissues. This also explains why meditation leads to innumerable psychological benefits as we will explore further in the article. As previously noted meditation reduces the severity of certain diseases, improves bodily function, saves money and most importantly saves lives.
Notably in the previous section of the physiological benefits of meditation, only scientifically proven benefits were mentioned. There are other benefits reported daily by meditating individuals such as Shona and Megan. Shona Curley in her blog mentions how meditation helped with Lyme disease and Meghan Telpner, one of the top 100 Forbes’ women entrepreneurs in Canada says in her blog that a twenty minute twice a day meditation practice healed her from Crohn's disease. The stories can be endless from our yoga teachers, to moms in knitting groups and men who use the office veranda to meditate in their lunch break. If all of the above notable benefits are observable in a stable position and stable forms of meditation, I invite you to imagine the results that are and can be observed when meditation is combined with other forms of exercise such as in Tai chi and Yoga.
1. Stress reduction
Most American adults suffer from mild to high levels of stress and almost half reported an uptick in their stress levels in the last five years. Children are not empty from stress as at least a third of children also experience stress associated symptoms such as headaches, trouble sleeping and stomach aches (16). Stress is caused by a lot of factors such as job pressure, constant chaos in one’s life as well uncertainty. With the current pandemic and job losses, it would be safe to assume that while a certain section of the population gets the opportunity to slow down for some, for others this has to be one of the most stressful episodes of their life.
Meditation has been found to reduce stress. The reduction is the strongest in individuals with the highest levels of stress (17). This means meditation does not work for only mildly suffering individuals but all individuals with more stress reduction in dire cases. Meditation-based stress reduction lowers the intensity and frequency of associated symptoms such as headaches, cloudy thinking and body fatigue. The second benefit of managing stress using meditation is that it stops the development of secondary effects of stress such as anxiety, depression, erectile dysfunction and so on.
2. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Pain, accidents, loss of loved ones, unexpected shocking events we rarely talk about that are part of our journey as humans. Though the common connotation with PTSD is that it is only experienced by ex-military combats, PTSD can be experienced as a result of a wide range of exposure from survivors of natural disasters to rape survivors, sudden loss of parents or lack of support among many others.
Historically, psychotherapy with or without medication is the line of treatment for PTSD. However, access to this treatment can be challenging due to cost, shame, guilt and the prevalent stigma associated with seeking help. This why meditation-based approaches were created, to provide an alternative treatment in case psychotherapy is not available. Meditation can reduce the symptoms because meditation increases mindfulness and “help individuals to better cope with intrusive thoughts and memories, and be more equipped to handle emotional distress.” (18).
The form and duration of meditation is an important determinant of the level of results observed. Research has found that a longer meditation intervention to be more successful in reducing PTSD symptoms. It is important to note that in this area some meditation experts have reported “challenging or difficult meditation experience [that] bled into daily life” (19). Hence finding an appropriate meditation technique is critical by talking to meditation experts
3. Less anxiety
Generalized anxiety disorder affects 3.1% of the US population and women are two times more likely to suffer from anxiety. Symptoms associated with anxiety can range from nervousness, panic/dread, trembling to panic attacks and it is usually self-diagnosable. A self-assessment can be available on this site, in case one wants to assess their level of anxiety.
While there are a lot of factors associated with the development of anxiety and treatment usually target to address the root issue, a common consensus is that the lower the stress, the lower the anxiety. Mindful meditation increases one’s awareness of their current mental and physical states hence better management of one’s emotions and thoughts before they become overpowering. Taking a break to meditate will calm the mind, then the mind will put the issue triggering anxiety into perspective. This will help in reducing worry, without minimizing the issue at hand. At the end of the meditation, it is common to feel less scared, feel more in control of one's life, tranquility, positive self-assessment and so on.
One thing to always be aware of when meditating to manage anxiety is the “rebelling” of the brain to meditation that can have negative implications particularly in individuals with undiagnosed forms of anxiety or depression. Rebelling is like “a backlash to the attempt to control the mind, and this results in an episode of anxiety or depression,” (19). In case one tries meditation and they feel their brain is being resistant to meditation, it is better to slow down and let your brain take the lead. Scientists (19) also suggest that guided meditation through a teacher or an app are safer alternatives to individually led meditation in this case. This is because sound in guided meditation provides an external source that the brain can focus on which makes the transition into deep and productive meditation more gradual and safer.
4. Lower depression levels
Depression has many forms and it can happen to everyone in all stages of life. There are nine forms of depression according to healthline.com namely major depression, persistent depression, manic depression, depressive psychosis, postpartum, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, seasonal depression, situational depression, atypical depression. Symptoms vary from one form of depression to another and is different from individual to another. The shared symptom is that depression is generally associated with feelings of sadness and melancholy that persist for more than two weeks. Depression can be treated and managed with therapy, lifestyle changes, medication and meditation. Though meditation can be used alone to manage depression, it is usually added as a complementary treatment if one of the other three forms of treatment have not helped as one wished or hoped. Telling a person that meditation can help with depression can sometimes sound like one of the quick fixes such as “make yourself happy or smile more”, however, this is how meditation is different from the quick fixes and can actually help.
Per common knowledge, depression is associated with a lot of negative thoughts and emotions such as hopelessness, loss of self-worth and anger, meditation makes one more aware of the presence of these emotions. Some might argue that this might heighten depression, but nothing is ever addressed by brushing it under the rug. Meditation makes one more aware of these thoughts and how they come about which might give one the time and opportunity to address them.
It is important to address these thoughts without self-criticism. Addressing these negative thoughts with grace gives one the opportunity to break negative thought cycles. An example would be thinking that your partner will leave you. As one author breaks it down, meditation helps one reach a stage where they “notice the thought, accept it as one of the possibilities and acknowledge that its’ not the only possibility” (21). In this way, one is aware of the negative thought but keeps embracing life and positivity.
Another way in which meditation helps with managing depression is that it provides an opportunity to address negative internal thoughts as they before they pile up and form a hard to surmount issue especially if meditation is done frequently. This can be crucial in preventing relapse depression after a successful treatment (23).
5. Better self-awareness, authenticity and self-actualization
Since meditation involves spending time and being more in tune with one’s internal thoughts and processes, it is no surprise that meditation increases self-awareness. As the Greek philosopher Thales argued knowing one’s self is the hardest thing to do though handing out advice to others is very easy (23). Taking time to know one’s self enables us to understand our thoughts, emotions, what matters to us, how others view us versus how we view ourselves. This enables us to know where we belong and fit in the world.
One study assessed the possibility of an increase in the “mindful self” or positive changes in one’s self-perception as a result of mindful meditation practices and intervention. In this study they mentioned several ways in which meditation increases self-awareness. 1) Since meditation encourages non-judgmental welcome and acknowledgement of one’s thoughts, this enables the emerging and acknowledgement of hidden thoughts that would be otherwise unacknowledged in the world due to societal pressure and so on. 2)The above process enables one’s “truer” version of the meditator to emerge (24).
Mindful meditation gives validity to one’s thoughts which explains why meditation has been associated with higher levels of self-actualization (24). Increased self-actualization becomes a positive experience that encourages one’s brain to continue digging deeper and which in the end encourages “authentic functioning” to be more prevalent. This can also provide an amazing opportunity to relearn negative thoughts and behavioral patterns that were learned as a result of negative reinforcements and emotional abuse in the past.
6. Higher empathy and kindness
Some forms of meditation can increase positive self-reflection and positive emotions towards one’s self and others. One type of meditation that is known to help in this area is Metta or commonly known as the loving/kindness meditation. Metta is a dynamic form of meditation where one focuses on releasing kind, generous thoughts to the focus object.
During a loving-kindness meditation one focuses on only channeling loving energy towards one’s self and others. As the kind thoughts accumulate, kindness fills one’s heart and it is easier to be more kind and graceful to immediate family, friends and coworkers. When practiced for long this form of meditation can enable one to extend kindness to enemies which is a step to forgiveness and reconciliation.
One challenge commonly reported is that in the beginning of this practice, focusing on giving loving energy to one’s self can sometimes feel strange. This might be due to the fact some people are not used to receiving this level of self love hence requiring some time before they get acclimated and less resistant to the idea of receiving love.
One study combined used neuroimaging to assess if the previously heard results could be correlated to any visible and measurable activity in the brain. This study observed that love-kindness meditation enhanced the activity in areas of the brain associated with processing of emotions, kindness and empathy. The same study also reported that when this form of meditation is combined with commonly used cognitive behavioral therapy it can solve plenty of problems next to improving kindness and empathy such as interpersonal anger, depression, previously unresolved marital conflicts and the emptiness associated with long term care giving (25).
Another study on the loving/kindness meditation approach published in the Harvard Review of Psychology reported that this can also help in treatment of borderline personality disorder but more research needs to be done to make a proper conclusion on the effectiveness of this approach (26). Though the level of increase in empathy and kindness differs from individual, no negative consequence has been reported from the studies and meditators using the loving/ kindness meditation technique. This emphasizes that there is really nothing to lose by trying this technique except giving it a few minutes in the day that would have been wasted on something else anyway. At the end of the day, we can all benefit from being more loving and kinder to ourselves, and the world now more than ever can really use an extra dose of kindness and empathy.
7. Longer attention span
It is generally believed that the attention span is decreasing across the globe. Private entities such as Microsoft have reported that the average attention had decreased to eight seconds in 2018 compared to the average of twelve seconds in 2000(27). Similar trends have been observed by research released by the Technical University of Denmark and they attributed this widespread problem to the increasing FOMO (fear of missing out) prevalent in today’s generation, social media and availability of breaking news 24/7. This creates a constant peak of interest followed by rapid detachment as one moves to the next new thing. No one stays long enough to exhaust and learn about the opportunity, information and person before them.
Meditation is basically paying attention at the moment to one’s thoughts. It is no wonder that constant practice of meditation improves the attention lifespan. Focused attention meditation can be a form of weight lifting or strength training that enables one to improve their attention span from barely focusing for a short duration to intense focus that can last several hours.
One study to assess the effectiveness of meditation on increasing focus and span was done by Jha and his colleagues in 2007. They analyzed if meditation would improve certain elements of attention. This study had two study groups. In one group, they conducted a behavioral testing before and after an eight-week meditation-based training. In the second group they also conducted a behavioral testing after a one-month concentrated mindfulness retreat and their results were compared to that did not do any of the above. The study found that those of meditated for eight weeks were more alert through their activities which
8. Increased productivity and efficiency on tasks
Several physiological and psychological benefits previously noted explain why meditation increases efficiency and productivity. As previously noted physiologically meditation increases the blood flow in the brain which ensures more oxygen availability in the brain and more activity at the neurological level in the brain. Combining the above physiological benefits with the psychological benefits such an increased attention span it is no wonder that people who meditate frequently get more tasks done in a shorter period of time.
A study reported by Norris and colleagues in 2018 tested how a ten-minute meditative practice would improve efficiency in beginner meditators and compared their efficiency to a control group (non-meditators). They found that meditators performed faster on assigned tasks and allocated given resources better than non-meditators (30).
Meditation can also help prevent burn out cycles that are usually followed by intense focus periods. This is because meditation provides a reflection time and reduces stress. This would not only provide efficiency short after meditation but constant meditation can ensure long term and sustainable high levels of performance.
9. Better sleep and less insomnia
About thirty to fifty percent of adults regularly experience insomnia. More often than not persistent insomnia is associated with stress. This is because stress increases mind and body tension, anxiousness which might create a new pattern of sleeplessness or aggravate current sleeping concerns. Current insomnia treatments and medication are expensive, addictive and target the neurotransmitter system in the brain (31).
One form of meditation known as deep breathing (0.1 Hz) has been found by researchers to be highly effective in initiating sleeping and helping in falling back into sleep when one wakes up in the middle of the night (31). Since insomnia can be increased with stress and worry and meditation reduces the intensity of these root causes, this makes sense to why sleep quality improves due to meditation. One publication also noted that “meditation increases one’s control of the autonomic nervous system, which reduces how easily one is awakened”. (32)
This article does not exploit all the available benefits of meditation mainly due to the fact that there is plenty of ongoing research in this area. With all the reported benefits, some studies are finding that meditation changes gene expression (34). More research is needed to analyze how long these effects last and the types of gene expressions affected by meditation (is it all genes or is it only a subset of genes?). Long term studies are needed to analyze if long term meditation can change the gene structure and ultimate expression pathway of the gene in the subset of the population that are meditation practitioners. Meditation has been reported to help pregnant mothers have a better experience pre and post-delivery. One study cited that meditation reduced labor pains and helped mothers stay calmer during child birth which lowered likelihood of the development of postpartum depression. More research is needed to assess how effective this approach is and if there are any other factors such as the living situation of the mother that would influence the effectiveness of this approach.
Forms and Types of Meditation
Meditate with a purpose
What is your goal? Before you begin your meditation, it is important to ask yourself the previous question and review the purpose of your meditation then choose the appropriate form and type. Do you want to meditate for increased focus, managing anxiety or do you want better sleep? Clarifying what you want out of the experience is important. Without an insight into why you meditate, the experience and practice can be directionless and there is no motivation to push further. It would be like going on a journey without knowing where one is going. While one might find something beautiful and unexpected on the way, there is also a possibility of making a full circle and returning to where they began or sit and get stuck where they are with no further progress. The why matters and then the how can be figured out. There are several steps one can take to identify a clear motivation.
Take time to find your why
It is important to think about why you are interested in meditation in general. Is it because it is hip or have you heard of the benefits and you would love to experience them too. Your motivation can be as simple as winding down after a long day for better sleep. Your meditation goal can also be as grand as meditating to increase empathy in the world. It does not matter how big or small this reason as long as it holds some significance to you. It is also important to remember that everyone’s ‘why’ is different and it's okay to meditate for reasons unheard of before. Having this clear intention is what ignites the fire and makes giving time to meditation in our busy schedule possible.
Take time for internal reflection
After thinking about why you are interested in meditation, think and state your intention. This can be done before signing up for a meditation class, or just 5 minutes before you begin your at home meditation session as you think about what you would like to achieve in the session. Having a clear purpose intention can help you keep focused during meditation and also help you maintain a consistent meditation schedule.
Continuous check in
Reasons why we meditate will constantly change as we evolve as humans. The pressing issue in 2020 will no longer be an issue in 2030 and our meditation practice and goal should reflect that. For example, as a young adult one might be meditating now to manage anxiety and in the near future as they advance, finish college and climb the career ladder, one might be meditating to manage stress from the job. That is all part of our journey to maturity as humans. It is necessary to constantly check in with ourselves and ensure our why aligns with our evolution, our ultimate goal and ensure that the meditation practice we are doing reflects that as well.
If you are a visual person or an analytical person and you need to state and write your meditation purposes and ensure that they are practical, here is one simple tool to use to create a sounding meditational goal for you. The meditation purpose and goal can be SMART.
Stands for simple, sensible and significant to the meditator before anything else.
Stands for meaningful and motivating which means meditation should be targeting an issue that matters enough so that in the future it is easier to prioritize and make time for meditation in our busy schedule.
Stands for achievable. The goal should be attainable. While the power of meditation is not yet fully explored, it is important to make goals that are realistic with an understanding that all good things take time. Meditators most of the time experience the benefits after a few weeks of meditation (35) and continue to see even more benefits after prolonged practice. Achievable also excludes unrealistic goal setting such as attempting to use meditation as a substitute for medical therapy in serious conditions like cancer or expecting meditation to provide the same sensation from drugs such as marijuana. This removes the set up for failure and allows the meditator to have a sustainable realistic and beautiful experience.
Stands for relevant. The goal should be relevant but also realistic and within the available resources. For example, it is easier for meditation to be technology and app based in this pandemic than an in-person Yogi led intervention. It would also be easier to meditate communally if one lives in a secluded neighborhood or lives with a large family.
Notes that time should be given to meditation. As earlier noted it is important to remember that most things take time to produce tangible benefits and the same can be said about meditation. It is important to include meditation practice in our schedule until meditation becomes second nature to us.
How to prevent the loss of initial interest
Like many wellness programs, when meditation is first introduced it can interest people and attract high levels of participation and involvement. But as time goes on, participation decreases as the fantasy of the newness wears off. Combining your why with incentives can help maintain interest in meditation. This is what enables meditation to become a habit in one’s life. There are several types of incentives that one can include in their meditation practice as an individual or for a group.
Zero cost incentives
These are intangible benefits that you can reward yourself after practicing meditation for a particular number of times according to your goals. This should be something you enjoy and it can range from allowing yourself to sleep in late on a Saturday morning or taking yourself to a hiking expedition in your local area.
Low cost incentives
These are inexpensive incentives that are used as a reward. Obviously inexpensive is a relative term but it should be something one enjoys. It can include something as small as taking yourself to a pedicure or buying yourself a new water bottle to something bigger such as taking one’s self to a massage depending on the available budget.
Outcome based incentives
These are incentives based on measurable goals and if one achieves such a goal then they award themselves. For example, if one has stress induced high blood pressure, one way they might choose to assess the effectiveness of their meditation is by measuring their blood pressure. If their blood pressure lowers to their desired goal, then they can award themselves as they see fit.
Progress based incentives
Contrary to the above method where one is awarded at the end of their goal, this alternative awards the little steps towards the goal. For example, if your goal is to be able to concentrate and meditate for 20 minutes, you can create a system in which you award yourself if you are able to concentrate for five minutes, the second award once you manage to concentrate for ten minutes and a final award if you reach your ultimate goal. This is an important strategy particularly if the goal is long term or big.
If an incentive can be helpful, then it should be included in the plan. It is important to include an incentive that is attainable and motivating enough. Secondly, it is also important to choose an incentive that does not undermine your achievements and slows your progress in other areas. However, not everyone needs and should have an incentive in their meditation goal particularly if the benefits and the practice itself is motivation enough for them.
Allocating time to meditate
This is probably one of the most important principles for meditation. With our jobs, families, friends, extracurricular activities all wanting our attention, it can be hard to find time to meditate. As one person says, “if you cannot find ten minutes in the day to meditate, you probably need twenty minutes” (36). While this might sound funny and counter intuitive, it is true. If you can not find time to be mindful and present, it is probably wise to reassess your priorities and what currently takes up your time at the moment and create time for an important practice as this. To make time for meditation one might remove time spent on unimportant activities such as social media, YouTube or unimportant chores. Another way to make time might be scaling down some activities and giving time to your wellbeing and health. This can also involve delegating tasks to others to make time for you. You need to make time to take time to take care of your mind and emotional wellbeing because at the end of the day your mind’s wellbeing dictates the wellbeing of everything else from the interaction with yourself, others and overall your productivity.
What is the best time of the day to meditate? Though one of the benefits of meditation is that it can be done anywhere at any time, the morning is probably the best time of the day to meditate (36). This is because it is that time of the day before one gets enveloped in the daily activities and this can be the only silent time for people with busy households. Meditating in the morning also ensures that it is actually done and removes the risk of completely putting it off or reducing the time because the schedule is overwhelming. Another benefit of morning meditation is that it gives one time to think about their daily goals, which can lead to more productivity as the day goes by. As usual it is important to note that no one size fits all, hence if morning meditation does not work for you, it would be more beneficial to schedule your meditation for a later time. For example, if you are meditating for better sleep, may be meditation in the evening would be the ideal time for you or if your meditating for stress management may be the right time to meditate would be on lunch break because the afternoons are usually hectic and this would provide the right opportunity to reset. Flexibility is important and if you miss a day, do not beat yourself up, tomorrow is a new day to do and be better. To sum it up, take a good look at your meditation goal, find a time that works for you and be consistent.
How much time is enough time? This is an important question that can also be translated as what is the least amount of time to invest in meditation while reaping maximum benefits. To find the appropriate amount of time, one needs to revisit their goal, then it is easier to have a rough idea of the amount of time that should be allocated to the practice. Morgan Dix, a meditator for twenty years suggests that if one is beginning out, he recommends five to ten minutes daily (37). He even suggests that for morning meditation beginners, it is okay to meditate for only one minute and then meditate for two minutes. The goal should be beginning small and consistently spending more time meditating. One study reported that meditators in a thirty-minute meditation session felt that the first fifteen went by faster than what actually happened while after the whole thirty-minute session they felt and reported that they had spent longer time meditating than they actually spent (38). This emphasizes the necessity of beginning small and gradually increasing time as one becomes more acquainted with the practice. It also shows that though spending more time meditating should be the ultimate goal, it is important to listen to one’s self and always strive for quality over quantity.
Setting up a meditation corner
Creating a space for meditation creates excitement and gives you energy to commit to the practice. The place should reflect you and your energy and it should reflect how you want to feel once you are there. These are the little practical steps one can use to set up a great meditation space.
If it is at home, choose a space that is calm, probably secluded so that it is easier to be calm and serene. As Thích Nhất Hạnh notes “The key to creating a home meditation practice is to create a space where the busyness stops”. This can be a corner in your room, the balcony or any other place as you see fit.
The next step is setting up that is as comfortable and stylish as possible. Jacob Olsen notes that the first step is choosing a theme. Common themes include resort style, minimalist, rainbow, temple theme or nature inspired theme. In setting up and choosing accessories that you will use in your meditation space, remember that the colors you choose might impact your meditation experience. It is important to choose colors that you like and give you a sense of calm.
Lightning is an important component. As Karen Cobb denotes ”You can change the entire mood with lighting.” If you’re a morning meditator may be using a sheer curtain to let in and soften your light can be beneficial to brighten your mood while you meditate in the morning. If it is in the evening most meditators prefer low intensity lights such as candles. In case keeping focused is challenging, candle light meditation an open eyed meditation form where one stared at the candle can also be used.
Remember to incorporate nature. Nature brings a soothing presence to a room. This has been scientifically proven as either real or artificial plants reduced stress in hospital waiting rooms. Hence the same principle and benefits can be added to your room for more benefits(39). This can range from just a bouquet of flowers to a plant in a vase depending on the size of your meditation space and preference.
Infuse your signature aroma in the room. This can be by burning candles, incense sticks, diffusing essential oils and so on. De La Rosa notes about the power of smell in meditation as she says “It’s not just attracting us to the place and practice, but embedding the experience even more. The more it’s a multisensory experience, the more it sticks to us.”
Last but equally important, make the place comfortable. It can be by setting up a mat, a fluffy rug or and if you have a back problem maybe you should put a chair in your meditation space. To accentuate comfort, you can throw pillows in there that can be used as props whenever you need it and blankets if you think you may get cold.
Finding the best posture
Meditation is also about the body and it is not meant to be physically uncomfortable. This is why it is an absolute must to find the right posture that is comfortable for you. There are several positions one can take when meditating.
Sitting in a chair
There are several benefits to meditating in a chair. It is easier on joints, knees, back to people who might have an issue with joint pain. This is also a great option for people who travel often. Though access to meditation spaces can be limited, chairs are always plenty. Hence practicing meditating in a chair makes creating a familiar space wherever you are very easy. While meditating in a chair, to make the most out of your experience, it is important to always place your feet on the floor. Try your best not to lean on the chair’s back. Leaning much on the chair’s back makes breathing more open which can invite distraction and possible discomfort (40).
If your mind is more alert while you are seated, laying down can be the right position for you. If you are just beginning to learn this skill (meditation), this position is a great option (41). You can lie down on the floor, rug, mat, blanket. There are two options while you take this position. 1) Lie on your back with your legs apart, toes relaxed, arms relaxed on the ground along your body with palms facing up. The second option is throwing a pillow, folded blanket under your head as support then putting your knees at a right angle or putting a pillow under your legs for support. Your arms can lie on the side or be used to support the legs. This is also a great position for anyone that is worried about lower back strains.
The lotus position
The lotus position is most known as the “classic” yoga pose. It can be seen on ancient Buddha sculptures and is the most practiced posture by experienced meditators. It is named after a lotus flower because basically legs spread out like the petals of this flower. This position requires lower body flexibility. To enjoy this position, sit on the floor, cross your legs and draw your knees as close as possible. The soles of your feet should be facing upwards and your palms should be facing upwards as well. Straighten your back as much as possible and then bring your gaze to your third eye (in between your eyebrows) and begin your meditation experience.
Note! If you have lower body flexibility or are recovering from injuries, it is better to avoid this position. You can practice the half lotus or Sukhasana position until you are more comfortable and flexible.
Courtesy of Honey Coach
Courtesy of beyogi
The key to finding a great meditation pose is to keep trying different positions until you find a position that works for you. This can also involve doing meditation postures not standardly known such as standing as long as you have a positive experience.
The breathing technique
“Take a deep breath”, a statement we have all heard in moments of angsty, frustration and so on. Deep breathing is a form of meditation that has been practiced for millennia. While there are at least five known breathing techniques (41), we will only review two that are beginner friendly, can be done anywhere and provide ample benefits.
The Shamatha technique: This is done by sitting or standing and letting your body’s tension to flow to the floor. The next step is straightening your back and overall upper body and fix your gaze on the floor or an object in front of you. Then you can focus on your natural breathing pattern: breathing in and out. In this moment, it is important to internally focus on the rise and fall of your belly. This practice can last anywhere from 1 minute to thirty minutes.
Diaphragm breathing technique: This technique focuses on controlled breathing. This technique is especially beneficial to people with persistent pulmonary diseases such as bronchitis. This is a small overview on how to do it: 1) sit or lie down. 2)Place one hand on the chest and other hand below your ribcage. 3) Take in deep breaths to the best of your ability and slowly breathe out. 4) Do this for ten minutes and as frequent as 3-4 times a day depending on what you see fit.
The body scan technique
Body scan is a great way to pay attention to one’s body and get to know which part of your body that is experiencing tension and then learn to better manage it. This technique is particularly effective in reducing inflammation, insomnia and body fatigue. Below are small step by step approach to practice this technique:
Sit down: Before you begin this practice, sit somewhere comfortably. However, if you are doing a body scan before sleep, laying down can be a great alternative.
Breath: Take breaths from your belly to release tension from your body. Let the breathing begin from your belly instead of just your chest. Letting your breath become slower as you go along.
Pay attention to your feet: As your breathing slows down, assess how your feet feel. Your feet are an extremely sensitive part as there are over 7000 nerve endings in each foot hence how they feel is a pretty good reflection of how your body feels (42). You can open your eyes to see them or you can close your eyes and sense if there any part of your feet that has tension or pain. Acknowledge that and continue breathing.
Pay attention to your full body: As you pay attention to your feet, gradually move and scan through your body from toe to the head and take notice of any tension. If there is any tightness, continue breathing through and do not rush the process. This will help you become more aware of your body and help you release tension from your body (43).
Listening to nature sounds
Natural sounds can be useful in creating a serene environment which helps in calming one’s self in meditation. This can be done by seating in a natural surrounding or playing natural sounds such as birdsongs, rain in one’s home and personal space. Natural sounds can be incorporated in your meditation practice as you sit down, close your eyes, breath while listening to natural sounds.
In case one is in a natural area, one can practice meditation by walking in the park and paying attention to the trees, birds and listening to overall sounds in nature. This can help one relax and release all body tension.
Several playlists of natural sounds can be found on YouTube, Apple Music, Spotify.
This method is particularly beneficial when one is starting out on the meditation journey. It is important to have an experienced teacher and there is no way to find out how great they are other than asking people that go there or looking at reviews. This can be done by attending a meditation class or using several available apps such headspace or Calm. In this approach, the narrator/ teacher guides you through the meditation and can explain the dynamics of how the brain will respond to meditation. While you are on a guided meditation try to always keep in mind your goal and purpose for meditating. After you gain enough experience meditating then you can then move to unguided meditation.
Unguided or silent meditation without any guide on the process. This can be done by sitting down and listening to one’s thoughts and body for a certain amount of time such as ten minutes. Or it can be done by following the classical meditation procedure alone without any external guidance at the moment. This is pretty beneficial to experienced meditators or anyone who has a unique reason for why they are meditating that cannot be found through the classical forms of guided meditation.
Tips and available resources for you
Influencers to follow
There are over 1 billion Instagram users globally and each user spends on average fifty three minutes per day (44&45). While we are on Instagram, it would be a great use of our time to follow some meditation accounts, influencers that would add some wellness to our feed. This is a compiled list of five great meditation accounts and influencers to add to your feed for motivation, education and overall inspiration.
Sara Auster is a meditation teacher that uses breathing and sound techniques. She posts new videos every Monday, hosts virtual sound baths and frequently posts great meditation quotes and images. Her page is also LGBT inclusive, hence an overall inclusive space. She can be found at @saraauster.
If you are looking for meditation challenges, a renowned author in the meditation world is the person for you. Gabrielle hosts live streams with other experienced meditators on her page and frequently talks about other wellness elements like clean eating. She can be found at @gabbybernstein.
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Ponlop is a Buddhist teacher and scholar that posts meditation quotes and sayings that are motivating and empowering all the way. His handle is @rebel_buddha.
Barb has been a meditator for thirty years. She is the publisher of The Practice: Simple Tools for Managing Stress, Finding Inner Peace, and Uncovering Happiness and frequently teaches meditation classes. Her Instagram handle is @peaceful_barb.
He is one of the leaders in the meditation space. He has been in the wellness space for more than thirty years and he often shares how it changed his life. He has worked with Oprah and hosts retreats hence a great source of knowledge. His handle is @DeepakChopra.
YouTube videos to watch
If you have five minutes in your schedule or two hours, YouTube has guided meditation, non-guided meditation music to help you on your meditation journey. This is a small compilation of videos and channels that can help you kickstart your journey with different durations that meditators from all walks of life love.
Goodful is an overall wellness channel that has great short guided meditation videos for calm, rest and general positive outlook on life. The advantage of these short-guided meditation videos is that they can be done anywhere. In case you are a beginner this short 5-minute video can be a great start.
If you are a morning meditation person with a desire for focused attention through the day, Mindful Peace is a great channel for short guided meditations. This is an example of their videos that can be extremely helpful.
Long meditations that are guided are available and can be useful. There several channels with these great videos such as The Honest Guys and the Meditation Vacation. Long meditation videos can also be unguided. This is recommended for advanced meditators and it might be something you would use after you have been able to focus your mind and attention and your thoughts are no longer jumping from one thing to another during meditation. This music can also be used in other focused activities such as reading, studying, trying to sleep and so on. Here are a few examples of videos you might explore. Boost your Aura, Let Go Of All Negative Energy.
Always remind yourself of your goal and choose a meditation technique that works for you. Be flexible like water, if one resource does not work for you: Analyze why it is not working for you
Apps for meditation
There are several apps that provide meditation and you can use wherever you are. For simplification, here are five meditation apps that are either free or subscription based. The choice of either would depend on your finances and your goals.
Do Meditate is designed for simplicity and speed. The app is 100% free and it doesn’t need a paid subscription. It has a beautiful and intuitive design. It works without an active internet connection. The app may help you reduce anxiety and lower daily stress. It may also help you sleep better at night.
This is a free application available on iOS, Android and online. It has programs like the Mindful Foundation, Sleep, Relationships and you can follow the structure of how they are organized or jump in whenever. It also has programs for teens, children and educators hence it can be a great resource for families that want to meditate together.
Stop, Breathe & Think
This is available on iOS and Android. It has several free plans and if you want there is an option to upgrade. Whenever you open the app there are few questions like “how are you?” and you can answer on a scale from rough to great. This gives an opportunity for some personal check in.
This is a free application available on iOS and Android. It offers meditation in either English or Spanish. This can be a great app for beginners as it has a Getting Started section as well as Basic Meditations. It also offers longer meditation sections labelled as “Podcasts” as well as “Silent” or non-guided meditations.
Downloading this app is free but it requires a $12.99 subscription per month. This app offers science-based meditation classes. It offers mood tracking features as well as the option of downloading guided meditations to use when you are not online.
Downloading this app for both iOS and Android is free. Basic meditation in this app is free but advanced meditation costs a $9.99 monthly subscription. It is great for short meditation ranging from 3 to 25 minutes.
“The practice of reflective meditation, which consists of holding certain ideas in the mind long enough to form emotional connections, tends to break up the crust of the habit and to create a new will.” Walter Horton.
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