Benefits extend beyond a calmer state of mind
By Elizabeth Scott, MS
Meditation is widely recommended as a healthy way to manage stress, and for good reason. It provides many health-enhancing benefits, like reducing symptoms of stress and anxiety, relieving physical complaints like headaches, and even enhancing immunity to illness. If you read more on the health benefits of meditation, you will likely become even more motivated to make it part of your life.
Basics of Meditation
Meditation can be practiced in many different ways.
- Quiet Mind: With meditation, your thinking mind becomes quiet. You stop focusing on the stressors of your day or your life’s problems, as well as solving these problems. You just let that voice in your head be quiet, which is easier said than done. For example, start thinking about nothing now. (It’s OK, I’ll wait.) If you’re not practiced at quieting your mind, it probably didn’t take long before thoughts crept in.
- Being in the Now: Rather than focusing on the past or the future, virtually all meditative practices involve focusing on right now. This involves experiencing each moment and letting it go, experiencing the next. This, too, takes practice, as many of us live most of our lives thinking toward the future or relishing and rehashing the past.
- Altered State of Consciousness: With time, maintaining a quiet mind and focus on the present can lead to an altered level of consciousness that isn’t a sleeping state but isn’t quite your average wakeful state, either. Meditation increases brain activity in an area of the brain associated with happiness and positive thoughts and emotions, and some evidence shows that regular practice brings prolonged positive changes in these areas.
Researchers generally classify meditation techniques into two different categories: concentrative, and non-concentrative. Concentrative techniques involve focusing on a particular object that’s generally outside of oneself: a candle’s flame, the sound of an instrument, or a particular mantra.
Non-concentrative meditation, on the other hand, can include a broader focus: the sounds in one’s environment as well as internal body states and one’s own breathing. There can be overlap with these techniques, however; one meditation technique can be both concentrative and non-concentrative.
There are many, many different ways to meditate. Here are some categories of meditation techniques so you can understand some of the main options and how they differ from one another. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it can give you some ideas.
- Basic Meditation Techniques: This involves sitting in a comfortable position and just trying to quiet your mind by thinking of nothing. It’s not always easy to do this if you don’t have practice with it. But a good way to begin is to think of yourself as an ‘observer of your thoughts,’ just noticing what the narrative voice in your head says, but not engaging it. As thoughts materialize in your mind, just let them go. That’s the basic idea. (More on basic meditation)
- Focused Meditation Techniques: With this technique, you focus on something intently, but don’t engage your thoughts about it. You can focus on something visual, like a statue; something auditory, like a metronome or tape of ocean waves; something constant, like your own breathing; or a simple concept, like ‘unconditional compassion’. Some people find it easier to do this than to focus on nothing, but the idea is the same—staying in the present moment and circumventing the constant stream of commentary from your conscious mind, and allowing yourself to slip into an altered state of consciousness.
- Activity-Oriented Meditation Techniques: With this type of meditation, you engage in a repetitive activity, or one where you can get ‘in the zone’ and experience ‘flow.’ Again, this quiets the mind, and allows your brain to shift. Activities like gardening, creating artwork, or practicing yoga can all be effective forms of meditation. (See Walking Meditation for specific instructions.)
- Mindfulness Techniques: Mindfulness can be a form of meditation that, like activity-oriented meditation, doesn’t really look like meditation. It simply involved staying in the present moment rather than thinking about the future or the past. (Again, this is more difficult than it seems!) Focusing on sensations you feel in your body is one way to stay ‘in the now;’ focusing on emotions and where you feel them in your body (not examining why you feel them, but just experiencing them as sensations) is another. (Read Mindfulness for more)
- Spiritual Meditation: Meditation can also be a spiritual practice. (It does not have to be, and certainly isn’t specific to any one religion, but can be used as a spiritual experience.) Many people experience meditation as a form of prayer—the form where God ‘speaks,’ rather than just listening. That’s right, many people experience ‘guidance’ or inner wisdom once the mind is quiet, and meditate for this purpose. You can meditate on a singular question until an answer comes (though some would say this is engaging your thinking mind too much), or meditate to clear their mind and accept whatever comes that day.
Whichever meditative techniques you use, the potential benefits are clear and numerous, making it one of the more commonly recommended stress management practices.