Meditation 101: tips and how to’s for beginners

Meditation 101: Techniques, Benefits, and a Beginner’s How-to

by: Inner IDEA

Meditation is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body. But many meditation techniques exist — so how do you learn how to meditate?

“In Buddhist tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing,” University of Wisconsin neuroscience lab director Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., told The New York Times. And different meditation practices require different mental skills.

It’s extremely difficult for a beginner to sit for hours and think of nothing or have an “empty mind.”  In general, the easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on the breath — an example of one of the most common approaches to meditation: concentration.

CONCENTRATION MEDITATION

Concentration meditation involves focusing on a single point. This could entail following the breath, repeating a single word or mantra, staring at a candle flame, listening to a repetitive gong, or counting beads on a mala. Since focusing the mind is challenging, a beginner might meditate for only a few minutes and then work up to longer durations.

In this form of meditation, you simply refocus your awareness on the chosen object of attention each time you notice your mind wandering. Rather than pursuing random thoughts, you simply let them go. Through this process, your ability to concentrate improves.

MINDFULNESS MEDITATION

Mindfulness meditation encourages the practitioner to observe wandering thoughts as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get involved with the thoughts or to judge them, but simply to be aware of each mental note as it arises.

Through mindfulness meditation, you can see how your thoughts and feelings tend to move in particular patterns. Over time, you can become more aware of the human tendency to quickly judge an experience as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant. With practice, an inner balance develops.

In some schools of meditation, students practice a combination of concentration and mindfulness. Many disciplines call for stillness — to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the teacher.

OTHER MEDITATION TECHNIQUES

There are various other meditation techniques. For example, a daily meditation practice among Buddhist monks focuses directly on the cultivation of compassion. This involves envisioning negative events and recasting them in a positive light by transforming them through compassion. There are also moving meditation techniques, such as tai chi, qigong, and walking meditation.

BENEFITS OF MEDITATION

If relaxation is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response” after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”

Since then, studies on the relaxation response have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:

  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved blood circulation
  • Lower heart rate
  • Less perspiration
  • Slower respiratory rate
  • Less anxiety
  • Lower blood cortisol levels
  • More feelings of well-being
  • Less stress
  • Deeper relaxation

Contemporary researchers are now exploring whether a consistent meditation practice yields long-term benefits, and noting positive effects on brain and immune function among meditators. Yet it’s worth repeating that the purpose of meditation is not to achieve benefits. To put it as an Eastern philosopher may say, the goal of meditation is no goal. It’s simply to be present.

In Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate benefit of meditation is the liberation of the mind from attachment to things it cannot control, such as external circumstances or strong internal emotions. The liberated or “enlightened” practitioner no longer needlessly follows desires or clings to experiences, but instead maintains a calm mind and sense of inner harmony.

Here are some helpful tools I use to support my practice:




Top 10 Reasons to Mediate

Thousands of studies have shown the positive effects of meditation. Here are the highlights.

BY WANDERLUST 

Sergey Nivens/Dollar Photo Club

The benefits of a meditation practice are no secret. The practice is often touted as a habit of highly successful (and happy) people, recommended as a means of coping with stress and anxiety, and praised as the next-big-thing in mainstream wellness. And it’s not just anecdotal. Thousands of studies have shown the positive impact that meditating has on our health and well-being. We’ve culled through the list to bring you highlights from the early stages of research into mindfulness.

Sleep Better: More Shut-Eye at Night Means Brighter Days

Sleep isn’t just relaxation for eight hours a day—it’s essential to our cognitive functioning. Meditation gives you all sorts of benefits, like enhanced REM sleep and increased levels of melatonin.

Turns out it can even help serious sleep problems. Researchers conducted a study to see if mindfulness meditation would benefit those struggling with chronic insomnia. After eight weeks, those in the meditation training had less total wake time during the night, were more relaxed before going to bed, and reduced the severity of their sleep problems. Plus, in a follow-up study six months later, the insomnia sufferers had maintained a better quality of sleep.

Stress Less: Make Room for More Happiness

It’s a little-known secret that Wall Street execs, famous artists, and Silicon Valley whiz kids are some of the biggest advocates of meditation as a way to manage stress.

A 2005 study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation increases the thickness of your prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain associated with attention and self-awareness.

Furthermore, we now know it even reduces employee stress and burnout. A study on teachers at a school for children with severe behavioral problems who were treated to a Transcendental Meditation program had less stress, less depression, and overall lower burnout than other teachers.

More Mindful Meals: No More Stress Eating

Researchers at UC San Francisco studied a group of women to test if meditating could prevent overeating. The scientists didn’t prescribe any diet, but instead taught mindful eating, and had participants meditate for thirty minutes a day. What happened? While the control group actually gained weight, the treatment participants maintained their weights, plus lowered their cortisol levels. Higher reductions in cortisol and stress also showed higher reductions in abdominal fat.

Reduce Pain and Heal Faster: Relieve Pain by Changing Your Mind

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who heads up the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at University of Massachusetts Medical School, proved back in the ‘80s that meditation and mindfulness could significantly improve pain symptoms and quality of life in chronic pain patients, even up to four years later. His program, called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is practiced widely.

Recently, we’ve also gotten a look at how the brain might be involved. When researchers had people participate in four days of mindfulness-based training, participants reported less pain intensity and unpleasantness. What’s more, MRIs showed reductions in pain-induced cerebral blood flow during meditation sessions.

Beat Anxiety: Send Worries Packing

Focusing on all the terrible things that might happen to us—but often don’t!—takes us away from the present, and causes our bodies a lot of stress.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, found that meditation could even help those with generalized anxiety disorder, a condition marked by hard-to-control worries, poor sleep, and irritability.

Smile More: A Happy Pill, with No Side Effects

Meditation helps us gain awareness of our minds, so we can see negative thoughts and say “those thoughts are not me.” Becoming less identified with our emotions and thoughts helps those thoughts lose power.

A Harvard study found that mind-wandering, which often means drifting to these negative thoughts, was linked to unhappiness. And recently, Madhav Goyal, who led a study by Johns Hopkins researchers, said that for depression, “we found a roughly 10 to 20 percent improvement in depressive symptoms compared to the placebo groups. This is similar to the effects of antidepressants in similar populations.”

Relax: Don’t Let the Little Things Get You Down

Relaxing your body and mind with meditation helps you to stay centered when you inevitably encounter those everyday stressors—rush hour traffic, anyone?

Investigators from the Benson-Henry Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital found that practicing meditation causes what is called the “relaxation response,” the opposite of the “fight-or-flight” response—what happens to our bodies when we get stressed. Their studies showed that the relaxation response alleviates anxiety and also has positive effects on heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activity.

Enhance Your Love Life: Your Relationship Will Thank You

Your partner will thank you. By learning to better recognize your own emotions, and those of others, you’ll more easily experience lasting harmony in your relationships.

Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco taught 82 female teachers, all married or living with a partner, how to meditate. Compared with a control group that hadn’t learned meditation, the women gave fewer negative facial expressions during a marital interaction test. Good news, because studies at UC Berkeley showed that people who demonstrate negative facial expressions toward their partners are more likely to divorce.

Maharishi International University in Iowa found that women who practiced meditation reported significantly greater marital satisfaction than those who didn’t. Those who meditated regularly saw the greatest benefits.

Lead a Successful Life: A Clear Path to Achieving Your Goals

Maybe you’ve heard that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be great at something. The Beatles played 1,200 concerts together before becoming internationally known. Bill Gates started programming in eighth grade. But new research shows there’s a different formula for success.

World-class athletes, top managers and world-class performers, when tested, have all shown high levels of what’s called brain integration. This means that their brains are wired with strong connections between the different areas, they have heightened attention, and they’re able to think quickly to deal with problems.

This is the new key to success, as noted by U.S. neuroscientist Dr. Fred Travis, because it’s the fire starter behind the creativity that often leads to success.

Luckily, a study from Harvard Medical School demonstrated that meditation causes changes in brain waves that actually improve the brain’s functionality. You can find success in any area of your life, and just think of all the time you’ll save!

This article originally appeared on Wanderlust.com