What Is Meditation?

woman meditating

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What Is Meditation?

Meditation

Meditation can be defined as a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention. Meditation is also a consciousness-changing technique shown to have many benefits on psychological well-being.

Some key things to note about meditation:

  • Meditation has been practiced in cultures all over the world for thousands of years.
  • Nearly every religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has a tradition of using meditative practices.
  • While meditation is often used for religious purposes, many people practice it independently of any religious or spiritual beliefs or practices.
  • Meditation can also be used as a psychotherapeutic technique.
  • There are many different types of meditation.

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Types of Meditation

Meditation can take on many different forms, but there are two main types: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation:

Concentrative Meditation

Concentrative meditation involves focusing on a specific thing while tuning out everything else around you. The goal is to experience whatever you are focusing on, whether it's your breath, a specific word, or a mantra, to reach a higher state of being.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation includes, among others, both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness can target different issues, such as depression, meaning its focus may differ from practice to practice. Overall, it involves the state of being aware of and involved in the present moment and making yourself open, aware, and accepting. 

Specific Meditation Types

  • Body-scan meditation: This practice involves scanning the body and noticing physical sensations.
  • Breathing meditation: This involves focusing on different breathing techniques.
  • Loving-kindness meditation: This technique involves focusing your attention on loved ones, yourself, and others as you think kind and caring thoughts.
  • Mantra meditation: This practice involves chanting a word or phrase, which can be done aloud or in your mind.
  • Movement meditation: This type of meditation involves focusing on movements of the body, either by moving specific parts of the body or observing the world around you during a walk.
  • Object focus meditation: This type involves focusing attention on a specific object or mental image.

How to Practice Meditation

So what exactly do you do during meditation? While there are many different forms of meditation and ways to practice, learning a basic meditation for beginners is a great place to begin:

  1. Choose a quiet spot that is free of distractions. Turn off your phone, television, and other distractions. If you choose to play quiet music, select something calm and repetitive.
  2. Set a time limit. If you are just getting started, you might want to stick to shorter sessions of about 5 to 10 minutes in length.
  3. Pay attention to your body and get comfortable. You can sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair as long as you feel that you can sit comfortably for several minutes at a time.
  4. Focus on your breathing. Try taking deep breaths that expand your belly and then slowly exhale. Pay attention to how each breath feels.
  5. Notice your thoughts. The purpose of meditation is not to clear your mind—your mind is inevitably going to wander. Instead, focus on gently bringing your attention back to your breath whenever you notice your thoughts drifting. Don't judge your thoughts or try to analyze them; simply direct your mind back to your deep breathing.

Impact of Meditation

Consciousness is often likened to a stream, shifting and changing smoothly as it passes over the terrain. Meditation is one deliberate means of changing the course of this stream, and in turn, altering how you perceive and respond to the world around you.

Research has shown that meditation can have both physiological and psychological effects. Some positive physiological effects include a lowered state of physical arousal, reduced respiration rate, decreased heart rate, changes in brain wave patterns, and lowered stress.

Some of the other psychological, emotional, and health-related benefits of meditation include:

  • Better management of symptoms related to anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorders, pain issues, and high blood pressure
  • Better stress management skills
  • Changes in different aspects of attention and mindfulness
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved emotional well-being
  • Improved working memory and fluid intelligence
  • Improved immunity
  • Greater empathy for yourself and others
  • Headache relief

While experts do not yet fully understand exactly how meditation works, research has clearly demonstrated that meditative techniques can have a range of positive effects on overall health and psychological well-being.

What Does Meditation Do to the Brain?

In addition to helping with anxiety and stress, evidence suggests that meditation has a powerful effect on the brain. Using brain imaging techniques, studies have found that regular meditation leads to changes in brain structure.

For example, one study found that eight weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was associated with increased volume in the brain's hippocampus, a structure associated with emotional regulation and memory. It was also connected to decreased volume in the amygdala, a structure that plays a part in anxiety, fear, and stress.

Research has also linked meditation practices to increased brain connectivity and may potentially improve brain plasticity.

Tips for Meditating

If you are interested in trying meditation, some tips and tricks will help you get started on a beneficial meditation practice.

  • Start slow. Begin by doing short sessions of around 5 to 10 minutes a day, and then work your way up progressively to longer sessions.
  • Set a schedule. Try meditating at the same time each day—for a few minutes first thing in the morning, for example.
  • Get comfortable. Sitting cross-legged on the floor is one option, but comfort is the key. You need to be in a position where you can sit for several minutes without getting uncomfortable, stiff, or restless.
  • Focus on what you're feeling. Breathe naturally and notice the feelings and sensations you experience as you breathe in and out.
  • Don't try to suppress feelings. Your mind is bound to wander as you meditate—and sometimes this can lead to thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable or even distressing. The goal isn't to clear your mind of such thoughts. What you should think about instead is acknowledging these thoughts without judging them, and then gently guiding your focus back toward your breathing.

Potential Pitfalls

Meditation can have a wide range of benefits, but there are also some potential pitfalls to watch for. As you are starting a new meditation habit, it can be easy to expect too much too quickly. The reality is that it takes time and practice to build a habit that can have a positive impact on your health and well-being.

Don't expect meditation to solve all of your problems. Instead, treat it like a part of your self-care routine that plays a role in helping you feel better and less stressed.

It is also important to be aware that meditation is not without some risks. One study found that meditation often led to troubling feelings and thoughts that were difficult to manage. The study also found that meditation might worsen the symptoms of some mental health conditions including anxiety and depression.

Some reports suggest that meditation may trigger or exacerbate psychotic states, so meditation may not be recommended for people who have conditions such as schizophrenia.

History of Meditation

While meditation has recently grown in popularity in the U.S., the practice actually dates back thousands of years. The practice has been associated with religious traditions, particularly Buddhism. Meditation was used throughout Asia but finally began to make its way to other parts of the world during the 20th century. It rose to prominence in the West during the 1960s and 1970s and was often associated with hippie culture.

In addition to its association with Buddhism, meditation is also practiced in Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Taoism. However, it is important to note that a person does not need to be religious to meditate. Guided meditation and transcendental meditation are two examples of non-religious forms of meditation. Yoga can also be a non-religious form of physical meditation.

Over the last few decades, meditation has also been incorporated into different treatment modalities, including mindfulness-based stress reduction, an approach that incorporates mindfulness and meditation to help people coping with stress, depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions.

The use of meditation as a therapeutic aid will likely continue to develop as researchers learn more about the benefits and applications of the practice.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191(1):36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006

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Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.