The oldest documented evidence of meditation exists in subcontinental Indian paintings from around 5000 BC. The practice of meditation is centred on training those who apply it to build their awareness and get a healthy sense of perspective. While the practice of meditation has been around for thousands of years, it’s not been until fairly recently that science has been able to start to explain why and how it affects your physical and emotional wellbeing so positively.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice whereby an individual uses techniques, such as focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or activity, to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state. Some people use meditation to support their spiritual beliefs and develop a deeper understanding of themselves. Others enjoy the practice as it helps in easing tension and reducing the feeling of stress.
If practiced regularly, meditation has been shown to literally rewire the brain circuits so that individuals experience a boost in both mind and body health. Decades of scientific study have evidenced some of the following benefits:
- Reduces stress
- Helps to manage symptoms of anxiety
- Increases feelings of connectedness and belonging
- Promotes a more balanced outlook on life and its challenges
- Enhances self-awareness
- Increases attention span and concentration levels
- Encourages better decision-making
- Can help you to develop deeper levels of empathy and compassion
- Boosts confidence and self-esteem
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers the stress hormone, cortisol
- Decreases inflammation in the body’s cells
- Helps to regulate hormones
- Boosts immunity.
There is also some evidence to suggest that daily meditation over the long-term may also help to protect the brain from age-related atrophy.
How does meditation differ from mindfulness?
Meditation differs from mindfulness as it requires you to focus your attention on a single object for a period of time. Mindfulness is about maintaining present moment awareness and being free of judgement. While the terms meditation and mindfulness are often used interchangeably, they’re quite different. Although it should be acknowledged that some forms of meditation use mindfulness techniques. A good way to think about the difference is “mindfulness is mindful” and “meditation is no-mind”.
But “no-mind” doesn’t mean that you sit idly, trying your best to think of nothing! Instead meditation involves focusing on a particular thing, often the breath or a sound, while allowing your mind to wander freely before returning your focus back to the object of your concentration.
Different kinds of meditation
There are six main types of meditative practice.
1. Focused meditation
Focused meditation involves the use of any of the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch). An example might be focusing your hearing on your breath or a gong, or the sensation of something, such as beads, or the sight of a candle flame. This practice may be simple in theory, but it can be difficult for beginners to hold their focus for longer than a few minutes at first. If your mind does wander, it’s important to come back to the practice and refocus.
Focused meditation is ideal for anyone who feels scattered and uncentered.
2. Movement meditation
Although the name might conjure up images of yoga, this form of meditation involves a more gentle form of movement while allowing your mind to wander where it wants to go before bringing your attention back to the movements you’re making. Examples could be walking through woods, planting flowers, or swimming in calm water. The point is to allow your movement to guide your thoughts before refocusing on your movements.
Movement meditation is ideal for people who find comfort in repeated action and want to free space in their minds for new thoughts, ideas and insights.
3. Mantra meditation
Mantra meditation is prominent in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and involves using a repetitive sound to clear the mind. It can be a word, phrase, or sound, such as “Om”, or even a hum. The volume of the mantra doesn’t matter and can be spoken loudly or quietly. After chanting the mantra for some time, you will feel more in tune with your environment which in turn will help you to experience a feeling of centeredness.
Mantra meditation is ideal for people who don’t like total silence and enjoy repetition.
4. Transcendental meditation
The most commonly practiced form of meditation around the world, it’s also the most scientifically studied. It’s highly tailored to the individual with a mantra provided to the student on the advice of a trained transcendental meditation teacher. The mantra chosen for you is unique and takes into account your meditation goals.
Transcendental meditation is ideal for people who are committed to maintaining a highly structured meditation practice.
5. Spiritual meditation
Spiritual meditation is common in many religions around the world including Hinduism, Daoism and Christianity. It’s similar to prayer in that it helps you to reflect on the silence around you and develop a deeper connection with yourself and your God or universe. However, it’s not necessary to believe in a deity to benefit.
Spiritual meditation is ideal for people who enjoy silence and seek connectedness to their world.
6. Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation originates from Buddhist teachings and is the most popular meditation technique in the UK. The key to this form of meditation is to pay attention to your thoughts as they pass through your mind. You don’t judge your thoughts or affix meaning to them – you simply observe them before letting them go. Although it’s a form of mindfulness, it differs in that it requires you to focus on an object, sound, or your breath when you feel your thoughts starting to overtake you.
Mindfulness meditation is ideal for people who are new to meditation and prefer to develop their own techniques.
A simple meditation for beginners
Meditation for beginners is simpler than most people think, although becoming accomplished at it can take time and repeated practice. Why not follow these simple steps to try a meditation exercise? Before you start make sure you’re somewhere where you can relax without being disturbed.
1) Take a seat
Find a quiet place to sit down. You can sit in a chair with your feet placed on the floor or sit loosely cross-legged on the floor. Whichever you chose, make sure you are comfortable and in a position you can remain in for a while.
2) Set a time limit
If you’re just beginning, it can help to choose a short time (ideally no more than five or ten minutes).
3) Feel your breath
With your eyes closed or open (whichever you feel most comfortable with), follow the sensation of your breath as you breathe in and out.
4) Notice when your mind has wandered
Inevitably, your attention will begin to wander away from your breathing to other places. When you notice that your mind has wandered, simply return your focus to your breath.
5) Be kind to your wandering mind
Don’t judge yourself if you lose focus as your mind wanders and try not to obsess over the content of your thoughts. Just return your focus to your breath.
6) Close with kindness
When you’re ready, gently lift your gaze. If your eyes are closed, open them. Take a moment and notice any sounds in your environment. Notice how your body feels right now. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
You may also find it helpful to access the NHS Fitness Studio’s bedtime meditation.