What Is Meditation?
This article explains what is meditation and its benefits, what are the most popular meditation techniques for beginners, and also gives you tips to get started with the practice.
Meditation and mindfulness have become quite popular in recent years—yet most people can’t really define meditation, understand it’s purpose, or appreciate what meditation is good for. This page is here to bridge that gap.
Meditation is a mental exercise that involves relaxation, focus, and awareness. Meditation is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body. The practice is usually done individually, in a still seated position, and with eyes closed.
What is the definition of meditation in Psychology?
In Psychology, meditation is defined as “a family of mental training practices that are designed to familiarize the practitioner with specific types of mental processes” (source).
Meditation is practiced in one of three modes:
- Concentration: focusing attention on a single object, internal or external (focused attention meditation)
- Observation: paying attention to whatever is predominant in your experience in the present moment, without allowing the attention to get stuck on any particular thing (open monitoring meditation)
- Awareness: allowing awareness to remain present, undistracted and not engaged with either focusing or observing
Other characteristics of meditation include:
- Meditation is an individual practice, even if done in groups (such as in a meditation retreat).
- Meditation is often done with eyes closed, but not always (Zazen and Trataka, for example, are open-eye styles of meditation)
- Meditation usually involves bodily stillness. But there are also ways to do walking meditation, and to integrate mindfulness in other activities.
Originally, the word “meditate” actually means to think deeply about something. However, when eastern contemplative practices were “imported” to Western culture, this is the term that was used to define them, for lack of a better word. Nowadays meditation has more the meaning of this exercise of focusing attention than to reflect deeply.
Here are some other definitions of meditation.
In Christianity, meditation is a type of contemplative prayer that creates a sense of union with God, or the contemplation of religious themes.
In Buddhism, meditation is one of the three core practices for the purification of mind and attainment of Nirvana.
(Learn more about the history of meditation here.)
Besides focus of attention, meditation also involves mental calmness and introspection (“looking within”). Meditation is, thus, somewhat different than other personal development or spiritual exercises, such as:
- Affirmation, self-hypnosis, or guided visualization—where the objective is more to imprint a specific message on the mind
- Pure relaxation—where the goal is only to release bodily tensions
- Prayer—where there is a conscious flow of thinking and feeling, directed towards a Deity
- Contemplation—where the thought processes is actively engaged in order to deepen the understanding of a subject or concept.
- Trance dancing—where the main goal is usually to produce visions or an altered state of consciousness
- Breathing exercises like pranayama and (most types of) qigong— where the focus is on producing a certain pattern of breathing and purify the body.
All these practices are also good and helpful, but they are different than meditation (although some meditation techniques may make use of some of these elements).
The Benefits of Meditation
Some of the benefits come as soon as with 8 weeks of daily practice; other benefits take longer to mature, and will depend on your intensity of practice.
Meditation is good for several things, and it’s different things to different people. However, it is usually one of these three things that drive people to practice:
- Specific benefit: improving your health, wellbeing, performance, focus.
- Growth: emotional healing, self-knowledge, self-discipline, letting go.
- Spirituality: connecting with God, inner peace, and other spiritual goals.
Whatever drives you to meditate, that is good. You will get the benefits you seek, in the proportion of your consistency and commitment to building this habit. But the wider you cast your net, the more fish you will get — so I would encourage you to practice not only for one particular reason, but for the sake of the practice itself.
Your motivation may also evolve by time, as the practice starts to unfold in your life.
To learn more about the benefits of meditation, check out these articles:
- The 76 Benefits of Meditation (must read)
- The 4 Superpowers of Meditation (must read)
- How Meditation Changed My Life
How to Meditate?
The approach I recommend is to experiment with different meditation techniques for a short period of time each (say one week), and to journal your experiences. After some time, you will be better able to choose the meditation technique that suits you the most.
To learn the different meditation techniques, see the following articles:
- The 23 Types of Meditation (must read)
- Mantra Meditation Guide
- Trataka Meditation Guide
- Walking Meditation Guide
- Christian Meditation Guide
- Sufi Meditation Guide
- Meditation for Kids
Here are some general guidelines on the practice:
- Posture: you can meditate seated on a cushion or on a chair. The essential thing about posture is that the spine is absolutely erect, from the lower back to the neck, and ideally not leaning on anything. (See full posture guide here.)
- Time: the best time to meditate is first thing in the morning, so you don’t skip it, and the impact on your day is stronger—but any time that works for you is fine!
- Place: a spot where you can sit uninterrupted. Ideally a place that is quiet, clean and tidy, in order to create a better influence on the mind.
- Length: you can start with as little as 5minutes, and increase 1 or 2 minutes per week, until you arrive 20min sessions and beyond.
- Your body should not be exhausted. So ideally not right after heavy exercise.
- Your mind should be awake. So not good when you are sleepy or tired.
- Your belly should not be full. Wait 2~3 hours after heavy meals.
- Put your phone on airplane mode during your practice.
- Relax your body with deep breathing exercises before meditation.
- If you are meditating at home, wear clothes that are comfortable and loose.
Once you choose your technique, the next step is to work on building the meditation habit (section below), and having a better understanding of the process of meditation.
How to Start a Daily Meditation Practice?
However, building a meditation habit, especially if your motivation for the practice is not so strong yet, can be challenging.
This process can be greatly facilitated by following this seven steps system:
- Discover your true values
- Link meditation to your values (how will it help them?)
- Commit to a time, place and practice
- Setup a trigger and a reward
- Be accountable to others or to yourself (with a journal)
- Have the right attitude (no expectations + a “never-zero” approach)
- Hang out with meditators, online or offline (optional)
To learn how to follow these steps by yourself, and how to deal with the obstacles that normally come up, check out my Meditation for Beginners post.
If you want to follow an online step-by-step program that will guide you to build the meditation habit and choose the best practice for you, check out my meditation course.
Myths, Tips, and FAQs
If you have any of these ideas, have a look at our post 34 Misconceptions and Myths about Meditation.
If you have questions about meditation, such as:
- When and where to practice?
- Should my eyes be opened or closed?
- Which posture should I take?
- What to do when my body itches, or nose runs?
- How to keep my practice when motivation swings?
- What is the difference between meditation and similar practices?
- What to do with my insights?
- How to deal with strong emotions in meditation?
Then check out the post of 45 Tips & Answers About Meditation.
Deepening Your Meditation
Apart from “How to get started?” and “Which technique should I do?”, the most common question I get is “How to improve my practice?”.
This section includes some tips for those who already have a daily meditation habit.
Improving your practice involves usually three things:
- Optimal Attitude. Make sure that you are not falling into any of these 9 meditation mistakes;
- Understanding. Know the mechanics of meditation, and exactly what is the process of meditation;
- Before & After. Integrate in your meditation practice the 7 key elements summarized below.
By integrating these 7 elements in your routine, your meditation can be deeper, more enjoyable and more transformative. Here they are:
- Before meditation
- Relax your body and breath, to calm and center yourself;
- Gladden the mind with gratitude or other positive feelings;
- Have strong intention in your mind
- During meditation
- Don’t feel bad about getting distracted
- Find delight in the moments of concentration
- After meditation
- Move out of meditation gently
- Take notes in your journal
If nothing you try is working, then it’s likely that the meditation technique you practice is not optimal for you. Experimenting with different meditation techniques can also help you move forward your practice. Here are some notes from 57 meditation experiments I did back in 2015.
Finally, do you need motivation and inspiration to start or deepen your practice? This collection of 200 Meditation Quotes will help you. Here are a few:
What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow. Our life is the creation of our mind. – Buddha
Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment. – Alan Watts
Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end. – J. Krishnamurti
Meditation is offering your genuine presence to yourself in every moment. – Thich Nhat Hanh
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