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 Definition

What is meditation?

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

Benefits of Meditation
There are dozens of scientifically proven benefits of meditation. Studies confirm the experience of millions of practitioners: meditation will keep you healthy, help prevent multiple diseases, make you emotionally well, and improve your performance in basically any task, physical or mental.

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:

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:

How to Meditate?

There are dozens of meditation techniques, so it can take some time until you find the one that works best for you.

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:

For a more structure and step-by-step approach, or for a beginners guide to meditation, see my book Practical Meditation, and the Master Your Mind meditation course.

[If you are curious, the techniques I myself practice daily are Mantra and Trataka.]

Meditation Tips

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: whatever suits your schedule. But meditating first thing in the morning is recommended, so you don’t skip it, and the impact on your day is stronger.
  • 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.
Here are six other tips to make sure your practice is optimal. They are not mandatory, but they make your meditation go easier:
  • 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?

Meditation needs to be practiced daily, if you want to really benefit from it. Otherwise, the effects will be more short lived and superficial

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:

  1. Discover your true values
  2. Link meditation to your values (how will it help them?)
  3. Commit to a time, place and practice
  4. Setup a trigger and a reward
  5. Be accountable to others or to yourself (with a journal)
  6. Have the right attitude (no expectations + a “never-zero” approach)
  7. 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

Common myths and misconceptions about meditation include: “it’s for spiritual people”, “take years to get any benefit from it”, “it’s a selfish activity”, “meditation is escapism”, “meditation is just relaxation”, “meditation is like self-hypnosis”, “meditation is effortless”, “I can’t meditate because my mind is restless”, “meditation is boring”, “I need to sit with folded legs to meditate”, “meditation is about feeling good”, “it’s all about being present”.

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:

  1. Optimal Attitude. Make sure that you are not falling into any of these 9 meditation mistakes;
  2. Understanding. Know the mechanics of meditation, and exactly what is the process of meditation;
  3. 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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