Those who are completely new to meditation may find themselves daunted by the idea of it as one exclusively for the monks seated on top of a hill or inside a monastery for hours. In other cases, they may find themselves overwhelmed by the rigid step-by-step meditation guides that may only lead to discouragement, instead of inspiration.
In this article, the goal is to take beginners on a journey of what meditation is, how to practice meditation by following four easy steps, and its scientifically-validated benefits on physical and emotional health. It is hoped that by the end of this article, meditation will become a habit that will bring inner peace and deep relaxation to the new meditator’s life, career, and relationships.
Meditation in the English vocabulary comes from the Latin word “meditatio,” from a verb “meditari,” meaning "to think, contemplate, devise, ponder.”
But according to research, the earliest references to meditation were found in the Hindu Vedas (religious texts) of India. Originally, the goal of meditation was to deepen one’s understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. It was during the 6th to 5th centuries BCE when meditation surfaced in China through Confucianism and Taoism, as well as in India and Nepal through Hinduism, Jainism, and early Buddhism.
While meditation is primarily linked to Eastern beliefs, it is actually practiced by popular religions like Islam and Christianity. However, these religious sectors may identify meditation as synonymous to prayer, reflection, and spiritual exercise (although this is subject to debate as other meditation teachers believe that the practice demands an entirely different level of mindfulness and experience).
Ultimately, meditation is not a religion, nor it is purely a religious act. Instead of seeing it as having religious connections, meditation in the 21st century is more commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction. Practitioners define it as a state of profound, deep peace that takes place when the mind is calm and silent, yet remaining completely alert.
As a mental exercise, there are two major ways of practicing meditation. First is the focused-attention meditation or the act of focusing attention on a single object, either internal or external. This could be done by being mindful of one’s breathing, feeling the sensation of this breathing pattern or focusing on a physical object.
Second is the open monitoring meditation or the practice of paying attention to all things around without reacting.
For starters, here is the step-by-step guide on meditation:
Before starting your first step to meditation, realize that your job is not to get to the point where you can focus without ever becoming distracted. Instead, think of your job as to practice awareness, especially when your mind drifts.
1. First, find a conducive environment to meditate. This could be a room, a garden, or anywhere quiet and free of distraction. Sit down properly with your feet resting on the ground, or in a cross-legged/lotus position. Make sure that when sitting, you maintain proper posture and never slouch.
2. Close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Inhale from your nose, and exhale with your mouth. As you do this for two to three minutes, focus your attention on your breath and the way your chest, shoulder, rib cage, and stomach move with each movement. When you are breathing slowly and deeply, you start to feel calmer and more relaxed.
3. When your mind wanders, gently bring your focus back to your breathing. Do not feel agitated when you find your attention straying away many times. This is normal for new meditators since our brains are a natural repository of thoughts. What matters most is that you bring your attention back to where it is supposed to be.
4. After three minutes, open your eyes. Stand up slowly, and stretch.
Two to three minutes are the prescribed amount of time for starters. As you progress on your meditation journey and make it part of your daily routine, you’ll find yourself spending more time meditating for 15 minutes and more. You can also choose to explore other meditation techniques.
Whereas exercise is beneficial for the body, meditation is for the mind.
Using fMRI scans to observe the brain activity during meditation, scientists have found a decrease in beta waves. Beta waves are fast wave frequencies that are created when the brain is processing information. In most cases, a high-range Beta is associated with significant stress, anxiety, and paranoia.
Another researcher and medical doctor at Harvard University Medical School Herbert Benson found that people who practice transcendental meditation exhibit a “relaxation response.” The response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Here are the key health benefits of meditation:
Some people meditate to reduce physical and mental stress. In science, stress causes higher levels of stress hormone cortisol which then releases inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.
When the body is stressed, this promotes sleep disruption, depression and anxiety as well as increase blood pressure and fatigue.
Bodies of research have also shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, like irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.
A study in the medical sciences found out that meditation has positive effects on cognition function in young and middle-aged adults too. Twelve studies found out that meditation can offset normal age-related cognitive decline.
Meditation is also seen to increase focus and attention span. Based on the study, even four days of meditation training can enhance one's ability to sustain attention.
Two separate studies on alcoholics and people with eating disorders who perform mindfulness meditation were more likely better at controlling their cravings and craving-related stress
One of the long-term effects of meditation was also exhibited in blood pressure, according to a limited but promising data. It suggested that meditation-based interventions can have beneficial effects on patients with the established cardiovascular disease.
In the midst of the busyness of everyday life, taking time to pause and emptying the mind is luxury for most people. It is easy to get distracted by one's thoughts and imaginings, and let this dictate the course of the day, or worse, the rest of one's life.
And then there is a meditation that defies this act of constant thinking-- a state of profound, deep peace that takes place when the mind is calm and silent, yet remaining completely alert.
The effects of meditation may vary from one person to another. One common denominator, however, is that it contributes positively to one’s well being.
For beginners, meditation may come out as a challenging feat, especially when one finds the mind wandering momentarily. Transforming the mind and having the discipline to change it for the better is not an overnight result. It takes everyday work, and patience to develop deep concentration, clarity, calmness, and emotional positivity.
Even the greatest of monks and meditators had to start somewhere.