In this post, you’ll learn about the art of meditation. More than simply sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and palms upwards, this ancient practice has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.
In this guide, we’ll explore:
- What is meditation,
- How to meditate,
- The best meditation techniques, and
- The benefits of meditation.
If you’re ready to get comfortable with your mind and want to discover more about the art of meditation, you’ll love this guide.
So get comfortable, take a deep breath and let’s begin!
What is meditation
Meditation is a word that is loosely thrown around. Some refer to meditating as purely thinking or ignoring thoughts, while others think of it as daydreaming or letting your mind drift off. Ultimately, meditation is about getting comfortable with your mind.
While meditation has become a more widespread practice in recent years – there is still some confusion on what meditation is, how to meditate, the best meditation techniques, and what the actual benefits of meditation are. It is so much more than sitting cross-legged with your eyes closed and palms upwards.
So, what is meditation, exactly? Meditation is a mental practice involving focus, awareness and relaxation. It is an approach to training the mind, similar to the way that fitness is an approach to training the body.
The word ‘meditate’ originally came from the meaning ‘to think deeply about something’. However, when the eastern contemplative practices came to the western culture, this term was used to define them – mostly for lack of another word. When referring to meditating now, it is more about the exercise of focusing attention rather than deeply reflecting.
Think of meditation as a skill. It is something that you can learn to do, and something that you can get better at. It takes consistent practice to start getting comfortable and to start seeing the benefits of meditating.
There’s also no such thing as perfect meditation. You can have amazing meditation sessions, and then you can have a session where your mind wanders off into a hundred different directions. This is okay, and you need to accept that this is part of meditating. It’s all about the journey and consistently hopping onto the meditation train. You will get to where you need to be. Eventually.
The history of meditation
It can be challenging to pin down the exact origins of meditation as there are so many practices and traditions that fall under the “meditation” umbrella. In modern times, the art of meditation has mainly been associated with Asian spiritual traditions such as Theravada, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, among others.
Meditation has been around for a long time. So to take it back to the beginning, we need to start in India, where meditation is often believed to have originated.
The oldest documented evidence of the practice can be found on wall arts in the Indian subcontinent from approximately 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. The oldest written mention of meditation is from 1,500 BCE in the Vedas – though, this would have been passed down verbally for many generations before.
In these early times, meditation was a practice for religious people and ascetics who used it to transcend the limitations of human life. The Hindu tradition of meditation includes the cave Yogis and the Sages of the Vedic culture.
The Chinese Taoist and Indian Buddhist traditions likely began to develop their own versions of meditation practice in the 6th to 4th centuries BCE. Further west, early forms of meditation practice were developed by notable figures including Philo of Alexandria, the Desert Fathers of the Middle East, and Saint Augustine.
Due to colonialism and improved means of communication, meditation then started piquing the interest of those in the west from the 19th century. At first, it was mostly scholars and missionaries who had an interest in meditation. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that meditation became popularized in the west. Many students from the west traveled to India, Thailand, Burma and other Asian countries to train under great masters and then brought their teachings back home.
How does meditation work
Meditation is a practice to harness the power of thought while cultivating more peace, clarity and happiness. It is training your brain to focus. This, essentially, is strengthening your mind. And mind strength is one of the most powerful tools we can employ to improve all aspects of our lives.
On the surface level, meditation helps us think differently. While beneath the surface, there are complex things happening within our brain. Starting off with moving our brain from higher frequency brain waves to lower frequency, activating different centres of the brain.
Slower wavelengths give you more time between thoughts, which then gives you more opportunity to skillfully choose which thoughts are worth investing in and taking action in.
Operating at a slower wavelength means that you are able to access parts of the brain that help you think rationally as well as not respond so quickly to bodily sensations and fears. Allowing you to be more present and have a clearer perspective on yourself and others around you.
Benefits of meditation
As yogis have known for ages and scientists have now proved, the benefits of meditation are profound. Meditation is said to not only maintain health but help to prevent diseases, keep one emotionally well and improve performance in physical and mental tasks.
Studies have shown meditation to have short-term benefits to the nervous system, including:
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving blood circulation
- Lowering heart rate
- Less perspiration
- Slowing respiratory rate
- Lessening anxiety
- Lowering blood cortisol levels
- Promoting more feelings of well-being
- Reducing stress
- Aiding in deeper relaxation
In the Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate benefit of meditation is freeing your mind from attachment to things that it cannot control – things like external circumstances and strong internal emotions.
While there are many benefits of meditation, it’s important not to meditate purely to achieve its benefits. As an Eastern philosopher would say, the goal of meditation is no goal. It is simply to be present.
How to meditate: simple meditation for beginners
There are dozens of different meditation techniques. It’s worth trying out a few to see what works best for you. One way to do this is to experiment with different techniques for a short period and journal your experiences. This will allow you to choose the technique that worked best for you.
When you’re first starting off, you can follow the below steps as an introduction to meditation techniques for beginners:
- Make sure you are in a calm environment, removing any possible distractions.
- Get comfortable – either sitting or lying down. You can also use either a chair or meditation pillow to aid in your comfort.
- Close your eyes (or drop your gaze).
- Breathe naturally.
- Start to focus your attention on your breath, observing your body as you inhale and exhale. Observe your chest, shoulders, rib cage and belly, simply focusing your attention on your breath without controlling it. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath.
- When you’re ready, gently open your eyes (or lift your gaze if your eyes are open). Take a moment and notice any sounds in the environment. Notice how your body feels. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
Start off with two or three minutes, then slowly try for longer periods. When we pay attention to our breath, we are learning how to return to, and remain in, the present moment. Anchoring ourselves in the here and now on purpose, without judgement.
Breathing meditation techniques
Breathing is the key to achieving mindfulness in your meditation practices. However, not all breathing is the same.
You have to teach yourself how to breathe properly in order to maximise the benefits. There are several different meditation breathing techniques, including:
Box breathing (aka four-square breathing)
Box breathing is a simple breathing technique that aims to return your breath to its normal rhythm.
- Close your eyes. Breathe in through your nose while slowly counting to four. Feel the air enter your lungs.
- Hold your breath while slowly counting to four again. Try not to clamp your mouth or nose shut.
- Start to slowly exhale over four seconds.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 at least three times. Ideally, repeat the three steps for 4 minutes, or until calm returns.
This breathing technique is often recommended for beginners to meditation, however, it can also be used outside of meditation.
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Take a deep breath in through the nose.
- Feel your hand on your stomach move as you inflate your diaphragm with air.
- Slowly release your breath.
The stimulating breath (aka bellows breath)
This breathing technique is great for increasing alertness and energy. It might take some practice to get used to in the beginning, but will leave you feeling invigorated.
- Quickly inhale and exhale through your nose, as short as possible, ensuring the duration is equal for both. Aim to get three inhales and exhales per second.
- Continue for five seconds.
- Slowly increase your time throughout your practice until you reach one full minute.
Alternate nostril breathing
A common technique used in both meditation and yoga, allowing you to re-energize your mind, body and spirit. In yoga, this practice is called Nadi Shodhana.
- Plug your right nostril with your right thumb.
- Take a deep breath through the left nostril.
- Remove your thumb from your right nostril and plug your left nostril with your ring finger.
- Slowly exhale.
The 4-7-8 count (aka relaxing breath technique)
This is one of the easiest breathing techniques to do, and as a bonus, the benefits are exponential. This exercise can quickly calm the nervous system, so much so that it can feel like your nerves have been tranquilised.
- Rest the tip of your tongue at the top back of your teeth.
- Let out a deep exhale, along with a big sigh or whooshing sound.
- Close your mouth and slowly inhale through your nose for a count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale deeply and completely for a count of eight, being sure to let out a big sigh or whooshing sound.
4-4 energising breath (Kundalini yoga)
There are a few different Kundalini breathing techniques. The 4-4 energising breath is one that will relax and energise you.
- Sit with a straight spine and crossed legs with relaxed shoulders.
- Start with taking a few deep breaths.
- Place your palms together at the heart centre with the fingers pointing up. Press your hands firmly together.
- Focus at the third eye – the brow point – with eyelids gently closed.
- Inhale, breaking the breath into four equal parts of sniffs, filling the lungs completely on the 4th.
- As you exhale, release the breath equally in 4 parts, emptying the lungs on the 4th. Note: On each part of both the inhale and exhale, pull the navel point toward the spine – generating energy.
- One full breath cycle (in and out) takes about 7-8 seconds.
- Continue for 2-3 minutes.
- To finish, inhale deeply, press the palms together with force for 10-15 seconds. Create tension in the whole body by pressing as hard as you can and holding as long as possible.
- Exhale powerfully.
- Repeat the inhale, hold, press.
- Exhale, relax and allow the tension in the body to vanish.
I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to the practice of meditation. I’ll keep adding more information relating to mediation, such as more meditation techniques, favourite apps and tools, best resources and so on over the next few months.
Do you meditate? What has your experience been with the practice? If you have tips, share them with me in the comments below!