Meditation is a bootcamp for the mind. Similar to body training in the gym, it’s taking care of the neck up! But similar to different training styles, several meditation techniques exist — so how do you learn how to sit?
“In Buddhist tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activities, not a single thing,” University of Wisconsin neuroscience lab director Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., told The New York Times. So different meditation practices involve different guidance and training.
Before we get into the different techniques, first things first…
Imagine a string lightly pulling up on your head so your spine is straight. Have your shoulders relaxed, dropped and back. Imagine how kids have the bet posture. Have your chest up and out, belly out and pelvis forward. If you’re not very flexible, go ahead and grab a pillow to support your sitting position where the knees are lower than the hips. Hands rest on knees in any relaxed position. And finally, prepare to be mentally alert and still.
If you can’t do the signature meditation pose often seen in yoga, then just sit on an office chair. There’s no rule on how to sit. The reason we often see a lotus position in photos is because thousands of years ago, when meditation began, office chairs hadn’t been invented.
In general, the easiest way to begin meditating is by focusing on the breath — an example of one of the most common approaches to meditation: concentration.
Concentration meditation holding your attention on a primary focus, usually the breath. For example, mentally note the outward movement of your belly as expanding or contracting, rising or falling. Concentration involves focusing on a single point. This could also involve scanning the body, actively listening to a Himalayan Bowl Sound Bath, repeating an affirmation, or counting beads on a Catholic rosary.
If you find yourself thinking of other thoughts in mental chatter after a few seconds, this is completely normal. Like a cloud, just let your thoughts move along and then come back to the focal of your concentration. Don’t beat yourself up about not being perfect, because that would be another thought. With training, your ability to concentrate improves.
Mindfulness meditation is open monitoring. Watch your thoughts, let them come and go, without reacting, judging or craving for more of those thoughts. This encourages you to observe wandering thoughts and emotions as they drift through the mind. The intention is not to get invested with certain thoughts or to judge them as good or bad, but simply to be aware as it arises. And to be aware when it leaves.
The idea is for inner balance as you stop judging thoughts, notice their impermanence and develop proactiveness instead of reactiveness. With practice, the goal is developing inner balance.
OTHER MEDITATION TECHNIQUES
There are various other meditation techniques like loving kindness, transcendental, zen, breathwork, mantra and pranayama. There are also moving meditation techniques, such as mindful eating, walking or calligraphy.
BENEFITS OF MEDITATION
If stress management is not the goal of meditation, it is often a result. In the 1970s, Herbert Benson, MD, a researcher at Harvard University Medical School, coined the term “relaxation response” after conducting research on people who practiced transcendental meditation. The relaxation response, in Benson’s words, is “an opposite, involuntary response that causes a reduction in the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.”
Since then, studies on the relaxation response have documented the following short-term benefits to the nervous system:
- Cognitive: Better concentration, improved memory, better visual discrimination, boosted IQ, enhanced creativity
- Emotional: increased self-control and willpower, higher engagement with music
- Social: Greater empathy and compassion, more open political views, eases depression, lessens insomnia
- Physical: Alters brain structure and neuroplasticity, better immune system, better cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, slows aging, reduces inflation, better body temperature regulation, improves motor skills, helps weight loss, helps smoking cessation success
There is no single goal to meditation. The idea is simply to be present – to enjoy the above benefits, or in some cultures – to achieve transcendence. Simply be present and don’t try too hard. Relax and surrender to the process.