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An Introduction to Meditation: Benefits, History, and Forms

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The benefits of meditation have been supported in research and anecdotal reports. Those benefits include increasing:

  • Your focus on the moment, rather than the unchangeable past
  • Positive, rather than negative, thinking.
  • Creativity and imagination, including opening your mind to connections and perspectives that may not have been obvious before
  • Self-awareness, including your emotional and body awareness
  • Calmness, patience, and freedom from tension
  • Attention span and memory
  • Coping skills.

Mediation may be prescribed as a treatment for anxiety, stress, and pain control or reduction; meditation may reduce the presence of inflammatory chemicals (cytokines) in the body. Be sure the get your physician’s approval first, as some symptoms and conditions may worsen with meditation (see “Possible Problems,” below).

History of Meditation

Meditation is thousands of years old: wall art from 5,000 to 3,500 BCE shows people of the India subcontinent in meditative poses; both the Vedas (1500 BCE) and the Upanishad Hindu texts mention meditation. From the 6th century BCE onward, meditation practices began to appear in China, Egypt, and Korea. Meditation practices were spread by Buddhism, practiced in Judaism from earliest times, embraced by some forms of Islam, but largely ignored by Christianity until the Benedictines began incorporating a type of meditation called “divine reading.”

Despite mentions in art, biblical texts, and the recorded words of spiritual leaders, no one knows exactly where or why meditation began or who might have first advocated for it. As it eventually moved westward, though Europe, it became a subject that philosophers discussed rather than a religious practice.

Although meditation showed up in North America even before the Revolutionary War, it received a big push from the Transcendentalist movement in the 1800s. Then in 1893, the World Congress of Religion in Chicago brought Asian practitioners to the United States for the first time, as part of the practice of Bahai, Zen, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Now, meditation practices range from religious to secular versions, and they have been studied thousands of times without any clear consensus on how meditation works.

But it does. In fact, medical practitioners consider some forms of secular meditation to be the front-line treatments for depression, stress reduction, and chronic pain, among other conditions. They favor Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), but other movements—Transcendental Meditation and Vipassana Meditation, for example—are widely practiced and equally beneficial, according to the latest research.

TIP: Religious meditation may aim for enlightenment, a closer relationship with God, a better understanding of oneself and the Divine, or a pathway to salvation, as well as goals similar to those of secular meditation: health, calm, creativity, and inner growth.


Practice of Meditation

Because there are so many types of meditation, you might struggle to find the right type for your personality, goals, and available time. Most meditations begin with a small commitment: 5 minutes a day of breathing meditation, for example. Meditating for as little as 13 minutes for eight weeks improved attention and memory during one study, and college students found their loneliness decreased and social life improved with four weeks of meditation just three times per week.

You might try mindfulness meditation, guided imagery, mantra meditation, loving-kindness, and tapping:

  • Mindfulness meditation may be accomplished anywhere and doing anything that you give your entire mind to. It may be accomplished during crafting, chores, walking, or even drinking a cup of coffee, as long as you are entirely focused on the act and do not let your mind wander elsewhere. Mindfulness meditation may incorporate mindful relaxation and body awareness techniques, as well as elements from other types of meditation.
  • Guided imagery meditation is concerned only with relaxing and giving the body rest. There is no goal, no breath control, no theme except to relax. (Visualization, on the other hand, is usually concerned with achieving a specific goal.) In guided imagery, you listen to a soft voice guiding you to a relaxed state that is almost hypnotic. Many recordings are available online and on CD.
  • Mantra meditation involves repeating a word or phrase in your mind or out loud from any comfortable position for the length of your meditation. You might try saying your mantra as you walk or work. You might choose a sound, a word like “peace,” or a phrase like “I am at peace.” The word or phrase should be affirmative, bringing you joy and calm. You might time the sound, word, or phrase to the rhythm of your breathing. Some people use beads (mala beads) to help them focus as they touch a new bead with each repetition of their mantra.
  • Loving-kindness meditation also involves the repetition of words and phrases. For example, you might start with two minutes of meditation around the phrases, “May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I live with ease.” Consider at each repetition what the words truly mean. As you become more practiced, you might include the name of a friend or loved one in your meditation: “May X be healthy, may X be happy, may X live with ease.” You might also simply keep the person or persons in mind as you say, “May you be healthy, may you be happy, may you live with ease.” Among many other loving-kindness phrases, you might be drawn to these: “May I forgive and accept,” “May we all forgive and accept each other,” “May I be healthy and strong,” and “May I love and appreciate others.”
  • Tapping meditation is based on acupuncture, focusing on restoring balance to your body’s energy by applying pressure to certain points. It also draws from mantras and the affirmations of loving-kindness meditation. First, identify one problem or negative emotion (always concentrating on one issue at a time) and how it affects you. Then create a positive affirmation about the issue that you can repeat each time you tap. In this mediation, you tap your body in a specific order to balance your energies: top of the head, eyebrow, side of eye, under eye, under nose, chin, beginning of collar bone, underarm, top of head, wrist, and side of hand (called karate chop). 

Possible Problems

Research into meditation has raised cautions, notably for prolonged, unguided meditation. The most vulnerable are people who have usually experienced a previous psychotic disorder, a fraught psychiatric history, or physical exhaustion (most often from fasting and sleep deprivation). For them, prolonged and unguided meditation may trigger a psychotic episode where they feel disassociated from their bodies, guilty, anxious, and delusional. However, the effects are temporary and disappear either with or without the help of antipsychotic drugs.

Trying meditation with the hope that you will alter your vision, sense of taste or smell, or have an “out of body” experience is a distortion of the practice, and you are likely to be disappointed. If you suffer headaches, dizziness, lack of motivation, or an increase in negative feelings, stop meditating. These reactions have occasionally been reported and are not desirable. In recent research, most reports of harmful effects involve intensive practice, including month-long retreats, rather than a half-hour or less of daily practice.

Finally, you may feel that meditation is not working for you the way it should or the way you have been told. Among the many types of meditation, you may find one that suits you better than another. Never use meditation as a replacement for conventional care, but consider it a useful addition. 

TIP: The chances of your having a negative response to meditation decrease if you choose a well-trained and experienced instructor, maintain a regular but not intense schedule of meditation, and keep your primary physician in the loop on your healthcare practices.

Key Takeaways

Meditation may be practiced in so many ways—including mindful meditation, mantras, and tapping meditation—that most people can find a form that helps them to rest and relax and to deal with stress, anxiety, and pain. The benefits of meditation are well-documented and include improvements to physical and emotional health, social skills, concentration and memory, and coping skills.

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