In the last half a century or so, meditation has gone from being a strange, mysterious practice in the eyes of most people in the Western world to something done by soccer moms, business executives, truck drivers and everyone in between on a regular basis. By some estimates – including 2012 statistics from the United States Department of Health and Human Services – between 18 and 22 million adults in the US meditate on a regular basis, and an equal or higher number are believed to meditate in Western Europe. Worldwide, it is believed that between 200 and 500 million people engage in the practice of meditation regularly, and most studies seem to indicate that those numbers are growing on a yearly basis.
As meditation has become more socially accepted and ‘mainstream’ (and less mysterious) more and more people are finding that the practice not only fits their needs and lifestyle but also provides them with tangible emotional and spiritual benefits. In the last 20 years or so, medical and other scientific research studies are indicating that regular meditation can also provide many individuals with significant physical benefits as well – so much so that an increasing number of physicians, therapists and other medical professionals are recommending the practice to their clients, particularly those suffering from the effects of stress and stress-related conditions.
While different people meditate for different reasons (and to access different specific benefits), virtually all of them have one thing in common: what they get out of meditation is directly connected to and impacted by what they put into their practice. While some forms of meditation can be done pretty much anywhere and at any time, meditation is not some kind of magic: it is a discipline that must be learned and practiced regularly and properly. The effectiveness of meditation for an individual – regardless of what form they use or what they seek to get from it – is directly connected to the quality of the sessions, and that individual’s mental attitude towards and commitment to the discipline.
What is Meditation?
There are many types of meditation commonly taught and engaged in by people throughout the world today, and most of them can at least partially trace their roots back to practices that were developed as part of the Hindu religion in India about 8,000 years ago. Throughout the millennia other religions and philosophies including Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism incorporated meditation into their rituals and developed new forms of the practice based on their specific philosophical needs. More recently, meditation has become an essential part of many New Age beliefs and philosophies, and an increasing interest in the Western world in various forms of spirituality and self-exploration has helped contribute to its increasing popularity.
It is difficult – if not impossible – to come up with a specific ‘one size fits all’ definition of meditation, as it encompasses a very large number of practices, and different people meditate for different reasons. However, generally speaking, meditation can be broadly defined as an exercise involving relaxation, awareness, and increased focus. In most cases, meditation trains the mind to turn inward and focus on an individual’s thoughts and feelings without judgment, completely in the present moment, and without worry about the past or concerns about the future: this is often referred to as being mindful, or mindfulness. In most forms of meditation, the individual focuses on what is going on inside themselves as opposed to what is happening around them, as a way to balance the two. Many believe that the state of mindfulness achieved during a mediation session will continue on – at least to some degree – into the rest of a person’s life, helping them to better deal with day-to-day events and problems in a more positive and less stressful way.
While there are certainly some people whose personalities and mental make-up lend themselves to this sort of introspection naturally, most of us – and particularly those of us who live with the mental clutter and chaos created by the modern Western world – need to learn how to do it. In much the same way as an athlete must learn proper techniques to train their body for a marathon or a chef learns the particular advantages of certain flavor combinations, so the individual embarking on a meditation practice must learn what to do (and, equally importantly, what not to do) to meditate effectively.
As previously stated, many forms of meditation exist and within each form, there are usually many subgroups. In the Western world the most commonly taught and practiced types of meditation include Mindfulness, Focused, Transcendental, Spiritual and Mantra, as well as forms (often one of those listed previously) used in conjunction with yoga, massage, and aromatherapy. The form that a person chooses to practice – and that will be the most effective and provide the greatest number of benefits to them – will be the one that best suits their personality and with which they are the most comfortable. No one form is ‘better’ than another for everyone; it really comes down what an individual is looking to get from the discipline, and which form a person is likely to practice the most regularly.
Regardless of what type of meditation a person chooses, the effectiveness of both the individual sessions and the practice as a whole will be affected by a number of factors. While there are no hard and fast rules regarding when or where a person should choose to meditate (some people meditate in their cars for a few minutes to get away from their families inside the house or engage in a mini-session in the bathroom at work) there are some conditions – both mental and physical – that will help to increase the effectiveness of a meditation session, and consequently the value of the practice as a whole.
Solitude / Avoiding Distractions
Perhaps the most important component of meditating effectively is the quiet and solitude – being truly alone with one’s inner thoughts and feelings – that comes with the practice. Most people in the Western world lead incredibly busy, connected lives and finding even a few moments for ourselves on a regular basis can be extremely challenging for some people. However, in some ways, it is the actual uniqueness of the solitude – and the introspection that it makes possible – that provides the most tangible benefits.
Solitude – as we are using the word here – does not mean traveling to a mountaintop monastery in Tibet or to a commune deep in the Amazon rainforest (although both of these sounds as though they would be quite awesome experiences) to seal oneself off from the rest of the world. Rather, it means putting oneself in a position to be alone with one’s thoughts and feelings, free from the often overwhelming input of information from the outside world. For some people, this might require finding a place where no one can disturb them, while for others it might be as simple as turning off the phone and computer in their office for 20 minutes during their lunch break.
No matter where a person chooses to meditate, it is crucially important that they avoid distractions. To meditate effectively, a person must be able to mindfully consider what is happening in their own minds during the session, and give their thoughts and feelings their full attention. Some people are able to do this more or less naturally almost anywhere (at least for short periods of time) while others need to train themselves to be able to do it. However, until an individual is able to develop a strategy for being alone with their own minds free from distractions for a period of time on a regular basis, they will not be able to meditate effectively or reap the full benefits. Although this can be challenging for many people at first, it will usually get easier with time and practice.
Peaceful Environment / Dedicated Space
While a person can meditate pretty much anywhere and at any time, most meditation teachers and experts agree that the surroundings in which a person chooses to regularly practice can have a huge impact on not only how effective each session will be, but also the frequency with which a person will want to meditate.
A quiet, dedicated room is usually considered to be the optimum space in which to meditate. While a full room dedicated to the practice will not be possible for everyone due to space and / or family considerations, the important thing is that the individual creates a space away from the general chaos and distractions of the house (called high-energy areas) – even if it is in a corner of a bedroom, home office, den, or other room that is mostly used for other things – and makes certain that family and / or roommates understand and respect what that space is for. The space should be large enough for the individual to sit comfortably without feeling cramped or constricted, and if possible be away from air conditioning or heating vents to avoid becoming too hot or cold while practicing.
Most experts suggest that a meditation space should be set up in such a way that the individual is able to completely relax while they are in it. It should be free of clutter (and hence chaos) and, as far as is practical, also be free of things that are not directly related to the practice like televisions, smartphones, stereo, and computer equipment… essentially anything that will cause distraction. Any decorations (wall art, sculptures, pictures of loved ones, flowers, and plants, etc.) should be calming and peaceful; arranged in an organized and thoughtful manner; and, many experts suggest, kept to a minimum. If essential oils or incense are regularly used the space should be well ventilated to avoid being overwhelmed by the scents. If one is practicing focused meditation, the object upon which they are focusing should be set apart from any decorations that might catch the eye, and be prominently displayed.
One of the more common misconceptions about meditation is that it must be done seated in the ‘lotus’ or some other yoga position to be effective. In fact, the only thing that is necessary to meditate effectively when it comes to a position is that the individual is comfortable and relaxed. Attempting to meditate in an uncomfortable position is virtually impossible for most people, as they will be distracted by the discomfort and find themselves focusing on that as opposed to turning their minds inward.
Many meditation experts suggest that a seated position is probably best for most people: on the floor using a mat or cushion, in a chair, even on the edge of a sofa or bed – pretty much anywhere as long as the person is comfortable. It is important that the individual keeps their back as straight as possible, as this helps to promote better breathing and concentration, and is believed to improve the flow of energy through the body. If the individual has difficulty keeping their back straight or finds themselves tending to slouch after a few moments, using a wall or the back of a chair for support is recommended. Unless the person is doing a form of meditation that requires them to focus on an object, it is recommended that the eyes be closed.
While some people use guided meditation programs to help them get to (and stay) asleep, in most cases lying down is not recommended for meditation unless there is a physical condition that precludes an individual from being comfortable while sitting, as many people tend to fall asleep when meditating in this position.
The time at which a person chooses to meditate can have a significant impact on how effective their sessions will be. There is no ‘right’ or ‘best’ time of day to meditate – it will vary from person to person depending on an individual’s schedule and when they can work the practice into their day. Most meditation instructors suggest that after a person becomes comfortable with the practice sessions should last between 20 and 30 minutes, and be done every day.
Generally speaking, the best time to meditate will be when there is the least chance of the session being interrupted – whether it is early in the morning, immediately after work, during the lunch hour or even shortly before going to bed. While it is not absolutely necessary to meditate at the same time every day, many people find that maintaining a regular meditation schedule – in much the same way that people schedule exercise sessions – helps them to more easily incorporate the practice into their day-to-day lives. As the practice does require concentration, it is recommended that the individual choose a time when they are not normally extremely tired, or when they are feeling particularly rushed or pressed for time. Many experts also believe that an empty (or at the very least not full) stomach helps to improve the effectiveness of a meditation session, and suggest meditating before a meal if possible.
Meditation is supposed to be a positive, relaxing and uplifting experience, and the attitude with which a person approaches their practice will, in a very real and tangible way, define how effective meditation will be for them. If a person comes into a session feeling like it is a chore that must be done or something they simply want to get out of the way so they can move on to something else, they will be pretty much wasting their time. As stated before, what a person gets out of meditation will in large part be determined by what they put into it – and this refers as much to attitude as it does anything else.
Maintaining an open, non-judgmental and generally positive attitude while meditating can be quite challenging for many people – particularly when they have had a rough day (or week, or month) – and it is important for an individual to remember that helping them deal more effectively with the negative parts of their life is one of the main reasons they are mediating in the first place. Clearing the mind of stressful external influences and internal negativity can be difficult, and it takes practice, but it is crucial for effective meditation. Many people find the use of essentials oils or incense, ambient sound or soft relaxing music allows them to ‘get in the mood’ more quickly, and helps to sustain them throughout a session, while others find that stretching and deep breathing immediately before meditating relieves the tension in their bodies and allows them to more fully relax and meditate more effectively.
Committing to a Practice
As mentioned previously, meditation is not some kind of magic; it is a practice that takes time and commitment. In the same way that one cannot reasonably expect be get into great physical shape after one or two sessions on a treadmill or elliptical, the long-lasting positive effects (and therefore the benefits) of meditation are cumulative; they do not completely appear in a person’s life after one or two sessions, but rather grow over time as one gets more deeply into the practice.
Committing to a meditation practice is perhaps the single most important requirement for meditating effectively. To get the most out of the practice, it must become a regular part of a person’s life. Whether it is every day, twice a day, or even every other day, making the time and finding the space to meditate must become a part of a person’s routine for that person to meditate effectively.
That having been said, it should be pointed out that missing a few sessions now and then will not undo any progress a person has made – nor is it necessary to ‘make up’ any missed sessions. It is also important that a person not worry about having to miss a session now and again: the purpose of meditation is to help people let go of stress, not cause it. Meditation is meant to be a positive and even joyful experience, and an individual who wants to meditate effectively should also want to commit to it. If interest in the practice starts to wan after a while, it is highly recommended that an individual look into a different type of meditation as most experts agree that how one chooses to meditate is not as important as that one chooses to meditate.
Keeping the Practice Fresh
Along the same lines, doing anything in the same way at exactly the same time in the same place day after day can get to be boring and something of a chore for some people – and meditation is no exception. Effective meditation becomes more difficult if it starts to be viewed as being a drag. Changing things up from time to time – even if the changes are very minor – can help to make the practice feel fresh and new and, consequently, increase its effectiveness.
For some people, meditating in a different place – outside in the yard or garden, on a rooftop (providing it is safe and flat) or porch, in a park or near a river – every now and then brings a different environment to the practice and will often help to keep the interest level high. For others, changing the type of incense or essential oil used during sessions, or the music, ambient sound, or lighting from time to time brings in a different component and helps the individual focus better. If physically able, some instructors suggest experimenting with different positions when meditating, or trying movement or walking meditation techniques. Making any of these changes or adjustments to practice will often go a long way towards keeping it new and fresh, which will in many cases help an individual to meditate more effectively.