Disclaimer: Meditation probably means something different to many different people. What you are reading is my interpretation and personal experience with meditation. If this doesn’t work for you, no worries! Move on to someone else’s recommendations or simply decide that this is not for you and figure out what is for you. Nothing works for everyone 🙂
What is meditation?
Again, this is different for everyone. The type of meditation I’m going to talk about–and that I personally employ–is probably best described as mindfulness meditation. This simplest way to describe this is that mindfulness meditation is the practice of focusing your attention on something–such as your breath, the sensation of something outside of your body such as your body against a chair, or even a chant or mantra–and then when your attention (perhaps inevitably) strays from that thing, gently guiding your focus back without judgment. In other words, you simply notice and maintain awareness, bringing your focus back in check without distress or judgment when it wanders.
My favorite way of illustrating this is with this animation from HeadSpace, which demonstrates the mechanism of mindfulness meditation better than I can with words. If this analogy doesn’t work for you, test out their Blue Skies explanation.
What is it not?
Meditation does not have to mean that you sit quietly in a room, with no thoughts, for an hour, calmly humming with perfect posture. You don’t need to be a yoga buff or know what chakras are. Meditation is not silence of the mind or unfailing concentration.
Most importantly, meditation is not some new-fangled brilliance invented by Western scientists, and it was not hatched by Western society’s talent or scientific wisdom. Meditation has been around in the East for thousands of years, and it is important that we not lose sight of the ancient origins of this practice despite our newfound ability to peek into the brain via technology and measure the beneficial effects of meditation and mindfulness.
The Evidence: Why Meditation and Mindfulness Work
(For many people, I’m not saying that this is true of everyone, everywhere, in every way!)
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, many studies have been conducted to evaluate meditation and its health benefits. “Some research suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression, and insomnia.” The NCCIH also notes that some research even suggests that meditation can change your brain. In 2012 a study found that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain, which may increase the brain’s ability to process information. Another study found that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins went through thousands of studies on meditation and looked at 47 trials with 3515 participants. They found that “meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological distress.” They recommended that “stronger study designs are needed to determine the effects of meditation programs in improving the positive dimensions of mental health and stress-related behavior.”
Basically, my interpretation of the data is that there is evidence that meditation is beneficial in relieving some forms of psychological or emotional distress. We are beginning to document its power, such as scans that show it can potentially change your brain. However, more research is needed.
There are many people who swear by meditation, and in fact it is sometimes employed as a therapeutic treatment in clinical social work. However, I believe that for anyone this should be one part of a self-care routine or treatment plan, and that of course more research is needed.
Folks like Dan Harris have started whole movements called 10% Happier, claiming that meditation makes people 10% happier. What do you think? Look into it, do your own research, and let me know your thoughts. Of course, I will always suggest that you give meditation a try–just for 10 minutes a day! Even try 2 minutes if 10 feels too much. There is a lot to gain and little to lose.
How To Get Started
Using Apps & YouTube
HeadSpace: HeadSpace is my favorite resource for meditating. I find it simple, frills-free and effective at helping me to improve my technique. The scripts are forgiving and non-judgmental, and there are no added sounds, music, or visualizations. They have a “starter pack” of guided meditations for free, as well as a sprinkling of others to sample for free. HeadSpace also offers a premium version, but I have never paid for this and instead reuse the ones from the starter pack, sample free ones, or utilize other meditation resources.
There are literally hundreds of other meditation apps out there, but two others I have used and can recommend personally are Simple Habit and Calm. They both offer premium services as well as a couple of free ones to inspire you to pay for the premium service, which you can just use over and over. Simple Habit is my go-to for when I am having trouble falling asleep due to anxiety or a racing mind.
YouTube: YouTube is a great resource for free guided and unguided meditations. This link takes you to a search for “meditation,” which leads to thousands of hits. This is a great way to seek a customized experience (though you never know what type of quality you might encounter). For example, if I’m experiencing a lack of motivation or feeling unproductive, I could search for “meditation” and “productivity.” (HeadSpace also has a pack for productivity!) Or if I want a 12-minute unguided meditation to be my “timer,” I could also search for that. Your options are almost literally endless, and it’s a great way to test drive different styles and see what works for you.
One thing I have learned through testing different guided and unguided meditations is that I prefer a guided meditation with not a great deal of guidance from the speaker. I have also learned that counting my breaths does not work for me, and it is more effective for me to mentally chant “in” and “out” with my breath.
Using Written Meditation Scripts
As a social worker we sometimes use written meditation scripts with clients. You can find them online for free and use them with your friends, loved ones, or even read them to yourself! There don’t have to be rules to meditating if you don’t want them.
Other Free Resources:
UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center: Free guided meditations
Tara Brach: Free guided meditations
The Free Mindfulness Project: A good variety of downloadable audio meditations with different categories
Anything that I missed? Have you tried meditating? What’s your favorite resource, tip, or trick?