What Is Meditation? A Brief & Bullshit-Free Beginners Guide
What do Oprah Winfrey, Kobe Bryant, Arianna Huffington, Jennifer Aniston, Ellen DeGeneres, Jerry Seinfeld, Miranda Kerr, Katy Perry, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Angelina Jolie, Sting, Lebron James, Hugh Jackman, and Madonna have in common?
They are ultra-successful.
And… they meditate.
Tim Ferriss interviewed more than 200 highly successful people on his podcast. In his book, Tools of Titans, he explains that the one routine – yes, one! – billionaires, icons, and world-class performers have in common is meditation.
So, what is this meditation thing? Why is it so popular? And wasn’t it only meant for hippies, saints, and Buddhist monks? You’re about to learn the answers to these questions and more. Here’s a complete and BS-free beginner’s guide to meditation.
So, What Is Meditation?
Meditation is deceptively simple. First, you choose something to put your attention on. This can either be a single object such as your breath or a mantra (focused attention meditation). Or it can be a larger area or part of your consciousness such as bodily sensations, thoughts, emotions, or anything else that’s present in the moment (open monitoring meditation).
Once you’ve decided on your object of concentration, the goal of meditation is to keep your attention on it for as long as possible. When you try to control your focus like that, you’ll realize that the natural and inevitable tendency of the mind is to wander – instead of attending to your object of concentration, you’ll get distracted by thoughts about everyday life.
This mind wandering is normal and initiates the last crucial piece of the meditation puzzle: realizing you’ve been distracted and gently bringing your mind back to the object of concentration.
That’s meditation in a nutshell. A constant cycle of focusing, getting distracted, bringing your mind back, getting distracted again, bringing your mind back again, getting distracted again, and so on. That’s the whole shebang. A cartoon from The New Yorker sums it up: Two monks are sitting side by side, meditating. The younger one is giving the older one a quizzical look, to which the older one responds, "Nothing happens next. This is it."
Meditation is NOT about suppressing or getting rid of bad thoughts, emptying your mind, sitting in lotus position, chanting in languages you don’t understand, or becoming a Buddhist. It’s not a relaxation exercise, prayer, self-hypnosis, recounting affirmations, or contemplation. Most importantly, it’s not reserved for monks, religious people, long-bearded gurus, Indians, Tibetans, saints, or holy men.
Meditation is a simple mental exercise in regulating your attention (in a specific way). It’s something anyone can do that brings countless – scientifically proven! – benefits.
Different Types of Meditation
There are many different types of meditation, and they all work somewhat differently. However, the basic structure as described above rarely changes in dramatic fashion.
The three most widely known types of meditation are:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Transcendental meditation
- Loving-kindness meditation
As a beginner, your best bet is to get started with mindfulness meditation. This is the type that is most often used for scientific studies. It’s also a type of meditation that works perfectly fine without any religious or spiritual mumbo jumbo.
The apps I recommend for getting started (see upcoming section) all focus on mindfulness meditation. It’s also the type of meditation I usually practice and what I did on my ten-day retreat.
Aside from differences in the type of meditation itself, there are also differences in posture. It’s possible to meditate in sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. It’s also possible to meditate with open or closed eyes.
What Is The Goal of Meditation?
Most forms of meditation have their roots in religious or spiritual disciplines. Within this context, the goal for practitioners tends to be Enlightenment, Self-Realization, Ananda, a state of Grace, or Oneness with God – whatever that exactly is.
For regular people, the goal is almost certainly not enlightenment. Instead, it’s stress-relief, better self-control, more happiness, or improved concentration. Some people meditate just because it makes them feel good. Others do it to feel calm, get through a crisis, sleep better, overcome addictions, or stop overthinking.
The health benefits of meditation are vast and diverse, and so are the reasons why people meditate.
What Are the Benefits of Meditation?
Emma Seppälä is a Stanford professor who devoted her PhD research to studying the impact of meditation. She sums up the science-based benefits of meditation in one of her articles:
- It boosts your health by increasing immune function, decreasing pain, and decreasing inflammation at the cellular level.
- It boosts your happiness by increasing positive emotion, decreasing depression, decreasing anxiety, and decreasing stress.
- It boosts your social life by increasing social connection and emotional intelligence, making you more compassionate, and making you feel less lonely.
- It boosts your self-control by improving your ability to regulate your emotions and improving your ability to introspect.
- It literally changes your brain for the better by increasing grey matter, increasing volume in areas related to emotion regulation, positive emotions and self-control, and increasing cortical thickness in areas related to paying attention.
- It improves your productivity by increasing your focus and attention, improving your ability to multitask, improving memory, and improving your ability to be creative and think outside the box.
In my opinion, meditation is the most valuable activity you can engage in to improve your life. (Notice the period.)
Best of all, it doesn’t take years or even months to experience some of its benefits. One study showed improvements after eight weeks, another after four weeks, one after five days, and yet another after only four days!
What’s the Best Way to Get Started?
Meditation experts agree that meditation is best practiced daily. Mathieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk touted as the happiest person alive, likens it to the growth of a plant. For a plant to grow well, you have to water it a little every day. If you just pour a bucket of water on it once per month, it will die between waterings. The same applies to meditation. He gives some more advice in his book, Why Meditate:
“It is essential to maintain the continuity of meditation day after day, because in this way your meditation practice gradually gains substance and stability. It is like the way a small trickle of water little by little turns into a stream and then a river. The traditional texts state that it is better to meditate regularly and repeatedly for short periods of time than to do long sessions every now and then. For example, you could devote 20 minutes a day to meditating formally and also take advantage of short breaks in your daily activities to recall the experience you had during your formal sessions, even if only for a few moments.”
So, how do you start a daily practice?
The best way I’ve found is to use an app called Headspace. It teaches you mindfulness meditation through a ten-day period with daily ten-minute meditations. It guides you through the entire process and keeps you motivated with its beautiful progress chart. Unfortunately, it’s only free for ten days; afterwards the prize increases to $13 bucks monthly. Still, I think it’s worth it because it’s so good at helping you establish a daily routine.
Another app that teaches you meditation and helps establish a regular routine is Dan Harris’ 10% Happier. It’s especially recommendable for sceptics.
Aside from apps, I’ve also heard great things about Giovanni Dienstmann’s 5-week meditation program for beginners. Giovanni has over 8,000 hours of experience and blogs about all things meditation over at liveanddare.com. If you want a little more guidance, the help of a supportive community, and access to an experienced meditator, I suggest checking out his course.
Other options include taking a meditation course or reading a book on the topic. Some helpful books for beginners include 10% Happier by Dan Harris, Meditation for Beginners by Jack Kornfield, How to Meditate by Pema Chodron, and many more.
If you choose any of these options, you’ll get all the guidance, theory, encouragement, and motivation you’ll need.
Just take the first step… the rest will take care of itself.
Here are some additional tips for starting your meditation journey on the right foot:
- Start small. Two minutes daily is enough for a start. Then five minutes. Then ten minutes. Focus on creating a habit, not making a quantum leap.
- Be consistent, not spectacular. Eknath Easwaran says it best, “In Sanskrit we have a word which means “heroes at the beginning”: people who take up a job with a fanfare of trumpets but soon find that their enthusiasm has tiptoed down the back stair. Those who go far in meditation are the ones who keep on plugging. They may not be very spectacular; they may never hear a trumpet. But they keep on trying day in and day out, giving their best in every situation and relationship, never giving up. Such people are bound to reach their goal.”
- Don’t think “All-or-Nothing.” I’m repeating myself, but please don’t feel the need to go from zero to hero. If you try to meditate for twenty or more minutes every day as a beginner, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Start small. Focus on consistency.
- Don’t judge your meditation. Just sit down (or lie down or whatever), do your best, and keep at it. Your mind will tell you over and over again that you’re doing it wrong, that it’s a pain in the ass, that it’s worthless, and so on. Don’t listen or you’ll get discouraged. Just focus on doing your best.
- Be kind to yourself. Meditation is one of the hardest things one can learn in life. In the beginning, it’s brutal. And without a doubt, you will struggle. That’s okay. Be kind to yourself, give yourself credit for keeping at it, and stay patient. And remember to choose self-compassion over self-criticism.
- Make “Oh, well” your motto. Your mind will wander during meditation. It’s inevitable. It happens to everyone (except the rare enlightened being maybe). When you realize your mind has wandered, just say, “Oh well,” and bring your focus back to your object of meditation.
- Realize that catching yourself in distraction is a positive event. This goes hand in hand with the previous point. Don’t get all negative when you realize that you keep getting distracted. Instead, realize that it’s a positive thing – it’s the very essence of the practice.
Common Myths, Misconceptions, and Questions About Meditation
Here are some common myths, misconceptions, and questions that you may have about meditation…
Meditation is about blocking or getting rid of thoughts and emotions.
The goal in meditation is not to get rid of anything. In fact, science shows that trying to get rid of unwanted thoughts and emotions only makes things worse. The goal is instead to watch and observe thoughts and emotions in a nonjudgmental and detached way. You just let them be there, witness them, and bring your mind back to your object of concentration.
As a result, thoughts and emotions may subside after a certain amount of practice. That is, however, a side effect, not the goal itself.
Meditation is just a relaxation technique.
While meditation usually leads to relaxation (think: calm mind = calm body), it is so much more than “just” an exercise in relaxation.
Relaxation is a side benefit of meditation. But don’t forget all the other benefits such as increased concentration, improved immune function, greater self-control, more happiness, and so on. These are benefits that you won’t get from mere relaxation exercises.
Meditation is just a concentration exercise.
Again, the problem is that small word “just.” It’s true that meditation is a concentration exercise, but it’s also much more.
You have to quiet your mind to have a good meditation.
Meditation isn’t about quieting the mind or stopping thoughts. This approach only leads to stress and more internal chatter. It’s not about how quiet your mind is. It’s not about having many or few thoughts. It’s about how we’re dealing with the thoughts that are there.
It’s just like a traffic jam or the weather. Sometimes, the streets are busy. Sometimes, they are calm. Sometimes it’s cloudy and stormy. Sometimes, it’s a clear blue sky.
Meditation is not about changing the traffic jam or the weather. It’s about witnessing without judging. Sometimes the mind will be busy. Sometimes it will be quiet. That’s okay. The “success” of a meditation session has nothing to do with that. Success is doing the best you can under your current circumstances.
It takes years to see results.
The beauty of meditation is that the benefits are both immediate and long-term. Remember the studies we mentioned earlier. Some of them show benefits after a mere four days of practice!
Meditation is a spiritual or religious practice.
It’s true that meditation was discovered and fostered within religious and spiritual contexts. It’s also true that many spiritual and religious gurus recommend meditation and helped it become as popular as it is today.
However, the actual practice of meditation is neither religious nor spiritual. It’s simply an exercise that is scientifically proven to calm our minds, bring mental peace, and improve our health in countless ways. Nowadays, meditation is just as much a science as it is a religious/spiritual practice.
Case in point: You can practice meditation just fine without being religious or spiritual. Oh, and you can practice without conflicting your faith – whether you’re a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or else.
Meditation is only for saints, gurus, and holy men.
Meditation is for anyone interested in the benefits of meditation. Think about all the ultra-successful people who meditate – Hugh Jackman, Paul McCartney, Lebron James, Oprah, Katy Perry, and so on. As far as I can tell, none of them is a saint, guru, or holy man.
I need to follow certain rites or rituals.
You don’t need to wear a special robe. You don’t need to chant. You don’t need to repeat a mantra. You don’t need to sit in lotus position. You don’t need any magical pillows. You don’t need to pray. You don’t need to be in a temple or other special place.
Want to know how I meditate? I wake up in the morning, drink a glass of water, sit down on a regular ol’ chair, set a timer to go off in twenty minutes, and start watching my breath. Sometimes, I’ll take my phone and play a guided meditation. That’s it. Nothing fancy. Nothing woo-woo.
Meditation is about having transcendent experiences.
Yes, some people go through wonderful experiences during meditation – bliss, oneness, visions, glimpses of enlightenment, and so on. But that’s the exception, not the rule. For most people, the actual experience during meditation is rather dull, non-eventful, and very un-special.
I’ve been meditating regularly for more than two years now and I’ve attended a ten-day Vipassana course. Guess how many special experiences I’ve had so far? None. And that’s okay. I meditate for the benefits I get outside of my practice, in real life. And that’s what most people do it for. It’s best not to expect anything magical to happen during your meditations.
Meditation is supposed to feel good.
Certain images make it seem as if meditation should feel great. Meditators are often pictured very peacefully, blissed out, and with the slightest of smiles on their face.
While it’s true that meditation will make you feel better in general (and over a long period of time), the actual practice rarely makes you feel happy, peaceful, or otherwise special. Especially for beginners, the actual time spent meditating feels strenuous, boring, or even nerve-wrecking.
Meditation will turn me into an emotionless robot.
Meditation makes you less reactive – less of a slave to your emotions. This may make the expression of being emotionless to others. The truth is, you will still feel emotions. You will still enjoy the good things in life, even more so than before… because frankly, you become more aware of the subtle pleasures of life.
You will be a lot less bothered by the negative emotions. You’ll create a natural gap between “you” and those emotions. More and more you’ll start identifying yourself with something that’s larger than thoughts, emotions, problems, etc..
Aint Nobody Got Time for That.
If people like Arianna Huffington, Kobe Bryant, Ringo Starr, or Sting find the time, I think you’ll be able to spare a few minutes as well. Besides that, it’s not a question of time, but a question of priorities.
Meditation is escapism.
If you’ve been meditating for any length of time, you probably know the exact opposite is the case. Meditation is about facing the very stuff you’re usually trying to run away from – yourself, your problems, your thoughts, your emotions, your fears, your feelings of not being good enough, and so on.
Escapism is what most of us do on a daily basis. We distract and numb ourselves with TVs, video games, social media, alcohol, and countless other drugs and distractions. We can barely take a dump without checking our phones. That’s how scared we are of facing even a moment of solitude and silence.
Here are the bare-bone basics of meditation:
- What is meditation? A mental exercise in regulating your attention (in a specific way).
- What are the benefits? Better health, more happiness, improved social life, greater self-control, emotional resilience and stability, a healthier brain, a more productive life, and much more.
- Who’s it for? Anyone – yes, anyone! – interested in the benefits of meditation.
- How do you get started? Download an app (Headspace or 10% Happier) or buy a book (10% Happier, Meditation for Beginners, or How to Meditate). This will give you all the guidance and inspiration you need. Remember to start small and focus on building a consistent habit of daily practice.
That’s meditation in a nutshell.
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