What is meditation?
Meditation refers to a variety of mental exercises which have their origin in ancient times and became increasingly popular in the western world over the last decades. While meditating, we practice different kinds of focus to achieve a more mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.
Meditative practices were developed as part of the path towards enlightenment
, self-realisation and the end of suffering. There are various types of meditation, such as focused attention, or mindfulness meditation, which is the most widely studied form of meditation in modern science. Metta or loving-kindness
meditation is another example of focused attention. Other forms of meditation are the chanting of mantras or transcendental meditation.
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How does meditation work?
The brain is shaped by evolution, and to survive, we have developed a negativity bias, which makes us focus on the negative and possible problems that may arise rather than the positives of right now. While this was useful when we were mostly faced with physical threats, in our times, most threats are psychological, such as stress. The brain can be trained "like a muscle". With mindfulness meditation, we train our minds to stay present with what is really here instead of running off to past mistakes or future plans and worries. With active awareness of the present, we learn to savour the moment and enjoy life.
Is meditation and mindfulness the same?
Meditation is a broader term that includes varying forms from many different traditions worldwide. Mindfulness
means paying attention to the present moment and being aware of, for example, our feelings and thoughts without placing any judgement. We can practice mindfulness at any given time by remembering the core of being engaged in the moment. This is based on a particular meditation practice was derived from sati, a significant element of Buddhist traditions. While having its root in Buddhism, mindfulness meditation is also widely taught in a secular setting. Mindfulness and meditation go hand in hand and support and enriched one another.
When is meditation not appropriate?
Meditating sometimes appears to be a magical cure for everything, but this is actually a false promise. While it can have astonishingly positive effects, some of which have been scientifically proven, there are also counter indicators for meditating. For example, it isn't advisable for someone with a severe depressive episode to start meditating, especially not without advice and guidance from an experienced therapist. Generally speaking, people with mental health issues are always advised to consult their therapist upfront. It's also more comfortable and safer to begin in a group setting with a qualified teacher to guide you and discuss your experience.
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Where did meditation originate?
Meditation has been practised since antiquity in numerous religious traditions and beliefs, often as part of the path towards enlightenment and self-realisation. Buddhism is the most well known in this context, but it also seems to have played an integral role in the Chinese Taoist traditions. It is nearly impossible to say exactly from when meditation originates, but it has been referred to in many religions
and cultures in different ways, having in common the meditative state. While it's hard to pinpoint who 'created' meditation, it is widely agreed that the Buddha, the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze, and a Japanese monk named Dosho are the three key figures.
When can meditation cause anxiety?
Many people who have worries or concerns that are filling their heads will find that meditating is a great way of releasing them from the forefront of their minds. Meditating is not something that can make daily concerns simply disappear, but it can certainly help to gain perspective on what is truly important. As such, the majority of people who meditate will not find that anxiety
is worsened by the practice – in fact, the reverse is so. And yet, some scientific studies have shown that approximately one in twelve people will suffer from a form of anxiety when they meditate. Other negative emotive states are also associated with the practice in a minority of cases. Usually, this affects people with clinical anxiety and depression
, but it seems it can also include people who have never been diagnosed with such mental health conditions, as well. The reasons for such findings are unclear, so it is best to be a little cautious when first meditating in case you suffer from any adverse mental states as a result of self-examination.
Are meditation apps worth it?
Many people find that using an app to guide them when meditating is a good way forward. It can help people who are new to the idea of achieving more contemplative states of mind to clear their heads of the business of the day and be in a more receptive state of mind. Using them can help to create the time and space needed to meditate properly and, given that some people can suffer from an adverse reaction to the practice, they can also help to keep your mindset positive about each session. That said, some of the apps that are available offer little more than guided meditation sessions which you can obtain free of cost from other online resources, such as video or audio streams. Some app makers will also make spurious claims about the efficacy of their software, perhaps claiming that the meditative states they induce can lead to weight loss, for example. Pick an app that suits you and avoid the ones that make overly bold claims that are not based in science.
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Why is meditation important in Buddhism?
Meditation is something that is important in Hinduism and Jainism – as well as a raft of other religions, for that matter – but it is often most associated with Buddhism, in the West, at least. This is largely because some of the main tenets of Buddhism are associated with meditative processes, especially the pursuit of spiritual awakening and the concept of achieving nirvana. Buddha himself taught that meditating was a good way to achieve states of serenity, or samatha, as well as insight, or vipassana. As such, all Buddhists will practice a number of meditative techniques and Buddhist monks, in particular, will meditate many times a week. In modern times, many of the meditative processes that have been developed in Buddhism have found their way into Western practices, partly due to the rise in popularity of Buddhism globally but also because of the numbers of people who enjoy meditating in a purely secular fashion.
Why doesn't meditation work for everyone?
As you have already read, meditating can cause some negative emotions to develop - such as anxiety, for example – rather than dissipate. Some research conducted at University College London, for example, found that individuals who meditate can find their psychological experience of the practice to be almost entirely negative. Perhaps this is because those people were predisposed to not enjoy meditating or because they went about it in a way that would almost ensure its failure. Whatever the reason, for every twelve or so people who enjoy meditating and find it fulfilling, there will be at least one who doesn't. This research is backed up by similar studies in Germany and Slovenia but also in some – but not all – ancient Buddhist texts. At the moment, science has only noted that meditating is something that not everyone can enjoy in the same way, but it has few answers as to why this may be the case.
What does meditation do to the brain?
The neurological effects of meditation are profound. For starters, people who are skilled at the practice and who do it often will usually develop thicker pre-frontal cortices. This pre-frontal cortex is this part of the brain that is usually most associated with higher brain function. People who are very skilled in memory recall and complex thinking – such as mathematicians, for example – will also have a similar brain density in this area. To some, the pre-frontal cortex is there to amalgamate information received from other parts of the brain and to work on higher-level goals rather than day-to-day brain functions. It is perhaps because of the interconnectedness of this part of the brain that also accounts for greater neuroplasticity
among people who meditate. This is how the brain can effectively rewire itself according to habits and thought processes to work in different ways. As such, meditating regularly can literally help you to think differently if you do it for long enough.
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What is New Age meditation?
New Age meditation was first popularised in the so-called counter culture of the late 1960s and 1970s. It took off in the West Coast area of the United States but soon spread throughout the rest of the West. Although they took inspiration from Buddhist and Hindu meditative practices, New Age practitioners tended to work in a way that totally voided the mind of conscious thought with blank thinking. Sometimes, although certainly not in all cases, this would mean that meditating and recreational drug taking – especially marijuana – would be combined. In addition, many New Age exponents of the virtues of meditating would repeat mantras in order to help them remove any conscious thoughts about their daily lives. Another key feature of New Age meditative practices is that they were often conducted in group sessions alongside other activities, such as yoga
Can meditation heal the body?
Many people would agree that meditating regularly can have a beneficial physiological effect on the brain. Given that it is able to alter the neuroplasticity of people's cerebral cortices, it has often been asked as to whether other physical effects can be enjoyed by meditating. Yes, meditating will help you to get into a better mental state so that the body is more receptive to other treatments. Still, it cannot – in any direct sense, at least – be shown to improve natural bodily healing functions. And yet, this is not the whole story. You may not see a wound heal more quickly as a result of meditative practices, for example, but you can use them to lower your heart rate and blood pressure so the wound could easily stop bleeding sooner. Some people also find that dealing with chronic pain
is much easier if they meditate regularly. Whether this is because the body produces less pain from its nerve signals or the brain is better equipped to ignore them is an open question, however, to which there is still no known definitive answer.
Which postures are best for meditation?
Although certain postures – or asanas as they are often referred to – are known to help some people to meditate, they are not necessary. Commonly, people will associate meditation with the assumption of a lotus or half-lotus position. This can help to relax you and open up your airways, but it is not necessary to meditate properly. Some people will associate these and other keeling postures with entering a meditative state so they can be helpful beyond their spiritual significance. However, simply lying down – known as shavasana in Buddhism – is equally as good. In some Buddhist traditions, meditating while walking is a preferred technique, something that is known as kinhin.
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Meditation in summary
Although it is still not a fully mainstream practice in the West, meditation has been around for thousands of years, and its benefits are only now being understood by science. Meditative practices come in many forms and a variety of traditions, so there is no one correct way to go about doing it. Some people will combine their meditating with other activities - such as mindfulness or yoga, for example – whereas others will simply do it to try and clear their mind from some of the less important but stressful things that fill it during a typical day.
These days, meditating is becoming popular in certain quarters and you can even find it being practised frequently in schools and places of work in the West. Such approaches have long been popular in parts of Asia, usually those with the strongest traditions in Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism. That said, meditative practices also have their roots in certain Jewish traditions and various Old Testament prophets are known to have meditated. In Christian traditions, meditating is usually considered to be more contemplative especially when people are focussing on the nature
or will of God. In Sufism, too, introspective reflection is often encouraged as a form of Islamic meditation.
Outside of organised religion, meditative practices offer a wide variety of mental health and even physical benefits. Today there are numerous apps and online courses that offer an array of meditation practices for beginners as well as those used to he practice. However, the practice is not for everyone, and a minority of people will not find it helps them at all.