Meditation 101: An Overview in Finding Your Zen
What if I told you that the key to living a longer, happier, and healthier life would only cost you a few minutes out of your day?
This may seem like a big claim, especially when you consider how much of the world is fad dieting, crossfitting, and TEDTalking with few real world examples of success, but today we are talking about an ancient practice that’s guaranteed to work for everyone.
For thousands of years people all over the world have practiced meditation.
That’s right, meditation. The art of taking a small portion of your day and dedicating it solely to yourself. It is a concept not many people in today’s world are familiar with.
Let’s face it, we live in a time that’s dedicated to “hurry up and go”. On average, a person has 48.6 thoughts per minute.
That tallies up to an average of 70,000 thoughts per day. With our fast paced living and our brains working a mile a minute regularly, it is no surprise that we have a hard time slowing down and existing.
So where does meditation come from? The oldest evidence of meditation in written history dates back to 1500 BCE from the Hindu tradition Vedantism. During this time, meditation was seen purely as a religious experience.
Meditation slowly evolved over time and can be seen in different forms during 6 and 5 BCE in both Taoism and Buddhism.
During the Middle Ages meditation became more widespread in both Japan and China, and is still heavily embedded in their respective cultures today.
It has also been observed that during this time period meditation in both Judaism and Islam became more popularized as a means of worship.
Meditation was also slowly becoming a practice for both Eastern and Western Christianity at this time as well.
All throughout history meditation shows up in many different cultures and religions. It wasn’t until the 1960s that people started regularly using meditation outside of religious practices and started to observe other health benefits.
Around this time meditation was considered a pseudoscience and rejected by skeptics while researchers started studying the practice more in depth from both a spiritual and secular point of view.
Throughout the years their findings showed that meditation has profound health benefits with regular practice.
Since meditation has existed all throughout our human history and has undergone many changes, there are so many different types that it can seem overwhelming to know where to start.
In this guide we’re going to go over some of the more popular beginner techniques used throughout the world, as well as intermediate techniques that you’ll be able to try once you’ve gotten down the basics.
So take a deep breath, find a comfy seat, and allow me to be your guide towards a more peaceful and healthier way of living.
As already mentioned, meditation has been proven to have a positive influence on your overall health in a multitude of ways.
Studies have been conducted by healthcare professionals and top medical researchers all over the world based on habitual meditation for the last few decades.
The average amount of time it took for these researchers to find a notable difference was 8 weeks, though this can vary from person to person.
It is also important to note that while the benefits we will go over have been proven to be realistic, it is always recommended to speak to your doctor about the regimens that are right for you and to keep in mind that meditation is best used in addition to treatment, not as a replacement.
1. Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Complications
Over the last few years cardiovascular issues have been the number one culprit for premature death followed closely by strokes.
In 2012 a study was conducted where all participants were diagnosed with various cardiovascular conditions and were asked to meditate daily for several weeks.
When the study concluded, researchers found that all participants had a 48% reduction in their risk of having heart attacks and strokes.
Researchers also found that the participants had significantly lowered their blood pressure compared those who did not practice meditation.
2. Stress Management
Studies have shown that stress causes many adverse effects to our mental, emotional, and physical health. Taking just ten minutes out of your day for meditation has shown to minimize health risks involved with being overstressed.
Headaches, digestive issues, and insomnia are just a few examples of stress related conditions that can be improved, or even erased, with meditation.
Researchers believe the reason meditation has such a positive impact on our stress is because of the focus on our breathing.
Not only are our minds being decluttered from all the things we worry about in a day, but deep breathing provides your cells with more oxygen to carry to the rest of your body and has been proven to help promote healthier cell growth in tissues, organs, and muscles.
3. Mental Health
Meditation has been studied in depth as treatment for a variety of mental health conditions. These studies have shown that depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms can be reduced in as little as four weeks with habitual meditation.
Harvard researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that patients with these conditions who practiced meditation had an increase in their brain’s grey matter, which plays a big role in one’s perception, memory, decision making, and emotions.
Aside from the physical changes that can be observed, meditation also is beneficial for viewing a situation objectively.
Mental health conditions often prevent the afflicted from understanding their experiences with the same clarity as those with no condition.
When we meditate, we are focusing our minds and quieting down our thoughts. For someone with depression or anxiety, this quiet time helps them to push out all the negative thoughts and practice mindfulness.
Meditation makes it easier to work through a problem, and overall improves the symptoms of their condition.
With so many different types of meditation practiced all over the world it is not surprising that it can be hard to know where to start.
Here we have a comprehensive guide to some of the more popular practiced techniques for you to choose from.
There is no right or wrong method and you may find that the form that works for you might be different than what works for someone else.
If you find that one of these methods is not providing you the results you’re looking for, it is okay. Trying different methods or even pulling different aspects from a few methods and making your meditation sessions your own is perfectly acceptable.
The basic principle of all forms of meditation is deep breathing. Before we start diving into all these different ways to meditate, try taking a deep breath.
First, you’ll want to inhale through your nose for five seconds. Make sure to count slowly and focus on how your abdomen expands. Now hold that breath for five seconds, and slowly exhale for eight.
If you’ve achieved those steps then congratulations! You are already on your way to effective meditation.
1. Zen Meditation – Beginner
Zen Meditation, or Zazen, is the most recognized form of meditation on the planet. It originated in 5 BCE and is still practiced today by Zen Buddhists.
While the practice started as a means of reaching Nirvana, we can use it today to reach a level of complete relaxation.
Step 1 – Position
Zazen is literally translated into “seated meditation”, so you’ll want to find a comfortable spot with enough room to sit in one of the various poses for this type of meditation.
You can use a pillow, yoga mat, or any other surface you’ll be able to sit on for at least ten minutes. Once you’re comfortable, there are three different sitting positions you can choose from.
- Burmese Position – Beginner: This is the easiest position to sit in for a long period of time. You’ll want to sit with your legs crossed and one foot in front of the other so that both of your knees make contact with the surface you are seated on.
- Half Lotus Position – Intermediate: From Burmese position, the Half Lotus is achieved by taking your left foot and placing it on your right thigh with your right leg stays tucked under the left.
- Full Lotus Position – Advanced: As the name suggests, this position is similar to Half Lotus. The difference is that you will untuck the right leg and place your right foot on your left thigh.
Once you’ve found the position that is most comfortable for you, place your hands palm up on your knees. You can also lightly touch your index fingers to your thumbs, but this additional position is optional.
Step 2 – Focus
With your eyes closed, start the deep breathing exercise we covered above. Focus solely on your breathing until the world around you falls out of focus and your deep breaths are the only thing you can hear and feel.
The point is to completely quiet your mind. It is going to take practice and patience, so if your mind is wandering, that’s perfectly fine. Continue to focus on your breathing until it quiets down.
Step 3 – Zen
Once you’ve achieved a quiet mind, keep deep breathing and hold your position. At this stage, you are successfully meditating! You’ll want to sit your zen state for approximately fifteen minutes, though if you feel like you can hold the position for longer, feel free to do so.
2. Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana Meditation is another form of Buddhist meditation, but with a different sort of focus from Zazan. Vipassana translates to “insight” and is used to practice mindfulness.
This type of meditation is recommended for practitioners with high levels of stress.
Step 1 – Position
Just like the positions we went over in Zen Meditation, Vipassana Meditation is achieved in the same way. Decide if Burmese, Half Lotus, or Full Lotus is the most comfortable position for you to sit in and find a comfortable place to set up.
It is suggested in ancient Buddhist texts that Vipassana is best practiced in a quiet place in nature, but any quiet space will work just fine.
Once you’re in position and ready to being, close your eyes and place your palms either face up or face down on your knees. For this specific practice either hand position is correct.
Step 2 – Focus
Begin with your deep breathing exercise and allow your mind to wander. In Vipassana, the point is to clear your mind, but not shut out everything else.
When you feel yourself start to relax, you’ll want to start observing your environment through sound and feelings. First observe your breathing. Notice the temperature difference between your inhales and exhales.
Feel how your lungs and abdomen expand and contract with each breath. Next move on to other parts of your body. Observe how your heart beat slows as you become more relaxed. Notice each point of contact between your knees and hands.
Another important aspect of Vipassana is observing the world around you. If there are any noises in your environment, listen to them.
Continue your deep breathing and attempt to pinpoint the source of the noise without moving or opening your eyes to see it. If you’re practicing outdoors, focus your attention to the sounds of nature.
Vipassana is all about observing yourself and environment. With regular practice, you’ll be able to reach a complete state of relaxation and instead of shutting out your thoughts will be able to observe them from a more objective state of mind.
3. Mantra Meditation – Intermediate
Mantra Meditation originated as a Hindu practice, but has trickled into many different cultures and beliefs over the last few centuries.
The word “mantra” translates literally to “sacred utterance”. While it has a religious foundation, matras have come to be used in a more secular way.
Phrases such as “I think I can” or “Vidi Veni Vici” are also considered mantras, though these are not generally used in meditative practices.
In Mantra Meditation, words or sounds are repeated over and over again in order to achieve a meditative state. The mantra is meant to cause a vibration through your body that helps to soothe you in the same way deep, focused breathing does.
In Hindu and Buddhist practices these mantras are believed to follow the natural energy and vibrations of the universe, so they are used in order for the practitioner to tap into the world around them.
Mantra Meditation can be difficult to use effectively for those who are still learning how to quiet their minds with focused deep breathing. This form of meditation is recommended for those who meditate in order to reduce their depression and anxiety.
Step 1 – Mantras
It is important to first figure out which mantra you are comfortable with using. Each mantra has a specific spiritual meaning, but you are free to choose whichever one sounds best and produces the vibrating sensation that feels right to you.
- Om/Aum: This mantra is considered the most powerful of them all. It is considered the sound of the universe and promotes harmony, peace, and love.
- So-Ham: Translates into “I am that”, where “that” takes on the meaning of everything. This mantra is an acknowledgement that everything in our universe is connected.
- Om Namah Shivaya: This mantra is associated with divine love, graceful, bliss, and truth. it is literal translation is “salutations to Shiva” and is thought to be a powerful healing mantra for both physical and mental ailments.
- Om Mani Padme Hum: The six syllables of this mantra stand for each of the six realms of existence in Buddhist beliefs. It stands for generosity, ethics, patience, diligence, renunciation, and wisdom.
While this list of mantras are the ones traditionally used in Mantra Meditation, you can use any word or sound you wish. Regular humming works just as well as these mantras. Feel free to experiment to find the right vibrating words or sounds for you.
Step 2 – Positions
Sit comfortably on a pillow or in a chair and be sure to keep your back straight. Any of the positions we’ve previously gone over are acceptable for Mantra Meditation. If you choose to use a chair, it is also acceptable to sit with both feet on the ground in a natural sitting position.
Step 3 – Focus
In Mantra Meditation you are still going to breath deeply, but instead of focusing your attention on your breath, you will want to slowly chant the mantra of your choosing.
Start by inhaling slowly and holding for five seconds. When you exhale you will say the mantra out loud at the same time. Let the sound resignate throughout your body and observe the vibration it sends through your throat and chest.
Traditionally mantras are repeated 108 or 1008 times, but for practice purposes say it as few or as many times as you’d like. Once you find yourself in a meditative state you can continue to chant your mantra if you so choose or sit in silence.
Quick Tips and Tricks
- Meditation takes practice. It is okay if you don’t quite reach a meditative state on the first try. Dedicate at least ten minutes daily to meditation and make it a part of your routine. The more you meditate, the easier it will become.
- Ease yourself into it. Don’t push yourself to meditate for an hour if you’re still getting the hang of things. Start in ten to fifteen minute intervals and slowly work your way towards longer periods of time. Move at your own pace and spend as much time as what feels right for you.
- It is okay if your mind wanders. In fact, it is encouraged to allow yourself think freely in order to help your mind empty itself. If you feel yourself getting caught up in your thoughts, go back to focusing on your breathing and try again.
- For even better focus, try counting each breath you take on each exhale. Try getting to ten before your mind wanders. If you find your focus waning, count your breaths to ten again. Each person is different and how long it will take for you to have complete focus will not be the same as it is for someone else. Keep at it!
- Try meditating in a variety of different places. There are no specific places to meditate in. It can be done anywhere, even loud and distracting environments with enough practice. Giving yourself a chance to find the right environment will be helpful in your overall goal of reaching a meditative state.
- Focus on the methods that work best for you. As previously stated, there is no right or wrong way to meditate and there are no rules that say you are not allowed to mix and match parts of different methods to find the right one for you. Feel free to experiment in order to find the right way for you to practice.
Now that you have an overview of what meditation is and are equipped with different styles and techniques, you’re ready to start your journey.
Whether you are meditating for religious, spiritual, or health related reasons, you’ll be reaching your zen in no time.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to meditate and there are so many different types of meditation for you to choose from. Once you have these basic tips, tricks, and techniques mastered, the wide world of meditation is your oyster.