Many of us wonder how to meditate properly and is meditation really helpful? Before we address these questions, I would first like to ask the sceptics among you the following question: Did you know that 50 years ago it was anything but “normal” to jog? People would have asked you who you were running from.
The same phenomenon can be observed with meditation at the moment. Few people meditate and do it publicly; and that will change just like the perception about jogging.
There are many forms of introspection and mental training defined under the name “meditation” – not only for religious purposes and religious people, but especially for non-religious students, scientists, competitive athletes, secularists and non-believers.
In fact, there are many methods of meditation and “spiritual” enquiry that can greatly improve our well-being — without requiring us to “believe” in anything that is not adequately proven.
Whether it’s performance enhancement, mental clarity, productivity or simply well-being, there are many reasons why people meditate and these reasons have been scientifically proven over time. We can now credibly prove what Buddha already taught 2,500 years ago.
“Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think. Joy follows a pure thought like a shadow that never leaves.” – Buddha
Scientists have found that meditation leads to stress reduction and improved self-awareness, controls and reduces anxiety, reduces depression, improves sleep, reduces addiction, helps fight pain, and lowers blood pressure.
Note: In the last 15 years, scientific research on meditation and mindfulness has increased rapidly. However, we are at an early stage of research that will more accurately show the benefits due to improved measurement methods (e.g. fMRI or EEG) and better studies.
For beginners, I recommend a technique called Vipassana (Pali: “insight”), which comes from the oldest tradition of Buddhism, Theravada. The advantage of Vipassana is that it can be taught in a completely secular way. Experts in this practice usually acquire their training in a Buddhist context, and most retreat centers in the US and Europe still teach the Buddhist philosophy associated with it.
Nevertheless, this method of self-observation and mental training can be brought into any secular or scientific context. The same cannot be said of most other forms of “spiritual” methods.
The quality of mind cultivated in Vipassana is commonly referred to as “mindfulness” (Pali: “Sati”) and there is a rapidly growing literature on its psychological benefits.
Mindfulness is a state of open and non-judgemental attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
Meditation has also been shown to improve cognitive function, even causing changes in grey matter density in regions of the brain related to learning and memory, emotional regulation and self-awareness.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) programmes developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn have brought this practice into hospitals and other clinical settings. Lissy Kayser teaches mindfulness in schools. Even the US Department of Defence, well-known company founders like Jack Dorsey (Twitter, Square) or competitive athletes have begun to experiment with meditation in this form.
Simple, but not easy
The practice of mindfulness is extraordinarily simple to describe but in no way easy to perform. True mastery probably requires special talent and a lifetime of practice. So the following simple instructions are analogous to the instructions for walking on a rope, which I assume works something like this:
- Find a horizontal cable that can support your weight
- Stand on one end
- Step forward by placing one foot directly in front of the other
- Do not fall
Obviously, steps 3-5 require a little practice. Fortunately, the benefits of meditation training arrive long before mastery. And falling, from the perspective of Vipassana, happens ceaselessly, every moment you are lost in thought.
The problem is not the thoughts themselves, but the state of thinking without knowing that one is thinking.
As every meditator soon discovers, such distraction is the normal state of our mind. Most of us fall off the wire and crash upside down every second – whether happily slipping into reverie or into fear, anger, self-hatred and other negative states of mind.
How to mediate: The process of meditation
Meditation is a technique to break this spell, if only for a brief moment. The goal is to awaken from our trance of discursive thinking and from the habit of incessantly reaching for the pleasant and withdrawing from the unpleasant.
Our mental training can be described in a process of four steps. Each run is like successfully contracting your biceps with a barbell in the gym:
- Breath: Attention on the breath
- Distraction: Attention is diverted
- Reminder: realise that attention is distracted
- Re-focus: refocusing attention on the breath
It is advisable to connect the practice with an “intention”: “I want to feel serenity” or “I want to gain clarity”.
Furthermore, the point of “remembrance” seems very important for one’s own well-being and the progress of the practice. As with any other practice in which we have little routine, we will quickly realise how often we are confused in our own thoughts. In the moment of realising that our attention is distracted, our inner self-criticism awakens: “See, you can’t do this,” or “You’re so bad.”
At that moment we observe our self-destructive thoughts, just as before we observed the breath. The object of our meditation becomes our thoughts for a few moments, which we then transform with a new intention of curiosity and kindness (English: “Kindness”), because in reality we have come a great deal closer to our goal of meditation.
Our aim is to maintain our attention on the breath and to observe all other sensory impressions as contents of our consciousness – without being absorbed in thoughts.
Each time we find that our attention is distracted and we refocus on the breath, we have successfully strengthened our mental muscle of meditation.
There are two types of meditation:
- In the moment; “integrated”
- In the studio; “engaged
Integrated practice or “in the moment practice” is something you can do while going about your daily routines. The exercises are short and location-independent and do not require much or any time. They are exercises that clarify how we deal with things.
Dedicated practice is like going to the gym. We set aside a few minutes a day to practice mindfulness in a more intensive way, and the benefits will naturally flow into our daily lives – just as exercise helps us feel fit and more vital, even when we’re walking up the stairs at work or cleaning at home.
A good morning routine
The key to successful meditation is ongoing practice. Like learning a musical instrument or a new dance movement, it takes time to become more comfortable with the practice.
One small way to help is to manage our habits to build a meditation routine. New habits take more than 30 days to become firmly integrated into our daily lives.
Therefore, please give yourself time, combine meditation with another habit (such as making tea or coffee) and start with a short duration (1 to 2 minutes). By setting yourself a small goal, it will be easier for you to start meditating at all. Of course, you can also meditate a little longer when the one minute is up.
How to meditate: 8 simple steps
- Sit comfortably with your spine erect, either in a chair or cross-legged on a cushion.
- Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths and feel the points of contact between your body and the chair or floor. Notice the sensations associated with sitting – feelings of pressure, warmth, tingling, vibration, etc.
- Gradually become aware of the process of breathing. Pay attention to wherever you feel the breath most clearly – either at the nostrils or as your belly or chest rises and falls.
- Allow your attention to rest in just feeling the breath. (There is no need to control your breath. Just let it come and go).
- Each time your mind wanders in thought, gently return to the feeling of breathing.
- As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations continue to occur: Sounds, feelings in the body, emotions, etc. Observe these phenomena as they arise in the realm of consciousness and then return to the feeling of breathing.
- The moment you observe that you are absorbed in thought, notice the present thought itself as an object of awareness. Then return your attention to the breath or to the sounds or sensations that occur in the next moment.
- Continue in this way until you see all the objects of consciousness – sights, sounds, sensations, emotions and even thoughts themselves – as they arise and pass away.
Meditate properly through guided meditations
Those new to the practice usually find it useful to hear such instructions out loud in the form of a guided meditation.
I like Sam Harris voice. Probably because I listened to his podcast before he launched his own meditation app called Waking Up. Sam now also offers other instructors like is wife doing meditation for kids. 10% Happier is yet another alternative.
Special note: I used Oak Meditation to track my practice directly in Apple Health. I was involved in the development of Oak’s design while working as a product strategist at AJ&Smart, a Berlin agency.
Enjoy your meditation’s benefits.
How to meditate: Resources
Sources and further links:
- William Hart: The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation
- Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion von Sam Harriss
- Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body from Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson
- Gesund durch Meditation from Jon Kabat-Zinn
Global Vipassana Retreat Centers
- Vipassana Meditation Centre in Triebel (Note: I have been there twice for a 10-day course and can highly recommend it).