Reviewed by Beth Pausic, Psy.D.
Written by Our Editorial Team
Meditation… it’s not what you think! Okay, dad jokes aside, the practice of meditation is more than just sitting and breathing with your eyes closed.
And despite how often the word "mindfulness" enters the chat, it’s also not really about what you think.
Meditation is, in fact, an umbrella term encompassing a wide array of diverse practices. For our purposes, we can think of meditation as any practice that focuses the mind on a particular thought or activity to train your attention and cultivate a greater sense of calm.
Using mindfulness, you practice being in the present moment. In a time of ever-shortening attention spans and fractured focus, it’s easy to understand why quieting your mind through meditation can be a powerful tool.
Read on for our beginner’s guide to meditation.
One of the many cool things about meditation is that it’s both highly personal and very much something you can practice and get better at.
And believe it or not, getting started isn’t incredibly difficult. Some simple steps to help you get into the practice include:
Find a Comfortable Seat
Set a Time Limit
Listen to Your Breath
End With Kindness
Do a Body Scan
When and How Often to Meditate
So, let’s dig into each of these points.
First things first: find the right place to sit — somewhere quiet or a place that feels calm and peaceful to you. You can sit cross-legged on the floor with a cushion or in a chair with your feet on the floor. Don’t get too comfy, as it may be tempting to nod off.
Setting aside the time to meditate is important in establishing a regular daily practice and getting comfortable with meditating. Like trying anything new, you’ll need practice to improve.
Aim to start with just a few minutes — no more than 10. Even five minutes is a good place to start if you don’t have much time. Set an alarm so you’re not tempted to keep checking your phone or watch.
Don’t let your schedule get in the way of starting a meditation practice.
Once you’ve settled into a comfortable position, either close your eyes or soften your gaze downwards slightly.
Then, follow the sensation of your breath as you take deep breaths in and out.
Some people find it helpful to repeat (in your head) the words “in” as you inhale and “out” as you exhale, or to count each breath up to 10 and start over. Eventually, those words may fall away.
Noticing your breath will help you come back to it when your mind wanders — which it will.
Yep. We can just about promise that your mind will roam when you meditate, especially in the beginning. That said, even experienced meditators have some days where they can’t seem to quiet their minds.
You may start to daydream, get distracted by a noise or sensation in your body or start making a to-do list.
This is completely normal and brings us to one of the primary thrusts of meditation practice: noticing these thoughts and letting them pass.
No matter how often your mind wanders, try not to judge yourself too harshly. Simply take note and refocus your attention to your breath.
When you get to the end of your established meditation time, gently and slowly open your eyes or lift your gaze.
Take a moment to notice any sounds in the environment, how your body feels and your thoughts and emotions. You may wish to bring your hands to your heart, or to let a small smile tug at your lips.
The point is to allow a feeling of loving kindness wash over you. If you’re not quite there yet (we get it), simply saying or thinking the words “thank you” is a good place to start.
If breath meditation is proving difficult, you might want to try another type of mindfulness meditation that focuses on sensations in the body, called a body scan meditation.
You’ll start out the same way — in a comfortable seat. Then, instead of turning your attention to your breath, you’ll do a body scan from head to toe, slowly bringing awareness to your entire physical body.
Start at the top of your head and slowly and deliberately bring your attention to the surface of your skin. Try to feel your scalp, your ears, your eyelids and your nose. Continue downward across the face, the ears, down the neck and shoulders, your torso, hips, thighs — you get the picture — and all the way down to your toes.
If you feel any particular physical sensations — warmth, tingling, itching, soreness — simply note it and continue. Try not to react or even label it as good or bad. If you need to adjust your position or scratch an itch, go for it. Otherwise, continue your body scan until you’ve reached your toes.
Body scan meditation aims to help bring you out of your mind and into your present. Focusing on every follicle, every cell, every digit and sensation — refocusing away from what’s going on in your mind and towards what’s going on in your body — is a great way to take space and re-center yourself.
Ideally, a regular practice involves meditating for at least a few minutes daily. If a daily meditation sounds difficult to make time for, try adding it to your calendar like any other appointment.
As for timing? First thing in the morning, in the late afternoon or before dinner… There’s really no “right” time of day to meditate.
Common wisdom does suggest to try not to meditate if you’ve had a meal within 30 minutes of sitting down to practice. Digestion requires energy and people may find it challenging to settle into their meditation after a meal.
As we’ve already mentioned, meditation is a highly personal practice. Not all meditation practices will be right for you, and at the end of the day, the best practice is the one that feels most comfortable and encourages you to keep practicing!
If mindfulness meditation isn’t doing it for you or you simply want to explore other options, there are plenty of other modalities to explore:
Spiritual meditation. The types of spiritual meditation are diverse and used in nearly all religions and spiritual traditions. A 2017 study states that spiritual meditation focuses on connecting with a higher power and developing a deeper understanding of spiritual or religious meaning. Buddhist meditation is an example of spiritual meditation.
Focused meditation. Focused meditation is another type of meditation that involves using one of the five senses to sharpen focus and attention. This practice may be a difficult way to meditate for beginners.
Movement meditation. As the name implies, this form of meditation is done while moving gently. This helps you achieve a deeper connection with your body and develop body awareness. Some examples include yoga, walking meditation, tai chi and even gardening.
Mantra meditation. Mantra meditation uses a repetitive word or sound (like “om”) to clear the mind — this is what many people may picture when they think of meditation. Chanting a mantra several times lets you experience deeper levels of awareness and become more in tune with your environment.
Transcendental Meditation. Transcendental Meditation (TM) refers to a specific practice designed to quiet the mind and induce a state of calm and peace. It involves using mantras and is best taught by a certified Transcendental Meditation teacher.
While there are many types of meditation, most have four things in common:
A quiet location with as few distractions as possible
A specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down or in other positions)
Something to focus your attention on (a chosen word or mantra, an object or your breath)
An open attitude (letting distractions come and go)
While some forms of meditation have roots in Hinduism or Buddhism and many spiritual traditions include meditation as part of their practice, meditation isn’t an inherently religious or spiritual practice.
There is no right or wrong way to practice meditation. If the DIY approach is challenging, a guided meditation using a meditation app like InsightTimer or Headspace may be a helpful way to cultivate the habit.
The number of adults in the U.S. who meditate has increased significantly over the past few years, up to over 14 percent, according to a 2017 National Health Interview Survey.
Let’s explore some of the most significant benefits of meditation:
Stress, either mental or physical, increases levels of the hormone cortisol. The increase of cortisol releases inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines, which can disrupt sleep, increase blood pressure, promote anxiety and depression, contribute to fatigue and more.
But meditation can help reduce stress-caused inflammation. In an eight-week study, people who practiced mindfulness meditation showed a reduction in the psychological effects of stress.
We know that chronic pain and mental health are connected.
Meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, has been shown in clinical and experimental studies to reduce pain significantly.
A 2018 study suggests that meditation and mindfulness increase cortical thickness in some brain areas, which makes you less sensitive to pain over the long term.
In a 2016 study, adults with chronic low-back pain who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction saw the same level of improvement in their pain as those who received cognitive-behavioral therapy, even long after the study ended.
Types of meditation can also reduce anxiety symptoms and levels, allowing for trauma release. Meditation gets you more and more comfortable with the work of letting go — which might make it easier for you to manage your anxiety in your daily life.
A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials found that Transcendental Meditation possibly decreased anxiety in nearly 1,300 adults, most notably in those with the highest levels of anxiety.
Meditation can also improve your physical health by lowering blood pressure and reducing heart strain. One review concluded that several types of meditation improved blood pressure and the cardiovascular system.
Sleep struggles are the stuff of nightmares — this much we know to be true. But if you’ve tried it all — the screen detoxes, the hot showers, the lavender essential oils — you might also want to consider meditation.
Learning how to meditate can help your body relax, lower levels of cortisol, release tension and put you in a peaceful state where you’re more likely to fall asleep, even if you’ve been feeling anxious.
A study compared mindfulness-based meditations and found those who meditated stayed asleep longer and saw a reduction in the severity of their insomnia.
As meditation improves your focus, you may see improvements in mental clarity and memory — especially as you get older.
Kirtan Kriya, a method of meditation that combines a mantra with repetitive finger motions to focus thoughts, has been shown to improve performance on neuropsychological tests in people with age-related memory loss.
Meditation can also partially improve memory in patients with dementia, as well as help control stress and improve coping in those caring for family members with dementia.
Antidepressants and psychotherapy are usually the first-line treatments for depression, but ongoing research suggests that a meditation practice can help change how the brain responds to stress and related mental health conditions.
A review of treatments given to over 3,500 adults found that mindfulness meditation helped improve symptoms of depression.
One of the mechanisms by which meditation may help manage symptoms of anxiety and depression is through non-judgmental observation of feelings and thoughts.
As we’ve already discussed, meditation teaches you to let thoughts and feelings pass without judging or criticizing them. You acknowledge the thoughts, then let them go or pass by.
Meditation can help you get to a place where you can notice an unwanted or negative thought, accept it as one possibility and acknowledge that it’s not the only possibility.
Meditation can also help you to stay in the present moment rather than worrying about an unknown or impossible-to-control future.
As you work on building a regular meditation practice, remember it’s called a meditation practice — not a meditation mastery — for a reason! It won’t be perfect.
Some (or most!) days, you might spend 75 percent of the time going over your to-do list. Other days, you might surprise yourself. It’s all part of the process.
When you learn how to meditate, you also learn to:
Connect your body with your breath
Deepen your breath
Sharpen focus or attention
Accept difficult emotions
It’s important to remember that meditation alone won’t cure depression or any other mental health illness.
In the meantime, add meditation to your self-care regimen and see how you feel! The world is, after all, full of possibility.
Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers.
Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches.
Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships.
Start your mental wellness journey today.