Think You Can’t Meditate? Try This
Thinking of starting a meditation practice but don't know where to begin? Here's how to meditate—and why it's so good for your health.
There are healthy ways to deal with stress, and one at the top of the list is meditation. The best part: All you really need is a quiet place and an open attitude—it won’t cost you a penny. That said, many people don’t relish the idea of sitting with their thoughts, and many would rather do almost anything else. People worry about being bored or doing it wrong. What’s more, the idea of doing nothing—even just for a few minutes—seems counterintuitive in our frenetic culture. When a society values productivity—the more obvious, the better—there’s little space for a quiet daily practice of sitting still.
However, if you are meditating, you are actually doing something real, and it’s good for your health. Meditation is an umbrella term for a set of techniques that encourage a heightened state of awareness and more focused attention on the present. It can bring mental clarity and calm—the psychological equivalent of cleaning a messy house. There’s also no one way to do it, which is a good thing. You can find what works for you. Maybe that’s repeating a mantra or focusing on mindfulness. Or maybe you use an app for guided meditation.
However you find your inner Zen, you’ll be joining millions of others who reap the benefits of meditation, including lower blood pressure levels, reduced pain, relieved stress, and better sleep. Largely due to this lengthy list of potential benefits, reported meditation use increased more than threefold from 2012 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
If you’re thinking, “I’ve tried meditation, and I hate it,” you’re not alone. A lot of first-time meditators feel like they’ve failed because their minds wandered or they spent the session stressed about doing it correctly. Not to worry. This guide will explain why you should meditate and how to meditate, especially if you’re a new to the practice.
Benefits of meditation
Unlike a lot of trendy health practices, meditation comes with proof of benefits. There’s a lengthy list of evidence-backed benefits of following a meditation practice. “Multiple studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can reduce anxiety,” says Neda Gould, PhD, director of the mindfulness program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “Anxiety and stress can trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response and the release of stress hormones, but studies show that with meditation, this part of the brain turns off more readily.”
An online mindfulness course may reduce stress, anxiety, and Covid-19 fears too. Specifically, 80 percent of people in a recent Global Advances in Health and Medicine study reported decreased stress, 76 percent reported decreased anxiety, and 55 percent said they were less worried about Covid-19. The American Heart Association notes that meditation can improve sleep, reduce inflammation, dim the brain’s response to pain, and help some of the symptoms of menopause. The Society for Integrative Oncology recommends meditation as one way to reduce anxiety, mood changes, and pain and improve quality of life during cancer treatment.
Meditation can also lower blood pressure, and these benefits may still be in effect one year out, according to a study in PLOS One. “A meditation practice—specifically mindfulness—can be particularly helpful, as the science shows it reduces stress, helps with insomnia, builds the immune system, and is helpful for working with anxiety and other challenging emotions, among other scientific findings,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center in Los Angeles and the author of The Little Book of Being.
Meditation is generally considered safe for healthy people, but it’s not for everyone. “If it feels like it’s making you more anxious, it may not be the right approach for you,” she says.
How to start meditating
As with many good-for-you habits, getting started is the hardest part. But meditation doesn’t have to be difficult, says Gould. Do you think meditation requires “thinking about nothing”? It doesn’t. We all have thoughts running through our heads, all the time.
During meditation, you focus your awareness on something specific—like your breathing. As thoughts and feelings arise, you observe them without judgement or reaction. Instead, you gently refocus your attention. While it sounds both simple and hard, the good news is that you can get better at it with practice. You also don’t need to stock up on a bunch of expensive equipment to make meditation happen. “All the tools you need are internally available,” Gould says. “It’s just learning how to use them.”
With most meditation practices, you’ll need:
- A quiet place with limited distractions
- A comfortable posture, whether you’re sitting, lying down, or walking
- A place to focus your attention, such as a chosen word or mantra, an object, or your breath
- An open attitude to let any distractions come and go naturally and without judgement
Ways to meditate
There are a lot of ways to meditate, and what works for your best friend may not work for you. That’s OK. Finding the right practice for you may take some trial and error. Gould suggests reading about the various types of meditation to see which ones appeal to you. Give one a go and see how you like it. Not a fan? Try something else.
Here are just some of the more popular types:
- Mindfulness meditation: Based on Buddhist teachings, this practice has you pay attention to your body and thoughts, often focusing on the breath.
- Transcendental meditation: With this type of meditation, you repeat a personalized mantra—like a word, sound, or phrase—to quiet your thoughts.
- Walking meditation: Meditation isn’t always about sitting and breathing; it can also incorporate movement. With walking, or movement, meditation, you focus on your body, often breathing in time with your footsteps.
- Loving kindness: Also called metta meditation, this practice involves directing well-wishes to others and sitting with feelings of gratefulness and compassion.
- Guided meditation: With this type of meditation a narrator talks you through the process. It often involves visualizations, which set the mood and tone.
- Focused meditation: This practice involves concentrating on something around you and blocking out everything else.
- Spiritual meditation: Practiced at home or in a place of worship, this meditation is similar to prayer. You can reflect on spiritual growth or look for a deeper connection in your faith.
In a world built on bustling and hustling, sitting alone with your thoughts can be intimidating. And many beginners don’t know where to start. Consider taking an online class if you find a type of meditation that appeals to you, Gould says. Make sure you choose a reputable program. Not sure how to find a good one? Many universities offer courses. Or try a guided meditation app. “There are free apps, such as Insight Timer, which offers 80,000 guided meditations,” Gould says. “Other apps have a free portion, but you can pay for premium services.”
A few popular meditation apps include:
(Related: How a Pet Can Help You Master Mindfulness)
Meditation for beginners
Once you have found a practice that appeals to you, start small. “Begin with five to 10 minutes and build up from there to 20 minutes,” Gould says. To help you lock in the habit, carve out a set time to practice. Some people prefer to meditate in the morning, before the day’s busyness pushes meditation to the bottom of their to-do list. If you’re not a morning person, waking up earlier to mediate probably won’t be a lasting strategy, Gould says.
“It’s nice to integrate meditation into a routine,” she says. “You take a shower, brush teeth, meditate, and go on with your day. If you tack it on with some things you do normally, it is more likely to stick.” Try to find some space in your home where you won’t be disturbed, and practice along with an app or on your own, says Winston.
“You begin by noticing your breathing in your body, feeling the rising and falling of your chest or abdomen, or the in and out sensations at your nose,” says Winston. “When you noticed your attention has wandered away—which it will!—then gently redirect your attention back to your breathing.” Keep doing this over and over. Ta-da! You’ve meditated.
How to meditate properly
Gould suggests another exercise to get a feel for mindfulness meditation. It involves pausing to notice your five senses in the moment, and it’s super easy to do:
- Name five things you see.
- Name four things you can touch.
- Name three things you can hear.
- Name two things you can smell.
- Name one that you can taste.
That’s it. That’s a type of meditation. At its core, meditation involves being present in the here and now, and this exercise can help you do just that, she says. Anxiety is rooted in the future and filled with what-ifs, while depression often involves looking back in time. Staying present reduces anxiety and depression, she explains.
Your meditation practice may not stick at first. “It’s like a new exercise routine. It takes time,” Gould says. “Positive benefits won’t happen overnight—or in a week or two. It can take a month or two months to see any benefits.” Ditch those high expectations. Be patient. And don’t worry about meditation mistakes like problems focusing.
“Over time, most people find it helps them feel calmer and more focused, and it does get easier,” Winston says. “The biggest sign that you’re ‘doing it right’ is how it impacts your life. Do you feel calmer in the day, less reactive? Is it positively impacting your relationships? Is it supporting you?” If your answer is yes, you’re on the right path.