For many of us, the practice of meditation seems like a totally foreign notion. In an era of full-time, morning-to-night distractions and distractibility, the concept of quietly sitting with nothing else to do seems impossibly ridiculous. Why would anyone do that, we ask, as we text message with one hand and channel surf with the other.
Of course, this lack of ability to pay attention and focus for more than 15 seconds at a time is at the core of many of our health issues. Learning how to meditate directly addresses this problem, providing training in developing concentration skills. But meditation offers an abundance of additional benefits, many of great significance to our overall health and well-being.
Years of research have documented the profound benefits of meditation, including reductions in elevated blood pressure levels, stress reduction, pain management,1 and even rewiring of neurologic connections in the brain.2,3 Thus, there are many reasons to begin meditation practice. The key question is how to get started.
Learning how to meditate is actually straightforward. There are many types of meditation practice. Some utilize a mantra, a silently repeated short, meaningless phrase. Others involve specific breathing methods. Others focus on the breath itself without utilizing specific instructions on how to breathe.
This latter method is that employed in Zen meditation. You sit comfortably in a quiet space, ideally facing a blank wall, situated approximately two feet from the wall. (Your specific situation may vary. The important point is to be in a quiet space without distractions of people or technology.) You focus on your breath, seeing your breath go up your spine in the back and then down your spine in the front. After observing one cycle of breathing, you silently count "one." Continue to observe your breathing cycle, adding to your count with each completed cycle. "Two." "Three." When you've completed ten cycles, go back to the numerical beginning and count "one" on the next cycle.
But if your mind wanders (as it inevitably will) and begins to think about whatever, when you eventually notice that you've lost your focus, go back to the beginning and count "one" again.
The "practice" part of meditation relates to practicing paying attention, paying attention to the breath. Your mind wanders, eventually you notice this, and you return to the breath. That's all there is. There is no requirement that you need to stay focused. A person is not a "bad meditator" when they find they are continually thinking of other things. The power is in the practice itself. By actually sitting down to meditate, by actually setting aside that time to be "still", you will derive unexpected benefits. And the more you practice, the more your practice becomes a habit, the more you will gain.
What is a recommended length for meditation sessions? There are no rules. The key is to begin, and then to continue. Starting with a five-minute session, twice a day, is a very good beginning. If you wish, you could build up to two 30-minute sessions per day. Again, your meditation practice is not a contest. What works for you will work for you.
1Marchand WR: Mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and zen meditation for depression, anxiety, pain, and psychological distress. J Psychiatr Pract 18(4):233-252, 2012
2Hasenkamp W, Barsalou LW: Effects of meditation experience on functional connectivity of distributed brain networks. Front Hum Neurosci 6:38, 2012 [Epub 2012 Mar 1]
3Brewer JA, et al: Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 108(50):20254-20259, 2011