If stress and anxiety are affecting your happiness and health, then you may have considered trying mindfulness meditation, which has been scientifically proven to reduce stress and anxiety and increase well-being in your daily life. But how much do you need to meditate in order for meditation to work?
When I first started studying with an accomplished meditation teacher, I was surprised when I learned that as little as a 5-10 minute practice a day can have a big benefit on your mental health and well-being. It’s not the amount of meditation that matters, my teacher said, as much as the frequency of meditation. So it’s far better to meditate for ten minutes every day than to meditate for an hour once a week.
I eventually became a meditation teacher myself, and have been teaching people how to integrate meditation into their daily routine using a variety of meditation techniques drawn from Tibetan Buddhism. In this article, and the included guided meditation recording, I’ll share with you a simple meditation practice you can do every day.
What is meditation?
Meditation has become popular as a treatment for everyday mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness. But meditation isn’t only a treatment for problems, but a way to bring out our best human qualities. That’s why it’s worthwhile to not just apply mindfulness practice for occasional stress relief or better sleep, but to make it part of a lifetime routine of being a healthy, compassionate person who can make deep, meaningful connections with others.
Meditation has thousands of years of history, and is most associated with Buddhism, where many types of meditation have been described and elaborated over the centuries. Buddhists even say that meditation can lead to an advanced states you may have heard of called Nirvana or Enlightenment, where one is permanently free of mental problems and has fully actualized one’s best qualities and potential as a human being.
In the United States, meditation is becoming popular in mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier that promote meditation’s mental health benefits for stress relief, better sleep, letting go, and staying in the present moment.
In A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment’s weekly podcast, we describe and explore meditation techniques from a scientific and secular perspective. We adapt the powerful meditation and mind training techniques from Buddhism for modern people who want to live happy, meaningful lives.
Meditation is not for everyone
All of that said, meditation is not for everyone. If you have been clinically diagnosed with a mental disorder, or feel strong negative or disturbing emotions, please consult your therapist or physician before beginning a meditation practice. In general, meditation is meant for the relatively healthy-minded to guide us to fully realizing the beauty and potential of our lives.
The benefits of meditation
The benefits of meditating have been described from both Buddhist and scientific perspectives. Buddhism says that meditation:
- Helps our minds become more stable and focused
- Increases our positive emotions of kindness, generosity, patience, and joy
- Increases our openness and ability to connect with others
- Helps us to remain in the present moment instead of regretting the past and worrying about the future
Science backs up many of these claims, as well as showing how meditation helps specific mental health conditions:
- Meditation improves our physical health
- Meditation increases our happiness
- Meditation increases our self-control
- Meditation improves our productivity
- Meditation increases our social connection to others
- Meditation reduces stress and anxiety
When to meditate
You can meditate at all times of the day, but in general the best time of day to meditate is right when you wake up, creating a daily routine of morning meditation.
You might feel more relaxed in the evening, or have some extra time when you get home from work. But the problem with consistently meditating later in the day is that other activities come up, you’re too tired, or you simply forget.
Most of us spend a little bit of time in the morning surfing the web, checking Instagram or the news or email or Slack. In general, we can delay away some of these activities to make the first thing we do in our daily routine a brief morning meditation practice to help us be our best self for the rest of the day.
With practice, morning meditation becomes a habit you don’t even think about skipping, like brushing your teeth or your first cup of coffee.
What are the different types of guided meditation?
The benefit of guided meditation is that you can have an expert meditation teacher guide your practice. And you don’t have to read or memorize the steps of meditation practice. There are many different types of guided meditations and these are a few:
- Mindfulness practice has become the most popular form of meditation in the United States, which focuses on staying in the present moment to become aware of your body and thoughts, often by focusing on the breath. In Buddhism, mindfulness is a mental factor that keeps you focused on your subject of meditation. But from this popular perspective, taken up in many meditation apps and YouTube videos, Mindfulness meditation has become a broader term referring to various types of meditation that make you more aware of your thoughts, speech, and actions.
- Stabilizing meditation is the term for meditation that focuses your mind on a single object. This object of focus is often your breath, but sometimes your mind itself or even an object in your room or a photograph of someone you admire.
- Analytical meditation is a form of meditation that uses stories, thoughts, and emotions to take you on a mental journey that increases certain positive states of mind such as loving-kindness, compassion, generosity, joyful effort, ethical behavior, forgiveness, and accepting change. This form of meditation is highly elaborated in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and is the type of meditation His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches and often recommends to lead a happier more meaningful life.
- Visualization is used in various types of analytic meditation, such as visualizing more constructive ways to respond to conflict and stress, chakra meditation, and even healing meditations that have been proven to scientifically boost the immune system, even aiding in the treatment of cancer.
- Body scans are often a way to begin a mindfulness meditation, stabilizing meditation, or other forms of meditation. They are a way to come to the present moment through connecting the mind to the body.
- Walking meditation is a meditation practice where one cultivates mindfulness meditation while walking, trying to remain in the present moment and attend to one’s senses and body sensations as you move through the world.
- Sleep meditation is meditation to help you go to sleep. These meditations may simply be relaxing, using a body scan or watching the breath to help you relax and go to sleep. Other kinds of sleep meditation help you process the day by reviewing and rejoicing in all the good you and others did today, and forgiving yourself and others for any harms we might have done.
- Meditation music can be popular and relaxing. But, in general, it’s best as you become more acquainted with meditation to meditate in quiet without any music or external sounds.
How to meditate
In general, meditation involves calming both the body and mind, quieting the senses, and going inward to get in touch with who I am beneath the stress and anxiety and thoughts and worries and plans and stimulation of daily life. Meditation sessions can be as short as you like, but generally involve several elements and stages:
- Posture. The posture of your body strongly affects your ability to meditate. There are several postures to support meditation, but the key element is sitting with a straight spine. You can do this cross-legged with your seat elevated on the floor, or in a chair with feet flat on the floor. Usually, you place your hands on your knees or palm-up with thumbs touching. You half-close your eyes. And you slightly open your mouth.
- Motivation. You can begin a meditation session with a motivation. You may be motivated to address a mental problem you’re dealing with, or, if you are less stressed and anxious, a motivation to become the best human being you possibly can and to live your life in a way that strengthens your social connections and benefits others.
- Breath. Some portion, or the entire meditation session, usually focuses on the breath to stabilize the mind. You can do this by focusing on the air coming in and out of your nose, or with the rise and fall of your abdomen.
- Letting go of thoughts. Mindfulness and stabilizing meditation practices emphasize letting go of thoughts. This doesn’t mean that you need to empty your mind, but that you simply let thoughts naturally appear and disappear, without pulling them close and without pushing them away. Through this process, you start to get in touch with a deeper part of yourself, and begin to explore the question of who or what exactly is watching or experiencing my thoughts?
- Cultivating beneficial thoughts. If you choose to do analytical meditation, then you deliberately cultivate beneficial thoughts to bring out your best human qualities. For example, you might think about all the kindness your family, friends and strangers showed you today in order to cultivate gratitude.
- Dedication. At the end of a meditation session, much like the end of a yoga practice, you “seal” your meditation practice by dedicating the well-being that you’ve cultivated to not just getting ahead in the world, but becoming a kinder, more compassionate person who makes the most of our precious human life.
A 10-minute guided meditation for calming the mind
If you play the YouTube video included with this post you can listen to a 10-minute guided meditation that you can use as part of your daily routine. It goes through the stages of a simple guided meditation for calming the mind including posture, motivation, stabilizing on the breath, letting go of thoughts, cultivating beneficial thoughts, and a dedication.
Finding the right meditation technique for you
Different people resonate with different meditation techniques. Some people benefit from the popular guided mindfulness meditations, while others might love a nightly sleep meditation. Some might prefer stabilizing meditation that focuses on the breath. And others enjoy the storytelling aspect of analytical meditation that cultivates positive emotions and mental states.
If you’d like to learn more about meditation, sign up to listen to our weekly podcast that offers guided meditations, discussions about meditation, and interviews with meditation masters. You can learn about all these types of meditation and find out which is best for you.