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Meditation is something that intrigues many people, particularly in modern society with its transition into modern culture and the prevalence of classes in community centres and the masses of material online; however, rather than being encouraging, this abundance and acceptance of meditation into mainstream culture can actually be discouraging for first timers. The material and advertisements can be overwhelming for newbies who just want to know where to begin and the basics of meditation. This brief guide to meditation for beginners is designed to present the initial benefits of the art to new practitioners and tips and how to get started.
The stereotypical image of meditation is hard to shake
Be honest, when you think of meditation what do you picture? Is it an incense-infused temple full of monks going “omm” or somebody sat cross-legged on their living room rug watching a candle burn? There are many misconceptions over the level of intensity and training that is required to able to meditate and the processes that are involved. Meditation has strong links to spiritualism and Buddhism but it does not have to be this way at all because religious meditation only applies to those using the process to connect to their gods. It is easy for anyone to enjoy secular meditation at home for relaxation and peace without the chanting and there are plenty of ways for newcomers to get involved without the need for specialised training or trips to monasteries.
The purpose of meditation and its potential benefits
Misconceptions aside, the growing popularity of meditation shows that some people are finding it accessible and enjoyable; why is this the case and what benefits are people getting from it? Having a goal in meditation is important if you want to have a result and the quest for spiritual enlightenment is not the answer most practitioners give. Most people will take up meditation for health reasons – although there will of course be a minority that join classes just because they feel they should be seen to be taking part in this new fad.
Meditation has a number of potential benefits for health and well-being, from mental issues like stress relief and aiding depression to physical effects such as blood pressure and immunity. Some people question the real potential of some simple breathing exercises and introspection for medical issues, particularly when the evidence for immunity and cancer links are a little thin on the ground, but there is a growing number of studies into the true implications of meditation and its effect on stress seems to be undeniable.
Some potential health benefits make a lot of sense, like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and insomnia because of the calming, relaxing nature of the approach and stress relief is a simple, common goal that can be achieved.
How do you achieve these goals? What does meditation actually involve?
Now you know that meditation really is accessible and that there are plenty of potential benefits for taking it up, there are still plenty of questions to answer about getting started and the best course of action. Do you want to work alone or in a class and, if you do work alone, what key principles should you be adopting? There are four important factors to consider when meditating – focused attention, relaxed breathing, a quiet setting and comfort.
Each of these can be achieved in the comfort of your own home if you have a focal point or mantra to concentrate on and a nice peaceful space. Alternatively, you could join a group specialising in meditation for beginners and let a teacher guide you through the process with breathing exercises and visualisation techniques.
So what should you take away from this guide on meditation for beginners? If there is one thing to keep from this brief introduction to the misconceptions, benefits and methods of meditation is it the fact that you should forget the stereotypes and concerns that have built up in your mind and see it for the simplistic, accessible act that it really is. You do not have to be intimidated about trying out meditation for yourself because there are beginner classes and resources available to help you and guide you on your own, personal journey to relaxation, anxiety release and beyond.
There is a new word being thrown about on health and lifestyle sites as though it is something that we are all familiar with in our daily lives – mindfulness. This is term that many people think they may understand but the principles go much further than a simple heightened awareness. Mindfulness is about taking the time to understand our environment and feelings and connect with them on a more objective, non-judgemental level. When mindfulness is paired up with the added qualities of meditation the potential on mental health and stress relief increases. This guide will look at this fantastic combination and its impact on psychological health – both in terms of the effects and treatment options.
Combining the qualities of meditation and mindfulness
It is no surprise that meditation and mindfulness are so popular in modern culture when you consider the many different benefits that these practices are said to offer for mental health. Marrying the ideas of mindfulness – a more contemporary idea – with the ancient art of meditation is a winning formula when it come to mental health because the concepts of mindfulness – clearing you inner eye and gaining a different, objective perspective on your self and world around you – works in harmony with the breathing exercises and need to achieve focus of meditation. By embracing both all these elements into a daily routine, such as a few moments of mindfulness meditation in the morning to relax and focus, you increase the chance of aiding anxiety, improving your resilience, reducing emotional reactivity and decreasing stress.
The effect of meditation and mindfulness on stress
The link between mindfulness and stress is one of the biggest draws to this alternative therapy and this connection is made even more interesting by the fact it is backed by scientific studies rather than theory. Many may expect some sort of placebo effect between meditation and stress relief, a sense that simply assume it works and any results that are experienced are purely coincidental, but a report in a recent publication of the Health Psychology Journal states that it actually decreases levels of a vital stress hormone called cortisol. Fifty seven people at a specialised retreat were taught simple breathing exercises, observational skills and how to enhance positive mental states and their cortisol levels were measured prior to the three-month test and then afterwards. The test showed a correlation between the techniques, improved mindfulness and lower levels of the stress hormone. The fact that they neglected to use any form of control group could affect the validity of the results but it is just part of the ongoing research and the growing links between mindfulness, meditation and stress. As the image of the method grows, more studies will be undertaken to give better accreditation to the advantages.
How can this research help people?
The potential implications of using meditation and mindfulness on psychological health and treatment programs are intriguing and a number of different institutions have already begun programs to help individuals and groups fight stress, anxiety and depression. One story that has caught the eye of the media is the surprisingly controversial attempt by an Ohio school to introduce the teachings of mindfulness and meditation into the classroom to aid adolescent depression and improve student concentration. Other areas being explored are the use of these techniques as stress relief tools for troops suffering from PTSD and classes in prison to decrease , meanwhile the link between mindfulness yoga and pre-natal depression is one that deserves closer attention.
Summary: using meditation and mindfulness for mental health
Once you start looking at the real benefits of these meditation and mindfulness principles on mental health and psychiatric issues and undertake reliable, scientific research into the actual effect, you can start to see the potential of combining these principles into an efficient program. Some people may be wary of bringing Eastern-inspired methods into programs for mental health or unconvinced that such measures can have these desired, physiological effects; however, the evidence for mindfulness, meditation and improved mental health is growing and should be encouraged in a wide range of applications. This could mean an increase in school programs or education about mindfulness to at risk people in stressful job but the point is that appreciating the principles of mindfulness and its links to meditation can have highly beneficial implications for anybody.
Health websites and blogs are full of testimonials and recommendations from people talking about the benefits of meditation, the enlightenment they received or the simple changes to their health; they are quick to talk about why people should join them in taking it up but they sometime neglect to mention anything about where to begin. How to practice meditation is an overlooked topic but this guide will look at the principles, styles and classes to help make the starting point clearer.
Where to start?
The first question that people ask when they consider how to practise meditation is where to start and, before you start going through directories and guides to different methods, it is important to understand the basics of the art. Once you appreciate the underlying principles and techniques you can figure out what you really want to achieve and narrow down the best course of action. With meditation you need to need to have an ability to block out thoughts, an awareness of the body and mind, mantras and focal points to concentrate on and a quiet, comfortable setting. With this in mind you can then decide if you want to specialise with a certain style, join a class or learn on your own.
Guided or personal meditation?
Once you have grasped the basic principles of mediation you then need to consider whether you practise alone at home or with guidance. Guided meditation is not just a case of having a teacher on hand to show you how to start – although there are beginners classes than help in this way – instead you will be talked through the experience, made to visualise relaxing places,and given a full sensory experience through pleasant scents and sounds. This can be replicated to a degree in your own home through your own visualizations and a suitable home environment and the personal approach is often preferable because of the nature of the experience and the ability to fit it into a day more conveniently.
What types of meditation classes and approaches are there?
There are many different types of meditation; it is not a simple case of one method for all and it can take time to find the most suitable style for your lifestyle and health needs. Yoga is not always considered as meditation by those that use it for physical health and exercise but it shares many of the principles like breathing and concentration on a single point to reduce negative thought. This method is similar to Tai chi and Qi gong, alternative eastern practices with links to meditation and martial arts.
Mantra meditation is pretty self-explanatory and leads into to transcendental meditation, where the use of chanting and deep focus are key. Most of these forms can be achieved at home or in classes but the basic principles can be applied to any situation. Walking, for example, is a great form of meditation while exercising because you can block out external thought and focus on the steps taken.
Buddhist and religious meditation
The final area to consider with meditation options is that of religious and Buddhist meditation. Many people make the automatic link between meditation and Eastern religious because of the spiritualistic element and the style of the methods. For some people this can be a turn off, particularly if they prefer the idea of secular meditation for health only but others will embrace the idea and perhaps even use Buddhist meditation as a way into the teaching and deeper enlightenment. Of course it is not just Buddhists that can use meditative actions to connect to a higher being . Meditation is a great accompaniment to prayer and there is no limit to the type of mantra you can repeat.
Summary: there are many answers to the question of how to practice meditation – all of them right
Meditation has many potential benefits for health and well-being and is attractive to many different people thanks to its range of styles and applications. Meditation could be as simple as trying out some breathing exercises once a day or as complex as learning Tai chi and using mantra to connect to your chosen deity. There is no wrong way to do it if feels right and helps you achieve your goals and it does not matter whether you use guided meditation classes once a week or pray once a day – the choice is up to you.
When people choose to start meditation there is a good chance that their choice has nothing to do with religion; however, Buddhist meditation is the starting point for many modern practices and its influence should be recognised. This guide will look at Buddhist traditions, the controversial transition into modern culture and the potential of mediation in any religious or secular lifestyle to show how the initial ideals have wide-reaching effects today.
The link between meditation and Buddhism and its impact on modern society.
Buddhist meditation is one many style of meditations, alongside well-known practices like yoga and Tai Chi, and it is characterised by peaceful reflection and concentration through chanting and breathing exercises. To be honest, this is just the surface with Buddhist practices because once you go deeper into the culture and regional variants you will find a range of different styles that focus on different elements. Some areas prefer visualisation techniques, other focus on the concentration and there are fifty different mindfulness methods in the Theravada tradition alone. The use of meditation in Buddhism is complex and this is something that is often overlooked.
At one time Buddhist meditation would have been restricted to Eastern culture and the temples but it is found its way into the mainstream to the point where seemingly foreign concepts of chanting and enlightenment become general practices around the world. A large percent of people meditate in some way and use these Buddhist ideals, to a degree, as part of their regime. Meditation is seen as healthy, beneficial practise and is recommended to anyway with stress issues, even to the point where it is being brought into schools to aid with performance and anxiety. Some people are less than happy with this development because it is seen as bringing Buddhism – rather than just meditation – into a classroom and, therefore, undermining other people’s beliefs and blurring the line between the church and state.
Meditation and religion as a wider subject and its accessibility to everyone.
What some people do not realise is that meditation does not have to be completely linked to Buddhism and the basic teachings and methods can be applied to any religion – or even secular pastimes. The concepts of creating a deeper pathway to thoughts, getting in touch with real feelings and concentrating your focus on mantras can relate to any chosen deity with the same level of devotion and great results as Buddhist practices. Meditation is an art that is open to expression and has many purposes and this means that the deep connections can be linked to any faith and the mantras can easily be substituted for a prayer. Christen meditation – which is taught in classes and specialised retreats – does exactly that and helps people use the ideas of deep focus and spiritual awakening as ways to better connect to the Bible and God’s words.
Moving away from the religious styles of Meditation and Eastern influences – there are plenty of secular forms of meditation that can be enjoyed by Atheists, Agnostics or religious folk that simply want an alternative form of stress relief. The thoughts and feelings that you connect to and the elements you focus on for relief are personal and there is no reason why they have to be related to a god if you just want to ease anxieties or help depression. Meditation is being used worldwide as a great aid in mental health issues and it is this side of the practice that schools are focusing on, not Buddhist meditation.
Summary: what can we learn from Buddhist meditation?
This is a question with two answers really: on one level there are the literal teachings of Buddhist meditation, the ones that bring relief, enlightenment and a better sense of self through chanting, breathing and concentrated focus; however, we can also learn that meditation is an art that anyone can benefit from, no matter their religious persuasion. Meditation started as an ancient practise with Buddhism but as it has expanded across the globe it has taken on new possibilities and been opened up to new users – like Christians in need of another way to connect with God, Atheists looking for an alternative stress relief therapy or students trying to deal with educational anxiety.
For more information on Buddhist meditation please see the blog A Simple Path.