Meditation is a broad practice with a long history; when you first start learning about it, it can seem slightly overwhelming.
If you want to develop a more peaceful mind, meditation may provide the answers you’re looking for. For centuries, it has been used to reduce anxiety and stress, increase wellbeing, and foster compassion and empathy. But meditation can be really difficult — many people are put off by their seeming inability to ‘switch off their minds’ or relax. You may be hit by a number of questions, like “What should I wear?”, “Where should I sit?”, or “How long should my session last?” Thankfully, we’ve got the answers for you.
This blog post will guide you through 23 Frequently Asked Questions about meditation, exploring the main benefits of meditation and considering how different types of practice can help you deal with life’s challenges. We’ll discuss the work of meditation teachers like Shinzen Young, explaining his thoughts on how the five fundamental dimensions of human happiness can be optimised by meditation. There’s a lot to get stuck into — so let’s get started.
The Unanswered Questions about meditation
Wondering whether you’d benefit from bringing meditation into your life? In today’s hectic world, it’s not surprising that many of us are turning to mindfulness and meditation for answers. But with a world of information available online, and countless meditation apps offering quick fixes for mental health problems, it can be hard to find a comprehensive guide detailing everything you need to know about the practice of meditation. Today, we’ll be working through the most frequently asked questions about the subject, and hopefully, by the end of this article, you’ll be feeling more confident.
1. What is meditation?
Meditation can be defined in many ways. However, the simplest way to think of it is as a brain-training mechanism for achieving greater awareness, concentration, calmness and positive emotions. Each meditation session will be slightly different, because meditation encompasses a variety of techniques and methods designed to train attention and awareness, quiet the mind and connect with internal thoughts and feelings.
Meditation techniques like focused awareness encourage practitioners to focus on an anchor or object of meditation, such as the breath, a body part, or an item in front of you. This helps to strengthen our attention skills and enhance awareness of our surroundings. Daily meditation practice contributes towards an important process of embracing everyday events in a mindful way, instead of dreading and stressing out about oncoming tasks.
2. Why should I meditate?
So, what are the main effects of meditation? Well, if you’re like most people, you experience great amounts of stress in your daily life, without giving much time or thought to helping yourself reduce it. We work throughout the week, party or mindlessly relax on the weekend, before rolling straight back into a stressful work week packed with daily tasks and pressures.
This constant stream of uninterrupted stress sends the autonomic nervous system into a state of “sympathetic overload”, which creates higher blood pressure, lowers testosterone, heightens cholesterol and affects our thyroid. By practising meditation daily, you can help trigger the parasympathetic nervous response, which encourages the mind and body to go into a state of “rest and digest” rather than a state of “fight or flight”. Therefore, mindfulness meditation is a useful tool for developing peace of mind, reducing stress and offering relaxation; but it’s also much more than that.
Meditation will provide you with greater insight into your mind, shining a light on the fact that much of our suffering is created by the way the brain operates. Meditation also gives clarity and equanimity, helping us experience a clearer sense of self, as well as reducing the boundaries between ourselves, others and the world. You can find out more about the purpose of meditation here.
3. How do I get started meditating?
This one is a common question. It’s easy enough to find out about all the benefits of meditation — but how do you actually get started?
The trick is, try not to overthink this one. Just start.
Ultimately, meditation practice is like a muscle that you build. You can start working on it today, without prepping or planning in advance; it is an innate skill that we’re all capable of doing if we are willing to practice. Do you really want to find inner peace and calmness? Then you’ll be able to meditate!
If you want to, you can start right now. Begin with the very breath you are taking in at this moment, recognising your experience of it in the present moment and concentrating on your breath pattern. It’s as simple as that! There’s no special secret or mantra that will allow you to meditate perfectly straight away, but continued practice will allow you to recognise and experience the present moment more often.
4. When should I meditate?
One of the main advantages of meditation is that it doesn’t have to take up much of your day. As long as you practice regularly (preferably once a day), you’ll be able to gradually build your ability to meditate. Start for five minutes, or even two minutes if that seems too much. Practising daily will allow you to naturally grow the length of time you’re able to meditate for.
It’s not the end of the world if your chosen meditation time varies from day to day; however, you’re more likely to experience the benefits if you stick to a regular time. Most well-practised meditators agree that the ideal time of day to practise is first thing in the morning. At this point, the mind is less busy or occupied by daily concerns — plus, it sets you up nicely for the day ahead. Many seasoned meditators say that meditating in the morning allows you to experience the peace and quiet of the world around you, at a time when your brain is naturally less busy. If you find yourself feeling too tired in the mornings, you may benefit from trying some breathwork exercises designed to improve sleep.
5. Where is meditation from?
Meditation has been around for thousands of years. It is one of the oldest practices known to man, with links to ancient Buddhist and Hindu traditions, yoga practice and other meditative or spiritual experiences.
Forms of meditation existed in many ancient societies and cultures; however, it’s likely that many of the first meditative practices originated in ancient India. Even in our most primitive societies, staring into the fires that kept us warm allowed us to discover and explore different states of meditation, consciousness and awareness.
Researchers and historians have found meditative techniques dating back to over five thousand years ago. Over time, the teachings of different meditative practices and styles spread naturally across Asia, becoming more popular in Europe and North America after the freedom movements of the 60s and 70s. And while modern mindfulness in the West has strayed away from the practice’s roots, the basic principles of improving concentration and attention, expanding present moment awareness and boosting mental and physical well-being remain the same.
6. How will meditation affect my life and make it better?
Meditation and mindfulness practices are a great way to improve focus, concentration, and general well-being. They can also help you experience flow states, in which you feel “in the zone” and able to accomplish things with natural efficiency. You don’t need to spend hours each day meditating. Just 3-5 minutes a day will go a long way towards managing stress and introducing calm to your mind and body.
Meditation also has numerous health benefits. Releasing physical and mental tension can help you lower your blood pressure, increase your focus, and improve your overall health; studies show that 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction can grow the grey matter in your brain, helping increase focus levels and productivity.
Meditation also helps you achieve a deeper sense of emotional balance. It can help you gain additional perspective on your life and become more aware of yourself, your emotions, and your broader surroundings. This is because meditation encourages a healthy distance between you and the stresses in your life, whether it’s life, family or work.
The benefits of meditative practice vary depending on the individual, the circumstances, and the chosen meditation style. Whether you’re looking for stress relief, reduced anxiety, or even pain management, meditation can be a crucial aspect of your approach to solving life’s problems.
7. How do I make meditation a habit?
Do you find it difficult to stick to a meditation routine? Maybe you get fidgety easily, or you can’t let go of certain thoughts. Incorporating breathing exercises and other simple mindfulness techniques into your daily routine is a great way to start. You can find out more about implementing mindfulness throughout the day here.
One of the best ways to cement a daily practice is by embracing breathwork practices such as diaphragmatic breathing. This is a technique developed from Ancient Indian spiritual practices, designed to engage the autonomic nervous system and bring it into a state of rest. This rest state allows us to fall deeper into our meditation practice, and explore further techniques.
To practise diaphragmatic breathing, lie on your back (in yoga, this is called Shavasana or corpse pose) and place a cushion under your knees for comfort, if needed. Place one hand over your heart, and your other hand over your abdomen. This will allow you to measure the depth of your breaths and check whether you’re engaging your diaphragm properly. Breathe in through your nose, expanding your tummy under your hand fully. Release the breath through pursed lips, tightening your stomach muscles until your lungs are completely empty, to make your breath sound like a crashing wave.
Once you are comfortable and confident with diaphragmatic breathing, incorporate it into a sitting practice, before exploring other breathing exercises such as Box Breath and Square Breathing. This way, you’ll be able to experiment with what works for you.
8. What are the biggest misconceptions about meditation?
When people begin to meditate, there are usually several misconceptions that they have:
- That a busy mind makes you a bad meditator.
- That meditation is only for a particular kind of person.
- That your mind shouldn’t wander while you meditate.
- That you have to meditate for an hour every day to get the benefits.
- That you don’t have enough time.
Meditation is a great way to calm your mind and relax your body. It’s also a great way to improve your focus and concentration. But there are many different types of meditation, with different forms suiting different people. By incorporating a “noting” technique into your practice, where you simply recognise your rogue thoughts instead of beating yourself up about them, you will experience a deeper form of meditation. This practice is about deconstructing the idea that a busy mind is a bad thing; mindfulness meditation is just about noticing your thoughts, noticing where your mind wanders, and observing without judgement. Practising this repeatedly is a form of self-directed neuroplasticity that can help you literally change the structures of your own brain over time.
Mantra meditation or Transcendental meditation is perhaps what most novices understand as meditation. This style of meditation asks practitioners to repeat a mantra or short phrase like “ohm”, in order to connect with a different level of awareness or consciousness. Mantras like these are known as ‘anchors’, designed to help you maintain your attention while you meditate. The breath can also be used in this way, with deep breathing operating as an anchor and allowing you to notice external sounds and experiences.
Formal meditation is about being present, being mindful, and being aware of what you’re doing. You don’t need any special equipment or clothing. You can do it anywhere, anytime, and you don’t have to sit down for hours in order to reap the rewards — just a few minutes a day can make a real difference.
9. What is the difference between meditation and mindfulness?
Mindfulness isn’t just a type of meditation practice, it’s also a quality of the mind. Meditation teacher and psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.”
Mindfulness is described here as a capacity of the mind to relate to whatever is happening in the now, in an attentive and non-judgemental way. You can practice mindfulness skills such as concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity anywhere and any time — although meditation is a great way to facilitate your efforts, it’s by no means the only way.
Meditation, on the other hand, is a term that refers to any practice that is intended to formally train the mind. Meditation exercises can be used to cultivate certain mental qualities and help you handle difficult feelings like stress, anxiety or depression. You may even choose to meditate to improve your focus, to become more productive, to gain a deeper knowledge of how you are, to generate insights into your mind. You can meditate as a part of a spiritual practice, in which you aim to connect to something bigger than yourself; however, meditation can also be completely secular. While mindfulness can provide great moments of calmness and clarity in your day-to-day life, formal meditation can have greater long-term effects. Put them together to form mindfulness meditation, and you’ll be on the path to a complete mind.
Do you want to explore the differences further? Check out our article on Meditation vs Mindfulness: How to Understand the Difference.
10. Should I meditate with my eyes open or closed?
Like all meditative practices, this depends on your own experience and what you want to achieve. It is usually recommended that meditators close their eyes during sessions. Closing your eyes when meditating, especially when you first begin, can act as an effective and useful tool to help you to relax, focus on yourself and connect deeply with your thoughts, feelings and sensations. If this is something you struggle with, you can use our 4-7-8 breathing exercise video to help you practise meditating with your eyes closed.
However, keeping your eyes open is not a negative thing. Open-eyed meditation can enable you to use open attention focus; whether you’re sitting alone in your room or taking a walk in the park, opening your eyes and distributing your attention equally across your surroundings can be hugely beneficial. While some people need to sit still for long periods in silent meditation, others prefer to move around and have shorter sessions. It depends on the individual, and the same thing applies to whether or not you close your eyes.
That being said, it is strongly advised that if during meditation you see colours or have strange inner body sensations (such as your inner self turning around), you keep your eyes open. These physical sensations demonstrate that you are not engaged in central channel meditation, which is the highest quality meditation. Don’t get put off if you’re struggling, though. Meditation is a skill that takes time to master, so don’t expect to become an expert overnight.
11. How long should I meditate for?
As we discussed earlier, you’re more likely to feel the true effects of meditation if you begin by meditating in the morning. If you wake up a little earlier than you need to and have a moment of focus and silence, you’ll be much better prepared to go about your day.
In terms of finding out how long you should practise for, it’s all about experimentation. Start off by meditating for just 5 minutes, and see how that goes. If it’s too hard, try for just 2 minutes, or even 1. However long you go for, try to meditate every day, and gradually increase your session lengths if possible.
If you find meditating difficult at first, try to remember that you’re building muscle in your body; doing it every day will help you build strength and resilience. Increase the amount of time you spend meditating incrementally until you find an amount of time that works best for you. And don’t push yourself too hard — meditating for longer than is necessary can bring you away from your intended goal or intention.
12. How do you overcome obstacles and distractions during meditation?
When you’re meditating, it’s likely that you’ll come across obstacles and distractions. Whether it’s external circumstances, negative thoughts, or physical pain, it’s possible to manage these obstacles.
In order to keep distractions to a minimum, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed, and turn off your phone and any other devices that might distract you. If you’re meditating at home, turn off all the lights and keep the volume down if you have music on. These steps will help you to stay focused.
Our brains have evolved to constantly look for danger to keep us alive, so we tend to register and focus on negative emotions and stimuli more readily – a phenomenon that is known as negativity bias. This can make meditating difficult; however, regular practice is the best stress reliever you can do, as it works to counteract the constant need for negative stimuli.
There are certain breathing exercises we can do to maintain focus and combat distractions. For example, Energising Breathwork exercises can help us engage our sympathetic nervous systems and generate heightened but healthy levels of stress. One energising technique is to exhale too quickly, without allowing time to inhale, 30 times. Then, rest for a minute, before repeating this process twice. Another method is to breathe in faster than normal 20-30 times, before releasing all the air on your last exhale and holding your breath for 30 seconds. These energising breath exercises can help you reset from the external stresses and distractions and reconnect with your surroundings.
13. How is meditation different from daydreaming, contemplation, self-hypnosis or just resting with your eyes closed?
Daydreaming is considered a passive form of mental stimulation, while meditation is an active form of mental stimulation. When you daydream, your mind is passively wandering from one thought to the next. You are not actively trying to focus on anything in particular, and your thoughts may be random and disconnected. In contrast, when you meditate, you are actively trying to focus your attention on a specific object, thought or feeling. You are not letting your thoughts wander freely, but are instead keeping your attention focused on the present moment.
That said, it’s possibly to mindfully daydream – that is, to daydream in a way that is intentional and focused. When you mindfully daydream, you’re consciously aware of your thoughts and feelings, and you’re deliberately letting your mind wander in a specific direction. This can be a helpful way to explore your creative ideas, and to find new solutions to problems.
Meditation is different to hypnosis in that you are not trying to achieve a state of deep relaxation, nor are you trying to enter into a trance-like state. In meditation, you are simply trying to focus your attention on the present moment.
Lastly, contemplation and meditation are not the same things. Contemplation is a form of thinking that is open, receptive and reflective. It is a way of holding an experience in your mind, and of turning it over to see it from different angles. In contrast, meditation is about training awareness and understanding how the mind works. Meditation is not about thinking but about observing the thoughts that come and go.
14. Where can I meditate, and can I practise meditation with friends?
Meditation is a very personal thing, capable of helping us connect with ourselves and others. There really is no ideal place to meditate; you can do it lying in bed, sitting at your desk, during a walk or as you travel on a busy train. And you don’t have to be on your own — meditating with other people can have some great benefits.
Joining a group meditation class is a great way to meet new people. Practising with others can also motivate you and help you get into a meditative state faster, allowing you to learn from the experiences of those around you and constantly grow more confident in your practice. Being distracted by friends will also teach you that distractions are a circumstantial, inevitable part of meditation, rather than a hindrance.
15. Can I practice meditation without spirituality or religion?
This is a very commonly asked question. Meditation in the West can sometimes be associated with personal relationships with God, while Asian practices often focus more on teaching helpful techniques and meditative methods. A Catholic prayer, for example, is a form of meditative practice that allows you to communicate or send messages to God or higher powers. Mindfulness meditation, on the other hand, requires no spiritual motivation — you can have totally secular, practical aims such as reducing anxiety, training attention, or improving mental clarity. Of course, a religious outlook or belief in spiritual guidance will not harm your journey, but secular meditation is just as effective as faith-based forms of meditation.
Check out our article on Tonglen meditation to find out about a spiritually-derived practice that endeavours to lay the foundations for compassion in your meditation and in your everyday life.
16. Should I meditate if I already do things like yoga or running?
Many people believe that meditation is pointless, because they already engage in other relaxing, restorative and healthy activities such as running, practising yoga, or taking a long bath. However, statements like “jogging/swimming/cooking is my meditation” slightly miss the point. It’s important to remember that meditation and relaxation are not the same thing.
By meditating just to relax, you’re actually ignoring the mindfulness aspect of meditation, which is largely responsible for achieving lasting relaxation. Ignoring our internal voices and distracting ourselves by doing something more pleasurable doesn’t work in the long term. Taking a relaxing bath or going for a bike ride may occupy us temporarily, but unfortunately, it won’t train our minds to feel calmer and less busy. By all means continue doing whatever exercises or activities you find beneficial, but try not to think of them as a substitute for meditation. If you want to learn more about the difference between meditation and relaxation, check out our article on the subject.
17. What is the purpose of breath awareness in meditation?
Breathing happens automatically, thanks to a reflex that ensures we get enough oxygen and prevents us from choking, drowning or otherwise harming ourselves. Meditation is about focusing the mind, and training it like a muscle to function in a state of rest and repair, rather than panic and stress. Noticing and manipulating your breath can help you focus your mind and alter your mood, with certain breathing exercises having the ability to activate your parasympathetic nervous system, relieve stress, decrease anxiety, battle depression and inspire creativity. Another major benefit of focusing on your breath in meditation is its painkilling attributes. When you focus on breathing completely, deeply and evenly, your focus is taken off any discomfort or pain you will encounter.
18. Is there a wrong or right way to meditate?
Meditation is a great way to relax and de-stress. It’s also a great way to improve focus and concentration. But it’s not magic, and you don’t need any special equipment to meditate. There are a wide variety of different practices which span the globe and date back thousands of years — and every single one of them works differently! Try not to be dogmatic or self-critical when it comes to your meditation; ultimately, there’s no right or wrong way to meditate. This is particularly true of mindfulness meditation, in which the goal is always to return to the anchor, support or object of your meditation. Now, if you’re still slightly unsure what we mean by this term, it’s an important one to learn. Let’s consider what we mean by an object of meditation.
19. What is a meditation object?
An object can be anything you tell your mind to focus on. Often, this will be the breath; however, it could also be a mantra or phrase, the flame of a candle, the feeling of the seat underneath you, or specific bodily sensations like the belly or chest rising when breathing.
Getting lost in thought, noticing it, and returning to your chosen meditation object — whether it’s breath, sound, body sensation, or whatever — is the bedrock of what we call ‘focused attention’.
In contrast to focused attention, open attention is the process of letting go of all objects in your meditation practice. The purpose of this is to allow yourself to become at one and present with everything that is happening around you, without allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed.
Humans need to access both forms of attention, with different circumstances calling for different types of engagement. However, we often end up using focused attention far more than we need to, which can be harmful to our mental health, well-being and stress levels. You can find out more about how to access open attention more frequently here.
20. Can you meditate without a guide, or should you use apps for guided meditation?
If you’re a beginner, it’s important to have some guidance first, otherwise you can easily end up just daydreaming with your eyes closed. You can learn meditation from a DVD or a book, but if you want to grow a deeper understanding and gain more benefits, attend a class. Classes give you immediate answers to your queries and hands-on advice from well-informed meditation teachers. This can be incredibly useful, although it’s important not to rely too heavily on external guidance; once you’ve grasped the basics, slowly try to reduce your dependence on guided meditation so you can practice it even when you don’t have access to a teacher or app. Silent meditation can be a good way to relax and clear your mind, and it can help you learn to appreciate the sound of your own thoughts.
21. Will meditation increases my sensory and extra-sensory perception?
As we previously mentioned, one of the main purposes of meditation is to build awareness and present-centeredness. Tuning your mind into what is happening on a moment-to-moment basis will allow you to significantly improve your sensory perception abilities. Meditation can also help you enhance your extra-sensory perception by shifting your understanding of reality and prompting you to interact with your surroundings and experiences in a more conscious, open-minded and non-judgemental way.
Engaging with the world with heightened sensitivity and perception can lead to an increased sense of compassion, kindness and empathy for others, as well as a greater understanding of the human condition. And this is an incremental process; the more you begin to feel comfortable in meditation, the greater your perceptive abilities will become.
22. What are the greatest life lessons taught by meditation?
A lot of people start meditating during a very difficult time in their life. It helps decompress, heal your heart from suffering, and calm your mind. It can also give you greater perspective over the events and circumstances in your life. As a result, regular meditators usually report an increase in intention setting thanks to meditation. This is because, unsurprisingly, calming your mind and focusing on the things that are most important to you in life can make you a far more efficient, organised and driven individual. Meditation encourages you to set intentions, goals and aims for yourself, and each daily meditative practice is an opportunity to check in with how you’re doing, while simultaneously being kind, patient and loving to yourself. You will find yourself to be a calmer, less self-centred, wiser person with a greater ability to contribute to society and a reduced tendency for getting caught up in the unhelpful narratives of the mind.
23. Will meditation really help my health, intelligence and creativity?
Studies have shown that meditation boosts creativity by developing the neocortex, the creative part of the brain, and making the brain more pliable, resulting in a more outside-the-box approach to problem-solving.
Meditation can also help you develop a healthy distance between yourself and the stressful things in your life, as well as helping you trust the forces that shape your everyday existence. Life can be very demanding, so it’s important to spend time developing methods for coping with sadness, pain and trauma. Meditation is proven to help with a wide range of issues including anxiety, stress, depression, heart rate, and blood pressure, meaning that it’s a great way to improve your own health without having to go under intense medical treatment.
Scientific research has found that mindfulness meditation reduces stress hormones like cortisol and increases levels of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin — all of which play a role in mood regulation. Other studies suggest that meditation may improve memory and reduce anxiety. There are a wide range of benefits waiting to be accessed; all you need to do is dedicate a few minutes each day to a meditative practice.
We hope you can use the information shared in this article to embark on a helpful and enlightening meditation practice. One of the main things to remember is that this isn’t some magic practice that requires special powers and amazing skills of concentration. It’s available to anyone, it can be done anywhere, and there is an abundance of support available to each and every beginner meditator. Whether you choose to attend classes, watch online lectures and videos, join support groups, read blog posts, or sign up for meditation apps, there is a wealth of support out there. And whatever prior experiences of meditation you have, make sure you take full advantage of all the helpful resources MindOwl have to offer — we’re sure there will be something there for you. Happy meditating!
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.