People who meditate regularly say it reduces stress and improves well-being, among other mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. Doctors often recommend meditation to help treat chronic pain, anxiety, high blood pressure, and other conditions. And it can be a way to help cope with the coronavirus crisis—or at least provide a much-needed daily respite from all the news. How it works is not fully understood, though research is accumulating—and encouraging.
Meditation helps you draw attention inward and calm your mind. It comes in many forms, which typically involve combinations of postures, breathing, sound, visualizations, or movement (for example, walking meditation). Some types of meditation involve a mantra, a word or phrase you repeat to yourself silently; others don’t. Since finding a style that appeals to you will make it likelier that you’ll stick with a daily practice, here’s a review of some of the main types that you can choose from.
There are two main forms:
- Tibetan Buddhist practice. In this worldview, happiness lies in understanding your own mind and its true nature. Taking care of the mind through daily meditation allows you to be responsible for your own happiness. The meditation posture is generally cross-legged on a pillow (though you can also sit in a chair or kneel), eyes open and gazing softly down, mouth slightly open, palms facing down on thighs, and back straight yet relaxed to allow for the spine’s natural curve.
- Zen Buddhist practice. Concerned with living in the here and now, from moment to moment, Zen is an austere practice with Japanese roots. Zen meditation, or Zazen, meaning sitting, is performed with minimal distractions, often at a community center called a Zendo. Devoted practitioners may also sit every day at home, preferably in a quiet, neutral space (not too bright, not too dark; not too warm, not too cold). Zazen posture is heavily emphasized: As in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, you traditionally sit cross-legged. Eyes are open, but the mouth is closed, teeth are together, and the hands form a circle. There are two schools of Zen: Soto, practiced facing a wall, with the focus only on the act of sitting, the posture imitating the form of the Buddha; and Rinzai, typically practiced facing a Buddha, with the focus on koans—statements or phrases, often seemingly absurd—to be worked out by the practitioner while sitting, under the guidance of a teacher.
Getting started: People often practice Buddhist meditation as part of a community of practitioners, or Sangha. To try Tibetan Buddhist meditation on your own, rest your attention lightly on the out breath as you breathe naturally, letting go of “grasping” (attachment) and resting briefly in the gap before the inhale. For beginners, start with five minutes of meditation and a one-minute break; then sit again, repeating the cycle for up to 20 minutes or so. After a few sessions, it will become easier to sit longer with fewer breaks. Instructions on Zen Buddhist meditation can be found at tinyurl.com/zen-lightenment.
Also rooted in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness practice isn’t concerned with formal posture, nor is a mantra involved; you simply sit in a comfortable position, or even lie down if you want. The emphasis is on the breath, awareness of the body, and being fully present in the moment, without judgment. It can be done with eyes open or closed and is often guided. Research over the past 30 years suggests that mindfulness meditation may help in conditions such as insomnia, chronic pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, and some psychiatric disorders. Some studies suggest that it can alter aspects of the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotion.
Getting started: You can find many books and websites with instructions for mindfulness meditation. For instance, free guided meditations are available from the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center at tinyurl.com/ggia-mindful (select “Mindfulness”) and the UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at uclahealth.org/marc/audio. Or, you can practice regularly with a smartphone app such as Headspace (monthly or annual fees) or Insight Timer (free). The Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts offers an 8-week online live program in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in addition to its in-person classes. Online videos by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.—who founded the Center and is largely considered the pioneer of mindfulness in the West— can be found at tinyurl.com/KZ-meditation. MBSR classes are also normally offered around the country at hospitals, community centers, and private offices by teachers certified in Kabat-Zinn’s specific format.
Since the Beatles’ exploration in the 1960s with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, creator of Transcendental Meditation® (often called just TM), hundreds of celebrities have learned it, from Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld to Lena Dunham and Cameron Diaz. TM claims to be effortless compared to other practices and involves no concentration or monitoring of thoughts. It’s typically practiced twice a day, morning and afternoon, for 20 minutes each session in a comfortable seated position with closed eyes as you silently repeat a mantra. The mantra, which is chosen by the instructor for the individual, is a meaningless sound taken from the Vedas—5,000-year-old Indian texts. Repetition of the mantra is meant to settle the mind, eliciting a deep level of rest and allowing the mind to release stress.
Getting started: The official website for Transcendental Meditation is tm.org, where you can find out how to get started; an 18-minute introductory video is available at tm.org/videos/. The technique is taught over four 90-minute sessions on consecutive days by a certified TM instructor; online options during the Covid-19 health crisis may be available for certain parts of the program. You select your course fee according to your income level or whether you are a student. Though not affiliated with TM, another type of meditation, called Vedic meditation, has similarities. It is offered at centers in a growing number of cities, with some now offering online group meditations in place of in-person, in order, as one site says, to “build community and immunity.”