What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice that involves focusing or clearing your mind using a combination of mental and physical techniques.
Depending on the type of meditation you choose, you can meditate to relax, reduce anxiety and stress, and more. Some people even use meditation to help them improve their health, such as using it to help adapt to the challenges of quitting tobacco products.
The practice of meditation is thousands of years old, and different forms come from around the world. But modern science has only started studying this practice in detail during the last few decades. Some of the biggest leaps in science’s understanding of meditation have only been possible thanks to modern technology.
On the outside, someone who’s meditating might not seem to be doing anything other than breathing or repeating a sound or phrase over and over. Inside their brain, however, it’s an entirely different story. Modern diagnostic and imaging techniques, like electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, show that meditation can positively affect your brain and mental health.
Is meditation a religious practice?
Yes and no. Meditation has foundations in ancient philosophies and several world religions, but you don’t have to be religious to meditate.
Some examples of religious and nonreligious methods of meditation include:
- Buddhist: Several different forms of meditation have their origins in Buddhism (which is considered both a philosophy and a religion, especially depending on the nation of origin). Theravadan meditation is more common in Southeast Asia, especially in India and Thailand. Zen Buddhist meditation originated in China, and different forms of it eventually evolved elsewhere, such as Japanese Zen Buddhist meditation. Tibetan Buddhist tantric meditation comes from the former nation of Tibet, now an autonomous region of China.
- Christian: Contemplation, which is when you focus intently on a question, idea, religious concept or deity, is a common practice in Christianity. Praying is often classified as meditation, especially when it takes this form.
- Guided: This nonreligious form of meditation can happen with several people or one-on-one. It’s a common technique in counseling, therapy and group support settings.
- Osho: This form of meditation, also known as “dynamic meditation”, comes from India and has its roots in Hinduism. Breathing exercises are deliberate and forceful.
- Sufi: Sufism is a branch of Islam, and meditation is a common practice among people who follow it.
- Taoist: Like Buddhism, Taoism is also considered a religion and philosophy. It originated in China and is best known through the writings of its founder, Laozi (also spelled “Lao Tzu” or “Lao-Tze”).
- Transcendental: This form of meditation comes from India and is nonreligious. It involves using mantras, which are phrases or words people focus on and repeat aloud or in their minds.
- Yoga: This is a physical form of meditation and exercise from India. It can take on religious and nonreligious forms.
How do you meditate?
There’s no one correct way to meditate. That’s because meditation can take many different forms. Experts have analyzed meditation practices and found that some common processes happen across different meditation forms. These are:
- Body-centered meditation. This is sometimes called self-scanning. Doing this involves focusing on the physical sensations you can feel throughout your body.
- Contemplation. This usually involves concentrating on a question or some kind of contradiction without letting your mind wander.
- Emotion-centered meditation. This kind of meditation has you focus on a specific emotion. For example, focusing on how to be kind to others or on what makes you happy in your life.
- Mantra meditation. This kind of meditation involves repeating (either aloud or in your head) and focusing on a specific phrase or sound.
- Meditation with movement. This type of meditation can involve focusing on breathing, holding your breath or performing specific body movements. It can also involve walking while focusing on what you observe around you.
- Mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation is about staying aware of what’s happening at the moment rather than letting your mind wander and worrying about the past or future. It can also involve a similar approach as body-centered meditation, using what you feel throughout your body as a foundation for your awareness of the world around you.
- Visual-based meditation. This kind of meditation involves focusing on something you can see (either with your eyes or by concentrating on a mental image).
What exactly does meditation do?
In general, people who meditate are more likely to see the following benefits:
- Decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Improved ability to think, concentrate and solve problems.
- Better ability to adapt to and overcome emotional problems
Because mental health has a strong impact on the health of your body, those benefits also often bring improvements in how well you sleep, high blood pressure and heart function, and much more.
Why does meditation work?
Thanks to advances in technology, researchers and healthcare providers can see how meditation affects your brain. However, to understand some of these changes, it helps to know a little about brain structure.
In your brain, you have billions of neurons, which are cells that use electrical and chemical signals to send signals to each other. One neuron connects to thousands of others, which is how your neurons form networks across different parts of your brain. Those networks form different areas of your brain, which have different jobs and specialties.
Multiple research studies have found that people who meditate regularly have certain differences in their brain structure. Those changes usually involve brain tissue that’s denser or certain areas of the brain that are larger than expected, which is a sign that the neurons there have more connections to each other and the connections are stronger.
The affected areas of the brain are usually those that manage or control your senses (vision, hearing, etc.), your ability to think and concentrate, and your ability to process emotions. That means the brains of people who meditate regularly are healthier and less likely to show age-related loss of function. They also have a stronger ability to deal with and process negative emotions like fear, anger and grief.
How do I start daily meditation?
With so many different types of meditation to choose from, it can feel daunting to know which one you’re going to like best or will be most helpful for you. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to narrow it down.
- Research. Learning about the different types of meditation is a good first step to choosing one. You can do that research in books from a local library or bookstore or online from many sources. Cleveland Clinic’s Health Essentials page has dozens of articles that can offer tips, information and other resources to help you choose.
- Talk to your healthcare provider. Your primary care provider or a mental health provider are both great sources of information on meditation. They can help you find meditation programs and instructors in your area.
- Ask for guidance. Whether it’s from people you know or people with similar interests online, plenty of people know about and practice meditation. If you don’t know anyone directly, websites and social platforms like YouTube or Reddit may be a good place to start. There are even smartphone apps that can help you meditate.
Once you find a type of meditation to try, the following tips can help:
- Learn what you like. Some people prefer meditating in the morning and others at night. Pick whichever time works best for you!
- Make the time. Set aside time in your day for meditation and make it a part of your routine. Regular meditation is the key to getting the greatest benefits out of this practice.
- Set the surroundings. Meditation is best in a place that’s quiet, calming and comfortable. Some forms of meditation involve sitting up, and others involve lying down. Some even require walking, so you may want to find a park or hiking trail that you like.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If meditation doesn’t come easily, you’re certainly not alone. Explore resources, either in person or online, and ask for guidance. There are plenty of people who are passionate about meditation who can offer input. You may even find a meditation instructor or class near you.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Meditation is an ancient practice that comes in many forms and types. While meditation historically was a religious practice, you don’t have to be religious to do it and experience the benefits yourself. Thanks to advances in medical technology and science, experts now better understand how meditation affects your brain and body. And research shows there are many benefits — for your mind and body alike — that come with regular meditation. Whether you’re familiar with meditation or starting new, there’s no shortage of information and resources to help you take a deep breath, focus and find a way to make meditation work for you.
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