Benefits of Meditation: How to Start Your Own Practice

Mindfulness meditation has been practiced as part of the Buddhist philosophy to promote peace and reduce suffering. In the West, the benefits of meditation focus more on relaxation techniques and meditation's ability to ease physical pain, reduce stress, create a sense of well being and, for some people, further their spiritual development.

Types of Meditation
Beginners may find themselves confused by the variety of meditation techniques to choose from. If you're new to meditation, it may help to remember that there is no right or wrong way to meditate. No matter what philosophy provides the basis for a meditation technique, the overall objective is the same: to quiet the mind and silence the inner chatter we carry on with as we move through our days.

Meditation teaches us to quiet our minds in several ways:

  • Breath awareness
  • Focusing attention on a single thought, image or sound
  • Repetition of a mantra
  • Observing thought patterns
  • Walking

Although you may be drawn to one type of meditation to start, you might discover over time that you're drawn to others. Again, there's no right and wrong: try a different form or combine elements from different forms of meditation that interest you. After some trial and error, you'll begin to get a sense of what does and doesn't work for you.

Meditation Techniques

Follow the breath. With eyes open or closed, start by bringing your attention to the breath as you naturally inhale and exhale. Focus on the inhalation as you breathe in, and the exhalation as you breathe out. Don't try to force, control or change the breath, just allow it to be. Eventually you can begin to pay attention to the space between the in breath and the out breath-the place where there is no breath. When thoughts arise-and they will-simply acknowledge their existence and gently bring your attention back to your inhalation and exhalation. Watch your breath in your mind's eye as you'd watch waves crash onto and recede from the beach.

Simply sit. Find a comfortable seated position and sit with your eyes closed. Don't do anything except notice the thoughts that come up in your mind. When they do, acknowledge them without passing judgment. Resist the urge to adjust your position or open your eyes. Notice any discomfort that comes up, whether it's physical or emotional, and let it go. You may find that by not giving into the urge to move or disrupt your practice these feelings soften or dissolve on their own.

Awaken your senses. Close your eyes and take a comfortable seated position. Bring your awareness to the sounds and sensations around you. At first you may only hear the cars on the street or the neighbors in their yard, but the longer you sit the more subtle sounds you'll begin to hear. Observe how tuning into sound on a deeper levels feels in your body and your mind as well as how it reacts to any disturbances, like lawnmowers or sirens.

Repeat after me. A mantra doesn't have to be given to you from a guru for it to work. You can choose any word, phrase or short quote from a poem that has meaning for you. Repeat your mantra slowly and quietly, or even silently in your head. Allow the rhythm and sound of the words to soothe your mind. When your mind wanders, bring your attention back to your mantra and begin again.

Make it physical. When you sit meditation, bring your awareness to all of the physical sensations around you. Is there tension in your knees, neck or back? Are you sitting on a hard or cushioned surface? Is the air warm or cool? Do any of these sensations intensify or weaken in relation to the breath? Paying attention to what your physical body experiences in meditation takes you out of your head and into the present moment.

Use a guide. There's an abundance of meditation CDs and MP3s you can listen to that guide you through the process of meditation. Some may be set to music, while others may be nothing more than a trance beat that repeats over and over. Still others may lead you step by step through a scene or series of subtle movements designed to promote deep physical relaxation.

Starting a Practice
When you're beginning a meditation practice, the most important thing you can do is to create a schedule that you can stick to. It needn't be long-anywhere from five to ten minutes to start is effective (beginners may find it easier to start with three minutes, gradually adding one minute each week until they reach their desired length of time). Then, decide how often you wish to practice-whether that's twice a day or twice a week is less critical than committing to the schedule you set.

Choose the time of day that appeals to you-early morning, before bed or on your lunch hour-and then treat that time as a sacred appointment with yourself. Turn off your phone, the television, the radio and computer; don't answer the doorbell; and ask your family members to respect that you're taking this time for yourself.

If practicing on your own doesn't interest you, you can work with a meditation teacher or join a meditation group. Check with your local yoga studio, holistic health center or the community bulletin boards at the health foods store.

And when thoughts arise during your practice, as they always will, take care not to judge either the thoughts or yourself for having them. Bring your attention back to your breath, your mantra or whatever technique works for you and begin again.

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