Here’s everything you need to know about meditation, from science-backed benefits to how to meditate at home (no experience required).

By Maggie Seaver and Nicole Clancy
Updated March 30, 2020
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Meditation may be one of the hottest self-care techniques of the moment, but it shouldn’t be considered "new" or "trendy" by any means. The practice of meditation has existed for thousands of years, takes many different forms, and holds varied significance across cultures, continents, religions, and time. In fact, only recently has meditation and its myriad benefits trickled into the mainstream vocabulary of American health and wellness.

What is meditation?

Despite meditation’s rich, multifaceted history and various forms, the basic concept of meditating can be distilled into something surprisingly approachable for beginners—and practical for skeptics.

“At its core, meditation is an intentional, contemplative practice,” says Jamie Price, the cofounder and president of meditation app Stop, Breathe & Think. “In a traditional sense, the word ‘meditation’ has been translated to mean ‘to become familiar’ and ‘to cultivate.’ Meditation affords you the opportunity to become familiar with your mind—your habits and patterns of thinking—and then provides the means to transform it.”

In other words, with patience and practice, the purposeful exercise of meditation gives you the ability to a) recognize and understand both your thoughts and thought processes; and b) better manage your thoughts, emotions, and reactions.

Price explains that there are many different types of meditation techniques to use depending on your specific intention. Some examples include “developing focus and concentration by focusing on the breath or on an external object, like an image or statue; cultivating positive attitudes, like compassion and kindness; or developing a sense of calm by visualizing a safe, peaceful place."

Guided Meditation

This type of meditation is quite common and pretty much exactly what it sounds like. “Guided meditation involves following step-by-step instructions, either in written form or narrated by an expert,” Price says. “Our minds tend to be very busy and will wander countless times during a meditation session, so following a guided meditation will help you stay on course.” Guided meditation is a smart place for beginners to start—even experienced meditators can benefit from a structured, prompted practice sometimes. As you nail down the basics and become a more seasoned meditator, you may find you don't need a guide to facilitate your practice—or simply prefer to get in the zone on your own.

Meditation vs. Mindfulness

First things first: Mindfulness and meditation are connected, but they’re not exactly synonymous. While meditation here refers specifically to a designated practice for a fixed amount of time, being mindful refers more generally to being present and aware.

Mindfulness: The Basics

“[Mindfulness] means that when you’re doing something, you know you’re doing it,” Price says. “Your mind is not wandering, you’re not lost in a train of thought unrelated to what’s happening at the moment.”

Here’s where it can get tricky: Meditation is a form of mindfulness, and "mindfulness meditation" is its own type of meditation—however, mindfulness can also apply more generally to any situation at any time—whether or not you’re actually meditating.

"For example, you can be mindful when you’re washing your hands, eating a meal, or brushing your teeth,” Price says. “You can be mindful when having a conversation.” Someone exercising mindfulness is purposely extremely present with whatever it is they’re doing, thinking, saying, or observing.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation, then, is a popular type of meditation where you focus specifically “on being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and/or physical sensations with openness and curiosity, and without judging or evaluating what you notice,” Price explains.

The most common and basic form of mindfulness meditation, she says, is paying attention to the action and sensation of breath. “Notice where you feel [your breath] most, and what it feels like as it goes in and out.” Though awareness of the breath is a simple concept, it’s not always easy, and that’s OK. While you observe your breath, you’ll notice that you become lost in thought—and you will get lost in thought (because you’re human). When that happens, simply acknowledge it and then gently bring your attention back to the sensation of the breath.

The Benefits of Meditation

According to Price, research is beginning to reveal that practicing mindfulness meditation to intentionally direct thoughts and attention can actually change the circuitry of the brain, thereby increasing areas that support focus, learning, and memory, and decreasing areas that govern mind wandering, fear, anxiety, and stress.

For stress and anxiety relief—both directly and indirectly.

Studies have found that deep breathing or extending your exhale can calm the nervous system and relieve stress, Price says.

“Meditations on kindness or compassion can help strengthen feelings of social connection, which has been shown to increase well-being, strengthen immunity, increase longevity, and make you less vulnerable to anxiety and depression,” says Price, citing research by Emma Sappala, PhD, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

“The benefits of meditation can be experienced across all age groups,” Price adds. “There’s an ever-growing body of research showing positive outcomes with mindfulness programs for school-age children, people living with chronic pain, PTSD, insomnia, and anxiety.”

For boosting mood and quality of life.

Meditation improves happiness through rewiring the brain. Research from UC Davis concluded meditation lowers the amount of cortisol—the stress hormone—in your body. Research teams from the University of Wisconsin, Yale, Harvard, and Johns Hopkins Medical School have also concluded that meditation actually changes how your brain functions, helping to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain that makes you feel calm and happy) and showing relief from anxiety and depression comparable to that of medication.

“Meditation trains you to get into the parasympathetic nervous system state. That is where the good stuff happens—muscle repair, better sleep, digestion,” says Michael Gervais, a meditation instructor and the creator of HeadStrong meditation by Equinox. “Meditation helps you be more present with what or who is in front of you. This makes your work more productive, your relationships more meaningful, and in general leads to a more profound sense of gratitude for what you have.”

For breaking bad habits and forming good habits.

“Our minds learn through rewards-based learning, or reinforcement learning,” says psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, the director of research of innovation at Brown University Mindfulness Center and founder of MindSciences. “A lot of science shows that mindfulness specifically targets these habit loops, revealing how we learn to get caught up in cravings, worry, or fear.” Mindfulness helps target the brain mechanism involved in getting caught up in things like cravings, procrastination, addiction, and other bad habit loops. Mindfulness helps us tune into how unrewarding the results of the bad habit is (snacking, smoking, biting your nails), and then refocus on the bigger, better reward that results from saying 'no' next time you're tempted to revert to it.

Meditation Tips and Reminders for Beginners

Your mind will wander (and it would be a problem if it didn’t).

“The actual process of meditation can seem so simple: You sit quietly for a period of time, and follow the breath, for example—how hard can that be? But our minds are so busy,” Price explains. “Research has shown that for about 50 percent of the time, our thoughts aren’t actually related to what we’re doing. So when you sit down to practice meditation, it seems your mind gets busier and louder than ever, and it becomes difficult to focus. Remember, this is perfectly normal.”

Perfection isn’t the goal.

The point of meditation is not to punish yourself for letting your mind wander, or to be able to sit still with a pristinely thoughtless mind for hours at a time. As Price says, "that’s actually not possible."

Rather, the point is to train yourself to simply become aware of passing sensations and natural thought tangents. In doing so, you’ll actually learn to recognize when it’s happening (Oh, hello, passing thought about my friend’s wedding this fall); name what’s happening (My nose is itchy; I’m holding tension in my shoulders today; I’m thinking about what I need from the grocery store right now); and then gently draw attention back to your initial meditative intention (e.g., inhaling and exhaling, visualizing a peaceful scene).

“Each time you catch yourself lost in thought and bring your attention back to the breath or other point of focus, it’s a positive thing,” Price says. “You’re strengthening your mindful muscles.”

As with any new skill, it takes practice.

Learning how to meditate takes repetition and patience (and not just for beginners). “Consistency is key,” Price says. “Meditation is a skill, developed through practice over time.”

“Because of neuroplasticity, our brains grow and change based on how they’re used. Every time you have a thought, neurons connect like little impulses across the map of your brain,” she says. “Just as bodybuilders stick to a routine while lifting weights to build muscle, the more consistently you practice mindfulness meditation, the stronger the parts of your brain that allow you to experience the benefits become.”

Start somewhere quiet and comfortable.

A quiet place free of distractions, where you can sit comfortably upright, is an ideal place to start practicing meditation. But as you hone your focus and get familiar with the practice, Price encourages you to try it anywhere, even standing up or lying down (like on the train on your morning commute, while trying to go to sleep, in the waiting room before a big interview).

Set small goals and physically add them to your schedule.

Since repetition helps practice make a lasting impact, Price says it’s far more effective to meditate for a few minutes every day than an hour every other week.

“Keep it simple: Set your meditation goal each day for short periods of time,” she says. “Often the best way to make room for practice on a busy day is to put it on your calendar—and really try to stick to it. Follow guided audio tracks as you get familiar with different techniques.” For a hands-free option, try Real Simple Relax, our Amazon Alexa Skill offering one-minute guided meditations from Stop, Breathe, & Think.

Come with a positive frame of mind.

Price insists the attitude you bring to meditation will significantly impact your experience. “The more open you are, without expectations about how things ‘should be,’ the more at ease you’ll be with the way things actually are,” she says. Approach meditation as something you get to do and want to do. Foster a sense of gratitude for the small luxury of being able to sit quietly and reflect, as well as any benefits you may feel along the way.

An Easy Mindfulness Meditation to Try Right Now (No Experience Needed)

“The basic technique is to focus attention on your breath—the inhale and exhale—with openness and curiosity,” Price says. Follow along with this straightforward guided meditation.

  1. Find a comfortable, upright posture, sitting or standing.
  2. Feel the weight of your body on your seat, or the floor
  3. Take a few deep breaths, and notice how your body feels.
  4. Starting with the top of your head down through your toes, bring your awareness to any part of your body that feels tense, and relax those muscles.
  5. Now bring your awareness to your breath. Notice where you feel the breath most in your body.
  6. Settle into a relaxed focus as you follow the sensation of each inhale and exhale.
  7. With openness and curiosity, notice any sensations, thoughts or feelings that arise, and gently bring your attention back to the sensation of breathing.
  8. Continue to gently redirect your attention back to your breath for as long you’d like.

Guess what—you just completed a meditation. Now you can start meditating every day (even at work!).