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There are many different meditation traditions. Most of them promote mindfulness: an open-minded, nonjudgmental attention in the present moment.
Scientists are learning more and more about mindfulness, meditation’s benefits to health and well-being, and how meditation causes these benefits. Meditation has been linked to an increase in positive emotions, which in turn enhances quality of life and leads to the ability to flourish.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a mental exercise that strengthens your capacity to remain connected to the present moment of experience. It does this by strengthening and stabilizing your attention. There are many different meditation disciplines. They all have in common:

  • Stable resting of the mind, typically on an object, sensation, or thought
  • Emphasis on remaining connected to the present moment of experience
  • Nonjudgmental attitude

Meditation is usually thought of as a mind-body contemplative practice, with an emphasis on breathing, posture, and self-awareness.

For many meditation traditions, the object is to develop a habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be described as an open or receptive and nonjudgmental awareness of and attention to what is taking place in the present moment. This “observant stance” of our own thoughts, feelings, and behavior creates space for us to choose our actions. And when we choose how we will react to events and our feelings about them, we are likely to be happier.

Different contemplative practices with a meditative component include:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Centering prayer
  • Mantra meditation
  • Zen meditation
  • Loving-kindness meditation
  • Transcendental meditation
  • Yoga
  • Tai chi
  • Labyrinth walking
  • Qi gong
  • Walking meditation

Many meditation practices came out of Eastern spiritual traditions. In fact, every major world religion has some form of contemplative practice with a meditative component. However, meditation also can be practiced independent of a spiritual tradition.

People who practice meditation regularly report that the habit of open-minded attention carries over throughout their day, and they are able to be mindful during many of their activities. It also cultivates a habit of savoring the moment. Savoring is awareness of and conscious attention to pleasure. Savoring is a positive emotion that can contribute to increased happiness.

Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in The How of Happiness: “People who are habitually mindful of their current experiences are more likely to experience frequent and intense positive emotions, to feel self-sufficient and competent, and to have positive social relationships.”

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph. D.
Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Benefits of meditation

Researchers are continuing to document evidence that meditation has positive effects on health and well-being. Although more research needs to be done to fully understand meditation’s effects, early studies are encouraging.

People who meditate are able to be in both a profound state of calm at the same time that they have a heightened awareness and alertness.

Using brain imagery, scientists have studied the brains of people who meditate and found differences in their brain activity and in their performance on tasks requiring attention. In one study conducted by Richard Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, and their colleagues, they found that people who meditated regularly had increased activity in their left prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain associated with happiness and optimism—compared to people who do not meditate.

Scientific studies are finding a wide variety of physical and mental health benefits of meditation, including:

  • Less stress
  • Less pain
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Better immune function
  • Less heart disease
  • Fewer episodes of depression
  • Less substance abuse
  • More self-awareness
  • Greater alertness
  • Greater self-esteem
  • More feelings of being in control
  • More time spent savoring the moment
  • Increased quality of relationships
  • More social support
  • Greater cognitive flexibility—including in the elderly
  • More empathy
  • Greater self-regulation
  • More compassion

The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph. D.
Positivity, by Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph. D.

A story of transformation

Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues conducted a study on whether practicing loving-kindness meditation would produce an increase in positive emotions, and in turn greater personal resources for resilience and happiness.

After the study was over, Fredrickson found herself thinking about one study subject’s transformation so much that she took the unusual step of calling to ask to interview her.

Nina’s story is included in Fredrickson’s book Positivity. When the study started, Nina was “in a rut,” languishing, and sometimes depressed. She cried a lot and had frequent severe headaches. She found her job very stressful. And she and her husband wanted another child and were deeply disappointed as years went by with no pregnancy.

Over the months of the study and in follow-ups for more than a year afterward, Nina and her life transformed, in ways that Nina considers permanent. She said: “I feel that I grew spiritually. I feel more at peace with myself. I am not as stressed as I was before I began the study … Meditation has made a great impact on my life and soul. I rekindled old relationships, forgave those who hurt me in bad relationships and made peace with them. Now I enjoy life more with my husband, daughter, and twin babies. I look forward to my happy life with them and watching my children grow and learn.”

Fredrickson and her colleagues came to call the study the Open Heart Study. They were studying a hypothesis about a specific chain of causal events. They found that practicing loving-kindness meditation caused people to feel more positive emotions. In turn, the positive emotions caused people to build their personal resources. And finally, this personal growth caused people to describe their lives as more fulfilling. Fredrickson writes: “So far, the numbers tell a story much like Nina’s.”

How to meditate

You can start meditation any time and begin to experience its positive effects. It is easy to learn, requires no cost outlay, and can be done almost anywhere; all it requires is the discipline to start and stick with it.

Advice for getting started:

  • Be prepared to meditate daily; like exercise, meditation works through daily practice
  • Start with brief sessions; it’s better to do five minutes daily when starting out than to try for 30-minute sessions
  • Find a quiet location, free from distractions
  • Choose a comfortable posture; you might choose to sit on a chair or on cushions, walk, stand, or lie down
  • Choose a simple meditation to help you focus your attention; you might focus your attention on breathing, a mantra, or an object
  • Have an open attitude and be patient with yourself; if your mind wanders, simply begin again; if you miss a day, simply begin again
  • Don’t wait to learn everything you can about meditation; simply begin

The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Common misconceptions

Meditation is the same as relaxation.
Relaxation is often a by-product of meditation, but meditation is more than relaxation. Meditation is cultivated as a way of being in daily life, regardless of stressful circumstances. Meditation develops greater attention, insight, and understanding; relaxation is simply a state of being calm. Meditation helps you to cope with your life when you don’t feel calm, and helps you to enjoy the life that you have when you do.

The goal of meditation is to empty your mind of all thoughts and distractions, or to create a state of bliss.

Most forms of meditation are about strengthening your powers of attention and taking a nonjudgmental attitude to distractions. Rather than trying to “empty” your mind, the goal of meditation is to open and focus your mind. Don’t think that you aren’t meditating properly just because you have thoughts, or because you experience turbulent or unpleasant emotions. Meditation is a way of entering into the truth of each moment so that it can be lived more fully and managed more simply. Meditation can’t change the moment that you are having right now, even if it transforms your approach to it.

Meditation is based in Eastern religions.

Many meditation practices do come from Eastern spiritual traditions. However, all major faith traditions include some form of contemplative practice, such as prayer. It is more accurate to think of meditation as a deeply human activity rather than a religious one. Meditation may be practiced independently of any spiritual tradition.

Meditation is about becoming enlightened.

It’s fine to want to get something out of meditation; most people do it for its positive effects. But meditation tends to be less effective when it becomes “goal-oriented.” Meditation is about nonjudgmental focus and attention. Rather than achieving some thunderbolt or state of “enlightenment,” most people who practice meditation find they are in better touch with their true selves and better able to live mindfully in the moment. They are more connected to the pleasures that life has to offer and more capable of dealing with its challenges.

Meditation is about detaching and escaping from your problems.

Meditation is not about running away from or denying problems and feelings. Quite the opposite; meditation requires self-awareness and honesty. Rather than deny feelings, meditation helps people learn to be aware of them and observe them in a nonjudgmental way. People who meditate often become curious about challenges, rather than feeling anxious or fearful. This is often the first step towards taking a fresh start, and can create space to make choices about what actions to take next.

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