What is meditation and what are the benefits?
We all live in a busy world these days, and it can feel overwhelming. We get up, get ready for work or study, commute, work or study hard and then come home. Then we repeat it all again the next day. Plus, if you’re a parent, you also have to fit in organising your kids for kindergarten or school.
This daily stress is where the benefits of meditation come in.
We asked Consultant Psychologist Dr Bec Jackson to explain exactly what meditation is and bust some myths about it. She talked us through what meditation can do, and how to start meditating as a beginner.
What is meditation?
After completing an accredited training program in meditation, Dr Bec defines it as “awareness training that can fundamentally transform your perspective on life.”
She explains that our minds mediate (filter and interpret) all of our life experiences. That’s why becoming aware of what’s happening in your mind can literally change your life.
However, she says it’s important to realise that as human beings, we’re wired to have very busy, distracted and restless minds. This is what Buddhists describe as a ‘monkey mind’. And simply choosing to meditate won’t change that, although it may create islands of calm in your life as you practise more.
Let’s bust some common myths about meditation:
- It’s about sitting quietly with your legs crossed
It’s true that some forms of meditation involve doing this. But other forms focus on meditative movement, or on bringing mindfulness into your daily life and activities. There are many ways to practise meditation.
- If my mind wanders, the meditation isn’t working
In fact, Dr Bec says that the complete opposite is true! If you notice your mind wandering, that means you’re meditating correctly. Meditation is about increasing your internal awareness, not about changing it.
- Meditation has to be hard
It can be challenging to start with, acknowledges Dr Bec, but meditation gets easier with practice. She recommends starting to meditate for short periods of time initially if you’re a beginner.
- I’m not good at meditation
Dr Bec likes to remind people to be kind and not judge themselves when they meditate. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. We simply practise meditation because we want to strengthen the skill of meditating.
- Meditating will put you at ease from day 1
Like most things in life, meditation takes practice. But once you’ve practised it for a while, it does get much easier.
Meditation is a religious thing. Many different religions do practise meditation in various forms, but it isn’t exclusive to religion. And many people practise meditation for non-religious reasons.
You’ll see why when you read some of the benefits of meditation below.
Is meditation beneficial?
“It sure is!” replies Dr Bec. Meditation has benefits for both mental wellbeing and physical health too, including helping with:
- low mood
- managing stress
- slowing down your monkey mind
- improving concentration and focus
- coping with pain
- maintaining healthy blood pressure
- sleep issues
- tension headaches
- coping better with life’s challenges
- raising resilient kids
This is why Dr Bec reckons that meditation is a healthy habit to have.
How to start meditating
Many people struggle to start meditation. So don’t feel dismayed if you don’t ‘get it’ the first time. It takes time to rewire our monkey minds!
That said, the process of meditating is extremely straightforward. Simply sit, close your eyes, focus on your breath and let your mind do its thing. That’s literally all there is to it!
When (not if, but when) you realise that you’re lost in thought or that your mind has wandered, that’s awareness. And Dr Bec says that’s when you return to your object of focus – usually your breath. Then just repeat, over and over.
Whenever you notice a distracting thought, return to your breath. “Each time you do this,” Dr Bec says, “you’re sharpening your awareness.” With daily practice, the length of time between distractions will increase.
And that’s meditation.
Of course, ‘simple’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’. Dr Bec acknowledges that the biggest challenge is remaining consistent, curious and non-judgemental in your practice. She says that there’s no such thing as a good or bad meditation. There’s only awareness or non-awareness.
Basic meditation tips
There are some great smartphone apps to help start your meditation journey. Check out Smiling Mind.
Here are a few further tips to get you started:
- Start small
Meditation is much like physical exercise. You wouldn’t jump right in and try to run a marathon with no training. Instead, you’d work your way up to it. It’s just the same with meditation. Start with short periods of time and gradually increase them.
- Be consistent with your meditation practice
It takes time for new behaviours to become a habit – and Dr Bec explains why below.
- Be gentle with yourself
Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss a day, or even a few! Sometimes life gets in the way, but don’t beat yourself up about it. Be patient and give yourself time to master meditation.
- Experiment with different forms of meditation
A technique that works wonders for someone else may not work for you, and vice versa. Dr Bec is a big fan of breath-focused meditation because it’s a simple introductory technique. But if you discover it’s not for you, check out some other forms of meditation at the end of this article.
How long does it take to see the benefits of meditation?
It takes time for any new behaviour to become a habit. And that length of time will vary from person to person.
Dr Bec explains that creating new habits involves creating new neural pathways in our brains. The best way to form a neural pathway is to do something repetitively. Repeating a task over and over creates that pathway in your brain, which then creates a lasting change. It’s sort of the mental version of regular physical activity.
So what happens if you create a new neural pathway for meditation, but then stop practising for a while? In that case, Dr Bec says, that pathway does disintegrate. But because you originally created the neural pathway, it leaves a little memory in your brain. This then makes it easier for you to later reignite that habit again.
The other thing Dr Bec mentions is that you might practise meditation every day for six to 12 months, but then stop for some reason. Despite this, you may find yourself having moments where you unconsciously use meditation without even thinking about it. For example, you may find yourself waiting in a supermarket queue and just breathing.
And that’s the joy of forming the habit of meditating. You end up being able to do it anywhere.
Want to try more types of meditation?
Dr Bec finishes by saying that she now tries to find brief moments where she can meditate throughout her day.
She incorporates these moments of meditation into her daily routines, such as when she’s making a herbal cuppa.
Once you’ve got the hang of breath-focussed meditation, why not explore one of these other forms:
- Mantra meditation
- Mindfulness meditation
- Qi Gong
- Tai Chi
- How to create habits you can actually stick to
- How can I improve my mental wellbeing?
- How can I improve my focus and productivity?
- What is mindfulness and how can I start doing it easily?
- What is stress and how can you manage it?
Reviewed by the healthylife Advisory Board 2021