What Exactly Is Meditation?

How It Impacts Your Mind and Body

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Woman Meditating. Credit: Compassionate Eye Foundation / Getty Images

There are a number of different things that people can do to alter their states of consciousness, from practicing hypnosis to using psychoactive drugs to taking a nap. While some methods, like drug use, can be harmful, others, including hypnosis, sleep and meditation, can have a positive impact on health. Meditation is also a consciousness-changing technique that has been shown to have a wide number of benefits on psychological well-being.

What Exactly is Meditation?

Meditation can be defined as a set of techniques that are intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention.

Some key things to note about meditation:

  • Meditation has been practiced in cultures all over the world for thousands of years
  • Nearly every religion, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, has a tradition of using meditative practices
  • While meditation is often used for religious purposes, many people practice it independently of any religious or spiritual practices
  • Meditation can also be used as a psychotherapeutic technique
  • There any many different types of meditation

Types of Meditation

Meditation can take on many different forms, but there are two main types: concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation.

How do these two forms of meditation differ?

  • In concentrative meditation, you focus all of your attention on a specific object while tuning out everything else around you. The goal is to really experience whatever you are focusing on, whether it's your breath, a specific word or a mantra, in order to reach a higher state of being.
  • Mindfulness meditation includes, among others, both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). Mindfulness can target different issues, such as depression, which means that its focus may be different from practice to practice. Overall, it involves the state of being aware of and involved in the present moment and making yourself open, aware and accepting. 

    The Effects and Benefits of Meditation

    Research has shown that meditation can have both physiological and psychological effects. Some of the positive physiological effects include a lowered state of physical arousal, reduced respiration rate, decreased heart rate, changes in brain wave patterns and lowered stress.

    Some of the other psychological, emotional, and health-related benefits of meditation include:

    • Increased self-awareness
    • Better stress management skills
    • Improved emotional well-being
    • Better management of symptoms of conditions including anxiety disorders, depression, sleep disorders, pain issues and high blood pressure
    • Improvement in working memory and fluid intelligence
    • Changes in different aspects of attention

    Consciousness is often likened to a stream, shifting and changing smoothly as it passes over the terrain. Meditation is one deliberate means of changing the course of this stream, and in turn, altering how you perceive and respond to the world around you. While experts do not yet fully understand exactly how meditation works, research has clearly demonstrated that meditative techniques can have a range of positive effects on overall health and psychological well-being.

    Learn More About Meditation

    Interested in trying meditation? Check out some of the following links to learn more and get started:

    Sources:

    Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

    Mayo Clinic (2014). Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858

    Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E. R., & Santerre, C. (2002). Meditation and positive psychology. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Xu, J., Vik, A., Groote, I. R., Lagopoulos, J., Holen, A., Ellingsen, O., Haberg, A. K., & Davanger, S. (2014). Nondirective meditation activates default mode network and areas associated with memory retrieval and emotional processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(86), doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00086

    Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EMS, et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-Being [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (US); 2014 Jan. (Comparative Effectiveness Reviews, No. 124.)

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