Meditation can be done in many forms, but usually involves “concentrated focus upon a sound, object, visualization, the breath, movement, or attention itself” (Gale, 2014, p. 1553). If the mind wanders, the focal point helps the person gain their concentration back by providing an anchor for the mind. In other words, the sound, object, visualization, or other provides continued stimulation for the mind so that it has something to come back to when it gets distracted. There are other forms of meditation that do not involve concentration, and instead incorporate non-judgmental observation of what is going on in your mind (Freeman, 2009).
Forms of Meditation
Clinically Standardized Meditation or CSM involves a selection of a sound as the mental anchor. Respiratory One Method (ROM) uses two anchors, namely a word or phrase and the breath. In ROM, the practitioner repeats the word or phrase with each exhalation (Freeman, 2009). The relaxation response involves only one mental anchor, but allows the practitioner to choose between using a word, phrase, prayer, sound, or movement, and to practice meditation for 10-20 minutes twice a day (Gale, 2014).
Transcendental meditation (TM) is “a mental technique that allows the mind to experience progressively finer levels of thought until the source of thought- pure consciousness- is experienced” (Freeman, 2009, p. 159). It involves using a mantra and the objective is to achieve an elevated level of consciousness. TM should be practiced for 20 minutes twice a day. It is believed that TM is one of the most widely practiced forms of meditation, particularly in the West (Gale, 2014).
Mindfulness meditation comes from Buddhism (Gale, 2014), and is a form of meditation “that cultivates present moment awareness,” and “aims to foster inner calmness and nonjudgement of the mind, which can help individuals to ‘acknowledge and accept as it is’ in all aspects of daily life” (Ching, Koo, Tsai, & Chen, 2015, p. 1). According to Dan Harris, co-anchor of Good Morning America and Nightline, mindfulness is “the ability to see what is happening in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it” (2014).
MBSR or mindfulness-based stress reduction is a form of mindfulness developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a psychologist. It involves practitioners sitting for 45-60 minutes with their eyes closed while they focus on their breath or other sensations (Gale, 2014).
Regardless of the form of meditation, there are considerable benefits from meditation, and four of them are included here.
1. Meditation Supports Learning
Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation improves “attention, cognition, cognitive flexibility, and academic performance” (Ching et al., 2015, p. 1). It also improves efficiency and memory, and increases speed performance on all types of tasks (Sharma, 2015). One in particular looked at the effect of mindfulness on 152 Taiwanese university students and compared them to 130 students who did not practice mindfulness. The study was conducted over a 6-month period where the students practiced mindfulness for 50-minutes as part of a weekly class. At the end of 6-months the students who practiced mindfulness had better learning performance and cognitive performance than those who did not. Mindfulness students improved in accuracy, reaction time, task performance, attention span, and working memory (Ching et al., 2015). Another study that looked at elementary students who engaged in a 5-week mindfulness practice showed the students were better able to pay attention, had better self-control, had greater participation in activities, and showed more care and respect for others (Ching et al., 2015).
2. Meditation Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Studies have shown that meditation helps reduce stress, lower anxiety, and decrease depression (Sharma, 2015). In one study, 30 caregivers of lung transplant donator or recipients participated in a study where their stress levels were measured before and after receiving instruction on MBSR (Haines, Spadaro, Choi, Hoffman, & Blazeck, 2014). Half of the caregivers watched a video indicating how to do MBSR and proceeded to practice MBSR every day for 5-15 min per day for 4 weeks. The other half did not do anything differently. Stress test were provided at the beginning and end of the study, and results showed that those caregivers who practiced MBSR had significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety, while those who did not had no changes to their levels of stress and anxiety (Haines et al., 2014). A few studies on cancer patients showed that those who practiced MBSR had less anxiety, anger, depression, and stress (Haines et al., 2014).
3. Meditation Helps in Dealing With Trauma and Extreme Anxiety
A study looked at the effects of MBSR and other types of meditation on women who had experienced trauma (Myers, Lewis, & Dutton, 2015). Meditation lasted for 10-30 minutes, and was part of a led meditation group conducted by a teacher. Meditation helped these women deal with trauma by increasing their awareness of what was going on physically in their bodies, minds, and spirits, helping them connect with their self-stories and their pain, and eventually healing the pain and the trauma. Meditation also encouraged self-reflection, which in some cases further encouraged women to talk about their trauma. What is more, meditation helped the practitioners focus on the present moment, helped them connect with their pain and bring them to “a place of compassion and acceptance,” brought about silence, and helped them handle their inner or mental narrative such that they felt better in control of it rather than allowing it control them (Myers et al., 2015).
4. Meditation Improves Health
Mindfulness has been linked to the positive treatment of depression, cancer, multiple sclerosis, low back pain, insomnia, kidney disease, epilepsy, menopause, premenstrual syndrome, autoimmune conditions, and emotional disorders (Ching et al., 2015; Sharma, 2015). There is also evidence it reduces physical pain, psychological pain, blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate (Sharma, 2015). There are other studies that have shown meditation helps increase exercise resistance, brain gray matter, and telomere length. Aging and certain diseases have been associated with shorter telomeres (Sharma, 2015). “Powerful links exist between the brain and the immune system,” and any activity or behavior that improves mood and relaxation, encourages physical activity, and reduces stress, helps the body strengthen the immune system so that it better responds to illness and disease (Morgan, Irwin, Chun, & Wang, 2014, e10093). A meta-analysis, or an analytical review of many studies, conducted by Morgan et al. in 2014 reviewed 34 clinical trials that looked at the effect of tai chi, qi gong, yoga, and meditation, and found that all of these mind-body therapies help reduce inflammation in the body, and also assist the body in having an improved immune response.
Meditation not only supports learning, reduces stress and anxiety, helps in dealing with trauma and extreme anxiety, and improves health, but also brings about a sense of calmness and stability. Although meditation is not for everyone, everyone can do meditation. It is important to try different forms of meditation to select that one that is best suited for you and your lifestyle.
Ching, H. H., Koo, M., Tsai, T.H., & Chen, C. Y. (2015). Effects of a mindfulness meditation course on learning and cognitive performance among university students in Taiwan. Evidence-Based Complementary And Alternative Medicine, 2015(254358), 1-7. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/254358
Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine, A Research-Based Approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Haines, J., Spadaro, K. C., Choi, J., Hoffman, L. A., & Blazeck, A. M. (2014). Reducing stress and anxiety in caregivers of lung transplant patients: benefits of mindfulness meditation. International Journal of Organ Transplantation Medicine, 5 (2), 50-56. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4089339/pdf/ijotm-5-050.pdf
Harris, D. (Presenter) (2014, July 1). Why I embraced meditation after having a panic attack on live TV: Dan Harris. Mind Body Green. Retrieved from http://www.mindbodygreen.com/revitalize/video/why-i-embraced-meditation-after-having-a-panic-attack-on-live-tv-dan-harris?utm_content=daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=160512&utm_source=mbg
Morgan, N., Irwin, M. R., Chung, M., & Wang, C. (2014). The effects of mind-body therapies on the immune system: meta-analysis. PLoS ONE, 9(7), e100903. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
Myers, N., Lewis, S. & Dutton, M. A. (2015). Open mind, open heart: an anthropological study of the therapeutics of meditation practice in the US. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 39(2), 487-504. doi:10.1007/s11013-014-9424-5
Sharma, H. (2015). Meditation: process and effects. Ayu, 36(3), 233-237. doi:10.4103/0974-8520.182756