The miracle of meditation is no secret. A vast and growing body of research shows that meditating can reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and depression, increase your attention span, and deepen your compassion for others, among its many other benefits. We now know that regular meditation can change the physical structure of the brain, and recent studies by scientists at the University of Wisconsin and UCLA suggest not only that meditation might make your brain better at cognitive functions such as processing information and forming memories, but also that the more years you regularly meditate, the greater the potential benefits. From the Dalai Lama to Oprah and from cell phone apps that prompt you to look inward to worldwide flash-mob meditations that aim to publicize the benefits of the practice, meditation is heralded by secular, spiritual, and scientific communities alike as good for you.
If you’ve ever thought about learning to meditate, you know that there are a potentially overwhelming number of styles and techniques to choose from. Vipassana or Transcendental? Visualization, prayer, or mantra? Music or no music? Decisions in the vitamin aisle at Whole Foods seem easy by comparison. Do not to fret over the sprawling meditation buffet. Instead, think of the various techniques as tools or portals to give you access to the meditative state.
Which technique you use is less important than reaping the rewards of a quiet mind. Beginners should start by finding a practice or technique that reliably puts them into a meditative state. Once this core practice is established, you can then begin to experiment with other meditation techniques and styles—always with the knowledge that you can return to one that works for you if you start to lose your way.
It’s helpful for beginners to establish conditions for a meditation practice that will remain basically constant—the same time, the same cushion, the same quiet corner. Our minds and bodies have natural rhythms, and they respond positively to meditating at the same time every day and to visual and sensory cues like cushions, clothing, candles, and spaces dedicated to meditation, she says. Indeed, neurosciences believe that we form habits by way of a three-step habit loop The brain prompts you to perform an act in response to a cue, you do the activity, and you find it rewarding, thus strengthening the loop and making you eager to do it again.
I pencil in the 20 minutes before dawn as my optimal practice time and choose a quiet spot where I’m unlikely to be disturbed. On my first morning I sit on the floor on a folded blanket with my eyes gently closed, my legs loosely crossed, and my palms resting softly on my thighs. The wall is close by to support my back if I need it. You should make yourself comfortable so that physical discomfort doesn’t stop you from meditating. Supporting the back against a wall with pillows, or even sitting in a chair is fine, so long as the spine is erect a slumped posture constricts breathing, reduces alertness, and puts a kink in the energy running through the body.