What Is Meditation?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Meditation is a set of mental techniques that help train your attention and awareness. Meditation often involves concentrating on your breathing or on a particular phrase, object, or idea to create a calm, focused, and relaxed mental state.

Meditation is an ancient practice with a rich cultural history. It has been used for thousands of years in Eastern medicine and traditions. Nearly every major religion—Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism—incorporates some form of meditation into its religious practices.

Today many people use meditation for nonreligious, non-spiritual purposes: to help manage stress, to increase their focus and awareness daily, to improve their mood, and to get mental clarity.

Starting a meditation practice is a great way to enhance your mental well-being. Plus it is free, with no special equipment, memberships, or training required.

Seated woman in workout clothes with palms pressed together and eyes closed facing a window

Patrik Giardino / Getty Images

How to Meditate: The Basics

Find a quiet place free from distractions: Turn off your phone, your tv, and other electronics. If you want to have music or sound in the background, choose something calming and repetitive, like rain or ocean sounds.

Find a comfortable position: Most meditations occur in a seated position. The key is to find a position you can comfortably hold for several minutes. This could be sitting cross-legged on the floor, sitting in a chair, or sitting on the floor with a blanket, pillow, or cushion elevating your hips.

Establish a routine: To gain the benefits of meditation, you need to establish a routine. Make it a habit. Set a schedule and try to meditate for at least five minutes every day at the same time, like before bed or right when you wake up.

Start slow: Beginners may find meditating for more than five to 10 minutes challenging. Set a time limit of five to 10 minutes to start. The length of the session is less important than meditating regularly. Meditation is a form of mental exercise. You build stamina for longer sessions as you develop a practice.

Types

Most people practicing meditation use one of two techniques: mindfulness meditation or focused meditation.

Focused, or Concentrative, Meditation

Focused meditation is simply that: a practice of focusing one of your five senses on a specific sensation or object. It can involve listening to a chime or a gong, staring at a candle, focusing on your breath, or counting mala beads, or prayer beads. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to focus on your chosen object, sound, or sensation.

Like other forms of meditation, the concept of focused meditation is simple, but the practice can be challenging. It is a good idea to build your practice slowly, gradually lengthening your meditation sessions as your ability to focus grows.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation involves becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment or distraction. Your breath, or sometimes an object or sound, serves as an anchor.

During mindfulness meditation, you focus your mind on the process of inhaling and exhaling, noticing when your mind or thoughts start to wander. It’s inevitable and natural for your mind to wander. Observe your mind wandering and the thoughts and feelings that arise without judgment, just noting them, and then gently draw your attention back to your breathing.

Researchers have incorporated mindfulness meditation into specific therapies for people suffering from high levels of stress, anxiety, or depression. The two best-known are:

  • Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR): MBSR incorporates mindfulness meditation and yoga to reduce stress. Developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s, MBSR is typically taught through an eight-week course. The goal of the practice is to create a calm, relaxed state, and to build the ability to reduce emotional reactivity by staying present, aware, and calm during times of stress.
  • Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): MBCT incorporates mindfulness MBSR with a type of psychotherapy known as cognitive therapy. The goal is to create present-moment awareness, and help free individuals, especially those who have suffered from depression or anxiety, from excess rumination (having repeated thoughts) and negative thought patterns.

Some Other Types of Meditation

Transcendental meditation: Transcendental meditation involves repeating a mantra, such as a word, sound, or phrase. The mantra helps you focus and relax without needing to concentrate or expend mental energy.

Yoga: Yoga is both an exercise and a form of meditation. It involves moving through a series of poses while focusing on your breath, balance, and body alignment.

Body scan: This simple and quick form of meditation is great for beginners. During a body scan, you close your eyes and focus on one part of the body at a time, typically starting with the toes and slowly moving up the body toward the head. For each body part, note any sensations or tension. Sometimes practitioners will contract and then relax each body part in turn.

Guided meditation: This form of meditation uses mental imagery to picture relaxing places and situations. A guide or teacher may walk you through this process by encouraging you to imagine the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of each mental image.

Benefits

Many people find meditation rewarding in and of itself—a way of calming and refocusing the mind at the beginning or end of a busy day.

But research suggests the emotional and physical benefits of a regular meditation practice can extend well beyond those experienced in the moment.

Mental and Emotional

Some of the emotional and mental benefits of regular meditation may include:

  • Enhanced self-awareness that improves your ability to understand yourself and relate to those around you
  • Increased creativity
  • Greater patience and emotional flexibility
  • Enhanced attention span
  • Improved memory
  • Reduced harmful levels of stress hormones and inflammatory chemicals associated with the stress response
  • Helping alleviate depression and prevent depression relapses
  • Reduced anxiety

Physical

The benefits of meditation are not only mental, but physical, as well. Mind and mental stress affect your physical health and well-being, too. So it's not really surprising that studies find a regular meditation practice can:

  • Modestly lower blood pressure
  • Reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome—a stress-related intestinal disorder
  • Help reduce chronic pain
  • Reduce activation in areas of the brain involved in fear and other negative emotions
  • Improve sleep and combat insomnia

More Studies Are Needed

It's important to note that many of the cognitive, emotional, and health benefits of meditation are mild and some have only been observed in relatively small studies. Researchers would like to see these benefits confirmed in larger studies before considering them established. Thus, meditation can be an excellent complement to existing medical treatments, such as for depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure, but it is not a replacement for medical treatments.

Rarely, meditation may worsen symptoms, like anxiety and depression, in people with active mental illness. If you have a mental illness, talk to your doctor before beginning a meditation practice.

A Word From Verywell

Meditation is a free, with no equipment or special location needed to boost your mood, combat stress, and improve your overall well-being. There is no single right way to meditate. Choose the method and timing that works for you.

Remember, meditation is not about accomplishing a task or putting a checkmark down on a list of daily achievements. It is, however, about the process. It is about taking some time, however briefly, each day to check in with yourself, to relax, and find peace.

Was this page helpful?
16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Positive Psychology. Mead, E. The History and Origin of Meditation, Updated May 18, 2021.

  2. Lutz A, Slagter HA, Dunne JD, Davidson RJ. Attention regulation and monitoring in meditationTrends Cogn Sci. 2008;12(4):163-169. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.01.005

  3. American Psychological Association. Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Updated October 30, 2019.

  4. MacKenzie M, Kocovski N. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: trends and developmentsPsychol Res Behav Manag. 2016;9:125-132. doi:10.2147/PRBM.S63949

  5. Fazia T, Bubbico F, Iliakis I, Salvato G, Berzuini G, Bruno S, Bernardinelli L. Short-Term Meditation Training Fosters Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: A Pilot Study. Front Psychol. 2020 Oct 26;11:558803. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.558803

  6. Norris CJ, Creem D, Hendler R, Kober H. Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by NeuroticismFront Hum Neurosci. 2018;12:315. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315

  7. Gard T, Hölzel BK, Lazar SW. The potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline: a systematic review. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:89-103. doi:10.1111/nyas.12348

  8. Rosenkranz MA, Davidson RJ, Maccoon DG, Sheridan JF, Kalin NH, Lutz A. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2012.10.013.

  9. Strauss C, Cavanagh K, Oliver A, Pettman D. Mindfulness-based interventions for people diagnosed with a current episode of an anxiety or depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trialsPLoS One. 2014;9(4):e96110. Published 2014 Apr 24. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096110

  10. Goyal M, Singh S, Sibinga EM, Gould NF, Rowland-Seymour A, Sharma R, Berger Z, Sleicher D, Maron DD, Shihab HM, Ranasinghe PD, Linn S, Saha S, Bass EB, Haythornthwaite JA. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014 Mar;174(3):357-68. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018.

  11. Bai Z, Chang J, Chen C, Li P, Yang K, Chi I. Investigating the effect of transcendental meditation on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Hum Hypertens. 2015 Nov;29(11):653-62. doi:10.1038/jhh.2015.6

  12. Labus J, Gupta A, Gill HK, et al. Randomized clinical trial: symptoms of the irritable bowel syndrome are improved by a psycho-education group interventionAliment Pharmacol Ther. 2013;37(3):304-315. doi:10.1111/apt.12171

  13. Hilton L, Hempel S, Ewing BA, et al. Mindfulness Meditation for Chronic Pain: Systematic Review and Meta-analysisAnn Behav Med. 2017;51(2):199-213. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9844-2

  14. The Harvard Gazette. Powell, Alvin. When science meets mindfulness. Updated April 9, 2018.

  15. Ong JC, Manber R, Segal Z, Xia Y, Shapiro S, Wyatt JK. A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomniaSleep. 2014;37(9):1553–1563. doi:10.5665/sleep.4010

  16. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated April, 2016.