Meditation denotes an array of techniques that promote mind and body integration. Some types involve keeping mental focus on a sensation, while other types entail focusing awareness on the present without making judgments.
People use meditation to foster relaxation and heightened awareness in a stressful world where senses often become dull. Research suggests that meditation may have the potential to improve physical well-being, as well as emotional health, but most of the evidence is preliminary.
This article discusses the types of meditation, how long they take to work, and how often to meditate. It also looks at disadvantages and offers tips.
Types of meditation
The following eight examples are some of the best-known ways to meditate:
This type is also known as Metta meditation. Its goal is to cultivate an attitude of love and kindness toward everything, even a person’s enemies and sources of stress.
While breathing deeply, an individual opens their mind to receive loving kindness. They then send messages of loving kindness to the world, specific people, or their loved ones.
In most forms of this meditation, the key is to repeat the message many times, until the individual feels an attitude of benevolence.
Progressive muscle relaxation
During a progressive relaxation session, practitioners start at one end of their body, usually their feet, and work through the whole body.
Some forms of progressive relaxation require someone to tense and then relax muscles. Others encourage a person to visualize a wave, drifting over their body to release tension.
Progressive relaxation can help to promote generalized feelings of calmness and relaxation. It may also help with chronic pain. Because it slowly and steadily relaxes the body, some people use this form of meditation to help them sleep.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that urges practitioners to remain aware and present in the moment. Rather than dwelling on the past or dreading the future, mindfulness encourages awareness of an individual’s present surroundings.
Crucial to this is a lack of judgment. To illustrate, rather than reflecting on the annoyance of a long wait, a practitioner will simply note the wait without judgment.
Mindfulness meditation is something people can do almost anywhere. For example, while waiting in line at the grocery store, a person might calmly notice their surroundings, including the sights, sounds, and smells they experience.
A form of mindfulness is involved in most types of meditation. For instance, breath awareness encourages practitioners to be aware of their breathing, while progressive relaxation draws attention to areas of tension in the body.
Because mindfulness is a theme common to many types of meditation, it has been studied extensively. Research has found that it can:
- reduce fixation on negative emotions
- improve focus
- improve memory
- lessen impulsive and emotional reactions
- increase relationship satisfaction
Breath awareness meditation
Breath awareness is a type of mindful meditation that encourages mindful breathing.
Practitioners breathe slowly and deeply, counting their breaths. The goal is to focus only on breathing and ignore other thoughts that enter the mind.
As a form of mindfulness meditation, breath awareness offers many of the same benefits as mindfulness. Those include:
- reduced anxiety
- improved concentration
- increased emotional flexibility
Mantra-based meditation involves the continuous repetition of a set of syllables, phrases, or words either aloud or silently. A person may perform it with or without religious content.
It works by overriding and redirecting negative thoughts. A 2022 study found it produced small to moderate decreases in anxiety, as well as small reductions in depression. However, study bias and the scarcity of research may weaken these findings.
Transcendental meditation is a spiritual form of meditation where individuals remain seated and breathe slowly. The goal is to transcend or rise above the person’s current state of being.
During a session, a person should focus on a mantra. If they are working with a teacher, they will determine the mantra based on a complex set of factors.
An alternative form allows people to choose their mantra. This more contemporary version is not technically transcendental meditation, though it may look substantially similar. A person might decide to repeat “I am not afraid of public speaking” while meditating.
An older 2014 clinical trial assessed the value of this form of meditation in 40 teachers. The authors concluded that it may help reduce stress, burnout, and depression. However, further research is necessary to verify the results.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction
More than 30 years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn developed a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to manage chronic pain and mental health conditions in people who were not responsive to conventional treatment.
The original course lasted 8 weeks and included body scan, belly breathing, yoga, and present moment awareness meditation.
MBSR includes homework involving tasks, such as keeping a positive events log or gratitude journal. Researchers have found that people who participated in MBSR scored significantly better on psychological tests and experienced less pain, according to an older 2014 study.
The voice of either a live person or a taped recording can act as a guide in directing various types of meditation. This differs from forms of self-guided meditation that an individual’s own mind directs.
Someone may use guided meditation for mindfulness or MBSR. People who are new to meditation may wish to start with a guide in some form. A live guide may be available in group settings, while a recording is available via videos, podcasts, apps, and audio recordings.
How long does it take to work?
Meditation is not a results-focused undertaking. Some practitioners say that fixating too much on the results can provoke anxiety that undermines the benefits of meditation.
However, most research shows that meditation can work quickly. Studies of meditation typically follow individuals for weeks or months, not years. Many report an immediate improvement following a meditation session.
How often to meditate
There is no right answer to this question. One argument is that any meditation is better than no meditation. If a person is only able to meditate once a week, this should not be a barrier to trying out the therapy.
People can consider starting with a few mindfulness sessions per week and increasing the frequency if they feel it is necessary. Meditation may also be a tool someone uses on an as-needed basis.
Disadvantages of meditation
Although meditation is linked to a few risks, very little research has explored the potentially harmful effects. For this reason, it is too soon to make conclusions about its safety.
Research from 2017 investigated the unwanted effects of meditation in 342 participants. It found the most common ones occurred at a rate of 4.2 to 4.6%. They included:
- feelings of being alienated from society
- trouble feeling comfortable in the world
- feeling that something is missing
Most unwanted effects were mild and did not necessitate discontinuing the meditation. Additionally, the effects occurred more often in people who engaged in the practice more frequently and in individual sessions rather than group sessions.
What happens when you stop meditating?
There are anecdotal reports of losing mental clarity and focus when meditation stops. However, based on the previously mentioned research, unwanted effects increase with meditation frequency. This is something to keep in mind because even if negative effects occur when meditation stops, the risk of unwanted effects increases with more frequent use.
Tips for better meditation
Meditation is a process-oriented undertaking that focuses on the moment, not on the results, so enjoying the moment is key to success.
An individual should not judge whether the meditation session is good or bad. Instead, they should simply try to remain in the moment.
Meditation is a skill that takes time to master. Some people feel frustrated and even angry when they first attempt it. Whatever the immediate reaction, a person may wish to persist with their meditation practice to determine if it will help them.
Some beginners may benefit from enrolling in a class or having the support of a teacher.
Meditation is a simple strategy that can promote calmness and relaxation. There is no one-size-fits-all form because people have different preferences. Some aficionados may say that the best meditation is the one that an individual enjoys practicing regularly.
It takes time to master, as does any other skill. If a person sticks with it and is willing to experiment with the various methods, they are more likely to discover a meditation type that suits them.