Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Many people would like to incorporate meditation into their daily routine but shy away from it, either because they think it takes too much time or involves an elaborate ritual with candles and incense, or they get discouraged because they can’t stop thoughts from entering their head. According to Professor Vishton, though, meditation doesn’t have to be complicated.
How to Meditate
Meditation is beneficial for feeling calmer and happier and improving your overall brain health. When it comes to how to actually meditate, though, you may still be confused. It seems simple enough, but sitting and thinking about nothing is an activity that most modern people rarely pursue.
Most people wake up and, within a few minutes, get up and start going about their daily activities. Not only do we think a lot as we go about our daily activities, but these thoughts are typically associated with particular goals in mind.
Professor Vishton recommends that you spend around 10 minutes engaged in meditation, not thinking about anything. This meditation session will be most effective if you choose a quiet place— someplace you won’t be disturbed.
There should be a clock somewhere that you can glance at to check when you think about 10 minutes have elapsed. Find a comfortable chair, but stay upright—taking a nap doesn’t offer the same benefits as meditation.
Once you’re in your chair, with the clock ready, close your eyes and try to put your brain in neutral. Let your thoughts wander and watch what comes up.
You might find yourself drawn to think about a particular problem, task, or future plan. Let yourself think about it for a few moments, but try not to get drawn into a consciously driven set of thoughts. Whenever you notice that happening, don’t panic; just decide to stop thinking about it and set your thoughts to wandering again.
When you think about 10 minutes have passed, open your eyes and glance up at the clock. If you’re like most people, it won’t be close to 10 minutes yet.
It will seem like a lot of time has passed, but it will have only been a few minutes. Don’t get discouraged. Just close your eyes again, and continue. What you’re doing is a simple form of meditation—perhaps the simplest.
Mindfulness or Concentration Meditation?
Professor Vishton recommends that you work up to meditating in this fashion for 20 minutes at a time, and that you do so three or more times per week. As for the style of meditation, meditation falls into two main categories.
These categories are concentration meditation, where you focus on one thing such as your breath or a mantra, and mindfulness meditation, where you focus on physical sensations in your body and surroundings.
You may be wondering if one form of meditation is superior to another, but according to Professor Vishton, it’s more a matter of personal preference. There’s more recent research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, but no major studies have attempted to compare it directly with concentration meditation.
“It’s not clear that concentrating on your breathing is better than being aware of your environment and entire body, or vice versa, so I urge you to experiment with both,” Professor Vishton said. “If one of them feels better or easier, then go with that, but also feel free to switch back and forth depending on your mood on any given day.”
When it comes to how to meditate, the key is not to focus on a particular meditation technique, but rather to work toward the overall goal, which is to quiet your mind. Not only do these moments of quiet offer a welcome retreat from our hectic modern lives, but they help us develop the mental fortitude to weather challenging moments with calm and clarity.
Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.