Basics of Meditation



The first question then comes upon the novice meditation is what exactly is meditation and what are they supposed to do when they sit down to meditate. On this page, you will learn different kinds of meditation, and some of the basic information on how and when to do meditation. So far we have been using the word meditation, but some people may also refer to the same idea when they say concentration, reflection, introspection, or even deep awareness. The original term that denotes the fundamental meaning of the phenomena we are examining is Dhyana, which comes from India. Dhyana means to focus deeply on a single point in the field of consciousness. Our field of consciousness is full of most of our awake period and we can experience, think, feel, and perceive things based on what we chose to attend to. Most of the time, we alternate between different things in our field of consciousness. There may be some sort of trigger in the outer world that sprouts different thoughts and reactions in our brain resulting in personal experience and a further cycle of thought and feeling. 

But at some point in history, thousands of years ago, someone realized that if they sat down and focused on only one neutral point in their field of consciousness, and sustained their attention on that point, they would experience an extraordinary sense of calm and peace. The details of the neurochemistry and psychology behind this are very simple: your brain is on autopilot most of the time, and so when a trigger arises, the emotions arise with it and we feel a sense of doom. But when we meditate, we catch the trigger before it could cascade and make sure we aren't disturbed by the emotional event. Oftentimes, people think the goal of meditation is to clear their minds, to be blank, to be Zen. But, that is completely wrong and inadequate advice to any individual who has been conditioned to let their mind wander when they meditate. Meditation allows you to set your attention on one neutral point, which then forces the mind to stay neutral while meditating. If there arises any emotion, be it positive or negative, exciting or boring, the meditator continues to hold this attention on the neutral point. 

Oftentimes, this neutral point is the breath. But it doesn't have to be the breath. It could be a number in counting meditation (techniques for meditation will be discussed later). It could be a sound, a thought, a feeling, or an image, as long as that point of focus doesn't create some sort of feeling in your mind. The reason why breath works for so many people is that it is directly connected to our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest system). In meditation, when we breathe deeply and intend to focus on the breath, our brain is signaled to activate the parasympathetic response, which calms down the body and tells us that everything is okay and we are in a good spot for now. The more you practice meditation, long deep breathing becomes second nature and this rewires your brain to realize your life is filled with calm and tranquility regardless of what happens in the outer world. All that we have to do to reach this level of calm is to continue focusing on one neutral point in the field of consciousness, and it is recommended to focus on the breath. 

Breath meditation is the most common meditation and the most effective one for developing mindfulness and equanimity. However, there are other types of meditation that people like to try and see if they help them. The other types of meditations are very similar to breathing meditation, but use their layers of practice to provide an easier transition into meditation. Breath meditation is also known as mindful meditation, where the observer is tasked with being nonjudgmentally mindful of the contents of the mind and redirecting their attention to the breath. With enough practice of this, there arises deep equanimity and appreciation of each moment in the practitioner. 

Some other types of meditation include loving-kindness meditation, transcendental meditation, and analytical meditation. I will provide a summary of each of those below and provide several links that you can explore on your own. All of the meditations below are available on the free meditation app called Medito. This is the best meditation app that I found which contains both guided meditations and breathing exercises. I recommend you to try these first via guided meditation, and then go on to do them in silence by yourself. Note that the resources shared are not meant to treat clinical illnesses, they are simply a tool for self-discovery and peace.  

Loving Kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness meditation is very common in the West and is very usual in its benefits. It can develop a tremendous amount of compassion and kindness for the practitioner. The goal of loving-kindness meditation is to develop a mind that is full of love, kindness, joy, and compassion. This is done through several positive affirmations that start with gratifying the meditator, and then gradually expand to friends, family, relatives, neighbors, strangers, and the whole world. The three most common affirmations that are chanted/ listened to during this meditation are "May I be safe, free from danger; may I be healthy, free from illness; may I be at ease, free from suffering." After this, you would direct these affirmations to someone close to you, and then someone who is not so close to you, and finally spread the same positive energy to everyone in this world. Loving-kindness meditation is profound and it directly changes the way we interact with others. If done regularly, one can change their brain's sensitivity to others' suffering and thus become more empathetic towards all beings. This will lead to better relationships and lesser arguments. Developing loving-kindness not only improves your relationship but also has a positive impact on your mental health. It reaffirms your self-worth, brings confidence in your wellbeing, and spreads the same love to all beings on the Earth. It increases neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and serotonin to boost your mood and feel the warmth of being loved, and loving others. The meditation can be done through chanting the affirmations in your mind or listening to a guided meditation. 

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental meditation uses a mantra to transcend the regular mental states of consciousness. All meditations aim to transcend our mundane autopilot mental states, but transcendental meditation is different in that its entire goal is to use a mantra to transcend above thought and feeling. Oftentimes, mantras are confused with religious or cultural dogmatic beliefs. One guru will preach one mantra, while another guru will preach another mantra for the same benefit. This could lead to mass confusion and further failure during meditation. To know which mantra to use, we have to understand the reason behind using the mantra. A mantra is similar to the breath or the single point of awareness described earlier in the introduction. But a mantra is repetitive and adds a component of a trans-like state of mind. Any repetitive event acts as a distraction for the mind and helps the meditator overcome mind wandering. A mantra is powerful because it uplifts the practitioner from their thoughts and feelings, and distracts them in a meaningful manner. According to the Chakra theory in Hinduism, certain mantras excite certain chakras in our bodies, just like certain breathing patterns change the way our brain perceives safety and threat. But the main point here is using a mantra to overcome mind wandering. The most common mantra is Om. Om is the sound of the first sound of the universe according to the Vedas in Hinduism. Regardless of whether you are a Hindu or not, you can still try saying Om without feeling like you are being converted in the process. Om is not related to any particular god or divine being, it is simply a sound that energizes the several organ systems in the body and tranquilizes the mind. But if Om doesn't stick with you for whatever reason, you can try a mantra from your own culture or religion. One could deeply focus on the word 'God' or 'Jesus" or "Allah" or "Vishnu" or "Buddha" or any other God figure that one's religion proposes. As long as the name/ mantra is repetitive and catches the mind from wandering to feelings and thoughts, it will work. Some people find it helpful to choose a small phrase because it is more neutral and leads to lesser thoughts. A phrase such as "Breath in" and "Breath Out" or "Let" and "Go" with each inhalation and exhalation respectively. You can make your mantra, but make sure it is repetitive and relatively short so your mind doesn't get too much wiggle room for thought. 

Analytical Meditation

This is one of my favorite kinds of meditation and one that is not talked about too much on the Internet. Analytical meditation is just a fancy term for reflection and problem solving during meditation. This is the type of thing that most renowned scientists engage in when they are trying to solve a particular problem. Several mathematicians and physicists suggest that meditating on their deep problems in their fields gives them clarity and insight into the root and origination of the problem, leading to the solution. This is the type of mediation that Rene Descartes or Socrates referred to when they asked people to reflect on their lives. Many philosophers emphasize the point of reflection and evaluation of the problems in your life before becoming upset or angry about them. The reason they propose this is because when you reflect and evaluate your problem without any emotional attachment to it, you become more productive and less distracted by unnecessary distractions. The limbic system, designated for emotional learning, is said to inhibit the prefrontal cortex, the rational problem-solving area of the brain. Strong emotions, particularly negative emotions such as stress and anxiety impair our hippocampus, which centers for memory formation and retention in the brain. So the point here is, the emotional response often does little good to us when trying to solve a problem. It does however induce a physiological process that excites us and gets us moving, but too much excitement can lead to anxiety. Therefore, by using analytical meditation, we can start to reflect on our problems and understand the root of them. Dalai Lama is very fond of analytical meditation and says that we should use analytical meditation not only to solve problems but to realize problems before they occur. What he means is that we should constantly ask ourselves what we are doing and why is it that we are doing something. This sort of mindful and inquisitive mindset leads to fixing problems before they even occur because of how finely tuned our problem-solving skills are. Understanding what is going on in the mind and its impermanence leads to liberation from the emotional attachment involved at the moment. Therefore, using analytical meditation is beneficial both for your daily life and also for your intellectual and spiritual lives. 

Logistics of Meditation

Now that you know some different types of meditation, we can discuss the logistics involving meditation. When is it appropriate to do meditation? How long should I meditate? Should I start with guided meditation or silent meditation? How do I know which meditation best fits what I am looking for? If you are wondering about these things, don't feel anxious. We all have to start somewhere. I will provide a basic guideline on some of these questions, but with practice, these things will become intuitive and you won't require an external source to give you the answers. 

It is generally recommended to do meditation early morning according to the orthodox Buddhists and Hindu monks. You will get the greatest amount of benefit from meditation if you do it early morning simply because of how quiet the mind is right after deep sleep. To understand how our sleep works we have to know that there are two modes of sleep: REM and non-REM. REM, rapid eye movement, is the sleep where you have dreams and rapid eye movements. Usually, when we sleep, we spend the first hour and a half in REM sleep and then transition into non-REM deep sleep. We then go back to REM sleep for another hour before waking up in the morning. Thus, we spend about 5-6 hours in non-REM deep sleep and only about 2 hours in REM sleep. If we meditate right after non-REM sleep, it is easier for the mind to focus on a single point of attention without being disturbed by other thoughts. Our non-REM sleep usually peaks early morning around 5 to 6 am, therefore it is best to meditate early morning. However, most people will have a hard time having the motivation or will to start this early, so it is still helpful if you can meditate later as long as you do it right after you wake up. Some people also recommend meditating before sleeping, but this is usually done to fall asleep or for another clinical purpose, not for spiritual reasons. Short answer: mornings are best, nights are okay, and afternoons after lunch are the worst according to our mental states and their level of distractions. 

Guided meditations are a good starting point for a novice meditator. They allow you to maintain a practice and keep your mind engaged through sound. The hardest hurdle, in the beginning, is to sustain the motivation to continue meditating daily, and doing silent meditation only demotivates people as their mind starts to wander to negative events. There are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube and online apps, but be careful in becoming reliant on one particular media as it could be biased. A good place to start is with the app Medio, which has many guided and silent meditations for sleep, anxiety, stress, and other spiritual needs. Once you feel comfortable with guided meditations, start transitioning into silent meditations for about 10-15 minutes. The goal is to have a practice 10-15 minutes of silent meditation every day. You can increase the minutes once you feel you can sustain your attention on the breath for the entirety of the session. 

Now that you have all the basic information on meditation, it is time for you to start exploring meditation on your own. I encourage you to sit down wherever you are and just observe the breath as it is. Observe whether it is long or short, deep or shallow, painful or pleasant, rigid or fluid, warm or cool, etc. Meditation is all about finding balance in incoming and outcoming sensations, and the breath is the best anchor for this. 


Loving Kindness Meditation:

Analytical Meditation:

Free Meditation App, Medito: