Its rapid spread is due to its accessibility: anyone can do it. Hundreds of studies show the benefits of dedicating some time every day to it.
Meditation used to be a thing of hippies, monks, and bohemians, but in the last decade, it has gained unparalleled respect and popularity. Hundreds of studies show its benefits and it is increasingly practiced in companies, schools, and hospitals. Its rapid spread is also due to its accessibility: anyone can learn to meditate. All you need is to understand three keys.
What is meditation
Our mind is as universal as it is wild. We all have one, but we rarely choose what it thinks about, how it feels, or what it attends to. A bundle of bad habits controls it and, all too often, its capricious nonsense dictates how we live.
Or, at least, that’s what happens until we start meditating. Meditation is a workout, but a mental one. And it is far from “putting the mind in blank”. On the contrary, by meditating we do something much more practical: develop qualities such as mindfulness, compassion, and optimism; and manage difficulties such as stress, anxiety, and obsessive thoughts.
If we train ourselves often enough, these capacities cease to be temporary mental events and become new habits. It is like weight training, except that the muscle is the brain and the dumbbell is the technique we practice.
And which technique should we choose? Although the offer is extremely varied (and we will talk about it in the next section), studies agree: all meditations, when practiced regularly, bring a number of general benefits at the personal, social, and neurological levels.
The number of published studies on meditation is such that today we can have an overview of its effects. This is possible thanks to meta-analyses, a type of study that analyzes the results of many research studies and, based on them, draws overall conclusions.
The two most influential meta-analyses on meditation in healthy adults (i.e., without psychological disorders) were published in 2012 and 2017. Their authors, from the Chemnitz University of Technology, analyzed data from 190 studies published between 1970 and 2015. The results showed that people who meditate experience: less stress, better self-esteem, greater creativity, more emotional stability, and more attention to the present. And the more fulfilled you feel, the more you want others to be.
So suggests the Harvard University team that conducted a meta-analysis of 26 studies on the relationship between meditation and altruism. The results, published in 2017, indicated that meditators tend to: be more empathetic, help others more, be more generous, and feel more connected with others.
The effects of meditating are also seen in the brain. This was the conclusion of a meta-analysis published in 2016 and signed by professors at the University of British Columbia. The authors, after analyzing 78 studies, found that the brains of meditation practitioners had more developed areas related to attention, empathy, memory, and emotional regulation.
In addition, people undergoing psychological treatment also benefit from meditation. A meta-analysis of 209 studies conducted between the Universities of Montreal, Laval, and Boston and published in 2013 found that, when meditation is integrated into psychotherapy, it is especially effective in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. Whoever we are, meditation has much to offer us. And today, learning to practice it is easier than ever.
How to learn in seven steps
Choose the technique. “Meditation” is an umbrella term for hundreds of techniques. Some are millennia old and their effectiveness is validated by tradition and science, while others are the invention of ‘new age’ gurus eager to fatten their bank accounts. So how can we distinguish between the two?
By trial, error, and common sense. We have to try different techniques until we find the one that best suits our needs. At the same time, we also need to research the provenance of each and the credentials of their instructor.
For that, apps like Insight Timer and Headspace are excellent, as both offer a wide and detailed selection of guided meditations. And if we want a safe bet, mindfulness breathing meditation ticks all the boxes.
Following a recorded guide, moreover, is especially helpful for beginners. Only when we have internalized its instructions should we stop using it, because by then it will be more of a hindrance than a help. At that point, dispensing with the audio will be equivalent to getting rid of the auxiliary wheels of our first bicycle.