Once relegated to the activities of older religious ascetics, the benefits of meditation are being heralded by people of every age and every interest. From courses on meditation for children up through the elderly. Meditation that benefits the anxious, the calm, the religious, stay-at-home-parents, business professionals, the famous, the infamous, and even sharpshooters1.
In the last ten years, the number of people who say they meditate has tripled2. It has become accepted by all walks of life and is being practiced and pursued for an immense range of goals. So just how is meditation so universally successful?
The benefits of meditation fall into three main categories: mental, physical, and emotional. Research shows that personal goals are being met because of improved cognition, improved presence or focus on a tasks, reduction in emotional reactivity when performing difficult tasks, and better physical health leading to increases in stamina and the percentage of time that can be applied to a task. Degrees of success correlate with the amount of time or experience that a person has at meditating.
People get excited about adding something characteristically simple to their daily activities that can help reduce some pain, improve their quality of life, or take their life in the direction they want it to go. And they should be. I was introduced to meditation just over 20 years ago and would not be where I am today without it.
Here’s the problem though: The number of people who try meditation and get no benefit from it is much greater than the number of people who succeed. This is not only evident from the dozens of questions online about how long it takes to experience the benefits of meditation or why it isn’t working, but I also see it in class when new students dismiss the meditation portion of class entirely. The formula for getting them over the hump and experiencing the benefits of meditation is the same for you:
This essay is organized to walk you down the same path successful meditators have taken.
Quick Links for Information Below
- Cognitive and Mental Benefits of Meditation
- Physical Benefits of Meditation
- Emotional Benefits of Meditation
- How I Failed to Benefit from Meditation (for 5+ years!)
- The Roadmap to Becoming a Successful Meditator
First, choose what you want to improve most. Is it mental, physical, or emotional? Know that it is not a definitive choice, you can and will improve all three simultaneously. But one aspect of your health probably carries more weight for you right now. That’s your motivation to get started.
Next, we cover how the mental, physical, or emotional improvements are possible. This is the buy-in you will need to stick with it until the results become apparent.
Lastly, choose a style of meditation that matches your goals and your personality. Down the road most meditators use a combination of different styles like holding postures or saying mantras. On the front end though, if you feel like a weirdo, don’t have the required amount of time, or don’t have the physique to hold a specified posture, you picked the wrong style of meditation.
An important point that is missing from much of the available information on the benefits of meditation is that articles often say: “Meditation helps with fill in the blank! But you don’t know what type of meditation they did to get the results they did. That’s why for each benefit listed below, there is a link to the research study that was done so you can see how they got the improvements they did.
We just need to first get you to the point that you are experiencing the benefits of meditation and then the rest will come more easily.
Cognitive and Mental Benefits of Meditation
The benefits of meditation on brain health are some of the oldest studies that we have. Back before the relationship between physical health and mental health were understood, most studies compartmentalized what was going on in the head separately from what was going on in the body. Therefore, meditation has been used to enhance the good (e.g., problem solving) and minimize the bad (e.g., poor attention) for centuries.
Meditation was not something that was routinely used by anyone outside of religious circles until recent times and we have technology to thank for this. Easier travel to India beginning in the 1950s and 60s with the likes of the Beatles exploring meditation. Japan’s economic explosion introduced meditation to the business community by the 1980s. China’s accessibility spread its arts to the west from the 1990s forward. And recently, the pace of our lives from improvements in technology and the internet have almost all of us looking for a way to settle things down mentally. Enter stage left, the cognitive and mental benefits of meditation:
- Develop a longer attention span3
- Increased cerebral blood flow to reduce memory loss4
- Improved short-term memory5
- Improved working memory6
- Strengthened ability to concentrate (time and intensity)7
- Better ideation and creative thinking (convergent and divergent thinking)8
- Consistent ability to enter flow state9
Research on the Mental Benefits from Meditation →
3. Sidhu, Pritpal. The efficacy of mindfulness meditation in increasing the attention span in children with ADHD. Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2013.
4. Newberg, Andrew B., et al. “Meditation effects on cognitive function and cerebral blood flow in subjects with memory loss: a preliminary study.” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20.2 (2010): 517-526.
5. Youngs, Molly A., et al. “Mindfulness meditation improves visual short-term memory.” Psychological reports 124.4 (2021): 1673-1686.
6. Van Vugt, Marieke K., and Amishi P. Jha. “Investigating the impact of mindfulness meditation training on working memory: A mathematical modeling approach.” Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience 11 (2011): 344-353.
7. Grewal, Dalvinder Singh. “Improving concentration and mindfulness in learning through meditation.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science 19.2 (2014): 33-9.
8. Colzato, Lorenza S., Ayca Szapora, and Bernhard Hommel. “Meditate to create: the impact of focused-attention and open-monitoring training on convergent and divergent thinking.” Frontiers in psychology 3 (2012): 116.
9. Scialla, Anthony. “Mindfulness Meditation and Flow State Experiences: Unlocking Human Potential.” (2022).
Physical Benefits of Meditation
The physical benefits of meditation fall into three camps. People are generally trying to heal something completely such as an injury. People are trying to improve a chronic condition like reducing pain, severity of headaches, or blood pressure. Or, they are pursuing general health improvements like weight loss, better sleep, or reducing addictions.
The good news is that the physical benefits of meditation are deeply intertwined. Better sleep means less production of cortisol which leads to easier weight loss. A reduction in chronic inflammation positively influences your immunity and anything your doctor likes to measure. This combination-effect is one of the reasons meditation is so powerful.
- Reduce and stabilize blood pressure10, 11
- Improve sleep quality12
- Reduce insomnia when used therapeutically13
- Weight control14 and improved eating behavior15
- Strengthened immune system function16
- Regulation and relief from pain17
- Migraine improvement (frequency and intensity)18
Research on the Physical Benefits from Meditation →
10. Shi, Lu, et al. “Meditation and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials.” Journal of hypertension 35.4 (2017): 696-706.
11. Goldstein, Carly M., et al. “Current perspectives on the use of meditation to reduce blood pressure.” International journal of hypertension 2012 (2012).
12. Rusch, Heather L., et al. “The effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1445.1 (2019): 5-16.
13. Ong, Jason C., et al. “A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia.” Sleep 37.9 (2014): 1553-1563.
14. Lauche, Romy, et al. “Associations between yoga/meditation use, body satisfaction, and weight management methods: Results of a national cross-sectional survey of 8009 Australian women.” Nutrition 34 (2017): 58-64.
15. Katterman, Shawn N., et al. “Mindfulness meditation as an intervention for binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss: a systematic review.” Eating behaviors 15.2 (2014): 197-204.
16. Thibodeaux, Nicole, and Matt J. Rossano. “Meditation and immune function: the impact of stress management on the immune system.” OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine 3.4 (2018): 1-23.
17. Zeidan, Fetal, et al. “Mindfulness meditation-related pain relief: evidence for unique brain mechanisms in the regulation of pain.” Neuroscience letters 520.2 (2012): 165-173.
18. Wells, Rebecca Erwin, et al. “Meditation for migraines: a pilot randomized controlled trial.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 54.9 (2014): 1484-1495.
Emotional Benefits of Meditation
What began as literature on the spiritual benefits of meditation has now morphed into countless studies on emotional dysregulation, mental disease, and ways to safely improve mental health. No matter how it is framed, research on the emotional benefits of meditation are largely describing an improved outlook on life and reduced reactivity. This can be simple studies measuring happiness and contentment or more seriously funded endeavors to address issues like clinical depression and ADHD.
No one escapes dark days. This is now apparent with conversations about mental health becoming acceptable. And for good reason! Who doesn’t want to be happy, content, or in a good mood? And just like with cognitive and physical benefits, the emotional benefits of meditation are now getting their day in the sun as research is being funded to explore alternatives to costly treatments and medicines.
- Reduction and improvement in depression19, 20
- Reduction in physical responses that accompany anxiety21
- Regulation of mood22
- Reduced feelings of negative emotions (frequency and intensity)23
- Increased ability to manage stress24
- Reduced addictions in conjunction with other treatments25
- Reduced feelings of isolation from Increased social connectedness26
Research on the Emotional Benefits from Meditation →
19. Edenfield, Teresa M., and Sy Atezaz Saeed. “An update on mindfulness meditation as a self-help treatment for anxiety and depression.” Psychology research and behavior management (2012): 131-141.
20. Saeed, Sy Atezaz, Karlene Cunningham, and Richard M. Bloch. “Depression and anxiety disorders: benefits of exercise, yoga, and meditation.” American family physician 99.10 (2019): 620-627.
21. Bahrke, Michael S., and William P. Morgan. “Anxiety reduction following exercise and meditation.” Cognitive therapy and research 2 (1978): 323-333.
22. Basso, Julia C., et al. “Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators.” Behavioural brain research 356 (2019): 208-220.
23. Lane, James D., Jon E. Seskevich, and Carl F. Pieper. “Brief meditation training can improve perceived stress and negative mood.” Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine 13.1 (2007).
24. Carrington, Patricia, et al. “The use of meditation–relaxation techniques for the management of stress in a working population.” Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 22.4 (1980): 221-231.
25. Young, Mark E., Leigh de Armas DeLorenzi, and Laura Cunningham. “Using meditation in addiction counseling.” Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling 32.1‐2 (2011): 58-71.
26. Hutcherson, Cendri A., Emma M. Seppala, and James J. Gross. “Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness.” Emotion 8.5 (2008): 720.
How I Failed to Benefit from Meditation (for 5+ years!)
In truth, I began meditating 22 years ago. However, to say that I have been meditating for 22 years would be a pretty good joke considering that the first five years or so were appalling.
I attempted a yoga style of meditation but routinely fell asleep, not waking up until people made noise around me rolling up their mats.
I attended a traditional Zen meditation session with really strict sitting rules and spent the time screaming inside in pain. I think I did something to my right hip during high school football and cannot sit cross-legged.
My wife surprised me with a night at a Buddhist temple to learn to meditate. The chanting was so loud and odd to me that I started to giggle and couldn’t suppress it. I sat with my head down stifling tears and laughter for the evening. It was my own discomfort with the situation (and probably immaturity!) so I didn’t want to offend them. I assume they thought I was having an emotional release or something.
For every failure there was a period of giving up and then circling back to meditation to try it again. It wasn’t until I connected what I wanted out of meditation with a style that was acceptable to me that I had the patience to wait for the results.
This is also the special sauce that has helped me turn interested students into meditators so let’s break this down a bit.
The Roadmap to Becoming a Successful Meditator
1. The Patience to Wait for the Benefits of Meditation to Show Up
The benefits of meditation do not appear overnight. In the same way that it takes a pot to fill before it overflows, it takes consistent small doses of meditation to build up to the point where the sensations “overflow,” meaning you can sense the change in awareness or see the benefits in your life.
If you are not consistent, this effort evaporates and you have to start again. Another metaphor that I think is apt here is learning a new language. Put in 10-20 minutes a day and it eventually begins to stick. Be inconsistent and you forget everything.
I also see the beginning of the meditation process as a sort of convergence. On one hand you are taking time out, breathing deeply, calming down, and just feeling better for the obvious reasons. On the other hand you are becoming more aware of small changes or sensations that were imperceivably small before. So meditation seems more profound when you land in this middle because you are taking the time to meditate and are also more attuned to the changes that you are experiencing throughout your day.
2. Connecting With the Right Style of Meditation
Anyone who says there is one best style of meditation is wrong. No tradition supports this. Frankly, thinking like this gets me riled up because it stops so many people from meditating who really need it.
You can meditate for three minutes or three hours.
You can sit in a chair, on the floor, full lotus, half lotus…
You can stand, lay down, move, or stay still.
You can remain silent, chant, hum, sing, or speak depending on the style.
You can try to empty your mind or envision how your life could be different.
You can be alone or join groups.
Or, you can do all of the above, applying different modalities to different times in your life or needs. Let me share some examples. Note that for several years at the beginning, I only did one style of meditation. As the years went on, I added different meditations for different needs, kind of like having different medicines in a cabinet or different tools in a toolbox.
- I do qigong every day, but never if I am under the weather. The idea being that qigong actively directs energy in the body and you want the body to be in control if you are are ill to send it where it needs to go.
- When I herniated two discs I only did standing sets.
- Being the nervous type when I have to speak in front of crowds, I run through the presentation mentally at the end of a seated meditation and do breathing meditation sets at the event.
- I use timers, music, and keep a small light on when I am tired because my mind drifts.
- My daily standing meditation from Chen tai chi is strictly 3 minutes long. I sit for meditation for a longer time on the weekends.
Check out this essay that I wrote describing the 16 primary types of meditation and their related benefits.
3. Know Why You Are Meditating
When I ask new students why they are interested in meditating, many allude to feeling better or wanting to be happier. I had been in the same boat at the beginning but starting something new is not the time for generalities. Imagine starting a gym routine in the pursuit of “general fitness” or attending the university with the goal of “more knowledge.” Conversely, here are some really telling things that I have heard which let me know the person has specific goals and will do great at learning to meditate:
- I am snapping at people at work because I am frustrated and regret it later. I want to put some time between what they say and how I react.
- My husband had heart problems and I am paralyzed with fear over our future. I need to calm down so I can take care of things around the house.
- I drink too frequently and watch TV too much because I am exhausted by a job I don’t like and need to decompress at the end of the day. I feel like I am not doing anything worthwhile with my life.
Do you see how easy it would be to register an improvement here? A relationship at work would improve. A bill would be paid. An evening would be spent walking the dog, painting, or whatever. Meditation is unique in that it teaches us to be present and empowered WHEN all the bad stuff is happening. This allows us to move through it, move past it, and see solutions.
Yes, you can figure out how to fix an individual problem. The self-help aisles at bookstores and filled with successful suggestions. But these come after the fact. Wouldn’t you rather learn a technique that corrects something in your life while making you impervious to the next unknown calamity? That’s meditation.
4. Know How Meditation Works
You are a smart person. We all are educated at a level that far exceeds any past generation and it’s hard to commit to something or to an idea that is not generally backed up. The good news is that western science is coming out with droves of research explaining what changes are taking place physiologically. I say western because the research has existed but English-speakers have just not had access to it before. And the soft sciences (psychology, sociology) have large scale data showing differences between meditating and non-meditating groups. You don’t have to nerd out in the three sections below, just get the needed buy-in that meditation works.
To summarize why I failed to get any benefits from meditation for so long.
- I really didn’t believe in it
- I was inconsistent and therefore wasn’t experiencing the benefits of meditation
- My goals were too wide
- I felt silly doing some of the styles
- I was uncomfortable sitting in the mandated postures
- I beat myself up for my mind wandering before the prescribed time was up
All of this is totally forgivable and I feel fortunate to have had people and opportunities in my life that kept dangling the benefits of meditation in front of me so that I kept working at it. Now, I am able to get students up and running in a fraction of the time.
And here’s where it can start for you. There is something that you want to improve or change, or you wouldn’t be reading this. For most people, this is something mental, physical, or emotional. First, choose one of those priorities. Next, find a style that interests or excites you. And lastly, commit to doing something small and consistent every day for a few weeks. After that, reevaluate and give yourself permission to switch styles or change the amount of time, all in the spirit of remaining interested and consistent.
- Benson, Herbert, and Miriam Z. Klipper. The relaxation response. New York: Morrow, 1975.
- Burke, Adam, et al. “Prevalence and patterns of use of mantra, mindfulness and spiritual meditation among adults in the United States.” BMC complementary and alternative medicine 17.1 (2017): 1-18.
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