Why is it so hard to spend five minutes inside your own head? To literally do nothing except breathe? Well, possibly because it’s not entirely clear what you’ll find in there — and the unknown is scary. Possibly because it feels like you’re doing nothing — and, honestly, doing nothing feels wrong. Possibly because it’s uncomfortable to endure all of the noise and the negative voices. People generally don't like to hear that part of themselves.
But, as hard as it is to sit down, take the earbuds out, be still, and meditate, an overwhelming amount of research suggests that you should make it a priority.
What the Research Says
- Meditation helps people make decisions, especially when it involves delaying gratification.
- Meditation can help people manage some negative effects of psychological stress.
- Meditating for two hours per week helped stressed-out medical students feel more at peace, less anxious, less tired, and more focused.
- Meditation helps to reduce the symptoms of panic disorder.
- Meditation increases gray matter concentration in areas of the brain critical for learning and memory, regulating emotions, having a sense of self, and having perspective.
- Meditation helps people to be less stressed out by deadlines.
- Meditation helped 13 Zen masters reduce the psychological perception of pain.
The Mental AND Physical Benefits of Meditation
According to the Mayo Clinic, meditation can help people gain perspective, manage stress, increase self-awareness, stay present, and have fewer negative emotions.
Physically, it can also help manage symptoms of anxiety, asthma, cancer, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, and poor sleep.
Related Link: Meditate for Focus and Skill Acquisition
How Do You Meditate?
It's simple, yet complicated. There are at least 23 kinds of meditation, and some of those categories have hundreds of subcategories. However, at a very high level, meditative practices break down into three main categories.
- Focused attention
- Open monitoring
- Effortless presence
Focused attention is what it sounds like. It involves pointing your attention toward one thing — and one thing only — during the entire session. This object could be your breath, the tip of your nose, or the finish line at a Spartan race.
Open monitoring involves taking your experience as it comes, without any judgment. It’s a form of listening and watching without being swept up, like being a spectator at your own race.
Effortless presence is difficult to describe. It’s a kind of peaceful emptiness, where your thoughts and attention are not pointed toward anything except your own existence. Some say this is what all meditation is about, but how you use meditation is up to you.
The Many (Many) Ways to Meditate
Below is a list of numerous ways to meditate, the purposes behind each main practice, and some background information.
Zen or Zazen
- Where it comes from: Chinese Zen Buddhism (Chan) tradition
- The ultimate goal: To create inner peace and mindfulness
- How to do it: Sit with your legs crossed and back straight. Then, either focus on your breath or just be still.
Related Link: 9 Ways to Live Like a Modern-Day Spartan Soldier
- Where it comes from: Theravada Buddhist tradition
- The ultimate goal: To calm and free the mind
- How to do it: Focus on the breath, make neutral notes of what distracts you, and observe your experience without attachment.
- Where it comes from: An adaptation from traditional Buddhist meditation practices
- The ultimate goal: To increase awareness
- How to do it: Focus on the breath, take note of what distracts you, and enjoy being.
- Where it comes from: Buddhist traditions, especially Theravada and Tibetan
- The ultimate goal: To increase empathy and positive emotions
- How to do it: Sit down, close your eyes, and practice feeling kindness and benevolence towards (1) yourself, (2) a good friend, (3) a person you like, (4) a person you don’t like, (5) the first four (1–4) equally, and (6) eventually, the entire universe. (Talk about audacious goals.)
- Where it comes from: Hindu traditions
- The ultimate goal: Achieve focus and inner peace
- How to do it: Repeat a mantra, either a word or a phrase, continuously for the meditation session.
- Where it comes from: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, in 1955, in India and the West
- The ultimate goal: Create a state of relaxed awareness
- How to do it: Few can explain it better than Bob Roth.
- Where it comes from: India, 1700 BCE
- The ultimate goal: Varies
- How to do it: There are several ways to do yogic meditation:
- Third eye: Focus on the spot between the eyebrows.
- Chakra: Perform a mantra for each chakra.
- Gazing: Gaze at a physical object, such as a candle.
- Kundalini: This one is complex, and should not be attempted without expert guidance.
- Kriya: This is a deeply spiritual practice that can be learned through lessons.
- Sound: Focus on an external sound.
- Tantra: There are too many different practices to describe here.
- Pranayama: Inhale, hold, exhale, hold on a 4-4-4-4 count.
Self-Inquiry and 'I Am'
- Where it comes from: 20th-century Indian sage Ramana Maharshi
- The ultimate goal: To investigate one’s true nature, to find the answer to the “Who am I?” question
- How to do it: Ask yourself, “Who am I?” Reject all verbal or visual answers and dive deep into the subjective awareness of self. (Yes, it’s hard, but hard work pays off.)
- Where it comes from: Daoism
- The ultimate goal: To quiet the body and mind, unify body and spirit, find inner peace, and harmonize with the Dao (read: way of the universe).
- How to Do It: Taoism meditation takes three forms:
- Emptiness meditation: To sit quietly and empty the mind.
- Breathing meditation: To observe the breath
- Neiguan (inner vision): To visualize internal body processes.
- Where it comes from: Chinese Buddhist, Taoism, and Confucianist traditions
- The ultimate goal: Varies
- How to do it: Sit comfortably, relax the whole body, breathe deeply, calm the mind, and focus on the root chakra, which is two inches below the navel. Feel the energy circulating through your body.
- The ultimate goal: Varies
- How to do it: Typically, guided meditation simply involves following instructions given through an audio recording. Here is a list of several ways people do guided meditation:
- Traditional: Allow your attention to follow a leader’s instruction.
- Imagery: Achieve healing and relaxation through visualization.
- Relaxation: Achieve relaxation in the whole body with music and soothing nature sounds.
- Affirmation: Imprint a positive message on your mind.
- Binaural Beats: Generate alpha waves in your brain using audio frequencies.
Related Link: 5 Meditations for Beginners
How Do Spartans Meditate?
We asked Spartans how they meditate. Here’s what they said.
With Breathwork and Gratitude
“I focus on quiet breathing — in and out — every evening, and being grateful. I also do it when I can’t sleep. Focusing on my breath quiets my mind. I can then focus on my thoughts during the daylight hours, not in the middle of the night when I can’t do anything about it.” - Julie, West Coast Spartans
Related Link: The Hardest Workout: A 10-Minute Meditation
With Box Breathing
“I enjoy box breathing. You can do it just about anywhere, and it increases lung capacity and strength at the same time. For extra challenge, to see if I can reach meditation while active, I’ll try box breathing while exerting energy, like climbing a flights of stairs.” - Lee, Midwest Spartans
With Insight Timer
But wait. This involves A LOT of sitting down. Isn’t that bad for your health?
Yes, prolonged sitting is bad for your health, but a meditation session typically doesn’t last as long as most people sit at their desks. Besides, time spent in meditation is never wasted. Five minutes spent sitting in meditation can mean an hour of powerful focus and clarity during any kind of activity.