Lately, it seems like everyone is talking about meditation and its benefits. From entrepreneurs to business moguls and self-care gurus (obviously) through to social media influencers, everyone is praising its benefits. But meditation is nothing new.
In fact, it’s kind of really old, with some archaeologists suggesting evidence of meditation practices as early as 5,000 BC. Throughout history, meditation has also become deeply connected to religion and culture, from Ancient Egypt to Hinduism and Buddhism.
While all of this might sound intimidating, meditation can be a straightforward practice that anyone can learn to enjoy, no matter their beliefs, in order to make positive changes in their lives as well as the lives of others.
To help us introduce you to the wonderful world of meditation, we’ve chatted with Tom McCook, Pilates education faculty for Balanced Body and founder and director of Center of Balance in Mountain View, California. He helps us with the ins and outs of meditation, as well as what types of practices may be best for you.
What is Meditation?
Let’s first start by simplifying this sometimes-confusing term. For McCook, meditation can be defined as an attention practice, one in which you bring your attention to the present moment – focusing on your body and breathing as the primary object of attention. Why? “Sensation,” as McCook puts it, “only happens in the present moment.” When you direct your attention to the present moment, you fill your body with life, energy, and introspection.
Meditation is not about not thinking; instead, for McCook, it’s all about directing your attention to what’s happening in and around you. From your feelings to your thoughts, you can slow down to observe your aliveness. By doing so you’ll feel more fulfilled and be able to make the most of your life here on earth. Isn’t that what we’re all looking for?
McCook explains why many of us, specifically in the West, have come to view meditation as confusing, challenging, and strenuous. “Our Western-trained minds,” says McCook, “[think] that we’re supposed to be ‘good’ at it, and the results need to be immediate, or it’s not worth it.” Another common thought McCook often runs across is our belief that if “I can’t control my mind and stop thinking, I’m clearly not able to meditate and meditation isn’t for me.”
But the truth is you don’t have to be a highly trained intellectual with mind-control powers to be open, present, and connected to your life. Practicing daily presence through meditation can even make you more effective and efficient with your everyday tasks.
There have been over 50 years of promising, science-backed research on the benefits of meditation on our overall health and wellness, and the evidence is extremely positive, he says. “Meditation has been proven to be good medicine,” with research suggesting that it can lower stress and blood pressure, assist in emotional regulation, cultivate resilience and personal responsiveness, and improve one’s perspective.
What type of meditation is best for me?
What is it?
Who’s it for?
McCook believes that these instructors can be so incredibly helpful and informative for most, but especially when you’re just getting started with meditation, as they help guide and direct (and redirect) your attention back to the present moment over and over again, building that meditation muscle.
“Guided meditation is usually continuous instructions throughout the time of your practice,” says McCook. Since it’s not complete silence, this can be especially helpful when you’re just starting. But you don’t have to be a complete newbie to meditation to enjoy this guided bliss. “You can find guided sessions based on your levels of experience and the amount of time you have to practice,” encourages McCook.
How to do it?
“Guided meditations come in a variety of forms,” McCook says. There is an endless selection of apps that offer great guided meditations, Head Space and Insight Timer being some that he recommends. Some of these apps even offer mindfulness practices and “Vipassana,” which McCook explains as an observation-based practice that focuses on self-exploration through the deep interconnection between mind and body.
Like meditation, mindfulness has become a huge buzzword in recent years. We asked McCook to give us the details on what mindfulness really is and how we can practice it at home.
What is it?
“Mindfulness is a mental training practice that teaches you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body,” McCook explains. This practice is fantastic for encouraging non-judgmental, momentary awareness both during and outside of your meditation practice. The more successful we can become at cultivating mindfulness in our day-to-day lives, believes McCook, “the more we empower ourselves to make conscious choices rather than being mindlessly led by our negative thoughts.”
Who’s it for?
Mindfulness meditations are ones that McCook would encourage anyone interested in experiencing the benefits of meditation to try out. It is, however, not the best choice for anyone with an overactive mind and has not yet learned to calm down their thoughts. For those individuals, mantra meditation may be a better way to go.
How to do it?
Many studios offer in-person or virtual mindfulness classes that can be great for beginners. McCook also suggests using an app geared towards teaching mindfulness as a helpful way to begin a consistent practice.
What is it?
Mantra meditation, as McCook explains, focuses on a mantra (or a syllable, word, or phrase) that is repeated throughout the meditation. Mantras can be tailored to your present moment and can be spoken aloud, repeated in the mind, chanted, or whispered. Our minds are so powerful.
What we think we become, and mantra meditation can help guide your thoughts in the right direction to becoming the best version of yourself. Transcendental meditation (TM) is one of the most well-known forms of mantra meditation.
Who’s it for?
Introduced to the West by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, it has gathered a following of over 5 million people (including celebrities) who swear by this daily practice. To know if you too can become an advocate for TM, give it a try for yourself.
How to do it?
“It’s different than mindfulness practice,” McCook explains, “as the goal is to go beyond the thinking process to a state of restful awareness.” To practice TM for yourself, simply close down the eyes and repeat a mantra of your choosing silently, for about 20 minutes.
What are the benefits of meditation?
McCook has practiced meditation for 31 years, and from it has learned to let go of stress, discomfort, and judgments to experience clarity, kindness, and deep states of rest. “For me personally,” he says, “meditation has been a path for spiritual development, self-awareness, acceptance, and gratitude for my life and living more intentionally.”
McCook breaks down both the short and long-term benefits meditation can have. In the short term, one can experience relaxation, stress relief, self-awareness, increased responsiveness and presence, and new perspectives.
Long-term meditation practices have been demonstrated to improve mental focus and memory, reduce anxiety, and aid in treating depression. A long-term relationship with meditation can also offer a deeper understanding of one’s choices and tendencies.
But meditation isn’t all about the individual. Like other meditators, Tom believes meditation can be a precious tool in teaching compassion and empathy for others. Through regular practice, we can become more in tune with humanity and all other life on Earth.
What are some ways you can integrate meditation into your daily life?
Meditation doesn’t have to be an all-day expenditure. McCook has found that even just a few minutes per day can be beneficial. He recommends starting with a five-minute meditation that consists of sitting with your eyes closed.
Allow your breathing to slow as you bring attention to your breath and other sensations in the body. And you don’t have to have a fancy meditation cushion; sitting on the floor, bed, or a chair is perfectly fine, as long as you’re comfortable and can sit up straight.
“It’s useful to put it in your schedule as an appointment to yourself that you’re committed to keeping,” McCook advises. That way, you can begin to make meditation less of a hassle and more of a self-affirming habit. He also warns against the common notion that you should use your meditation practice as a time to interpret thoughts and some of the negative mental gymnastics we all perform daily.
Meditation can help gain a better understanding of the mind while also learning to let thoughts go and bring awareness back to the present. In other words, McCook urges us to “consider that a meditation practice is an opportunity to press the reset button, which gives us the possibility of being more responsive and in touch with what’s important to us.”
You don’t need anything but yourself to meditate but McCook does believe that meditation apps can be beneficial when you’re first beginning your practice. The app Insight Timer is his favorite, as it has everything from five-minute practices to something longer, all guided by the best meditation teachers around.
Top tips for beginners
McCook picked up one great tip for beginners from training and working with the Strozzi Institute over the past few decades. That is to be intentional with your everyday tasks like exercise or even those mundane chores like washing the dishes.
For example, when you’re out for a walk, bring your attention to the experience of feeling your foot lifts off the ground, the shifting of your weight as you switch from one leg to another. To ensure you are intentional with this exercise, McCook advises that you choose a duration of time for this meditation and commit to it, which leads us to our next tip.
Pick a time and stick with it
When meditation is not part of your daily routine, it can be highly beneficial to schedule it into your day. Choose what time you want to start and for how long; that way, you can hold yourself accountable. Plus, it will be easier to “habit stack,” like pairing your morning meditation with your cup of coffee or right after your workout.
Create a designated meditative space
Your meditation practice can quickly become something you are regularly excited about when you have a clean, designated space. Your chosen meditative space should get you ready to focus and unwind, similarly to how a designated office space can quickly get you (and keep you) in a good workflow.
Don’t put so much pressure on yourself when meditating. We’re not able to separate ourselves from the past and the future to live in the now overnight. It takes work, but not hard work. You should never think of meditation as hard. This will only add resistance.
You should enjoy meditating and discovering new things about yourself. If you begin your meditation journey with the intention to improve your lifestyle rather than getting it right, you’ll effortlessly fall in love with meditation and your new outlook on life.