Have you found yourself in the middle of a stressful experience wishing you knew how to meditate? You’ve probably heard or read that meditating can help you deal with challenging situations, with your emotions, with pain, and even many chronic health issues. But how does it work and how do you get started?

Meditative practices around the world are probably as old as humankind. They form a part of many religious and philosophical traditions, and we associate them primarily with life in the East. Yoga comes to mind. Or you may be thinking of various Buddhist practices. With so many millions of people involved in meditation, it is natural that a bewildering range of styles, methods and practices have evolved over the millenia.

In the West, a practice that developed from the vipassana bhavana tradition is now widely recognized as a path that people of all kinds of backgrounds can pursue and integrate into their lives to great benefit. Vipassana bhavana essentially means cultivation of mindfulness, and so the practice that evolved has been called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). I will devote another article to a deeper exploration of the MBSR program.

Does mindfulness meditation really work?

Those of you who appreciate evidence-based medicine would probably like to see that some solid research has been conducted to show that mindfulness is effective before you devote time and effort to this practice for health reasons. Luckily, there’s been strong interest in the medical and scientific communities for several decades to investigate how mindfulness meditation affects people and when it can be useful to address health challenges. Mindfulness techniques have been compared to conventional pharmaceutical treatments and other interventions, and found in many instances to be equal or superior in their efficacy for a wide range of pain conditions and psycho-emotional disorders. The National Institute of Complementary and Integrative Health at the NIH has been funding a number of trials, and the American Mindfulness Research Association is supporting research, standards and development, along with many academic institutions in this country.

Think of regular mindfulness practice as training your brain like a muscle. A well-trained brain is calmer, more resilient, and functions better. This can have positive ramifications for your whole nervous system and your hormonal regulation, both of which often contribute to chronic illness such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, if they are dysregulated.

How to get started meditating

Getting started with meditation is easier than you think, but practicing regularly can be harder than you expected. You don’t need to buy fancy equipment or clothing, but a quiet place where you can sit and not get distracted will be very helpful. In the beginning, the biggest challenge for most people is to set time aside on a consistent basis. A useful manual for beginners is Bhante Gunaratana’s classic Mindfulness in Plain English, in which he gives down-to-earth guidance on starting your meditation practice. His advice is to keep things simple and focus your mind by observing your breath. This is a handy tool because you are always breathing, your breath is always with you, and it’s free!

Another excellent guide is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners. Kabat-Zinn is one of the most respected meditation teachers in America and is credited with developing, as well as extensively researching, the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) program. His books Full Catastrophe Living, Wherever You Go There You Are, and Coming to Our Senses are excellent resources for those who want to dive deeper into the art, science, and practice of mindfulness.

All things considered, there are many approaches to meditation but the best one for you will be the one that you actually pursue, so just get started and observe what you find out.

© 2023 Christiane Siebert