Richard Gere is a proponent, Tiger Woods has done it since childhood, and Jerry Seinfeld has been a practitioner for 40 years. These celebrities know what many recent studies have confirmed: that meditation, when practiced regularly, has significant mental and physical benefits.
Great, but how do you get started? There are many styles with different emphases on posture and focus. Some types of meditation involve a mantra, a repeated word or phrase you silently say to yourself; others don’t. Since finding a style that appeals to you may make it likelier that you’ll stick with a daily practice, it’s useful to know a bit about them before you jump in. Here’s a review of some of the main types.
Buddhist meditation generally involves sitting cross-legged—though a chair may be used—and keeping eyes gently open. There are two main forms of Buddhist meditation:
- Tibetan Buddhist practice. Happiness lies in understanding your own mind and its true nature, says Tibetan Lama Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the revered Buddhist text The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. In this worldview, we suffer from thoughts and negative emotionswhen our minds are untamed. Taking care of the mindthrough daily meditation allows you to be responsible for your own happiness. The meditation posture is generally cross-legged on a pillow, eyes open and gazing softly down, mouth slightly open, palms facing down on thighs, and back straight yet relaxed to allow for the spine’s natural curve.
- Zen Buddhist practice. Concerned with living in the here and now, from moment to moment, Zen is an austere practice with Japanese roots. Zen meditation, or Zazen, meaning sitting, is performed with minimal distractions, often at a community center called a Zendo. Devoted practitioners may also sit every day at home, preferably in a quiet, neutrally lit space. In this more regimented practice, Zazen posture is heavily emphasized. As in Tibetan Buddhist meditation, eyes are open, but the mouth is closed, teeth are together, and hands are placed in a circular shape. There are two schools of Zen:Soto, practiced facing a wall, with the focus only on the act of sitting, the posture imitating the form of the Buddha; and Rinzai, typically practiced facing a Buddha, with the focus on koans—statements or phrases, often seemingly absurd—to be worked out by the practitioner while sitting, under the guidance of a teacher.
Getting started: People often practice Buddhist meditation as part of a community, or Sangha; most Buddhist centers have regular group meditations, typically paid by donation, or introductory classes, a great way to develop a practice. To try Tibetan Buddhist meditation on your own, Sogyal Rinpoche suggests resting your attention lightly on the out breath as you breathe naturally, letting go of “grasping,” and resting briefly in the gap before the inhale. For beginners, he recommends five minutes of meditation and a short one-minute break; then sit again, repeating the cycle for up to about 20 minutes. After a few sessions, it will become easier to sit longer with fewer breaks. Creating a personalized altarwith meaningful objects like shells, flowers, or candles to focus on can make an inviting space and help you commit to practicing every day. Instructions on Zen Buddhist meditation can be found on this webpage.
Also rooted in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness practice isn’t concerned with formal posture, nor is there a mantra involved; you’re simply instructed to sit in a comfortable position, or even to lie down if you want. The emphasis is on the breath, awareness of the body, and being fully present in the moment, without judgment. It can be done with eyes open or closed and is often guided. Research over the past 30 years suggests that mindfulness meditation may help in conditions such as insomnia, chronic pain, psoriasis, fibromyalgia, and some psychiatric disorders. It has been shown to alter aspects of the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotion. For a list of published articles, see this page from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts.
Getting started: You can find many books and websites with instructions for mindfulness meditation. Tara Brach, a Buddhist psychologist, offers a 40-day guided online course to establish a daily practice for less than a dollar a day. She also offers free topic-based (e.g. compassion, forgiveness) guided meditations online and as podcasts. Even simpler, you can practice regularly with a smartphone app such as Headspace, which provides a free introductory program of 10 sessions, 10 minutes each, and offers monthly subscriptions for $15 or less. Additionally, many local meditation centersmay provide some form of introduction. The U. Mass Center for Mindfulness has developed an eight-week mindfulness based stress reduction course that is offered around the country.
Mantra practices: Transcendental and vedic meditation
These practices, in which a mantra is silently and gently repeated, can be done anywhere—plane, train, office—by simply closing your eyes and following the mantra. A caveat: They’re taught through formal instruction from certified teachers, often with a high price tag.
- Transcendental Meditation(TM). Since the Beatles’ exploration in the 60swith Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, creator of transcendental meditation (often called just TM), hundredsof celebrities have signed on, from Ellen DeGeneres to Lena Dunham to Cameron Diaz. TM claims to be effortless compared to other practices and involves no concentration or monitoring of thoughts. It’s typically practiced twice a day, morning and afternoon, for 20 minutes in a comfortable seated position with closed eyes as the practitioner silently repeats a mantra. This is a meaningless sound taken from the Hindu Vedas—5,000-year-old ancient Hindu texts. The mantra is chosen by the instructor and unique to the individual. Repetition of the mantra is meant to settle the mind, eliciting a deep level of rest and allowing the mind to release stress. The official, non-profit TM website cites many published studiesthat have examined the technique’s effectiveness on stress and anxiety, brain function, cardiovascular health, and more.
- Vedic meditation. Started by a former TM teacher, Maharishi Tom Knoles, Vedic Meditation is a recent outgrowth of TM that is reportedly growing in popularity. Though its founder says that Vedic Meditation is not affiliated with TM, for legal reasons, some say it’s pretty similar, and indeed a British TM organization has called them the same.
Getting started: TM is taught over four sessions on consecutive days by a certified TM instructor. The training is offered around the country at local centers; free introductory talks explain the method and its benefits. The price is high: $960, though partial scholarships are available.
Vedic meditation training also takes place over four sessions, during which students are given their unique mantra and taught how to use it. While the movement is still in its fledgling stages, an emerging global network, vedicmeditation.net, covers some of the major international cities (including New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon). The Vedic Meditation Network provides a list of resources in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Your local meditation center may be able to refer you to a local teacher if you don’t find one in your area. Vedic Meditation can be costlier than TM since the fee is not fixed but rather depends on your income. Knoles’ rates are on a sliding scale—$500 to $2500—according to means, with a free introductory class. Junior teachers can be about half the price.