People have been meditating in different cultures throughout the world for thousands of years, often for spiritual reasons.
But today meditation is also a tool that’s widely used to help improve mental performance and manage stress.
There is also growing interest in the potential for meditation to help prevent or manage a range of other mental and physical health conditions.
What is meditation?
Definitions of meditation vary, depending on the form you are practising. However, many forms involve training your mind to pay attention.
Meditation Australia says, “Meditation is an umbrella term for a range of practices designed to cultivate a calm, concentrated and absorbed state of mind”.
Sitting down to meditate is called the “formal practice” of training attention.
It usually involves focusing your attention on one thing, such as your breathing, the sounds around you or a specific object.
Most forms of meditation involve having an open attitude to distractions — that is not trying to suppress them but rather gently bringing the attention back to the focus.
This may be helpful training for a range of conditions involving, or made worse by, excessive focus on unhelpful thoughts.
How do I start practising meditation?
It is helpful to start meditating by following simple instructions (either written or by listening to a short recording).
Many people find once they have meditated a few times, they can progress to practising without instructions or a recording.
There are audio recordings of a variety of short meditations available online, in books, on phone apps or programs like ABC’s Mindfully podcast.
Some guidance from an experienced teacher or health professional can be important, especially if you are:
Dealing with significant psychological issues such as major anxiety, acute depression or acute psychosis.
Experiencing difficulties meditating or aren’t sure you are on the right track.
Want to explore meditation at higher levels.
If you have a chronic health condition, you may be eligible for financial assistance through Medicare for help learning meditation from a health professional. Your GP can advise you more on this.
You can also find an experienced teacher through Meditation Australia.
Do I need to practise every day?
No, but it helps if you do. Learning to meditate is a skill that improves with practice.
How long does it take to work?
There are wide individual differences in how people respond to meditation.
After a single session meditating, you may feel calmer and more focused. However, it’s best not to expect instant success.
With regular practice (at least a few weeks), you are likely to have more success letting go of distracting thoughts and gently bringing your attention back to your meditation. But don’t be discouraged if this doesn’t happen straight away.
At first, you may simply become more aware of how easily distracted the mind can be and this is actually a sign of progress.
Meditation is also about cultivating a gentler, more self-compassionate attitude.
It is often said the real evidence of meditation working is when you notice you have become less reactive to distractions in day-to-day life, such as when you are not meditating.
Is a particular posture important?
You don’t need to adopt any particular posture for meditation to work but make yourself comfortable so you don’t have to reposition yourself in the middle of your meditation.
For this reason, sitting upright with a straight spine with your back supported is often recommended.
If you lie down, there is a greater risk you will fall asleep, which means you will no longer be meditating.
Does meditation work for everyone?
Some people find meditation difficult. Some common concerns (and suggestions for dealing with them) are:
“I can’t stop the distracting thoughts that prevent me focusing on meditating”: The goal is not to eliminate thoughts but to become more aware of the “silence” and stillness that is present along with the passing thoughts. Just gently acknowledge the thoughts, let them come and go, and return to your focus. Fighting with thoughts or trying to get rid of them only draws more attention to them and makes them more intrusive.
“I don’t always feel good when I meditate”: Your changing physical and emotional state means you may feel differently each time you meditate. The idea is to learn to be more accepting of and less reactive to whatever arises, rather than to feel a sense of bliss. Trying to get rid of uncomfortable emotions and sensations simply fixates the attention on them and makes them even more intrusive.
“I’ve tried it a few times and I don’t feel it made any difference”: Cultivate patience. Like building physical fitness, learning meditation takes time — at least a few weeks.
How long do I need to meditate?
Meditation experts suggest regular practice of as little as five minutes, twice a day, is a good start if you want to manage stress or improve your ability to focus on tasks.
They suggest when you have extra time, you can aim for longer meditations.
Research into using meditation to help manage conditions like chronic pain, or significant symptoms of cancer (or its treatment) or recurrent depression has usually involved longer periods of daily meditation — around 40 minutes a day.
Be aware that it can be difficult to learn to meditate when your level of distress is very high.
But periods when you are less distressed can be a good time to learn the skills that could help you if the distress returns.
Having a mental focus on the present in even short moments of day-to-day life can be seen as “informal” practice of training attention.
Do I need to be in a quiet place?
A quiet space makes meditation easier, which is helpful when you are learning.
Exposure to noise is a challenge, but it helps improve your skills and makes meditation more portable, so you can practise “mini meditations” anywhere throughout the day.
Practise trying not to block out noises or any other distractions; just let them be and learn to gently re-engage the attention where you would like it to be.
Is there any research to support the use of meditation?
Over the last 20 years there has been an exponential growth in research into the uses and effects of meditation — especially mindfulness, the most widely studied form of meditation.
However, the quality of research evidence is variable, and more rigorous studies are needed.
Some conditions where mindfulness may be helpful include:
Drug rehabilitation and quitting smoking;
Chronic pain management;
Cancer side effect management.
Is meditation ever unsafe?
There have been reports that meditation can exacerbate symptoms in people who are acutely ill with certain psychiatric problems.
However, it can be helpful for those with psychiatric illnesses who are currently in remission.
For example, some forms of meditation such as mindfulness have been adapted specifically to help prevent the relapse of depression.
If you have a history of mental illness involving psychosis (a radically altered sense of reality, along with personality changes), the guidance of a suitably trained health professional is recommended (for example, a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist with significant experience in meditation).
This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.
This content was originally published by ABC Health and Wellbeing and was updated in 2021.
For expert input into this article, we thank Associate Professor Craig Hassed, senior lecturer in general practice at Monash University, researcher on meditation and health, and past founding president of the Australian Teachers of Meditation Association (now Meditation Australia).
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