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How to meditate: A guide to what meditation is and how to get the most out of it

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?

Meditation can help to improve your concentration and better deal with stress.(ABC Everyday: Natalie Behjan)

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.

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