It seems more people than ever are meditating, and they aren’t all Buddhist monks or health-conscious people on yoga retreats. Meditation is becoming less associated with ‘alternative’ lifestyles and more a part of mainstream life.
An increasing number of people are recognising the value of bringing meditation practices and techniques into their daily lives. Speak to your friendship group and you might be surprised at how many people manage to find a moment for meditation in their lunch hour, first thing in the morning or just before they go to bed.
It’s roughly estimated that around 200 to 500 million people meditate, although this figure is hard to pin down with any accuracy. However, there was a study conducted in the U.S. in 2012 that found that 18 million (8% of the population at the time) were regularly meditating.
But why exactly has meditation gone mainstream, after so long on the outskirts?
The origins of meditation
It may be becoming very popular at the moment, but meditation as a practice has been around for a very long time. Some of the earliest evidence of meditation comes from 1,500 BCE (Before Common Era) in India, where wall arts from the period depicted people seated in meditative postures.
Meditation was also understood to be an important part of Buddhist India and Taoist China around the sixth to fourth centuries BCE. Meditation techniques were often passed on from gurus to students orally, so not much in the way of written evidence of the practice existed until much later.
Meditation has often been linked with religion, with evidence of practices existing within Buddhism, Judaism and even Christianity throughout the ages. But the recent resurgence of interest in meditation is largely secular, with practices unrelated to any particular faith or religion.
The powerful backing of science and research
So, why is meditation so popular now? One of the main reasons could be that there are so many more scientific studies being done on the benefits of meditation and mindfulness.
In the modern world, we’re increasingly stressed, busy and anxious, and our reliance on technological devices and social media could be making things worse. Activities such as meditation that can help us to relax, switch off and become more content are bound to be appealing. This is especially the case when scientists and researchers provide convincing and well-publicised evidence of their benefits for body and mind.
For example, a study carried out by researchers at John Hopkins University in Maryland found that eight weeks of concentrated meditation practice was just as effective in the treatment of depression and anxiety as medication. Studies have also shown that the regular practice of meditation can even change the brain, preserving it against some of the effects of ageing and helping us to ‘quiet’ overactive brains.
With science championing the benefits of meditation, a growing number of people are seeing it as a viable way to manage mental health and well-being in their daily lives.
Mindfulness and meditation
The boost in popularity meditation has enjoyed in recent years is perhaps due to a similar rise in interest in mindfulness.There are many similarities between the two, and they work in harmony with each other.
Mindfulness is an enhanced awareness of the present moment. This includes a non-judgemental ‘noticing’ of sensations, thoughts and feelings towards ourselves, the world and our experiences. Mindful meditation plays an important role in helping to train the brain to be able to embrace mindfulness. It is usually practised for a set amount of time, whereas mindfulness applies to your whole experience at any given moment.
Mindfulness as a wellbeing trend has really taken off across the world, with countless apps, resources and courses available that are geared towards mindfulness and meditation. There’s even been a surge of interest in it from the business world, with employees in many companies encouraged to take part in mindfulness sessions during the working day.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice designed to train the brain, to improve attention and awareness and achieve an emotionally calm, clear and stable state.
There are literally hundreds of different types of meditation, but there are certain features that most have in common. For example, a focus on the breath as it enters and leaves the body, and the clearing of the mind.
How to meditate
If you’ve never meditated before, it could be a good idea to try guided meditation first. If there’s a mindfulness course or taster, or a meditation session, in your local area - go along and let a trained, experienced practitioner guide you through the process.
You can also make use of apps such as Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer or The Mindfulness App. These apps, some of which are free to use, can help you to meditate anywhere, at any time.
Being able to meditate properly requires a good deal of practice. It takes time to learn how to shut out the noise and distractions of everyday life, and how to focus your mind. But the beauty of meditation is that you can do it practically anywhere. There’s no special equipment required, and you don’t need to burn incense or wear anything in particular. All you need is somewhere quiet and comfortable to sit.
The next steps to take depend on what type of meditation you’d like to do, and what you’d like to achieve. For example, many people practise calming meditation. This is designed to improve your concentration and cultivate a sense of quiet and calm in your mind. You’ll do this by focusing on something in particular, such as a visualisation, the physical sensations in your body or just your breath.
You can also practise insight meditation, which aims to transform the mind in some way - such as to improve compassion or wisdom.The important thing to remember with meditation is that it takes time to master it and feel comfortable with the practice, so don’t be disheartened if you find yourself distracted or restless the first few times you try it.