Have you been meditating your entire life without knowing it?

Not really. But meditation experts say you can still reap some of the benefits if you’re being intentional about it.
Image: Young woman sitting on couch at home next to laptop meditating
There’s no one way to meditate, but it does need to be deliberate. Westend61 / Getty Images
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By Sarah DiGiulio

People meditate (and people have been meditating for thousands of years) because of the myriad benefits associated with the practice. It can promote calmness and relaxation. It can increase your ability to cope with illness or adversity. It can help you connect with yourself and process emotions. It has been linked to numerous physical health benefits, too, like improving blood pressure, helping with insomnia, and fewer flare-ups for some chronic conditions, like ulcerative colitis, for people with those problems.

“To summarize the benefits would be a little futile,” says Jill Emanuele, PhD, senior director of the Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York City — because they are so numerous.

Traditionally, meditation is a spiritual practice that helps people better understand and connect with themselves and the world’s spiritual forces around them — and the purpose remains the same today, she explains.

One of the defining benefits of a regular meditation practice is an increased ability to think more flexibly and to come to a clearer understanding of your life and the world around you, says Emanuele, who specializes in using mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. “It’s a way of connecting to something bigger than you (however you define that — maybe it’s God, maybe it’s the universe) and gaining insight into yourself.”

But meditation happens in your thoughts inside your head. So how do you know when you’re doing it and when you’re just in touch with yourself? And is there even a difference?

If you’re not being intentional, it’s not meditation

Meditation is an activity that focuses the attention on what’s happening in the mind and in the body at the present moment, rather than allowing your attention to wander to the various trains of thoughts and feelings that crop up, explains Harold D. Roth, PhD, director of the Contemplative Studies Initiative and professor of religious studies at Brown University. “It happens through the practice of returning your attention again and again and again to the present moment.”

There’s no one way to do it, but it does need to be deliberate. In other words, you can’t accidentally meditate — and it’s not happening if you’re zoning out.

Meditation is a subtype of a broader category of activities that focus your attention and awareness of what’s happening in the mind and body in that moment, Roth explains. This broader category is contemplation.

It happens through the practice of returning your attention again and again and again to the present moment.

Contemplative activities can be intentional, like meditation and prayer — or they can be unintentional, such is the case when you’re jogging and get in the “zone” of thinking only about your movement or painting and you find yourself completely absorbed in the moment. But the latter unintentional contemplative activities aren’t necessarily meditative ones.

Here’s where defining what is and what is not meditation get a little tricky. Even if you’re being intentional, not just any activity can be meditative, Roth says.

Let’s say you deliberately set out on a run and solely focus your attention on that run (what the pavement feels like, the temperature, the sounds around you), it can be a contemplative practice, in that it puts you in a state of focus and concentration that can help you feel more calm and present in the moment (much in the same way meditation does). But traditionally, this type of contemplative practice isn’t recognized as meditation, Roth says.

When you’re meditating, you’re training yourself to sit with uncomfortable stuff

What a lot of the mediation techniques do have in common is that you’re focusing on one thing, Emanuele explains. That one thing might be your breath, it might be the sounds around you, it might be a mantra, or it might be something else.

“And whatever it is that you’re focusing on, you’re letting go of any feelings associated with it — past or present — and really just being in the moment,” she says.

If you’re letting go of the problematic thoughts that crop up, how is that helping to deal with them?

A meditation practice is about training yourself to sit with things that are uncomfortable. If you’re focusing on your breath, you’re training yourself to concentrate only on that even if you have the urge to start thinking about what you’re going to make for dinner that night or a big presentation coming up at work. You’re training yourself to stay focused on one thing even if it’s uncomfortable, so that when you’re not meditating and you need to deal with an uncomfortable thought that comes up, you can stay with it rather than ignore it.

“You might be on the train (not meditating) and all of a sudden a thought comes to you that might be a little disrupting, but you can sit with it because you learned how to sit and practice being in the moment by focusing on your breath,” Emanuele explains.

Roth adds: “[Meditation] enables you to respond less emotionally to stressful situations so that you can maintain a clarity of mind and a freshness of approach to whatever situation you encounter that will enable you to call upon all of the resources of your mind and body.”

You can get some of this same benefit out of a contemplative practice (if you deliberately focus on bringing your attention back to the present moment while you were doing it), but you tend to get the most benefit out of a traditional meditative practice, where the activity is solely focused on the meditation, Roth says.

Is mindfulness meditation?

Central to many different variations of meditation is mindfulness, Roth explains. “It’s the technique or practice of returning again and again and again to the object or subject of meditation.”

It’s the feature of meditation where you stay in the moment, Emanuele adds — “and not get caught up in the past and the future or judge any thoughts that come up.”

And here’s another point where the definitions get confusing: Mindfulness is part of many meditation practices; but in everyday language, we often use the term “mindfulness” to describe the practice of being present in the moment in a whole host of ways outside of meditation, too.

You can practice this type of mindfulness in an infinite number of ways, Emanuele says: through prayer (focusing only on your prayers), immersing yourself in nature (focusing on the color of the leaves on the trees, the way the ground feels beneath your feet, the way the sun shines light on objects around you, and so on), or through a relaxing activity (like knitting or painting or jogging). But for all of them, you need to stay focused on the present moment. When you get distracted, return your attention to whatever you were focused on again and again, Emanuele says.

Something else you should know about meditation: It’s kind of doing burpees — even if you’re not enjoying it, it’s probably good for you

Cumulatively one of the effects of regularly meditating is that you’re able to deal with things that are troubling more effectively and you’re able to relax when you know it’s time for your body and mind to relax, Emanuele says. But that doesn’t mean meditation is always going to be relaxing in the moment. You might not like doing it and it might be uncomfortable, she says. “It can bring up stuff that maybe you’re not wanting to be so connected with.”

That’s why it takes practice. Just like practicing playing an instrument or playing a sport, sometimes it’s going to go really well, and other times it’s not. But if you keep doing it, you will get better at it, Emanuele adds.

A simple way to start meditating, she says: Pick something to focus on for a full minute. “Set the timer and see if you can focus just on that one thing.”

Another way to try out a mindfulness or contemplative practice is to do it in the shower, she says. Focus on the sounds of the water, how the water feels on the body, how the soap feels on your skin, and how it looks.

And, remember to be patient, Roth adds. Neither meditative nor contemplative practices are going to change your life overnight. And the more you objectify the experience by setting specific goals (in terms of what you want meditation to help you accomplish), the less likely you’ll actually see those benefits, he says. “If you keep doing that, you will be pulled away from being focused in the present moment and always a few steps behind your own experience.”

Plus, he adds: “You can get really stressed out if you think you haven’t reached the goal or made enough progress towards it.”

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