The big question upfront: What can really change your life and make you happier?
Typically, when we think about changing our lives to become happier, we tend to focus on changing some aspect of the world around us. Maybe we want to change how much money is in our bank account, how healthy we are, or perhaps how many freedoms and opportunities we have.
Or can you remember the last time you were wishing of getting a more exciting job, moving into a bigger house, traveling more often or dating the right person to share life with? And do you remember dreaming about how happy you would be if those things become a reality?
The hedonic treadmill – why we always adapt to our circumstances
However, if you finally did get one of those things, you may have experienced that your feeling of happiness didn’t last as long as you’d imagined. This is called the ‘hedonic treadmill’, a theory stating that regardless of what you’re experiencing you always eventually return to your baseline level of happiness.
Science has shown this. In one such experiment, participants were asked to rate their happiness immediately after winning the lottery, or immediately after becoming paralyzed in a car accident. As you can imagine, the lottery winners were significantly happier on average.
But when the same question was put to them a few years later, both groups ended up with the same score! It sounds unbelievable, but it makes sense: we adapt to our circumstances.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes no sense for us to be so stressed and anxious that we curl up into a ball and never do anything. But likewise, it makes no sense for us to be so content and happy that we stop pushing the boundaries and exploring new horizons.
So, it all makes sense. But that doesn’t really help you, does it?
What truly makes you feel better?
If there’s no way to make yourself feel better, then what really is the point after all? Why strive for anything, if you’re just going to remain in the same state of ‘slightly uncomfortable’?
The answer is to stop looking outside and to turn your attention inward. Focussing on the way that you process what is going on around you, and suddenly you can find peace and happiness no matter where you are in life.
This is a case of having the glass half full, versus having the glass half empty. The glass is the same, but one person views themselves as lucky, the other views themselves as shortchanged. The first person is, of course, the much happier and healthier one!
Can a glass-half-empty kind of person, become a glass-half-full person?
The answer, fortunately, is yes. And the answer is meditation.
Meditation can improve our lives in a great many ways – both in the short term and the long term.
In the short term, meditation can be thought of as a kind of refuge. Meditation is about calming your mind and driving out negative, stressful thoughts. If you can do that, then you can find an oasis of peace in even the most chaotic circumstances.
Imagine it: you’ve come home from work after a stressful day. Your colleagues are shouting at you, and you have a deadline that you’re falling behind on. You might come home and stress all evening – spending your whole evening thinking about work, rather than enjoying time with your partner, and/or kids, and/or friends.
OR you could meditate, remove the distracting thoughts from your mind, and just enjoy your evening. Worry about it tomorrow when you can actually do something about it. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Meditation helps you to change lifelong habits
In the long term, being able to do this at will eventually helps you to change habits that have formed over a lifetime. It helps you to learn to rise above your problems and to not think of them as the end of the world. You can put things in perspective, and you can crank down that irritating little voice at the back of your head.
Reducing stress actually helps your brain to regrow damaged tissue and neural connections. You will create a thicker prefrontal cortex. You will become better at controlling your thoughts, and ultimately, you will learn to appreciate what you have.
So… you in?
What are the top types of meditation?
Let’s look at the top types of meditation and how to get started with them.
One of the most popular forms of meditation is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation revolves around becoming more aware of your own thoughts, such that you might start to control them.
In mindfulness meditation, the goal is not to completely block out all thoughts, but rather to simply let them pass you by like clouds – without getting you upset. The aim, in other words, is not to engage with the thoughts. At the same time, you will allow them to go by, and you will make a note of them so that you can develop a more accurate picture of what happens inside your own brain.
This type of meditation is perfect for dealing with stress and for overcoming anxieties and phobias – and for curing insomnia. That’s because it allows you to step back and observe your thoughts dispassionately. Ultimately, you become better at using your own brain.
Body Scan Meditation (Progressive Relaxation)
Body scan meditation is often used in conjunction with mindfulness meditation and is what we can think of as a form of ‘kinaesthetic meditation’ (meaning that the focus is on the body and the way you feel).
The aim of this kind of meditation is to gradually move your focus across your body, while relaxing each muscle during the process. Throughout the day, we all carry a lot of tension in our muscles. Some of this is caused by stress, some by knots in the fascia that surround your muscle, and some by normal, healthy tension known as ‘tonus’ (this is what helps to keep a little tautness in the muscles and prevents our body from completely relaxing in a limp heap!).
When you use progressive relaxation, your aim is to release as much of this tension as possible – calming the mind as a by-product. So, you might start by focusing on your forehead. Is there any tension in your brow? How about your ears? Contract each muscle, then make a conscious effort to release it – breathing out slowly as you do in order to ensure that the area is fully relaxed.
This form of meditation not only distracts you from your troubles and helps you to get ‘out of your own head’, but it also gives you the ability to fully relax on cue. This can be a very useful method for getting to sleep for example, if you are someone who struggles with insomnia perhaps.
One of the most popular and well-known forms of meditation by far is transcendental meditation – or TM. This type of meditation original comes from India during the 1950s and is practiced by many high-profile celebrities.
The general concept, however, is very simple and is actually one of the most tested. Simply, practitioners are tasked with completely emptying their minds of all thoughts and all distractions. They do this by focusing on something – which will very often be a mantra. A mantra is just a word or phrase that you repeat over and over, and this could be as simple as the word ‘Om’. The mantra should have no meaning because the aim is not to ‘reflect’ on meaning and thereby trap yourself at the ‘surface level’.
The aim though is to focus just on this mantra and then to allow all other distractions to sink away. If you notice yourself thinking about something else, just calmly bring your mind back to the point of focus and calm.
Transcendental meditation is a regulated form of meditation that is led by instructors. However, it is also very similar in aim and method to other forms such as Vedic meditation. We can use TM as a broad term to describe almost any form of meditation where the objective is to empty the mind by focusing on a singular stimulus.
Breath Awareness Meditation
Breath awareness meditation is exactly what it sounds like a form of meditation that involves focusing your full attention on the breath. This can mean that you count your breaths, that you breathe in a specific manner, or simply that you focus on your breath. Whatever the case, this once again provides you with a single focal point, and the idea is to release all other thoughts so that your mind becomes quiet and calm.
Loving Kindness Meditation
Loving kindness meditation is a form of meditation that involves focusing your attention entirely on feelings and thoughts of kindness and love. These can be directed towards others, but they can also be directed towards yourself. That means that you’re going to be cultivating these feelings – enjoying the warm bask of kind feelings at times when you’re feeling low or stressed, but ultimately reinforcing these habits so that you become more likely to fall back on those kinds of feelings, rather than sinking into negativity and doubt quickly.
This is a form of Buddhist meditation and is best learned with the help of a teacher – though of course, it is possible to practice something very similar on your own.
Tai Chi (Moving Meditation)
Another example of meditation that isn’t static is Tai Chi. Here, practitioners perform extremely slow movements while focussing carefully on their bodies and how they are moving. This, in turn, can allow them to tap into greater strength and control, while also serving as an ideal way to take their mind off of other worries and enhance focus.
While the movements are slow and may appear to have more in common with yoga at first, they actually do have martial application when performed quickly and with power.
Another similar example of this kind of meditation is ‘Chi Kung’ (Qi Gong). This is a more static alternative to Tai Chi that sees practitioners holding positions while focussing on the movement of energy through their body. This is often used in conjunction with Tai Chi, or with Shaolin forms of Kung Fu.
From Shaolin Kung Fu, Chi Kung is a form of meditation that really means ‘energy work’. It’s objective is to help practitioners visualize the flow of ‘chi’ (qi) around the body, in order to enhance health and strength Of course, your belief in chi may vary – but whatever your interpretation, the visualization can help you to better focus the mind and even develop a better connection to your own body.
Chi Kung involves holding a number of positions, which place a light amount of strain on the body. This further helps to route the mind in the body, as does gently moving occasionally from one to the other. You will practice controlled breathing, and at the same time bring the mind to the center – or the Dan Tien – which is located just below the navel and also happens to be the center of gravity.
Third Eye Meditation
Whereas chi kung focusses the attention on the Dan Tien (just below the navel), this form of meditation involves focusing on the point in the middle of your forehead, just above and between the eyes.
Christian meditation is a form of meditation that – of course – is practiced by Christians. It involves focusing on a passage from the bible or a prayer and spending time really reflecting on its meaning and any attached emotion.
But this method can, of course, be used by practitioners of any faith, providing a useful way for them to combine their religion with the health benefits of meditation. Of course, you could just as easily choose to focus on something else: how about thinking about the film you just saw? What about a poem that you respond to deeply?
Kundalini Yoga Meditation
Kundalini yoga meditation is a form of mediation that incorporates specific movements, diet, and more. The aim is that you’re going to be looking to improve your flexibility, muscle tone, and strength, while at the same time calming the mind and improving your breathing – getting a whole lot of bang for your buck.
Breathing is performed slightly differently in kundalini meditation. Here, you block the left nostril and use a long, deep inhalation. Next, you block the right nostril, and as you do this, you allow the mind to clear.
Nada meditation is another yogic method that involves using an outside stimulus. This time though, you will be focusing on your other sense: hearing.
Nada meditation means focusing on one sound, which can mean listening to the sound of a babbling brook, for instance, the wind, the traffic… You can alternatively open yourself up to all the sounds around you and take a moment to stop and listen to as many sounds as possible. It might surprise you to learn just how many sounds you miss out on normally – and how much you can hear when you broaden your scope.
Nada meditation can also be achieved using music, which many people find is an easy way to get themselves lost without thought.
Vedic meditation is extremely similar to transcendental meditation but without the branding and marketing. Essentially, it involves focusing on a mantra to calm the mind and body. There is really little functional difference between these two forms of meditation, but seek out TM if you feel the need for an instructor and guidance.
Zazen Meditation is a form of Buddhist meditation. Like TM, it requires an instructor in order to get the real deal, but in practice, it is extremely similar to mindfulness meditation. The aim though is essentially to try and detach from the thoughts and to allow them to go past ‘without judgment’. You are not emptying the mind, simply disengaging from it.
Gazing meditation is a yogic tradition that is ‘externally focussed’. All that basically means is that you’re going to be focusing on something outside of your own body – which might mean that you’re focusing on the movement of a flame, a running river, or something else entirely.
If your eyes become tired or you need to blink, close your eyes, and try to focus on the afterimage of what you were gazing at. Then, when ready, open the slowly again.
This can again be used in the same way as TM – the idea is to calm the mind and remove distracting and unhelpful thoughts.
Many people find this to be one of the easier methods to get started with, as there is a useful outside distraction. Try to think back to the last time that you found yourself gazing off into the distance, having completely lost yourself – that is the state of mind you’re trying to get to. Knowing that this is your goal, it can make it easier to return to again.
Productive meditation is distinctly not spiritual and seems almost to be an anathema to the idea of meditation in a way – though this is not true as we will see in a moment.
Productive meditation – first suggested by Cal Newport in the book Deep Work – is a type of meditation where you focus is on a well-defined problem while you’re doing something else physically (walking, running, cycling, swimming). The idea behind that is that physical activity helps you to resist distractions and to improve your ability to think deeply about the problem and thus find a solution.
Candle meditation is a form of meditation that involves focussing on just a candle flame and watching it flicker. Doing this can allow you to completely calm your mind, and especially because the candle itself is hypnotic as it dances.
There are many other things you can gaze at for meditative effect. How about looking at the moon, for instance? Or a running stream?
Mindful Washing Up
Washing up isn’t meditation. But that’s not to say there’s no way that it can be. The point here is that anything can become meditation as long as you calm and focus the mind while you do it. Focus 100% on washing up, and this becomes a meditative exercise that will help you to push out distractions.
The basic objective of meditation is to increase your awareness
So those are a lot of different forms of meditation, and you might be forgiven for feeling a bit confused and overwhelmed at the moment.
In fact, though, things are a lot simpler than they may at first seem. Despite these forms of meditation all seeming extremely different, they actually have a lot in common. In fact, they all have the same basic objective: increasing your awareness.
Whatever you’re focussing on, the idea here is not to focus on something that could make you feel stressed out and to choose how you want to spend your time thinking. In doing that, you become less stressed, and you simultaneously ‘work out’ your attention like a muscle.
In most cases, we can divide these different forms of meditation like so:
- Sensory meditation
- Kinaesthetic meditation
- Concept meditation
- Movement meditation
So, while productive meditation and religious meditation might both seem very different, in truth, they are actually both examples of concept meditation. Likewise, both Tai Chi and Kundalini are examples of movement meditation. So is mindful washing up!
And you can use anything else here to fill the blanks. So, the key is just to find what works for you and to go with that.
How to get started?
To get started with your practice, try not to put any pressure on yourself. Sit somewhere quietly, choose the type of focus you’re going to employ and begin. If you need to get up to scratch your nose – that’s fine. You don’t have to ‘start again’. If you notice your mind start to wander, don’t punish yourself for it: just bring your mind quietly back to the task at hand.
The mistake many people make is to place too much pressure on themselves to get it right straight away – or to stick to 30 minutes of meditation daily. Neither of these things has to happen: there’s no reason you can’t practice just for five minutes a couple of times a week and still see benefits.
The whole point is that meditation is meant to be relaxing. So don’t get crazy about doing it right or wrong, the most important thing is that you get going! Also, don’t run before you can walk: if all you manage is five minutes of sitting relatively quietly per day, that is still remarkable progress on your journey to a happier life.