Meditation: Focus on now
October 25th, 2010
08:58 AM ET

Meditation: Focus on now

This week, The Chart and CNN's Belief blog take a deeper look at meditation, what it is and how it can change us physically and emotionally.


Everyone has busy, stressful days and feels distracted by a multitude of tasks and obligations. Many people find stress reduction, as well as physical benefits,  in meditation, as found in an ongoing study.

Here's the low-down on what meditation is and how to get started.

What is meditation?

Meditation is training in concentration, mindfulness and compassion, says Sharon Salzberg, a meditation teacher and author who co-founded the prominent Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. It is not merely relaxing, but rather training the mind in specific skills.

What are the different kinds of meditation?

There are various types of meditation, and some are very simple: One is essentially focusing on the feeling of the breath, a mantra, or a visualization, and bringing your attention back after it goes away. This is sometimes called concentrative meditation.

Another is mindfulness meditation, which focuses on developing a different relationship to everything you experience. This includes your relationship to others and to yourself. For example, if you have chronic pain, you might fear what you'll feel like tomorrow; mindfulness meditation helps live with it in the moment, Salzberg said.

Do you need a teacher to meditate?

People can get into it on their own but it's useful to have a good understanding of what to expect, Salzberg said. "If you start out with a lot of misconceptions, it's not a very fulfilling experience," she said. A teacher can help dispel myths about meditation and guide you toward accomplishing meditative goals.

How do I start?

"We start with ourselves, and developing more kindness and compassion toward ourselves," Salzberg said. Focus on your breathing, but don't get frustrated if you lose concentration after three or four breaths. Try not to think about anything except your breath for as many breaths as you can.

Try to feel one breath fully and then the next, let go and come back. In some ways it’s like exercising, she said.

It may be 10 seconds before you realize that your attention has wandered away. Don't berate yourself; be kind to yourself and gently let go of that thought, so you can bring yourself back to the breath, she said.

"That’s one example of how we change the relationship to ourselves, which becomes the basis of changing our relationship to others," she said.

How do I calm myself if I'm not in a quiet place?

"The breath is actually fantastic as a tool for that because as long as you’re breathing, you can be meditating," she says. "You don’t have to change your breath, or make it deeper, or alter it in any way. Just feel it as it’s coming in and out of your nostrils, or the rising, or falling movement of your chest."

How do I find time for meditation?

If you're at home, try meditating for 20 minutes, Salzberg says. The first five minutes will probably be a riot of "I forgot this or that," but give yourself a chance to go deeper. If you've only got five minutes, though, just try to focus on your breath for that time.

Should I have music playing while I meditate?

A lot of people say they have good experience meditating to music, but it's not necessary; whatever works best for you is what you should do, Salzberg says.

Should I meditate in the morning or evening?

Again, whatever feels best and fits your schedule, Salzberg said.

What long-term effects does meditation have?

Over time, you will certainly have feelings of greater calm, she said. "We feel more connected with our experience when we’re actually paying attention to it," she said. But meditation may also make you confront buried painful memories - it's not always easy.

Do I need to sit to meditate?

Generally a sitting posture with a straight back is recommended for meditation to let the energy flow through the body, Salzberg said. But there are also meditations designed for walking, and you can lie down if necessary.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.