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The Science and Philosophy of Using Meditation for Mental Health

meditation for mental health\

Meditation is a tool that enables us to rid ourselves of worry and anxiety to establish a more peaceful presence. Using meditation for mental health makes a lot of sense; the modern world is packed with stressors. Often, our minds are much too active. Meditation is a tool that enables us to rid ourselves of worry and anxiety to establish a more peaceful presence. 

Meditation is the refuge by which we learn to trust peace rather than give in to anxiety and overthinking that tricks us into thinking we have “control.” Yes, anxiety can be tough to release. Luckily, meditation can balance the mind with a bit of learning and practice. Using meditation for mental health is more important now than ever. 
To get a complete picture of meditation, we must go over its history, modern application, and the science supporting its efficacy.

Where Did Meditation Come From?

Meditation is of prehistoric origins. The earliest evidence of meditation practice comes down to us from the wall art of the Indian subcontinent. The pictures show people seated in meditative postures and are from 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. 

Later, in 1,500 BCE, the first written evidence of meditation was recorded in the Vedas, religious texts from ancient India, before eventually spreading into Taoist China and Buddhist India. Through the Middle Ages, meditation grew in Japan, some Jewish traditions, Eastern Christian traditions, and mystical Islamic traditions.

Meditation was introduced in the West primarily through The World Parliament of Religions in 1893, where Asians themselves taught American audiences Asian spiritual teachings. 

There’s been an increased focus on more secular, rather than spiritual, meditation in modern times. Secular meditation has aimed to decrease stress, heal depression, and improve cognition.

Why Try Meditation for Mental Health?

On a philosophical level, meditation opposes, for the better, the current frenzy that comprises much of the modern world. Meditation provides us with the space to understand ourselves, be honest about our feelings and connect with ourselves so we might see what is happening within ourselves. This is essential in an (often) chaotic world because it serves as an essential form of slowing down and bringing more balance into our lives.

If you’re considering trying meditation, know that it takes time, effort, and practice. An effective analogy to explain the process of becoming a “good meditator” is that of going to the gym. The first time at the gym may be uncomfortable and challenging, but as the months progress, you get stronger and stronger. It’s the same with meditation. It’s a process. It takes time and consistency to feel the transformational effects of meditation. 

Many will hesitate to think of meditation because they feel it’s purely spiritual. However, meditation for mental health has been and is currently being studied as a very physical phenomenon because, as it turns out, meditation benefits the brain physically.

Meditation for Mental Health: The Science

Research is continually recording the positive mental health benefits of meditation. For example, in a study published in Geriatric Psychiatry, scientists discovered that yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms improves mental health and cognition. According to the study, “The meditation group showed significantly lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvement in mental health and cognitive functioning compared with the relaxation group.” 

The participants in the study underwent 12-minute daily sessions of meditation for eight weeks.
Researchers are also using brain scans to observe the powerful effects of mindfulness. After eight weeks of training in mindful attention meditation, the amygdala, a region in the brain strongly associated with anxiety, was found to be significantly less active.

How to Perform Meditation for Mental Health

First, I’ll attempt to explain the process and steps for effectively performing meditation. Then, I’ll post some helpful resources for learning more about meditation.

1. Get comfortable—but not too comfortable 

Meditation is a bit of a paradox in that it aims to promote relaxation, yet it’s a very active practice at the same time. When setting up to meditate, assume an upright seated position that you can get comfortable in without falling asleep. Next, close your eyes.

2. Make your breath your friend 

During meditation, the breath is preferred as a point to center your focus. It’s constant, secure, and flows in and out like ocean waves. Note that there’s a difference between “focus on” and “think about.” Do not think about your breathing. Rather, notice its presence and be with it. That’s focusing. 

3. Tune in to the rest of the present moment

Once you’re in tune with your breath, focus on the rest of the present moment—anything from sounds, sensations, smells, etc. By tuning in to the present moment, you heighten your focus and feel the (rather healing) sensation of “just being,” a sensation you may not experience enough in your life.

4. Notice—but don’t engage with—your thoughts

In the context of meditation practice, thoughts are often compared with passing clouds. If your mind is the sky, let thoughts come and go like passing clouds. There’s no need to force thoughts out of your mind. Let your mind work as it normally would. At the same time, however, aim not to engage with your thoughts.

Engaging is the process of forgetting the present moment and practically being transported to a different place, time and frame of mind due to intruding thoughts. Thoughts are only intruders when they pull you away from the present moment in this way. Otherwise, thoughts can remain a real component of your present moment. Notice them and allow them to go as easily as they arrived. 

5. Practice sitting for extended periods

This is one time when sitting is good for you! Practice sitting for 5 minutes every day. Increase by 5 minutes every two weeks. Once you get to 30 minutes, remain there for longer. When 30 minutes becomes comfortable, you may enjoy the experience and the positive influence meditation has on your life so much that you aim to increase your meditation sessions to an hour or more.

Here is an excellent resource for learning more about meditation. It comes from Jack Kornfield, who has been teaching meditation since 1974. 

Remember that using meditation for mental health is a practice. It may take time and consistency to feel lasting results. Consider becoming part of a meditation “sangha” (a community or group) dedicated to implementing mindfulness and meditation for mental health. 

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