What is meditation?
Meditation is a focusing practice that suspends the normal stream of thoughts occupying the mind. Usually, the attention is focused on a specific thing, such as the breath or a phrase. Practicing meditation regularly is believed to calm the mind, increase alertness, and bring a person into a state of physical and psychological balance.
Some people choose to learn meditation at home using an instructional book or audio CD. Others choose to learn from a teacher.
In studies, meditation has been shown to help:
- reduce stress
- improve moods
- improve quality of sleep
- reduce fatigue
There are many approaches to meditation. Here are some of the more common ways people meditate:
- Focus on the breath: Keeping the attention on the sensation of the breath as it passes in and out of the nostrils. Sometimes called "mindfulness meditation," it tries to teach the meditator to be "mindful," or aware, of the present moment without judging or reacting.
- Focus on the body: Feeling the sensations throughout the body, such as pain, warmth, or tension
- Focus on a word or phrase: Repeating a word or phrase, sometimes called a "mantra," to keep the mind free of distracting thoughts
While many people sit still to meditate, it's possible to use the above techniques while lying down, standing, or walking. Meditation can also be combined with other practices such as yoga or tai chi if sitting still is difficult for you.
What to expect during meditation
Meditation usually begins with finding a position that's comfortable for you. Most people choose to close their eyes to reduce any visual distractions. Once you're in position, you'll focus your attention on the area of your choosing — the breath, a mantra, or another area of focus. During your session, you will be working to bring your awareness back to your area of focus whenever you find your mind wandering.
Tips for beginning meditation:
- Look for a quiet location. If you're beginning a meditation practice, a quiet place with minimal distractions is ideal.
- Make sure your posture is comfortable. If you are sitting or standing, make sure you are in a comfortable position.
- Keep an open attitude. It is very common to become distracted while meditating, so try not to judge yourself when your mind wanders — just gently return your attention to the focus. Observe and accept the thoughts that come and go.
- Try to avoid positions that make you sleepy. When meditating in a sitting position, some people feel as though they are falling asleep. If this is a problem for you, try to meditate while standing or walking.
- Allow yourself the time you need. It takes time and dedication to develop a meditation routine. It's best to begin with small, manageable time increments, such as 5 minutes once or twice a day, and then work up to longer blocks of time. With regular practice, meditation becomes easier and more automatic.
Meditation practitioner requirements
Because there are so many traditions of meditation, and just as many opinions about training requirements, there is no formal certification or licensing process for meditation instructors.
Some spiritual traditions, such as Buddhism, do have requirements for extensive formal training for new teachers. Training requirements vary widely depending on the institution. If you are searching for a meditation instructor, tell your doctor. He or she may be able to recommend instructors affiliated with a cancer center.
For more information about finding a qualified complementary medicine practitioner, see our Finding a Practitioner section.
Research on meditation in people with cancer
In studies, meditation has been shown to help reduce stress, mood disturbance, and fatigue in people with cancer.
In 2000, a study was conducted in Alberta, Canada, in which 90 people with varying forms and stages of cancer met as a group for weekly 90-minute meditation sessions. Participants also meditated at home in between the group sessions. After 7 weeks, symptoms of stress and mood disturbance had decreased. Six months after participants completed the study, their stress levels were still low.
How can meditation help improve moods? To find out, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, asked a University of Wisconsin research team to monitor the brain function of 8 Buddhist monks as they meditated. Ten student volunteers were also selected to participate. While the Buddhist monks had undergone meditation training over time periods of 15-40 years, the student volunteers had only 1 week of experience with meditation before the study began.
During the study, both groups were asked to meditate for short periods. The meditation involved generating feelings of compassion towards all people who might be suffering in the world. As the participants meditated, researchers recorded their electrical brain impulses using electroencephalography (EEG).
For the student volunteers, EEG tests showed a slight change in brain wave activity. For the monks, however, the EEG tests revealed high activity in the part of the brain associated with happiness and positive thoughts. Researchers concluded that meditation doesn't just change the brain's function in the short term; regular practice of meditation may be able to produce long-term positive mood changes.
Important things to consider before trying meditation
Meditation is generally thought to be a safe practice. However, in people with psychiatric problems, there have been a small number of reports in which intense meditation has worsened symptoms. If you have been treated for a psychiatric issue, talk to your mental health professional before starting a meditation practice.