Meditation is a discipline or practice of contemplation or awareness found in most of the world's major religions. It is not a treatment in the usual medical sense. Meditation is, however, frequently recommended by mainstream medical practitioners as well as alternative therapists because of its demonstrated healing effects on the central nervous system, heart rate, and level of muscular tension. It is also reputed to have benefits for the entire person: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.



The purposes of meditation have been variously defined as increased awareness, greater ability to live in the moment, freedom from the ego, spiritual growth, or union with God or the universe. It is important to understand that although better health is a frequent side effect of meditation, it is not the goal or focus of meditation practice. The paradox of meditation as an approach to treatment of diseases and disorders is that it asks the patient to put aside immediate concerns with health or wellness.


Meditation is suitable for most people who are not vulnerable to psychotic episodes. Some teachers of meditation warn against extended periods of breathing exercises unless the person has a teacher or spiritual guide, on the grounds that some people may experience hallucinations or dissociative episodes. The other major precaution concerns the patient's expectations. Most persons beginning a meditation practice will not find it easy; they are often disturbed by the distractions of their mental processes or the physical discomfort of sitting still for a period of time.


The form of meditation with which most Westerners are familiar involves sitting quietly in a chair or on the floor for a period of time with eyes closed in order to concentrate or focus the mind. There are, however, a variety of approaches to meditation practice.

Concentrating the mind

The goal of all forms of meditation is single-mindedness -- to let go of all distractions and focus on one object of attention or devotion. There are several techniques that meditators use to help them achieve this level of concentration. Most people will find that some techniques work better for them than others. Teachers of meditation advise beginners to use the approach that they find most congenial.

Breathing exercises

Breathing exercises are often recommended to beginners because breathing is a natural function that does not have to be consciously "learned." Meditation on the breath does not require changing one's breathing in any way, but only paying attention to it -- to the feel of the air as it enters or leaves the nostrils without following it into the lungs. This narrowness of focus helps to develop the meditator's ability to concentrate. When the person becomes aware that his or her attention has wandered, he or she simply returns to focusing on the breath again.

A variation of this approach is focusing on body sensations. This technique is sometimes called body scanning. The meditator simply focuses attention on the sensations in each part of his or her body in turn. Sometimes body scanning is combined with a breathing exercise; the meditator imagines breathing into and out of each part of the body as he or she attends to its sensations.


A mantra is a name of God or other sacred phrase that the meditator repeats over and over in order to focus the mind. The repetition of a mantra is the basic technique of transcendental meditation, or TM. TM was introduced to the West in the 1960s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and helped to make meditation acceptable to mainstream medical doctors. People initiated into TM are given individual mantras by their teachers.

There is some disagreement as to the importance of the mantra's content. Some persons think that any word or phrase is as effective as any other in focusing the mind. Others, however, maintain that the mantra must have some connection to the sacred in order to fully release the human mind from its own preoccupations. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus prayer of Christian tradition, the holy Name of God in Judaism, or the Om mantra of Tibetan Buddhism.


Devotional meditation has an interpersonal quality in that the meditator focuses on a being who represents the divine or some quality of holiness for him or her. This approach also allows the meditator to integrate feelings of love or gratitude with his or her mental focus.

Devotional meditation can take the form of chanting hymns that use the names of God, or visualizing the person or being that represents God to the meditator. Meditation in the Christian tradition sometimes includes visualizing Jesus or certain events in his life. Visualization is a useful approach to meditation for people who are sensitive to visual stimuli.

Visualization meditation has also been used in the treatment of cancer and AIDS and other disease processes. In visualization therapy, the patient visualizes the inner workings of his or her body, with healthy cells fighting off the cancer or AIDS virus or rebalancing what is out of alignment with health. Another visualization technique asks the patient to imagine the affected parts of his or her body being surrounded by healing light or filled with energy. The patient can combine visualizations with breathing exercises by imagining that the breath is sending healing energy to the body. Patients with any illness can use devotional visualization as a way of integrating religious beliefs with visualization therapy.

Moving meditation

Meditation is a holistic practice that regards the body's positioning or activity as an important dimension of concentration. If the meditator is sitting, he or she is usually instructed to sit upright and wear loose or comfortable clothing in order to be alert as well as relaxed. Some forms of meditation, however, use body motion or postures as an intentional technique of concentration.

Walking meditation

In this form of meditation, the person slows down the pace of walking in order to focus on each movement of his or her legs or feet. Walking meditation is often done inside in a large room or without a particular destination, in order to keep the focus on the body movements themselves rather than on the goal of getting to a specific place or covering distance. Sometimes meditators repeat the words "lifting," "moving," and "placing" as they lift each foot, move the leg forward, and place the foot on the ground.

Hatha yoga

The asanas or postures that a person assumes in the course of yoga practice can be used as a form of meditation. Breathing exercises are also an important part of yoga instruction. In addition, the changes in the body's position affect the meditator's energy flow in different ways. Many people find that regular yoga practice makes them more aware of their body's processes, needs, and signals, and thus better able to recognize minor symptoms before they become major health problems.

Sufi walking

Sufi walking (or dancing) is a form of moving meditation that developed in medieval Islam. The person walks in a rhythmic fashion, usually chanting, in order to focus the mind on a specific quality of God. For example, a Sufi walker who wishes to focus on strength and courage would walk with forceful steps, arms swinging, and chant an Arabic phrase that means "O king of kings."


Teaching or instruction

People can learn to meditate in a variety of ways. There are many fine self-help books written from a variety of religious and philosophical perspectives that explain the basic techniques of meditation. Most people, however, can benefit from an experienced teacher or spiritual guide. A spiritual director who knows the apprentice meditator can guide him or her to the forms of meditation that are most likely to be beneficial, and offer advice about possible pitfalls or unexpected experiences.

Basics of meditation practice

The following guidelines are recommended for beginners in meditation:

Regularity of practice. A minimum of 10-20 minutes daily is recommended for beginners, at the same time each day if at all possible.

Quiet and privacy. Meditators should select a room or other location where they will not be disturbed by other people or the telephone. Setting aside a specific place as well as time for regular practice is ideal.

Posture. The meditator should sit upright in a chair or on the floor with eyes closed. Good posture helps to maintain the flow of energy during breathing exercises.

Proper breathing. Meditators should breathe deeply from the diaphragm rather than from the upper chest.


Teachers of meditation advise people to return to their normal activities gently and gradually following their meditation practice, rather than making abrupt or hurried transitions.


The major risk associated with meditation is the emergence of energy states or spiritual phenomena that are startling or worrisome to most Westerners. In most cases these experiences are byproducts of the attitudinal or behavioral changes that result from regular meditation practice. They do not indicate that the meditator is psychotic. One advantage of practicing meditation under the guidance of a spiritual director or teacher is his or her experience in dealing with these phenomena.

Normal results

As has been previously mentioned, meditation is the opposite of result-oriented treatments. Persons who practice meditation on a regular basis, however, usually experience the specific benefits of lowered blood pressure, more restful sleep, and relief from such physical effects of stress as ulcers, headaches, chronic muscle pain, and skin rashes. Therapeutic visualization has been shown to extend the survival time and quality of life of terminally ill patients.

For More Information


Adair, Margo, and Lynn Johnson. "Applied Meditations for Healing." In Psychoimmunity & the Healing Process: A Holistic Approach to Immunity & AIDS, edited by Jason Serinus. Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1986.

Borysenko, Joan. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1987.

Dass, Ram. Journey of Awakening: A Meditator's Guidebook. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.

de Mello, Anthony. Sadhana, A Way to God: Christian Exercises in Eastern Form. Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1978.

Goldstein, Joseph, and Jack Kornfield. Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation. Boston and London: Shambhala, 1987.

Inglis, Brian, and Ruth West. The Alternative Health Guide. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc., 1990.

A Visual Encyclopedia of Unconventional Medicine, edited by Ann Hill. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1979.


Kamenetz, Rodger. "Unorthodox Jews Rummage Through the Orthodox Tradition." The New York Times Magazine (December 7, 1997): 84-86.

Source Citation: "Meditation." Rebecca J. Frey, RN. The Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Donna Olendorf, Christine Jeryan, and Karen Boyden, Editors. 5 vols. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Research, 1999.H