Three Essential Questions to Start Practicing Meditation

This is an invited research digest contributed by Dr. Y. Mochizuki of RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan.

Meditation, something that has been practiced by various religious traditions since antiquity, is now receiving more attention in science. Numerous studies report beneficial effects of meditation, and its underlying neural mechanism is beginning to be elucidated. In this short article, by introducing scientific findings as well as my personal experience as a practitioner and instructor, I would like to answer three questions which guide you to practice meditation.

1. Why should I meditate?

This is a fundamental question that you should ask yourself not only before you start practicing meditation but also as you continue your practice.

A common answer to the question is that people expect mediation to enhance their cognitive ability and improve emotional well-being. In fact, numerous scientific studies support that meditation has such practical benefits [1].

Mindfulness meditation and related programs are particularly successful in providing scientific evidence about its utility [2]. Clinical interventions based on Mindfulness meditation has been reported to have promising effect for the treatments of psychological as well as physical conditions [3,4]. In healthy population, numerous studies report emotional, cognitive, and somatic benefits of meditation. Examples of emotional benefits are increased capacity for emotional regulation [5], reduction of negative affect [6], and enhancement of positive emotion [6-8]. For cognition, meditation has been found to improve attention and cognitive flexibility [9], as well as to enhance working memory capacity [6]. In the physical health domain, a study reports increased immune functioning after mediation training [10].

If you are starting meditation expecting these scientifically supported benefits, ask yourself why you want to be more competent and want more satisfactory life. The fundamental purpose of meditation is to gain deeper self-knowledge [11], which can change understanding of yourself as well as the world you are perceiving. By questioning yourself about your motive of meditation, your meditation experience becomes more essential.

2. How does meditation work?

Although the exact mechanism is still controversial, a shift in self-awareness is proposed to be a major mechanism that mediates various beneficial effects of meditation [12].

With regard to this, meditation is known to reduce the activity of a large-scale brain network called default mode network (DMN). The activity of DMN is associated with information processing of self-related stimuli [13,14]. Hyperactivity of DMN is observed in some psychological disorder such as depression and schizophrenia [14]. Using real-time scanning of brain activity, it has been reported that hub brain regions of the DMN show reduced activity in experienced meditators compared to novices [15], which has been interpreted to be the result of shifted self-awareness [12].

The observation that meditation changes self-awareness matches with my personal experience. During meditation, there comes a sudden realization that the problem I was caught up with is simply because of how I was being, and such insight comes with the strong delight that cannot be attained by any other activities that I know of. As this kind of experience accumulates, you become capable of observing your body, emotion, and cognition more objectively, such that I have a body but my body is not myself, I have emotion but my emotion is not myself, I have a thought but my thought is not myself. This shift in self-awareness is referred to as dis-identification in Transpersonal psychology.

3. How do I meditate?

If you are serious about practicing meditation, I strongly recommend you to find an experienced instructor. During practice, people sometimes gain insight that may lead to ego inflation. Such insight is dangerous without the supervision and advice of an experienced instructor. I feel that this particularly important point needs to be emphasized more in popular meditation guides.

Nevertheless, as a beginner, you might still want to try it out yourself. For this purpose, here I introduce Breath counting mediation known as “Susokukan” in Japanese Buddhist tradition. A similar method is called “Mindful breathing meditation” in the literature of Mindfulness meditation, but the difference is that in Breath Counting Meditation you actively count your breath, while in Mindful breathing meditation you only focus or observe the breathing.

Procedure for Breath Counting Meditation

Here is a step by step guide for Breath counting mediation:

  1. Sit down comfortably.
  2. Put your hands on your knees.
  3. Close your eyes, and take few deep breaths.
  4. Start breathing gently with your belly (i.e. abdominal breathing) and focus on the movement of your abdomen. Feel your abdomen going out as you breathe in, and coming back in as you breathe out.
  5. Start counting your breath from one to ten. A pair of inhalation and exhalation can be counted as one, or each can be counted separately. Choose the one that is more comfortable.
  6. When you realize that you have failed counting your breaths, briefly observe your idle thoughts, and start counting again.
  7. When you have counted up to ten, start from one again.
  8. Continue meditating for the set time, as long as you feel comfortable.
Purpose of Breath Counting Meditation

Although it is often necessary to improve attentional capacity when one starts to practice Breath Counting Meditation, the purpose of practice is not to become capable of counting your breath.

The purpose of Breath counting mediation is to facilitate the awareness that is aware of the ongoing content of your consciousness. Such state of awareness is referred to as “meta-awareness” in psychology [16]. During Breath Counting Meditation, your mind is in the state of meta-awareness at the very moment that you realize that your mind has been occupied with idle thoughts.

This meta-aware state of mind only occurs intermittently for beginners. During the meditation, meta-awareness makes you realize that you have not been counting your breath after a while as you have been mind-wandering. You shake your body and start counting again, but after a while, you find yourself in the middle of idle thoughts once more. This is a typical experience that happens during Breath Counting Meditation.

However, with more practice, you will become capable of sustaining meta-awareness for extended periods of time. While you are in meta-aware state of mind, your subjective experience is somewhat different from what you experience in your daily life. For example, you sometimes observe your mind wandering away as you count the breath, or sometimes become aware that some part of your mind is wandering and another part is counting the breath. In such a state more important thing than putting your focus back on your breathing is to keep observing the contents of your consciousness. This is an advanced stage of Breath Counting Meditation.

A bonus tip for meditation practice

I would like to end this article with a particularly important tip. Although, it is best to have some supervision and advice from an experienced instructor as I noted above, it is often useful to have your own index for evaluating the quality of your meditation practice.

My recommendation is to use what is called Gunas as such an index. Gunas are the properties of the mind classified by Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy. There are three kinds of Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. Sattva, which is the calm and bright property of the mind, is the opposite of Rajas (activeness and hence the opposite of calmness), and Tamas (darkness and hence the opposite of brightness).

When Sattva increases, you feel peaceful and subtle happiness deep inside yourself in the equanimity. In contrast, the mental state with increased Rajas and Tamas are similar to what is experienced during manic and depressive episodes of bipolar disorder, respectively. When Rajas increases, people may feel excessive happiness as if they are almighty, and experience instability of emotion. When Tamas increases, people experience dullness with a feeling of hopelessness and worthlessness as if they cannot achieve anything.

After meditation, Sattva should always increase (i.e. your mind becomes calmer and brighter) irrespective of the meditation style or technique you are practicing. If your meditation always ends up with an increase of Rajas and/or Tamas, you should stop meditating and consult with an experienced instructor. With any decent meditation, you should experience an increase of Sattva and decrease of Rajas and Tamas.


Meditation is not a mere mystery of the Orient any more. I hope this article helps you start meditating, and leads you to find a deeper understanding of yourself as well as the world around you.


[1] Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198.

[2] Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Delta Trade Paperbacks.

[3] Baer, R. A. (2003). Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 10(2), 125-143.

[4] Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-43.

[5] Robins, C. J., Keng, S. L., Ekblad, A. G., & Brantley, J. G. (2012). Effects of mindfulness‐based stress reduction on emotional experience and expression: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of clinical psychology, 68(1), 117-131.

[6] Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion, 10(1), 54.

[7] Dekeyser, M., Raes, F., Leijssen, M., Leysen, S., & Dewulf, D. (2008). Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1235-1245.

[8] Erisman, S. M., & Roemer, L. (2010). A preliminary investigation of the effects of experimentally induced mindfulness on emotional responding to film clips. Emotion, 10(1), 72.

[9] Moore, A., & Malinowski, P. (2009). Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility. Consciousness and cognition, 18(1), 176-186.

[10] Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., … & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic medicine, 65(4), 564-570.

[11] Krishnamurti, J. (1954) The first and last freedom. London: Gollancz.

[12] Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 16(4), 213-225.

[13] Northoff, G., Heinzel, A., De Greck, M., Bermpohl, F., Dobrowolny, H., & Panksepp, J. (2006). Self-referential processing in our brain—a meta-analysis of imaging studies on the self. Neuroimage, 31(1), 440-457.

[14] Buckner, R. L., Andrews‐Hanna, J. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). The brain’s default network. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1124(1), 1-38.

[15] Brewer, J. A., Worhunsky, P. D., Gray, J. R., Tang, Y. Y., Weber, J., & Kober, H. (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(50), 20254-20259.

[16] Schooler, J. W. (2002). Re-representing consciousness: Dissociations between experience and meta-consciousness. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(8), 339-344.

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