In early 2009, my stress levels were through the roof. My second child was about to be born, and I was only three years into starting a business. This level of daily stress and anxiety took a toll on my health, and I was near my breaking point.
Then, one Sunday night, an episode of 60 Minutes changed my life. The show highlighted The Dhamma Brothers, a 2008 documentary that closely follows and documents the stories of prison inmates at Donaldson Correctional Facility as they enter into an intensive meditation program called Vipassana. The film tells a dramatic tale of human potential and transformation.
Located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, the Donaldson Correctional Facility was considered at the time to be one of the most dangerous prisons in the entire United States. It had a reputation for violence and, according to Dr. Ron Cavanaugh, Director of Treatment for the Alabama Department of Corrections, “The chance of someone being stabbed or killed was a common occurrence.” But Dr. Cavanaugh didn’t give up. Instead, he introduced a meditation course to the most violent inmates, hoping that it would bring more peace and calmness to the inmates as well as the prison population as a whole.
I was mesmerized by the transformation many of these inmates made. In college, a close friend had told me about this kind of course, and I knew it was being taught around the world. The results were great, but it was not part of the mainstream. Still, I wanted to take part. I knew I needed a radical transformation. I researched the Vipassana program and found a course being taught by the same instructors who had such great results at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.
Of course, in classic Todd Zipper fashion, I found the most challenging way to begin my practice of meditation. At the time, the closest I came to meditation was yoga and battling through three minutes of corpse pose (Savasana). This course was different. When I arrived at a remote location outside of Savannah, Georgia, I knew three things: It would last 10 days, we would meditate for a total of 100 hours (10 hours per day), and we could not speak for 10 days. (We had to turn in our cellphones.) Having a very supportive wife and boss, I was able to make this happen.
On day zero (yes, they started with a two-hour meditation before day 1) and halfway through my first meditation, I didn’t think there was any chance I would make it through the course. Far and away, this experience is the toughest thing I have ever encountered, both physically and mentally. But somehow, I made it through. By the end, I had learned the basics of Vipassana meditation, which I continue to practice in some form or fashion today. Although I probably give myself a C+ for practicing regularly, it is a technique I can go to instantly and in almost any circumstance when I need to find my equanimity.
Throughout the years on this blog, I have both mentioned meditation and extolled its benefits. However, I think it’s important to begin a deeper discussion of meditation because I believe it is one of the most powerful tools all people should have in their toolkit. To be a bit melodramatic, I think the world would be a much happier, safer, energetic and fulfilling place if all its inhabitants meditated on a regular basis. Knowing this is not likely to happen, I am confident that a regular meditation practice can enhance individual performance and results in nearly every respect. And what is the cost of meditating? Zero. All you need is time, and it’s one of the best investments I have ever made.
What Is Meditation?
There are many types of meditation, and frankly, each has its own benefits. I want to share with you what I know about each type and let you decide what, if any, practice you want to begin. Defining meditation in universal terms is tough, but I think most can agree that meditation is thoughtful awareness. It is a state of profound, deep peace that occurs when the mind is calm and silent, yet completely alert. Oftentimes, you hear the phrase “being present” associated with meditation. Most of us might visualize a Tibetan monk sitting cross-legged on the side of a mountain, with eyes closed and a look of peace. The reality is that most meditators rarely experience that “blissful” state; however, the act of meditating moves us in the right direction and helps to quiet the mind.
If it’s not already clear from my experience, there are a plethora of benefits of meditation. Meditators report:
- Lower blood pressure
- Reduced anxiety
- Decreased pain
- Lessened symptoms of depression
- Improved sleep
- Increased cognitive abilities
Assuming these effects are universal and that practicing 30 minutes per day can yield them, why not make this practice a part of your life? The reality is — and I can attest to this — that it’s hard to create a new habit. The act of meditating, especially in the early stages, can be frustrating at times, and the benefits do not happen overnight. Like most things in life, meditation is something where the reward comes after a lot of hard work and self-discipline.
What Are the Types of Meditation?
There are many types of meditation, but most emerged more than 2,600 years ago and have their origin in one or more of the following traditions: Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, Christian and Guided (modern). Here are the ones I have heard about, including Vipassana, the method I practice. To write this post as accurately as possible, I used a number of websites, including Visual Meditation, Live and Dare and Wildmind Buddhist Meditation.
- Zazen: In Zen Buddhism, zazen (literally “seated meditation”) is a meditative discipline that is typically a person’s primary practice. The precise meaning and method of zazen vary from school to school, but in general, it is a means of insight into the nature of existence. Zazen is considered the heart of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhist practice. The aim of zazen is to sit and suspend all judgmental thinking. The goal is to let words, ideas, images and thoughts pass by without engaging with them.
- Vipassana: Vipassana in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality, namely as the three marks of existence: impermanence, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, and the realization of non-self. Vipassana meditation has been reintroduced in the Theravada tradition, in which mindfulness of breathing, thoughts, feelings and actions is used to gain insight into the true nature of reality.
- Mindfulness: The aim of mindfulness meditation is to become aware of what is currently happening around you, rather than focusing on something other than the present. Beginning with body relaxation, the mind is directed toward deeper feelings in the heart, with the hopes of letting go of mental attachments and worries.
- Loving-Kindness: Metta bhavana, or loving-kindness meditation, is a method of developing compassion. It comes from the Buddhist tradition but can be adapted and practiced by anyone, regardless of religious affiliation: Loving-kindness meditation is essentially about cultivating love. You sit down in a meditation position and generate feelings of kindness and benevolence in your mind and heart. It starts by developing loving-kindness toward yourself, then progressively toward all beings. I use a gratitude journal and find that there are a lot of similarities between loving-kindness meditative practice and expressing your gratitude in all facets of life.
- Mantra/Om Meditation: A mantra is a syllable or word, usually without any particular meaning, that is repeated for the purpose of focusing your mind. As with most types of meditation, this form is usually practiced sitting with spine erect and eyes closed. The practitioner then repeats the mantra in his mind, silently, over and over again during the whole session. For those who have done a live yoga class, often at the end, the instructor will end with two long “Oms.”
- Transcendental Meditation (TM): This is a specific form of mantra meditation and is a technique used to detach oneself from anxiety and promote harmony and self-realization through meditation, repetition of a mantra and other yogic practices. TM is probably the most popular in the West, with more than 5 million practitioners. It has been made famous by well-known artists such as the Beatles, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, along with some of the most successful financiers of our time like Ray Dalio. However, to effectively learn how to practice this form of meditation, expert guidance is recommended, and taking a course from a trained professional is encouraged.
- Yoga/Movement Meditation: There is not one type of meditation that is “yogic meditation,” so this refers to the several meditation types taught in the yoga tradition. Yoga means “union,” and the tradition goes as far back as 1700 B.C. Its highest goal is spiritual purification and self-knowledge. One practice I do is called pranayama (or box breathing, as it’s sometimes known in the West). It is an excellent practice to calm the mind and prepare it for meditation. The version of pranayama I use is the 4-4-4-4. This means breathing in counting up to four, holding for four seconds, breathing out for four seconds and holding empty for four seconds. Do this for 10 minutes and experience the stress melt like an ice cube in hot water.
- Taoist: Taoist or Daoist meditation refers to the traditional meditative practices associated with the Chinese philosophy and religion of Daoism. It includes concentration, mindfulness, contemplation and visualization. Techniques of Daoist meditation are historically interrelated with Buddhist meditation.
- Qigong: Qigong (also spelled chi kung or chi gung) is a Chinese word that means “life energy cultivation” and is a body-mind exercise for health, meditation and martial arts training. It typically involves slow body movement, inner focus and regulated breathing. Traditionally, it was practiced and taught in secrecy in the Chinese Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian traditions. There are thousands of different Qigong exercises cataloged, involving more than 80 different types of breathing. Some are specific to martial arts (to energize and strengthen the body); others are for health (to nourish body functions or cure diseases); and others are used for meditation and spiritual cultivation.
- Guided Meditation: Guided meditation is a modern phenomenon. It is an approachable way to start a meditation practice, and you will find guided meditations based on several of the above traditions. There are now apps for smartphones that provide guided meditations incorporating breath work and mindfulness. I use Headspace.
To conclude, I see no downsides to beginning a meditation practice. Although some religions have adopted meditative practices, I feel that it has universal appeal — just like sleep or exercise. Who doesn’t want more mindfulness, focus and fulfillment, along with less stress? Of course, it is certainly not a magic cure-all: You have to work hard to see the benefits. This is why meditators often see themselves as peaceful warriors. There is a lot going on below the surface to quiet the mind and get into the present moment where life really happens. Those who meditate regularly know what I mean. It can be a battle, but one worth fighting.