Meditation has been practiced in thousands of forms across thousands of cultures and religions. Only recently have scientists been able to document something that most practitioners have always known: meditation works. It causes measurable changes in brain waves on an EEG, lowers blood pressure and pulse, and is an excellent way to treat anxiety, panic, and depression. It can be used to augment medication treatments or psychotherapy, or in some cases may be a treatment in and of itself.
If you are a member of a culture that has an accessible form of meditation, by all means take advantage of it. If meditation strikes you as alien or "New Age", try approaching it in a way congruent with your own tradition. The bottom line is that there is probably no single right way to meditate, but presented here are some things you can do take advantage of this ancient discipline:
1.) Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. You need not go to the top of a mountain and assume a lotus position; a comfortable chair in a quiet room will do.
2.) Sit naturally, with your feet flat on the floor and your hands relaxed in your lap. If it helps, consider playing some quiet, soothing music in the background, or even purchase one of many meditation and guided imagery tapes available in most bookstores.
3.) Close your eyes. Studies show that this simple act immediately causes a change in the EEG pattern that indicates an increase in a type of brain wave associated with relaxation.
4.) Focus on your breathing. By consciously inhaling deeply from the abdomen then slowly exhaling, you can almost immediately lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Breathe in and out, in and out. Some meditation asks you to focus on the breath, "seeing" it coming in then leaving your body.
5.) Become aware of your internal environment. Most people who try meditation for the first time are very self-conscious. They may have distracting thoughts, or feel silly. That's OK. Observe yourself having those thoughts. "Watch" all the distractible thoughts go by. Continue to breathe. With time they will probably settle down.
6.) Become aware of your body. One of the main goals of most meditation is "mindfulness" or a heightened state of awareness. Focus on your muscles, starting perhaps with your scalp, then the muscles of your face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, etc., all the way to your feet. Tense up then relax, tense up and relax. Envision the tension leaving your body, muscle-by-muscle.
7.) When relaxed, imagine something soothing a safe. For some people this might be a beach, for others a mountain top. Imagine your last vacation or plan your next one. Some people find it helpful to think of themselves in that location, feeling the breeze, the sun, smelling the salty sea air, hearing the rustling of the wind through the trees. Others find it more helpful to imagine sitting in a theater watching the images unfolding on the screen. Make it vivid. Use all your senses. Immerse yourself in this setting.
8.) If there is something causing pain or anxiety in your life, slowly try to introduce elements of this into your vision. Perhaps there is a presentation you must give or a spouse you must forgive or an illness you have to accept. While focusing on the breathing, gradually introduce some imagery. For example, imagine walking toward a conference room where you must give the presentation - if you become anxious, back off, go back to the beach, re-focus on the breathing, then return. In your mind, stay in the hall outside the room until you can present yourself with the sights and sounds and remain relaxed. Then open the door, see the faces, etc. Again, back off if the anxiety becomes too great. If your pulse goes up and you become aware of your muscles tensing, good - this means that you are exposing yourself to the thing you fear while becoming more mindful of (and hopefully tolerant of) your fear response.
9.) With time, gradually, perhaps over several sessions, you can get to the point where you can expose yourself to the thing causing anxiety or pain and not have the full-blown anxious response. Studies show that even if you do this in your imagination, when confronted later with the actual event, your anxiety response will be MUCH lower. See yourself succeeding, performing well. Athletes and musicians use this technique with great success.
10.) While in a deeply relaxed state, consider the day ahead, the things you wish to accomplish, the things you have to be grateful for, etc. The day seems quite different when approached from this perspective, doesn't it? Promise yourself that no matter what happens, you will be good to yourself and always have this technique of centering and anchoring and grounding yourself to fall back upon.
One useful type of meditation is what the Buddhists call compassionate meditation. Imagine a loved one, or perhaps someone with whom you are in conflict. Vividly try to imagine how the world must appear to them, what they might sense and feel. Imagine and try to experience some of their anxiety or anger or pain. Very consciously let go of your own natural defensiveness. In fact, try to lose for a minute your own sense of self while fully immersing yourself in theirs. If you do this long enough, you will often find that old resentments and anger tends to evaporate or dissipate. It can also enhance intimate relationships and allow you to strengthen your "compassion muscle."
10.) Open your eyes, stretch, and note how you feel.
Do not be disappointed if the first few times you try this, you are so distracted by extraneous things that you feel it does not work. There is a reason they call it a "practice" of meditation. Like swimming or tennis or playing the violin, the more you practice, the more naturally you will be able to induce a deeply meditative, centered state. Improving awareness of your heart rate, muscle tension, and breathing and developing the means of consciously modulating them pays rich dividends.
Even if you think you don't have time, humor yourself and try to set aside 5-20", perhaps 2 or 3 times a day if possible. You will most likely be amazed at the improvement in mood and stress level. The resultant improvement in efficiency and productivity will more than offset the "cost" in time of engaging in this practice.
Some people find it helpful to wake up a few minutes early and take advantage of the quiet of the morning to meditate. Others may find time in the evening or perhaps mid-day. Whatever works for you, give it a shot, and commit yourself to stick with it for several days or weeks.
If you adhere to a religious belief that advocates prayer, by all means incorporate this into your meditative exercises. In fact, there is probably little difference neurobiologically between the state induced by deep prayer or deep meditation.