What It Is, What It Isn’t and Why I Do It

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Meditation is hard. That said; most worthwhile things are.

I’m writing this piece partly as an intro for people who are interested in starting a mindfulness practice. I’m also writing it partly as an exercise in furthering my own understanding of what exactly it is I’m doing and why.

Meditation is completely personal and very much unique to the individual. As esoteric as that may sound, it’s true. The benefits I gain from meditation will not be the same as you might gain from it and writing about the actual experience of meditation is pointless exactly because of this, so I’m going to focus instead on what meditation has to offer from a self-development perspective. So without further delay, let’s get into it.

What Is Meditation?

Meditation is an ancient practice, of which there are a number of methods aimed at developing different characteristics and abilities. The common theme amongst all methods (as far as I can tell) is regulation of attention, usually to our bodies, thoughts, emotions and consciousness in general. Meditation achieves this regulation of attention by training us to dispassionately observe our bodies, thoughts and emotions. In this way, we learn to identify and pay attention to what is going on in our heads, so we can consciously choose how to act. The practice of meditation can lead, in the long term, to an ongoing change of trait within the conscious brain, known more commonly as mindfulness.

The next logical question then is, what is mindfulness? It’s a term that’s bandied about a fair bit but nobody seems to want to offer an explanation of what it is (myself included). So I did what anybody would do and stole an explanation from somebody far cleverer than me;

“Mindfulness in its most general sense is about waking up from a life on automatic and being sensitive to novelty in our everyday experiences. With mindful awareness, the flow of energy and information that is our mind enters our conscious attention and we can both appreciate its contents and come to regulate its flow in a new way.

Mindful awareness…actually involves more than just simply being aware: It involves being aware of aspects of the mind itself. Instead of being on automatic and mindless, mindfulness helps us awaken, and by reflecting on the mind we are enabled to make choices and thus change becomes possible.”

Daniel J. Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine

What is Meditation NOT?

Although meditation is often used as part of a religious tradition, the practice itself is not a religious one. It is a technique which has been used all over the world for thousands of years for the purpose of self-development; whether or not people then use that in a way which furthers their religious practice is entirely up to them.

Meditation is not something you can complete. *SPOILER ALERT* You don’t achieve enlightenment one day, float off the floor and ascend to nirvana if you meditate enough. You are not going to be the best at meditation, irrespective of how long or hard you think you’re doing it. It’s not a competition, there are no trophies and there are no shortcuts to speed up the process. It’s a never-ending story because who we are changes constantly and therefore so must your practice.

Meditation is not about becoming an unfeeling machine either. We are human and our emotions and thoughts are a defining characteristic of human experience. Trying to suppress, deny or otherwise do away with those experiences is not only impossible but also probably unhealthy. Instead, what we are trying to develop is the ability to detach ourselves from our thoughts and feelings in the moment, examine them, decide how to act and then do so in a way that we consciously choose. This means aiming to avoid being driven to act on autopilot, without true consideration.

Why Do I Choose to Meditate?

If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you’ll probably be aware that I have a bit of a thing for trying to improve my own world. What I mean by this is that I like to look at what I’m doing, compare that to what I’m aiming at and make adjustments to help me get there more easily or a bit quicker. I do this on a regular basis and while I’m nowhere near the pinnacle of efficiency and focus, I am at least trying to be and slowly but surely that is improving my quality of life.

As part of this regular review process, I decided one day to examine my own character. This was a fairly ego-destroying experience and not one I would recommend for everybody. It forced me to examine the negative aspects of who I am which I had been willfully ignoring because let’s face it; they’re ugly and I didn’t want to look at them. After thinking about it for a while, I realised that my biggest character flaw is my anger and that it’s not something I’m at all happy about. We can all say and do hurtful things when we are angry. Snapping at a loved one over something trivial, swearing at someone for poor driving, getting annoyed with inconsiderate colleagues, clients or customers at work – it all adds up to the same thing.

Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash

I came to the conclusion that I certainly don’t want to perpetuate that for the rest of my life. For me, it is the source of a lot of the negativity in my life, often leading to feelings of guilt, frustration and shame when I realise I’ve reacted angrily without thinking. So how could I change it?

All of this led me to the question I needed an answer to: is it possible to take practical steps towards gaining a mind whose thoughts and emotions I can observe and understand? One where I get to choose how I act after careful and conscious consideration, rather than getting swept along by my own narrative, reacting all the time and having to pick up the pieces afterwards?

This is where meditation came in for me. The practice is widely acknowledged for its ability to help us gain control over our minds but it wasn’t until I started to do my research that I realised the versatility of meditation as a tool. It can:

  1. Help reduce stress (1)
  2. Help control anxiety (2)
  3. Help promote emotional health, including improving depression (3)
  4. Help to improve attention span (4)
  5. Help to improve sleep (5)
  6. (May) help control pain (6)

I’ve put links to studies to back up each of the above points in the footnotes.

At this point, I’d like to make it very clear – THIS IS AN OPINION PIECE AND NOT MEDICAL ADVICE. If you have health concerns, you should seek the advice of a relevant medical professional. Don’t stop taking your blood pressure pills because you’ve started meditating a few times a week. Be sensible.

Now we’ve got that out of the way, the point is that while I have been using meditation to help deal with a few specific issues in my own life, the practice has positive carryover to a number of other areas of life and can definitely contribute to a healthy lifestyle on a general basis.

I’d encourage anyone to at least have a go at meditation once a day for around 10 minutes for a couple of weeks, particularly if you have any kind of introspective question you want to investigate. You might find that it simply isn’t for you but worst case scenario, you’ve spent a bit of time sat still not doing much (I do this most days anyway, even when I’m not meditating). If it is for you, you may well gain an extremely valuable and worthwhile skill which can improve your quality of life.

Any Advice on How to Get Started?

Apps are probably the best and easiest way to get involved with meditation for the majority of people.

For beginners, I’d recommend the Headspace app. It’s a great intro to the practice and it offers explanations of why you’re doing what you’re doing as well as being very user-friendly. You’ll get a free trial and then it’s a subscription if you like it.

If you’d prefer to stick with a freebie, I’d recommend the Insight Timer app.

Both are available on Android and iOS.

References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24395196
  2. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5946075
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/016383439500025M
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/CABN.7.2.109#page-1
  5. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998
  6. https://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/3907619/Rosenzweig_Greeson_etal_2010_JPR.pdf