What Is Meditation and Why Does it Matter?

 I have previously mentioned meditation as a path to spirituality. Now I want to focus on what meditation is and how it can benefit just about anyone.  The practice of meditation is several thousands of years old, but recently it seems to have gone viral.

Everyone I have talked to lately has either developed a meditation practice or wants to develop one. I can’t blame them, there are many short and long-term benefits to developing one. 

What Is Meditation? 

Meditation is breathing with a purpose. During meditation, you breathe and you focus on something, usually the fact that you are breathing. There are other things you can focus on though such as: a visualization, a mantra, a religious prayer, a flower, a rock, a sound or your feet as you walk. I could go on listing, but you get the picture.

Your meditation can focus on any one thing; the key is only one thing. By focusing on only one thing you free your mind from thoughts and reach a state of inner wellbeing. Your object of focus dictates the form of meditation you are performing.

The form I typically practice is mindfulness meditation. The object of focus in mindfulness meditation is your breath. As you breathe, you gently observe your thoughts and try not to interact with them.

If you are interested in finding out more about other forms of meditation, they can be found here.  For this post, I will focus on mindfulness meditation as it is the form that I am most familiar with.

I rather give you a general overview of meditation and its benefits but there are many resources available if you want to jump down that rabbit hole and learn everything about it.

For some aspects, I have provided links throughout the blog. If you want something more substantial, I would recommend giving these books a read:

In mindfulness meditation, your goal is to be at peace with your thoughts. When meditating, you can be in one of two states: at peace, or not. When you are not at peace it is described as “monkey mind” because your mind is swinging from one idea to the next like a monkey from one branch to another. 

The River of Consciousness

To better explain what happens in your mind when you meditate, I will use the analogy of sitting by a river.

As you sit by the river, it flows continuously. Sometimes there is wet weather and it swells, other times there is dry weather and it shrinks but it flows downstream. Occasionally you even see a fish jumping out to catch a fly.

In this analogy, the strength of the river represents your state of being. When the river is strong it can support a lot of fish. However, as the river shrinks fish can begin to overwhelm the river. Throughout this time, it’s important to remember that regardless of how much water there is, the river is flowing continuously. 

It is easy for an occasional fish to go unnoticed when the river is swollen. However, if those same fish jumped out of a shrunken river, it would be impossible for you not to notice them, especially as they got more frequent. Because you see the fish, you might try to catch one, but then you would disrupt the natural flow of the river.

The fish jumping out of the river are your thoughts. They are easy to ignore when they are infrequent and everything is going great. They are much harder to ignore when they become more frequent or times are tough.

Meditation teaches you to keep your attention focused on the current regardless of how strongly the river is flowing or how many fish there are.  When a thought comes up, you notice it and say to yourself “oh look, a thought” then go back to your object of focus.

Focusing your attention on one thing brings you peace of mind.

Over time, as you learn to observe your thoughts and not interact with them they will come up less frequently and you will find yourself in a peaceful, meditative state of mind. 

I am now in my second year of practice and I usually get a couple of seconds of this bliss during my daily half-hour sessions. It may not sound like much, but there is a reason I have been able to make a habit out of it. It is worth it.

Getting Started

Just like any habit, the best way to develop your meditation practice is to start small and grow your practice over time. When I started meditating I was using Headspace. I stumbled into their advertisement and as I was going through a particularly hard time, I decided that I would give it a try.

I found their app excellent for establishing a meditation practice as they offer a wide range of guided meditations. You can choose a topic that is most relevant to you and each meditation is time variable so you can sit for however long you feel comfortable.

When developing the practice, it is better to meditate at least once a day, even if it is only for a couple of minutes. Doing it regularly will help you turn it into a habit. After one year of Headspace, I switched to Insight Timer. It is easy to use and versatile. You can set the time you want and however many bells you want in between.

I typically sit for half an hour every morning. My favourite setting is: a bell at the start and a gong at the end. The decision of how long to sit for is always made before the bell rings.

Some days are harder than others and it can be tempting to cut your meditation short. I do it sometimes too. However, the deepest meditations I have had are on the days when I wanted to give up but powered through.

Meditation is good because it is hard not despite being hard.

By powering through you take control of your monkey mind and gain the most benefits from your session.

5 Benefits from Meditation:

  • Improving Mental Health
  • Increasing Productivity
  • Optimizing Brain Health
  • Increasing Endurance
  • Overcoming Addiction

Observing Negative Thoughts

There is a sense of ease that comes from completing a meditation that is hard to replicate. Mark Manson talks about The Feedback Loop From Hell in his book The Subtle art of not giving a F*ck.

The loop goes something like this: you have a negative thought, this negative thought makes you feel bad, feeling bad makes you have another negative thought and so on. 

Learning to notice your thoughts as they come up breaks this loop because instead of the negative thought making you feel bad, you observe it and say “oh look, a negative thought” then go on with your merry life.

Meditation is not a one-way ticket to Happyland where everything is pink and fluffy, but it can give you a greater appreciation of the good times and soften the blow of the bad ones. 

Single-Tasking for Increased Productivity

Once you develop a steady meditation practice you also become harder to distract. In a world with an ever-increasing number of distractions, this is an important skill to have. It is easy to think that you don’t have enough time for meditation. However, unless your job requires absolutely no mental effort, meditating will decrease the amount of time your task takes you.

The practice of meditation is the practice of single-tasking. We now live in a world where multitasking is seen as the answer to productivity; it is not. Our brain is like a computer, it can give the illusion of doing many things at once but in reality, it is doing them in parallel not simultaneously. 

Think of how much you remember when someone is talking to you and you are doing something on your phone. Odds are, you registered that they told you something, and that’s where the information processing stopped.  

Learning to focus on one thing at a time, be it your breath or a work assignment, increases your productivity because you become indistractable. Furthermore, the more focused you are on your current task, the more successful you feel activating the feedback loop of success as described by Jeff Haden in The Motivation Myth. Success creates motivation which creates more success, which creates more motivation, and so on. Before you know it, you are in the flow and finishing your tasks faster than ever. All because you took the time in the morning to sit and breathe for half an hour.

Increasing your endurance. 

Using your breath as an anchor can help you endure extremely difficult situations. I recently made the mistake of learning the many health benefits of cold exposure. Since this discovery, I have been taking cold showers daily and ice baths periodically. As you can imagine, these activities are not inherently fun. But, I have learned to use meditation to get through them.

 Once the initial hyperventilation period is over, I focus only on breathing and let my habits take care of the rest. Once my breathing returns to normal it is a great distraction from the cold and helps us forget that I have ice water running down my back. Now I am doubling down on obtaining the benefits that come with the cold exposure as well as improving my meditative practice. 

Focusing on your breath while running is also an easy way to make the miles shorter. It’s easy to become demoralized when you are focused on your destination. The best way to stay motivated is to change your destination to increase the frequency of success. When your focus becomes your breath, your destination becomes the bottom of the exhale and the top of the inhale. This is a lot closer than the finish line and will carry you over it. Just focus on breathing and let your feet do the rest. 

Fighting addiction

I previously touched on how you can change your habits by becoming aware of them in my post about habits (link). Judson Brewer wrote a wonderful book (link to the craving mind) about how meditation can and has been used to help addicts of all sorts to overcome their addictions. 

Addicts can use meditation to overcome their addictions because meditation teaches them to pay attention to their behaviour. When the consequences of behaviour become your focus, it becomes impossible to continue that behaviour.

Unless you are well trained in the practice of meditation odds are that you are addicted to thinking. When you are presented with free time, you use this time to do one of three things: think, dream or distract yourself. When developing a meditation practice you learn to overcome this addiction by simply observing your thoughts as they come up and returning to your object of focus. It is akin to the difference between hearing and listening.

Summary

Developing a meditation practice will boost your health in many ways. People who tend to meditate tend to live happier, more fulfilling lives. This is because they focus on the blessings they receive and can better weather the unfortunate events of their lives.

 Meditation is the perfect example of delayed gratification as the benefits are far from obvious and the process is quite difficult. However, by persevering and developing the practice you are likely to improve your quality of life in one way or another. It’s hard, but it’s worth it. Just keep going. You are almost there. 

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