Meditation – a term that by now most people probably heard of before. Yet it can still evoke so much confusion and unsubstantiated judgment. Especially in the West, it is often not more than a vague buzzword. An umbrella term that different people use for different things in different contexts, sometimes even in inaccurate or misleading ways. Since meditation can be such a powerful practice if done right, I want to share my own insights from the last six years of research and personal experience – to help you make sense of this multifaceted domain.
Because of the vastness of this topic, I am dividing it into several parts, starting with a brief introduction. Instead of going in-depth into every possible aspect, I am giving a broad overview of what meditation is in general, how it works and how to integrate it into a bigger picture.
Remember that this is just one perspective on a complex topic. There are various ways to categorize and define meditation, and every approach has its own purpose. The approach presented here is the one that made the most sense to me personally and helped me bring some structure into this subject.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that has already been around for thousands of years, but only became more popular in western society in recent decades.
The general purpose of this practice is to develop a deeper awareness of everything that happens within our field of consciousness. This can include aspects like our mind, our body or our emotions, as well as their relationship to each other and to the world around us.
As the term “awareness” implies, it is not about acquiring new theoretical knowledge, but about becoming conscious of what is actually happening within us. It is about having an insight into the true nature of our own experience. It is about turning the attention inwards and withdrawing from all the outside distractions, to become aware of what usually happens in the subconscious.
This is not done by thinking or fantasizing, but by closely observing how the dynamics of our minds really work. It is not about intellectually grasping, judging or theorizing. It is about going beyond our conceptual mind, going beyond our theories and beliefs, and into the realms of direct, first-hand experience.
The Benefits of Meditation
There are plenty of tangible, positive effects meditation can have on various aspects of our lives.
It can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, self-doubt, anger, or any other form of unpleasant emotions. At the same time, it can make us feel more at peace, more relaxed, more content. It can help us accept all the painful aspects of our lives and thus makes us feel more in balance, more at ease. Instead of always being lost in our thoughts, we can learn to be present and to be fully immersed in life. And through our increased level of self-control, it can also help us overcome addictions or any other bad habit that we want to get rid of.
Meditation can also have a positive effect on our health. Studies indicate that it can boost our immune system, reduce our blood pressure and slow down our heart rate. There are also many indirect health benefits that result from a calm mind, less negative emotions and a higher state of consciousness. For example, an increased body awareness can make it easier to care for our well-being by eating better or exercising more.
Another benefit is that it can increase our clarity and our ability to focus. It allows us to process and integrate whatever is going on in our subconscious mind. By having insights into the true nature of our experience and thus accessing the wisdom that lies within us, we can develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world.
Meditation can also make us more compassionate and more empathetic. This often leads to more kind and respectful interactions with everyone and everything around us – which, in turn, builds the foundation for a more harmonic and sustainable future for us all.
However, not everyone who is doing these practices will experience all the effects. Yet this still shows how much potential there is if we meditate on a more regular basis and for a longer period of time – which can be a great motivation to commit to it more seriously.
Overcoming Common Prejudices About Meditation
There are a lot of misleading beliefs about meditation, which might make it less appealing to explore this practice in more detail.
Some might have the idea that there are strict rules to follow or fixed requirements to fulfill. Or that it is only for certain people in certain situations. However, meditation is actually way more accessible than it sometimes might seem. It is a practice for everyone. Everyone can learn it, and everyone can benefit from it in different ways – whoever we are or in whatever situation we are in.
In the end, it does not matter if we have our eyes open or closed, if we sit, lie down or walk, if we do it in silence or in a noisy environment. The only thing that matters is what happens inside.
Meditation is not about pressure, or about pushing ourselves to become better. We cannot force our thoughts to stop and we cannot force ourselves to have insights or higher states of consciousness. Becoming quiet inside is the result of meditation, but should not be the goal or expectation. This would only create more tension, more resistance, more self-judgment. When we suppress our thoughts or emotions, we only make them stronger. Therefore, we do not try to change anything while meditating, but just observe whatever arises in our experience and grow in a natural way. We embrace the paradox of accepting everything as it is, and at the same time, seeing that there is always room for improvement.
Always remember that this is not a competition. It is not about comparing ourselves to others, or about judging our own progress. Everyone is on their own path and travels this path at their own pace. It is completely normal to sometimes fall back or stagnate – even that is an essential part of any long-term growth. No one needs to worry about not being good enough. Always accept wherever you are on your own journey.
It is important to clarify that when we talk about acceptance regarding meditation, it only refers to an inner acceptance. This does not mean that we should not act on whatever needs our intervention. So if there are practical problems in our lives, it is obviously important to address them accordingly. The difference here is that we address them not out of resistance, worry, or fear, but with a calm and conscious intention. Meditation is not meant to make us indifferent or inactive, but to make us act wisely amid all the challenges that life has to offer.
Be aware that this practice is no escape from our problems. Actually, it is the opposite. It makes us face them head-on. It makes us look at what we normally do not want to look at. It makes us embrace ourselves and our lives fully – creating intimacy with all our experiences.
The Different Types of Meditation
The mere diversity of different forms of meditation can be overwhelming. It might make us wonder where to even start or how to move forward in a structured way. Although it seems as if there are many distinct techniques, they are actually often similar or even the same in their essence – just with another label on it or with another way to describe it.
To simplify this, I categorize all these practices into three basic categories: concentration meditation, open awareness meditation and contemplative meditation.
All three categories are essential on the path of self-exploration and each has its own purpose. For this introduction I will focus only on concentration meditation, because it is the most foundational – and will elaborate on the other two in the next blog post.
This form of meditation is probably the most commonly practiced and talked about. As the name already suggests, it is about concentration. About focusing our minds. About directing our attention towards one specific “object” and then staying with it for a certain amount of time. It does not matter what we choose as our object of attention. It can be a sensation in our body, like our breath or the feeling of our legs touching the ground. It can be an activity we are involved in, like walking or dancing or singing. It could be any of our sensory perceptions like sounds, or smells, or things we see. The possibilities are endless, and there is no right or wrong. Everyone has to find out which anchor works best for them.
There are many distinct meditation techniques, like mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, mantra meditation, chakra meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and so on. Yet, all these have in common that they use concentration to get to a certain state of consciousness or to give us an insight into the nature of a certain facet of our experience.
The general approach of all these techniques is that while we are focusing on our object of attention, we simultaneously observe whatever arises within our experience. Even when negative thoughts or emotions come up, we neither suppress nor control them. We just let them come and let them go, without interference or judgment. The only thing we have to “do” is to calmly go back to our anchor as soon as we noticed that our attention drifted away.
This focus on one specific object makes it possible for us to temporarily escape the magnetic vortex of our own thoughts that usually completely sucks us in. As we ground ourselves in our anchor, we can create a distance between us, as the witness, and the content of our minds. Thus we can become the unbiased, detached observer of whatever is happening within us.
As I elaborated on in the previous blog post “How Our Thoughts Make Us Suffer”, our experience is usually completely dominated by our thoughts. Therefore, it is really common that when trying to focus on something else, our thoughts quickly come back and reclaim our attention without us even noticing.
However, every time we do notice that we drifted away and come back to our object of attention, we train our mindfulness muscles. Concentration meditation is for our mind what going to the gym is for our body. With every repetition we strengthen our ability to focus.
Over time, the number of thoughts we have, the time it takes to notice that we are drifting away, and the amount of willpower we need to go back to our anchor will decrease. And when our mind is quiet, when our awareness is sharpened, when we are calm and grounded, then we can more easily look behind the facade of our own experience, and thus relate to it in a radically different way.
Best Practices for Meditation
Although there is no good or bad way to meditate, it can still be helpful to follow certain best practices that can make it easier to go deeper into these techniques.
As already mentioned, it is essential to free ourselves, as much as possible, from all our expectations, all our goals, all our concepts. Approach this practice with an open mind and open heart. Do not try to become anything or force your way to a certain understanding. Only then, we can really see what is true within us. Yet, it is also really common, especially in the beginning of this path, to have certain expectations we cannot get rid of. In this case, it is important to still not judge ourselves but accept our own limits.
A common reaction to the determination that is needed to follow this practice, especially with concentration meditation, is that we might become tense. We might make meditation a rigid system of rules that can limit us, stress us out or drain our energy. Yet, it is important to remember that this is not meant to be a burden for us, but something that feels good, that calms us down. It is the part of the day where we spend some quality time with ourselves.
However, it can still be helpful to maintain a certain level of discipline. Sometimes it is important to go through hardship and to go beyond our comfort zone to grow. Especially in the beginning of our journey, it can take a bit more of a push to get into it and to keep going. We might need to find compelling reasons to make all these efforts.
Just remember to always keep an eye on the balance between the two. If you feel that it is too much, slow down a bit. If you feel that you could do more, give yourself a little push. Make it an intuitive, natural process that feels right for you.
The longer we do this, the easier it gets. At some point, we might not even need any egoistic motivation anymore, but just effortlessly flow with our deepest instinct to do what feels right and to find out what is really true.
Although there are no rules for how to sit or where to do it, there is still a reason why the stereotype of the monk sitting in the lotus posture exists. Namely, the environment we create for our practice definitely has an influence on the way we experience meditation. For example, to sit with a straight spine, compared to lying down or sitting comfortably on a coach, allows us to stay more alert and awake and thus makes it easier to not get lost in our mind or fall asleep. Also, the more we reduce our outside distractions, the easier it is to focus. Therefore, it can be helpful to practice in silence and with eyes closed. Yet, some might also find it beneficial to do it in nature, with eyes open. It always depends. Just be aware that every environment has certain advantages and disadvantages and find out what works best for you.
In general, it can be useful to combine different techniques instead of limiting ourselves to only one. Especially concentration meditation, open awareness meditation and contemplative meditation brought together in a well-balanced way, can create a powerful synergy – on which I will elaborate on in more detail in the next blog post.
How to Start a Meditation Practice
If you are new to this, I recommend starting small. Do not overwhelm yourself. Begin with a few minutes a day and go up slowly over time. If you feel it is too much, reduce the time again. It is more important to do it on a consistent, regular basis, than to increase the duration of each session in a way that does not feel natural. Yet I also encourage you to challenge yourself, since it sometimes might just be a limiting belief or a resistance towards getting out of your comfort zone.
I would also suggest starting with concentration meditation and only trying out other types when you have already built up a certain level of experience. This technique is more straightforward and there is not much we can do wrong here. The object of attention that worked best for me was always the breath. You could focus either on the sensation of the air flowing through your nose, or the sensation of your lungs continually expanding and contracting. This is an anchor that is always with us and we can practice this form of meditation in any situation.
Find out what works for you personally. Listen to your intuition instead of copying other people. As always, practice makes perfect. Everyone is different, thus also needs to approach this in a different way.
Especially in the beginning of this path, it can be valuable to use guided meditations as an addition to your solo practice. They can be of great assistance for all types of meditation by giving our mind something to follow, so we do not drift away in our thoughts as easily.
Meditation in the Bigger Picture
This blog post only scratched the surface of the depth of what meditation is and where it can lead us. There is way more to this practice than just getting calm and happy, or having little insights here and there. It holds an incredible potential and I will explore this more and more in future blog posts.
Now it is up to you to do your own further research and to try it out for yourself. There are plenty of free online resources that can be a great guidance on this path. I also recommend reading different books on the topic. “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Henepola Gunaratana and “The Mind Illuminated” by Jeremy Graves and Matthew Immergut can be a great start.
Meditation needs a certain level of commitment to reveal its full potential, so I encourage you to stick with it. Find your own compelling reasons why you genuinely, intrinsically want to do it. It is a long journey, so be patient for this to flourish. The positive effects might take a few weeks, months or even years to unfold and it is not necessarily always a flashy experience, but rather a subtle growth over time.
If it is just a temporary, short-term hobby we do once in a while, we will not get really deep. We will only experience a profound impact when we make this a lifestyle, something that resonates into everything we do, a new perspective on our whole reality. Meditation is not meant to be something we only do for a few minutes a day to then just go back to our prior state of consciousness. It will have a significantly more profound impact when we carry our mindfulness and our insights into our everyday life. Instead of just shifting our mood for the limited time of our meditation session, we actually change the deepest core of our psyche and literally rewire our brain. Thus, it can also positively change how we react to and interact with every aspect of our lives.
Like with everything in life, it is important to remember that the journey is the reward. It is not about resisting who or where we are right now, but about enjoying every step of this path towards a deeper awareness of ourselves and the world.
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