It used to be that if you wanted to learn to meditate you had to take the risk of entering an exotic, incense-scented meditation center, wondering if you were stepping into the domain of some weird cult. Nowadays, though, you can download meditation apps, learn meditation online, or even attend a class at your local hospital.
Yet although meditation is approaching mainstream acceptance, many people still have the image of meditation as something unusual, and perhaps even difficult. They expect something religious or mysterious.
The principles of meditation, however, are very down to earth.
But first, let’s understand what tends to happen when we’re not very mindful.
The mind does a lot of thinking that makes us unhappy. The average person spends about half of their time being distracted, which means they’re thinking about things unrelated to what they’re actually doing.
Much of this distraction involves things like worrying, being irritable, or having doubts about yourself — things that make us unhappy.
This distracted and unhelpful thinking has physiological effects, causing the release of stress hormones, leading to long-term inflammation and predisposing us to illness.
Being stressed causes us to act in ways that cause more stress — such as losing our temper, withdrawing from sources of emotional support, eating badly, and so on. This causes yet more stress.
Stress is a vicious cycle.
Next, let’s look at how meditation helps.
Meditation starts simply by encouraging us to stay rooted in sensory reality by paying attention to the sensations of the body and of our breathing. This helps us to notice when we’re caught up in unhelpful patterns of thinking.
We then let go of these distracted trains of thought and come back to the sensations of our breathing, over and over.
We learn to accept that distraction happens, without beating ourselves up about it.
As we spend more time observing the breathing, and less time caught up in distracted thinking, we find that our mind and emotions start to settle down.
We’re no longer giving rise to stress hormones, and so our levels of tension and of inflammation drop. We become healthier.
We also find, as we become less stressed, that we act in ways that are supportive of our long-term well-being. For example, when we do feel stressed we’re more likely to deal with it through relaxation, or exercise. We’re more likely to take care of ourselves by eating healthily and and so on.
When we’re in conflict with someone we’re more apt to respond in an empathetic way, and in ways that are reasonable rather than reactive. And so we are more likely to settle our difficulties and find that there is less conflict going on around us. We build more positive connections with those around us.
And so when we meditate we become happier, more focused (which itself brings a host of benefits), we’re healthier, and our lives generally go more smoothly. This all helps to contribute to a sense of wellbeing.
This is why I talk about meditation involving a “positivity cascade.” The seemingly ordinary act of observing our breathing leads to a whole series of positive changes that help to enrich our lives.