For a lot of people, if you mention meditation, they picture a bunch of people in robes, sitting around with their legs crossed tailor-fashion, eyes closed and humming to themselves. And for some people, sitting in certain poses and repeating sounds or phrases, IS part of meditation. But meditation is so much more than that.
Meditation is essentially directing your mind’s full and undivided attention to a specific thought, process or action. Perhaps it means holding one’s gaze on an object, such as a candle flame or a picture, and focusing your thoughts on that object. Or, it may mean sitting and repeating a sound or phrase, also called a mantra. But that sitting can be cross-legged on the floor, sitting on a cushion, sitting in a chair, or even lying down instead of sitting.
Meditation can also be a form of movement. Some people do Tai-chi, a Chinese form of slow-moving stylized martial arts exercise, as a moving meditation. Others may do a form of yoga, such as Hatha yoga, as a type of meditation. Simply walking can be a form of moving meditation, if one focuses on the process of walking instead of on the destination.
But what good is it?
A Zen master might say, “There is no benefit,” meaning that you should not focus on a benefit, but rather keep your mind on the process (the meditation) rather than on any benefits, and the results will manifest anyway. But as modern Westerners, we usually want a good reason to “waste time sitting around and simply breathing,” as one person said to me.
While I don’t have room to list all the benefits you can receive from meditating, here are a few. Meditation has been shown to:
Improve learning and retention of information
Reduce ADHD symptoms and hyperactivity in students
Reduce stress and anxiety in adults, which improves physical health and reduces likelihood of strokes and heart attacks
Even improve cognitive and reasoning processes, or how well we think
The two biggest objections I hear to meditating are:
1. “I don’t have time to meditate!”
2. “It wouldn’t work for me. I can’t keep my mind from wandering.”
Considering the potential benefits from meditating, it’s hard for me to give these much weight, so here are my responses.
Time: how much time do you need? Essentially, if you can carve out even ten minutes in your day for meditation, that’s a great start. It can be right before you eat breakfast, while you are riding in your car pool to work, right before bed, while you are taking your bath, while you are waiting for your child in the car riders’ lane at the school … in short, anywhere you have a few minutes when you can take a deep breath, close your eyes and focus on something that is not the frantic world around you.
Once you get started and have experienced meditation for a while (especially daily meditation), you should begin to see benefits that are convincing enough for you to find a little more time, somewhere in your day. Maybe instead of one 10-minute session per day, you could find another 10 minutes every now and then, and double up on meditating that day.
Mental focus: don’t worry about it! The human mind tends to wander naturally, especially today. We are accustomed to so many inputs, so many sensations, trying to multitask, that if we try to sit quietly, our mind immediately starts trying to find something to do. In meditation practice this tendency of the mind to jump around from idea to idea and back, is called “monkey mind.”
Even experienced meditators can be victims of monkey mind on occasion. If you are trying to meditate, and that monkey jumps in, the best thing to do is to acknowledge it and then brush it aside and return your attention to your meditation. Imagine you are looking up at the blue sky, and a cloud drifts across your vision: you simply say, “Oh, a cloud,” and then return to looking at the sky.
There’s no need to feel bad, no need to feel like you have failed at meditating, whether you have one bout of monkey mind during your meditation, or if the monkey shows up 10 times. Over time, as you practice meditation, you will find a couple of things will happen: (1) The monkey will show up less and less often, and (2) it will be easier and easier to ignore and dismiss.
Future columns will discuss different types of meditation: guided meditation, mindfulness meditation and others. If you want to know more about meditation and how it might benefit you, feel free to contact me, either through this paper or my office.