I’ve mentioned meditation and its benefits many times on this blog, but I’ve never devoted an entire post to explaining exactly what meditation is and how and why it works. So this is that.
Some people have a view of meditation as a woo-woo religious/spiritual thing—I know I used to. Sure, some religions like Buddhism and Hinduism have a tradition of meditation, but the act of meditating itself is not religious. Meditation is not prayer; in many ways it’s the complete opposite of prayer. Prayer is focusing and directing your thoughts toward someone or something, while meditation is clearing your mind of all thoughts. Both practices can be beneficial for different reasons, but they are not the same thing.
Mindfulness meditation is a scientifically proven exercise for your brain. Just like you need to exercise your body by running and lifting weights, you also need to exercise your mind.
We are constantly bombarded by thoughts and feelings inside our heads, day and night, so much so that we don’t even realize it’s happening. We flip out and get angry, get crippled by anxiety, or spiral into depression. Those states come from negative thoughts that pop into our heads. Most people are unaware of these thoughts and react to them instantly. Someone cuts you off in traffic, and you shout in anger and think about it all day afterward. Or if social anxiety is your problem, you may be constantly worrying about what other people think about you and create stories in your mind of how others will negatively judge you. We become owned by these thoughts and feelings. But we need not be.
That’s what the practice of meditation aims to do. You simply sit quietly, focus on your breath, and try to quiet your mind. (Which will be impossible.) You will inevitably have tons of thoughts popping into your mind, but that’s okay. That’s the purpose of meditation: to observe your thoughts, then dismiss them and return to your breath. Realize that just because you have a thought, it doesn’t mean you have to react emotionally to the thought. You can let negative thoughts go. They are just thoughts.
The point of meditation isn’t to have no thoughts; it’s to notice when a thought pops into your head, then dismiss it and return to focus on your breath. Meditation is a practice to learn to ignore negative thoughts.
Of course, this is extremely difficult to do. Most people have been unconsciously accepting every thought that pops into their heads without realizing it for their entire lives. Your thoughts affect your emotions. So if you accept every negative thought that pops into your head, you will inevitably experience negative emotions with no control over them. However, you can separate yourself from your thoughts and gain control over your emotional state.
That’s the goal of meditation: to gain control over your thoughts, so you are not clouded by emotions and can see reality more clearly. Naturally, bad things will still happen in life. You will still get angry, anxious, scared, and sad, but with the practice of meditation, you can realize more quickly that you are angry or scared, then think about why, and realize how those feelings may or may not be serving you. There are certainly times in life you should be angry or scared, but oftentimes those feelings are caused by irrational thoughts, and you’d be better off by letting those feelings go.
For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, or says something nasty about you on the internet, or a political news report gets your blood boiling, you will ruminate on those things for the rest of the day (or longer). But ruminating about trivial matters that are out of your control will not help you in any way. Meditation helps you to be conscious of your thoughts, recognize when you’re ruminating, then be able to stop and return to the present—focus on the things you can control in life.
Meditation has specifically helped me cope with anxiety. Anxiety is like getting constant pop-up ads inside your head (except the ads are negative thoughts). Meditation is your mental ad blocker. It’s a practice of training yourself to delete the ads as soon as they pop up, instead of clicking every one or unconsciously ruminating on negative thought-patterns all day. When you feel anxiety, it’s often a constant barrage of negative thoughts and never-ending rumination. One pop-up leads to another ad, and you find yourself in a rabbit hole of anxiety and overthinking. The goal of meditation is to recognize a thought (any thought) as soon as it pops up, and instead of following it, simply forget it and return to focusing on your breath.
Meditation is often called a practice because it is just that—practice. A baseball pitcher must practice throwing in order to succeed in the game. So must we practice mindfulness to succeed in the game that is our entire life. You practice mindfulness deliberately for 10-20 minutes of meditation each day, so that you can be naturally more mindful the rest of the day. Through the practice of mindfulness you learn to control your thoughts and emotions, to be less reactive, less stressed, less anxious, and more calm and content. You don’t meditate for the moment you are meditating; you do it to prepare your mind for later—for when some jerk cuts you off in traffic, so you will be more in control of your thoughts and emotions and won’t lose your temper. Or if you are in an anxiety-inducing social setting, you may still feel fear, but you can be better able to ignore the fear and return to a calm state.
You can’t control your genes or the environment, but you can control how you respond to those factors. Eventually, you’ll realize, “Oh, this is just my hormones triggering a fear response in my brain, resulting in an increased heart rate. Due to my genetics programmed by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, my brain assumes this situation is a threat, but it’s actually not that dangerous, so I can ignore those feelings.” With enough practice, you can have that realization instantly and immediately ignore the negative thought or feeling when it arises.
That is meditation in a nutshell. It’s an exercise to control your mental health and emotional well-being. I can’t imagine anyone who couldn’t benefit from that.
Resources to learn meditation:
There are also tons of free guided meditations available on YouTube. Once you get the hang of it, you may prefer non-guided meditations. Apps can be helpful, but the great thing about meditation is you can do it anywhere, anytime, completely free. All you need to meditate is your mind.