What is meditation?

What is meditation?

This is a question that isn’t asked often enough, and I mean this quite literally. It is certainly a question that occurs to plenty of people from time to time, they just don’t “ask” it. Many people just assume they already know the answer based on very little, purely superficial information.

Someone satisfying themselves with this type of dismissive answer is probably picturing little more than a series of images or ideas rather than a realistic description of the process.

Perhaps someone wondering about meditation might visualize someone sitting quietly on a cushion. Perhaps the meditator could be described as a “monk” or a “hippy.” Maybe there is some exotic sitar music playing in the background. There may be incense burning. Some people might imagine the meditator having a smug look on their face. Others perhaps feel that the sitter is cut off from reality, lost in some mystical world of new-age nonsense.

This thought process is often enough to satisfy the thinker that they know enough about meditation to discount it as a naive and pointless practice. I know this thought process must be common, because it is one that I went through many times before investigating meditation. I have never claimed to be particularly unique, so it is safe to say that if I thought this, others have thought this as well.

If you are reading this post, though, you are not satisfied by this superficial and stereotypical description of meditation and would like to know more. To that end, I would like to describe it to you in the simplest terms I possibly can.

With that in mind, here is my definition of meditation:

Meditation is a form of exercise for your mind.

If you have read this far without giving up, I suggest you try the following exercise to quickly and easily acquaint yourself with the process:

Sit comfortably and still. Close your eyes and breath normally. As soon as you are ready, start counting your breaths in your head (whether you count inhalations, exhalations or both doesn’t matter. What is important is that you are focused on the task.). When you reach four, start over. Focus only on this counting. You are only meant to be doing this one thing and nothing else. If you find yourself planning your afternoon, thinking about something that happened to you, daydreaming, or even wondering if you are meditating, you are straying from your task. When this happens, simply remind yourself of what you are trying to do and get back to it.

Try this for as long as you have time for, but I would suggest a minimum of five minutes to make sure you get the effect.

Try it now.

Now, having performed that little experiment, how in control of your mind would you say you are?

If you found the task of focusing on the counting of your breath to be simple and easy, you are in the vast minority of meditators and should feel very lucky to have achieved such clarity in so little time.

Most of you, however, will have found the process difficult and frustrating.

The first time I tried this, I was blown away by how little focus I really had. Truthfully, I spent so little time actually counting breaths that I felt as if my time had been wasted.

Wasn’t meditation supposed to be some deeply rewarding process of relaxation? What was this chaotic mess of thoughts and inclinations that I had bouncing around inside my head?

This frustration was horribly misguided. Meditation did nothing but bring to my attention what a caustic soup my mind actually was and, as any self-help program will tell you, realizing you have a problem is the most important step.

Now that you have witnessed your inability to really concentrate, don’t you want to train yourself to be more focused and effective? If you are like me and constantly lament your procrastination and disorganization, the answer is yes.

That, in essence, is the point of meditation. You have already started the process by meditating for the first time. To continue, all you need to do is try it again tomorrow. Theoretically, you could stop reading now and simply perform that same meditation once each day and you would begin to notice positive effects on your concentration, mood and focus.

For those of you who think I may be oversimplifying, I suppose it is time to admit that — to a certain extent — I am. To say that meditation is a form of exercise for the mind is accurate. To say that it is simple is a bit of an exaggeration, but not a terribly dishonest one.

Since when has exercise ever been simple?

Go to any gym and listen to all the different people argue over what method is the most effective for a healthy body. Is it strength? Flexibility? Endurance?

Elsewhere you will here people insisting that the gym is a hindrance to a healthy body, that it is sports and active living that truly get results.

Some will argue that certain diets are essential, while others may pump their bodies full of steroids in pursuit of a certain body image.

One thing that I believe people from most schools of physical fitness would agree on, though, is that if you get off the couch and do some push-ups every once in a while, you will be better off than if you hadn’t done so. And this is what the simple meditation I described above is for your mind: a simple, undeniably helpful mental exercise, push-ups for your concentration.

For the purposes of this post, that is as far as I want to go. Hopefully I have at least tempted you to spend a little time on meditation. In the future, I’m sure we will deal more deeply with meditation on this site. In the meantime, you should do a little research of your own and — more importantly — count your breaths from time to time.

There are many books on different meditative practices, and I’m quite sure there are many online sources as well. For my part, I would recommend the following two books for anyone looking for a deeper introduction than the one I have provided here:

How to Meditate – Lawrence LeShan

I would recommend this book to anyone who has any interest at all in meditating. It is short, simple, incredibly easy to read, and it deals with all the common hurdles involved in choosing and easing yourself into a meditation program.

Follow this link to see the book on Amazon. There are several sample chapters available for free that will definitely whet your appetite for more.

Mindfulness in Plain English – Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

This is another extremely helpful text that would probably be accessible to any beginner. Personally, I was thankful for having read How to Meditate before I dug into this one. Mindfulness in Plain English deals with a specific type of meditation, whereas How to Meditate gives you a broad sampling of many different techniques. For that reason I would recommend this book moreso to someone who has been meditating for a while and wants a deeper explanation of a particular type of focus.

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