The ancient practice of meditation has made a home in our modern culture for good reason. Learning to steady the mind can help us stay calm and balanced amid the many stresses of our busy lives.
Meditation is an open and expansive state of being that arises when we are completely present in the here-and-now with clear vision and a welcoming spirit. It is a state of being rather than doing, and it fosters a profound sense of wakefulness and clarity. Regular practice of meditation cultivates peace and happiness, and guides us toward lives of deeper wisdom, meaning and love.
Nearly all religious and spiritual traditions have included some sort of meditative practice as part of their offerings. For centuries, spiritual adepts from all around the world have turned inward to rest in deep stillness and peace. They have brought back what they've learned to share with others who may be seeking understanding and enlightenment.
Today's practitioners have discovered that meditation also offers more earthly and pragmatic benefits, helping us stay happy and balanced amid the hustle and bustle of our lives. Meditation is a dependable practice that can help us stay clear, balanced and open, even on the most challenging of days.
It is possible to enter a state of meditation anytime, anywhere, and it is likely you have already had many meditative moments in your lifetime. In these moments you likely felt completely absorbed in the moment as time stood still, the mind grew quiet, and the heart grew tender and bright. The formal practice of meditation deliberately cultivates this state of deep presence, as we set aside time each day to rest quietly, steady the mind, and cultivate wakeful attention to the feeling of being alive.
I've been practicing meditation for more than 20 years, and I am still discovering new and rich benefits of this potent practice. Over and over I return to four of meditation's greatest gifts, which can help us live in happiness, wisdom and peace, even among the craziness of our world.
1. MEDITATION TRAINS THE BRAIN TO BEHAVE
Left to its own devices, the mind tends to act like a monkey in the jungle, swinging from thought to thought, hooting and howling, picking up ideas and then spitting them out, tangling with other wild beasts, and generally stirring up trouble. (If you don't believe me, try this: Set a timer for five minutes, close your eyes, and during that time watch what happens to your thoughts. I'm willing to wager that you will quickly discover that you, too, have at least a few monkeys in your mind.)
Meditation trains the mind to behave better. Just as we head to the gym to exercise our muscles, we slip into a meditation chair to train our brains. We teach our minds to focus, we guide ourselves away from unproductive thoughts, and we learn to act more skillfully. We can train those monkeys within us to behave in ways that support our lives rather than throw us off balance in sneaky and destructive ways.
Over time, with patience and persistence, we sharpen our ability to settle with ease into the present moment, the only place where life can be truly lived. We train the muscles in our minds to act wisely, in ways that support our deepest loves and values, and in ways that help not just ourselves but also the entire world.
Modern research confirms the power of this ancient practice. Scientists have learned that the brains of meditators are different from those of non-meditators, and that meditators respond to stress in more healthful ways than the rest of us. Meditation even shifts our brainwaves in ways that nurture ease and calm.
2. MEDITATION RETURNS US TO THE PRESENT MOMENT
Most of the time, our minds are far away from the experience of the moment. We spend our days lost in thought, rehashing past events or fantasizing about the future. We get lost in discursive thinking, losing ourselves in long monologues about our lives that may or may not be true.
Meditation returns us to the here-and-now, to a state of deeper presence in the world. Over and over we draw our awareness to the sensations of being alive in the moment, the only place where life can truly be lived. As we do this, we fall into a more direct, intimate and keenly felt experience of life as it passes through us. We wake up to the sheer wonder of being here, participating in all the joys and sorrows of the world.
Birdsong sounds brighter. Water tastes cleaner. Chocolate tastes sweeter. A single smile warms our spirit all day. And the blue sky fills our hearts with a profound yet simple happiness. We fall wildly and wonderfully in love with all of life.
As we begin to train our minds to more fully experience life lived now - instead of spending our days lost in thought - we sense a deeper amazement of the many rich gifts all around us. We commit to spending our days fruitfully and with care, rather than frittering them away in mindlessness and distraction. We learn to show up for real life, for those around us and for the life within us, too.
3. MEDITATION CULTIVATES WISDOM
Have you ever been to the beach just after a torrential storm? The waves churn, the sand darkens the water, and debris bobs all about. Sometimes it's impossible to see your toes as you wade along the shore. When the weather clears, though, the ocean quiets, the sand settles and the water once again grows clear enough to see all the marvels that swim amid the vast blue sea.
This settling and clarifying process is just what meditation does inside of us. As our brains quiet, our stirred up thoughts settle. Life comes into cleaner and clearer focus. Delusions slip away. Wisdom bubbles up. We begin to see more clearly what our lives are all about and we are inspired to act in ways that support these fundamental values.
As the lens of our awareness clears, we grow cleaner and more balanced. We learn how to respond with wisdom and care to both the delights and challenges that life throws our way. We develop skills that allow us to live in greater balance and harmony within, even amid the turbulence of the outer world.
4. MEDITATION FOSTERS CONNECTION AND LOVE
As we grow more adept at stilling the mind and seeing clearly the truth of what is, wonderful epiphanies arise. Over time, our minds and our hearts grow more expansive and more whole. We sense a deeper connection between ourselves and every other creature in the world.
This deeper connection with all of life changes our behavior, as we begin to understand that our own joys and sorrows are deeply connected to the joys and sorrows of others. We grow kinder and more tenderhearted. We begin to take on the whole world as family. And we understand more deeply that love matters most, in the beginning and in the end.
As this happens, we begin to act not just on behalf of our self but also on behalf of all of life. And we sense an ever deepening connection between the small self of each individual and the more timeless and universal soul of the whole wide world.
GETTING STARTED WITH THE PRACTICE
Maybe you, too, would like to give meditation a try. Although a simple practice, meditation can be challenging to learn and can take persistence to master. Befriending those monkeys in the mind can take some time, and finding ways to train them toward wholeness takes patience and skill.
Fortunately, resources abound for those hoping to get started. My advice is to find a teacher who speaks to you, who inspires and comforts you, and then study every book, audio, video or talk that guide offers. Practicing with a friend or meditation group can be enormously helpful, too, as you explore the many gifts of meditation together.
Over time, you may find, as I have, that meditation can become and ally and a good friend, saving your life every single day. Meditation will help you stay calm and centered. It will keep you in tune with your deepest loves and values. It will help you act wisely and with a tender heart. And it will return you both to your deepest self and to the widest world, in clarity, happiness and peace.