How meditation works

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If you feel like a desert, seek an oasis.  Photo by Benjamín Gremler on Unsplash

Meditation has slightly different meanings depending on the technique practiced, and the theory that the technique is part of.  Nevertheless, there are a number of common factors between different types of meditation.  It’s worth exploring some of the main benefits that meditation provides to the human mind and body; and why it might provide those benefits.

WHAT IS MEDITATION?

Meditation is a formal practice of gaining control over one’s own mental processes.  Usually an object of focus is chosen, and the meditator seeks to engage in the process of holding that object firmly in mind.  The idea is that, through repeated practice, the meditator develops their ability to master their own mind state.  The usual target mind state is relaxed awareness.  Some meditators also seek self-development into other positive mind states, such as equanimity, compassion, and wisdom.

WHAT ARE THE USUAL STEPS?

Most meditators follow a pattern:

  1. First there is a stage of preparation, in which environmental distractions are minimised, and the person gathers the intention to meditate.
  2. Secondly, the person finds an appropriate posture, usually sitting, comfortable but aware.
  3. Thirdly, the person identifies an object of meditation, and focuses gently on it.  This can be their own breath, their own body, a piece of text, a mantra, a piece of wisdom, or an attitude.
  4. Fourthly, the person may develop the meditation by moving on to other objects of focus, or deepening the attention given to the current object.
  5. Finally, there is a stage of completion, in which the meditator returns gently to their usual environment.
WHY IS MEDITATION BENEFICIAL?

We can identify 5 ways in which we suffer in our daily lives, which correspond to 5 ways in which meditation can help us.

  1. Life is busy, and we suffer from worry and over-exertion.  By minimising distraction, and generating positive intention to give time to ourselves, we create an oasis of time in which our attention comes away from our worries, and our bodies come away from over-exertion.
  2. Life is tangled, and we contort ourselves into strange shapes, trying to please everyone, including ourselves.  Sitting in comfortable awareness relaxes both our bodies and minds, by removing from us the need to perform these contortions of activity.
  3. Life is distracting, and splits our attention.  The human mind experiences split attention as painful.  By gaining single-minded attention, and learning to hold it, we train ourselves to avoid the painful push-pull of our usual tensions.
  4. Life is shallow, and does not allow us the time to deepen our understanding.  Just as focused training helps a surgeon to use their tools in their job, so focused training enables a meditator to use their mind in their daily life.
  5. Life is incomplete, and fills us with uncertainty.  By providing a focused activity with a start and a finish, meditation brings us refuge from the usual sense of incompleteness and uncertainty that life brings.
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A SUMMARY

  1. By preparing for meditation, we avoid over-exertion, and create an oasis of time.
  2. By sitting, comfortable but aware, we gain relief from the usual tangles and contortions of daily life.
  3. By learning to focus, we avoid the painful tension of split attention.
  4. By learning depth of single-minded attention, we gain useful understanding for our daily life.
  5. By completing a meditation session, we enable ourself to return to life refreshed and more aware.
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