Meditation is the practice through which we cultivate mindfulness (non-judgemental, present moment awareness).
Ok…? So you’re probably thinking – why do I need to cultivate mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the benefit you get from meditation. Much like you get increased strength, agility and mobility from regular exercise or a stronger immune system from eating healthy.
You can think of meditation as being the third cog in the trifecta of optimal health.
As with exercise and healthy eating, meditation needs to be practiced daily for optimal benefit. Cultivating the habit of meditation is crucial.
The act of meditation is to focus your awareness on one thing, such as the breath. Then, whenever you are aware you no longer focusing on the breath, you gently and compassionately redirect your attention to the breath. The principal is to breathe and be aware you’re breathing. When you’re not focusing on your breath you are, in effect, lost in thought. Which is how we spend most of our days – in our heads – reliving a past event or imagining a potential future one.
When you first begin to meditate you may not be able to focus on even half a breath before your mind interjects. Don’t be discouraged by this as it’s the same as being only able to do one press up. If you do it regularly enough, you eventually might be able to make it to one full breath without the mind interjecting – and that’s after years of practice.
But don’t be discouraged! Meditation is not ridding your mind of thought but being able to notice when you are distracted, as it is happening. This is the crucial element.
Just as you want your immune system to kick in as soon as it realises it’s been poisoned, just as you want your muscles to propel you to run away from danger when attacked, you should also want to be aware of when your mind may be clouding your judgement – distanced from the reality of the moment.
But..! I hear you cry, what’s wrong with reacting by shouting at someone who has made me angry?
In theory…nothing. However, when we feel attacked, threatened or under stress we do not have the ability to respond with our full potential. Instead we react from our habitual conditioning – our upbringing, environment, judgements, prejudice, past events etc. All of which can have nothing to do with the moment at hand. Unless…we practice meditation.
Shane Parish of Farnham Street Blog puts it this way:
“Stress causes both mental and physiological responses and tends to amplify the other biases. Almost all human mental biases become worse in the face of stress as the body goes into a fight-or-flight response, relying purely on instinct without the emergency brake of Daniel Kahneman’s “System 2” type of reasoning. Stress causes hasty decisions, immediacy, and a fallback to habit, thus giving rise to the elite soldiers’ motto: “In the thick of battle, you will not rise to the level of your expectations, but fall to the level of your training.”
Seen in this light; if you were running a marathon (which life can often feel like!), you might be able to accomplish it as you are right now, but ideally you would fare much better if you trained regularly.
The same goes for meditation. It is your training for life. In particular those stressful situations, so that you rather than reacting habitually, you can respond mindfully.