Those of us who practice meditation sometimes have a hard time explaining the practice to people who don’t. Basically, we just sit there, doing nothing. We forgo entertainment, and we even try not to think when we’re sitting there!
Why would we want to take precious time out of our busy lives, just to waste it?
There are different ways to answer this question, but in a way, the answer doesn’t matter. The best thing to do is just try meditation and see if doing it makes a positive difference in your life. Many of us find it does. When we regularly meditate, we feel more sane as we go about our everyday life. We feel a little calmer, more able to handle difficult emotions, and make good decisions. When I started meditating, I quit biting my nails so much. Sometimes the difference is subtle, sometimes it’s dramatic. Just try it!
But, in case you’re curious, or are only willing to give something a try once you understand it, here’s a few current theories about why meditation is beneficial:
- Focusing your mind on some simple object or activity and maintaining a “passive attitude” (that is, not trying to achieve anything or worry about how well you’re doing) elicits a “relaxation response” in your mind and body. This is more or less the opposite of the stress response. In meditation, your oxygen consumption, respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and level of stress hormones decrease. Your brain’s alpha waves increase. (This effect was first described in scientific detail by Dr. Herbert Benson, in his book The Relaxation Response). Essentially, you’re allowing your mind and body to get back in sync, rest, and heal. It turns out that this relaxation response is even more relaxing, in many ways, than sleep. It’s also not something that “just happens” when you’re doing some pleasant, relaxing activity like taking a walk or listening to music. You have to deliberately focus your mind and maintain a passive attitude (that is, “be mindful,” or meditate).
- While engaged in the simple activity of meditation, you inevitably start noticing what goes on in your mind more than your usually do. Over time, you get to know yourself better – what you tend to think about or anticipate, your typical emotional states, etc. Also, have you ever told yourself something was “not worth worrying about,” but you couldn’t stop yourself from worrying? As you repeatedly return your mind to your chosen “simple object or activity” in meditation, you also get better at redirecting your mind when you want to.
- On a related note, during the act of meditation you tend to notice how thoughts and emotions arise and pass away. One minute you feel anxious, then you think about something else and the anxiety disappears. Eventually you become less identified with your thoughts and emotions – the content of your mind – and more identified with something bigger, like the space through which all the content moves. Researchers have demonstrated repeatedly that meditation may help relieve symptoms of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and substance abuse. This is because the big problem with most of these mental afflictions is that, when you’re experiencing them, you believe the context of your mind and lose perspective. Meditation helps you recognize, “Oh, I’m thinking or feeling ____, I’ve experienced this before and it passed.” Such an ability may not sound like a significant thing, but it is.
I could go on about the benefits of meditation, but there are lots of sources out there right now that talk about this. (Note that many sources present the benefits of “mindfulness;” that term refers to more than just meditation, but in general “mindfulness practice” includes regular meditation.) Like I said at beginning, it’s best to just try meditation and see what results you get.