We were considering a loftier title for this post – something like "Everything you always wanted to know about meditation and mindfulness." Or, "The ultimate guide to meditation and mindfulness."
In "Wikipedia-esque" fashion, this post would cover everything!
But, Wikipedia actually does cover most of that. It discusses the history, definitions, and different types of meditation, as well as postures, health benefits, and even pop-culture references!
Do you want to know the difference between insight meditation and concentration meditation? Wikipedia will tell you.
In fact, when people contact us they are usually suffering from information overload. There is so much out there, they are confused, overwhelmed, and wondering where to start and what to focus on.
Over the past 11+ years, we have taught a lot of people how to better understand and deal with the challenges their minds create. In the first three months of this year alone (2014), over eleven hundred people requested our free guide on mindfulness and meditation, or took our 21-day self-study course.
There seems to be more interest now than ever before. The mainstream media has popularized meditation and mindfulness. TIME featured it on the cover of their February 2014 issue, and this year's Super Bowl winner - the Seattle Seahawks - claimed meditation played a part in their victory. The publicity has people interested, but they have trouble finding a straight-forward explanation.
This post is meant to provide that. It is not a "how to guide" - we have written one of those, and you can get it here for free.
This post is the "why" and "what" in a simple, concise manner.
"If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough." - Albert Einstein
"Think of your mind as a puppy that is curious, excited, and has a limited attention span. It busily trots from one thing to another, without much direction or reason. Meditation is gently guiding the puppy (your mind) back to where you want it once you become aware it has wandered." - meditationSHIFT
Have you met your mind?
There is a voice inside your head. I’m sure you've noticed it.
It tells you stories – some positive and some negative. Probably more negative than positive.
That voice is your mind, and your mind is compulsive. It is always going, and it creates thoughts that sweep you away. Those thoughts come and go seemingly at random, and your mind bounces around from subject to subject like a puppy exploring a new house.
In any given minute you might think about bills you need to pay, a project for work/school, errands you need to run, that article you read earlier, the health of a family member, the person that was rude to you yesterday, fear/anxiety over some pending event, a friend from grade school, and how your boss is a jerk.
Observing the mind's compulsive, sporadic nature is entertaining, amazing, and frightening all at the same time!
What is ironic is that for every thought you are actually aware of, there are hundreds that you aren't.
Think of the air you breathe – you don't see it, but you are surrounded by it. Thoughts are the same: they come at you non-stop, and you are drowning in the mind-made activity. But, you aren't even aware of most of it because there is so much; you are surrounded!
This is an important point because the small amount of thoughts that you are aware of is usually overwhelming. And if that is overwhelming, what effect is the large amount that you aren't aware of having?
People say things like:
Think of it like a pond of muddy water: There is a lot of stuff floating around, and it is hard to see very far because it's murky and dark. But, you know that what you can see is only a small fraction of what’s actually there.
"Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone." - Alan Watts
"Don't try to control your mind or 'force' it to do something - just observe it. If you simply observe, things become clear." - meditationSHIFT
Meditation and mindfulness can help with these challenges. In the simplest of terms, practicing both will allow you to:
note – a lot of people are unaware of the challenges created by their compulsive minds. And, many will still deny it after being told: "That’s not me!” There is an easy way to prove or disprove it. Get a pen and paper, take a comfortable seat, set a timer for 10 minutes, and write down every thought you have until the timer goes off. It is rare anyone makes it through the entire 10 minutes!
Meditation – cultivating awareness
Meditation is often compared to exercising. The more you exercise, the stronger your muscles get.
If we stay with this analogy and consider meditation the exercise, awareness is the muscle you are making stronger.
When you meditate, you build up your awareness. You improve your powers of observation, and your ability to concentrate. This allows you to become skilled at seeing what your mind is doing.
More important, it keeps you from getting attached to your mind-made activity.
We have all observed our thoughts before. You have probably asked yourself:
Meditation builds on this by making observation a focused effort. It conditions you to become aware of your mind and its activity, and it helps you develop an understanding of the processes that occur from thoughts to actions. As a result, you have the potential to dramatically improve your life by reducing the effects of worry, stress, anxiety, depression, et cetera.
When you observe your thoughts, you learn not to get swept away by them. You realize that you don’t have to believe what your mind tells you:
We all dwell on thoughts like these, both consciously and unconsciously. But, a consistent meditation practice allows you to see them for what they are: mental constructs that you don't have to get caught up in.
There is even better news: thoughts are not permanent. They are like the weather – wait a while, and it will change.
Thoughts will pass, unless you cling to them or dwell on them. Your mind tries to make them appear permanent, but they aren't. When you meditate, you are able to observe their temporary nature. And, you learn that you can let them go the same as you watched them come.
note - it is worth mentioning that we did not say meditation will help you "stop thinking." That is a common misconception – so much so, that we wrote an entire post on it (see our blog index below). What is important is that you don't need to stop thinking. The fact that your mind is compulsive and produces non-stop thoughts is NOT the problem. The problem is that you identify with those thoughts, and you let them sweep you away. Meditation solves that problem.
How does mindfulness fit in?
Meditation isn't something you do one time; it's not a quick fix to eliminate all of your problems.
It is something that you do consistently, something that you assimilate into your life, and something that enables a state of ongoing awareness. We refer to this state of ongoing awareness as mindfulness.
In short, you have dedicated meditation sessions every day in order to cultivate mindfulness in everything you do.
To use another analogy, people practice in order to execute (perform) well. Athletes practice to do well in the game. Dancers and actors practice to perform well on the stage. Speakers practice to present well to an audience. Dedicated meditation sessions are the "practice," being mindful in everything you do throughout your day is the "execution."
The more you sit and practice (meditation), the more it carries through to your non-sit and non-practice time (mindfulness). The goal is for mindfulness to ultimately permeate all aspects of your life.
Why is mindfulness so important? It is best that you find the answer for yourself. You can do that by watching your mind for the rest of the day and answering these questions:
If you are like the rest of us, you will find your mind keeps you anywhere but here and now.
When you cultivate mindfulness, you ground yourself in the present moment. You spend less time regretting, worrying, and fearing. You spend less time stressed. You focus your attention on what you are doing right now: walking, talking to a friend, eating, washing dishes, playing with your dog.
Whatever you are doing, you are present with it.
And, the more time you spend in the present, the more you realize that happiness, peace, and contentment isn't something that you have to find "out there." To the contrary, it is here and now – mindfulness helps you uncover it.
"Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now. And that's a revelation for some people: to realize that your life is only ever now." - Eckhart Tolle
"If your happiness lies on the other side of some future event, you will never find it. Happiness exists when you fully understand that the only time you can live your life is now." - meditationSHIFT
Getting it done
Meditation and mindfulness have been shown to deliver numerous benefits. But, to realize those benefits, you need to develop a consistent practice.
You need to have dedicated time to meditate – we recommend a minimum of 15 minutes, two times every day. You can work your way up to that, but you need to have the discipline, patience, and persistence to do it. That is where your overall view is important.
If you look at this as just another task to put on your "todo" list, you are setting yourself up for failure.
If, instead, you view meditation as the path to mindfulness, and mindfulness in your everyday life as the ultimate goal, you will realize that this is a way of being...not another chore or appointment that you need to schedule.
Are you looking for simple instructions? Do you want to understand your mind better? Get our free guide on mindfulness and meditation.
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