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."
When I originally began writing it, I had grand aspirations that it would end up being the resource that people came to in order to get all of their questions answered:
- What is the best method?
- Do I need to sit a certain way?
- What do Samatha and Vipassana mean?
- How do I know I’m doing it right?
- Do I have to chant?
In "Wikipedia-esque" fashion, this post would cover everything!
But then I stepped back and asked myself "Why?" Wikipedia does a fine job of defining meditation and mindfulness. It discusses the history, the definitions, the different types – 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.
Wikipedia has all of that covered (as do a few million other websites and articles). In fact, when people contact us they are usually suffering from information overload. This is a common feeling among those trying to learn more about the topic; they are confused, overwhelmed, and wondering what to focus on.
We have taught a lot of people about meditation and mindfulness over the last 11 years. In the first three months of this year alone, over eleven hundred people requested our free guide or took our 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 fill that need. It is not a "how to guide" - we have written one of those, and you can get it for free. No, 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."
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 the mind is compulsive. It is always going, and it creates thoughts that sweep you away. Those thoughts come and go seemingly at random, and they bounce around from subject to subject like a puppy exploring a 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 are not. 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 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:
- "I wish my brain had an off-switch!"
- "My mind is racing."
- "My head (brain/mind) is full."
- "Why can't I stop thinking?"
Think of it like a pond of muddy water – there is a lot of stuff floating around and it is hard to see far because it is cloudy, murky, and dark. And, you know that what you can see is only a small fraction of what’s 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."
- Your mind is compulsive.
- It creates non-stop thoughts.
- You aren't even aware of the majority of them.
- Your happiness, peace, and contentment are at the mercy of this "voice inside your head."
Meditation and mindfulness is the solution. In the simplest of terms, practicing both will allow you to:
- Raise your awareness.
- Observe the activity of your mind in an impartial manner.
- Not get "swept away" by your compulsive mind and the thoughts it creates.
When those three things happen, the voice inside your head loses its power. You no longer live life on "auto-pilot," guided by the next thought that pops up.
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 15 minutes, and write down every thought you have until the timer goes off. It is rare anyone makes it through the entire 15 minutes (edit - so rare that 5 minutes will probably suffice)!
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 develop your awareness. Doing this improves your powers of observation. It improves your concentration. It allows you to become skilled at seeing what your mind is doing.
More importantly, it helps keep you from getting attached to the activity and the thoughts.
We have all observed our thoughts before. You have probably asked yourself:
- "Where did that thought come from?"
- "Why can’t I stop thinking about THAT?"
- "Why am I dwelling on something that happened last week (or, 10 years ago!)?"
If you understand that you have observed your thoughts before, you realize you can go a step further. By raising your level of awareness, you learn to continuously observe your thoughts from an impartial perspective. In doing so, you have the potential to dramatically improve your life. The effect of things like worry, stress, fear, anxiety, and depression can be reduced substantially.
When you observe your thoughts, you learn NOT to get swept away by them. As a result, you are no longer a victim to the content of your mind. You don’t have to believe what it tells you:
- "I’m not good enough."
- "I don’t deserve to be happy."
- "I won’t succeed."
- "There is no way he/she will like me."
- "I can’t make a difference."
- "I never do anything right."
- "Everyone is out to get me."
These are all thoughts produced by your mind. In the past, you might have dwelled on them – both consciously and unconsciously. Through the practice of meditation, however, you raise your awareness and learn to see them for what they are: "things" that your mind produces. And, things you don’t have to get caught up in or attached to.
Here is even better news: thoughts are not permanent. They are like the weather – wait a while and it will change. The thoughts will pass, UNLESS you hold onto them (cling to them, dwell on them). Your mind tries to make them permanent, but they are not. When you meditate, you are able to observe that they are only temporary. You learn that you can let them go out the same as you watched them come in.
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 (you can find a link to it 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 is not something you do one time as 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. Where does it take you? Are you focused on the present moment? Or, does your mind pull you into the past (to dwell on things that have already happened) and project you into the future (to worry about things that might happen)? Does it invent problems or contrive dramatic situations that cause you stress? 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."
Getting it done
Now that you have a better understanding of meditation and mindfulness, it is important to discuss how you view them.
As noted above, you need to have dedicated time to meditate – we recommend a minimum of 15 minutes twice a day. You can work your way up to that, but you need to have the discipline, patience, and persistence to do it. You won’t realize the benefits if you don't establish a consistent practice.
That is where your overall view is important. If you look at this as just another task to put on your "to-do" list, you are setting yourself up for failure. But if you view meditation as the path to mindfulness, and mindfulness in your everyday life as the ultimate goal, you should realize that this is a way of being, not another chore or appointment that you need to schedule:
- “I have to meditate twice today.”
- “I need to squeeze in a quick meditation session after lunch.”
- “I will skip meditating today, and make it up tomorrow.”
No. We all want to minimize suffering and increase happiness, and this is a proven path to do so. It is not brushing your teeth, washing your clothes, or shopping for groceries. It ishow you live. Meditation and mindfulness are the key to uncovering lasting happiness, peace, and contentment. View it that way, and you will have the motivation you need.
Can't get enough and want something shorter? Here you go:
Meditation explained in 60 seconds (actually, it's closer to 40).
When it comes to meditation and mindfulness, there is much more. Luckily we have been doing this for over a decade, and we have additional posts/articles/guides/courses that will help you on your journey:
- a complete index of our blog posts and published articles
- our free guide on mindfulness and meditation
- our 21-day self-study course
- follow us on social media
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