Last updated April, 2016.
We were considering a loftier title for this post - something like "Everything you always wanted to know about mindfulness and meditation." Or, "The ultimate guide to mindfulness and meditation."
In "Wikipedia-esque" fashion, this post would cover everything:
- 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?
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 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 12+ years, we have taught thousands of people around the world how to better understand and deal with the problems created by their compulsive minds. In the first three months of this year alone (2016), over 3,000 people read our free guide to mindfulness and meditation.
There seems to be more interest now than ever before!
The mainstream media has popularized mindfulness and meditation. TIME Magazine featured it on the cover of their February 2014 issue, and this year's Super Bowl winner (this was in 2014) - 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've written one of those, and you can read it 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
"Your mind is compulsive and incessant. If your attention is lost in it, you'll suffer as a result. Meditation is bringing your attention back to the present moment." - 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, if you're like the rest of us.
That voice is your mind, and your mind is compulsive. It's always going, and it creates thoughts that you get caught up in. These 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 have 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, or how your boss is a jerk.
Observing the mind's compulsive, sporadic nature is entertaining, amazing, and frightening all at the same time!
What's ironic is that, for every thought you are actually aware of, there are hundreds (thousands?) that you aren't.
Think of the air you breathe - you don't see it, but you are surrounded by it. Or an iceberg - what you see above the surface is just the tip; underneath there is much more. Thoughts are the same.
This is an important point because the small amount of thoughts you are aware of is usually overwhelming. And if that's overwhelming, what effect is the large amount you're not 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?"
Look at it like a pond of muddy water: there is a lot of stuff floating around, and it's 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 (we wrote a musing expanding on this quote)
"Don't try to control your mind or 'force' it to do something - just observe it. If you simply observe, things become clear." - meditationSHIFT
- 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."
Mindfulness and meditation can help with these challenges. In the simplest of terms, practicing both will allow you to:
- Cultivate awareness of your compulsive mind and its activity.
- Notice your thoughts, emotions, and urges without getting caught up in them.
- Stop following your mind wherever it leads.
note - a lot of people are unaware of the problems 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 to yourself. Get a pen and paper, sit down in a comfortable chair, start a timer for 10 minutes, and write down every thought you have until the timer goes off. It's rare anyone makes it 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 ability to notice and concentrate. This allows you to develop the skill of seeing what your mind is doing without getting caught up in it.
We have all noticed our thoughts before. You've probably asked yourself the following at some point:
- "Where did that thought come from?"
- "Why can’t I stop thinking about [fill in the blank]?"
- "Why am I dwelling on something that happened last week (or, 10 years ago!)?"
Meditation builds on this by putting focused attention on your mind. You cultivate awareness, and develop an understanding of the process that occurs from thought to emotion to decision to action/reaction. When you understand this process, you can affect it; it's no longer automatic.
We all dwell on thoughts, both consciously and unconsciously. For example:
- "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."
A consistent meditation practice keeps you from indulging in the mental drama, and teaches you to move your attention away from it. You realize you don't have to believe what your mind tells you.
There's even better news: you see that thoughts are not permanent. They are like the weather - wait a while, and it will change.
Thoughts will pass, unless you cling to 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 - we did not say meditation will help you "stop thinking." That's a common misconception, and we address it in this post. What's 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 you identify with those thoughts - you spend most of your day lost in them. Meditation solves that problem.
How does mindfulness fit in?
Meditating is the exercise you do to cultivate awareness. Mindfulness is applying the skill you develop while meditating to your "non-meditating" time.
If you don't practice mindfulness, you won't realize the benefits of meditating. A good analogy that will help you understand how they work together comes from looking at the role of an athlete:
If you are an athlete, you practice so you can perform well in the game. "Practice" is meditation. "Performing" is mindfulness. "The game" is daily life.
We meditate so we can be mindful in our daily lives.
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 important? It's best you discover that answer for yourself. You can do so by watching your mind for the rest of the day and answering these questions:
- Where does it take you?
- Are you focused on the present moment?
- 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 take you to an alternate reality (fantasizing, day-dreaming)?
- Does it invent problems or make up dramatic situations for you to mentally deal with?
- Does it blow everything out of proportion?
If you're like the rest of us, you will find that your mind keeps you anywhere but right here and now.
Mindfulness grounds you in the present moment. You spend less time regretting, worrying, and fearing. You spend less time stressed and anxious. Instead, you focus your attention on what's happening "now": walking, talking to a friend, eating, washing dishes, playing with your dog, et cetera.
Whatever you are doing, you are present with it.
And, the more time you spend in the present, the more you realize happiness, peace, and contentment isn't something you find "out there." To the contrary, it's here and now - it's usually buried under the drama your mind produces, and 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.
Mindfulness and meditation 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 twice daily. You can work your way up to that, but you need discipline, patience, and persistence to do it. That's where your overall view is important.
If you look at this as just another chore, or a task to put on your "todo list," you are setting yourself up for failure.
Instead, view meditation as the path to mindfulness, and mindfulness in your daily life as the ultimate goal. In doing so, you will realize it's a way of being, not another appointment you need to schedule.
Learn about changing your relationship with your mind.
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