Last updated October, 2018.
note: we link to our free guide to mindfulness and meditation at the bottom of this page (no email required).
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 it all:
But, Wikipedia actually does cover those things. 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 15 years, we have taught tens of thousands of people around the world how to better understand their compulsive minds. And, more important, how to stop the suffering their minds cause. In the first three months of this year alone (editor's note - this was 2014), almost 5,000 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 (again, this was 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 (link at the bottom of this page).
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. If you're like the rest of us, probably more negative than positive.
That voice is your mind, and your mind is compulsive. It's always going, and it creates thoughts, emotions, urges, and stories that you get caught up in. This "mental noise" comes and goes 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 or school, errands you need to run, that article you read earlier, the health of a family member, the person who was rude to you yesterday, fear or 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're actually aware of, there are A LOT more that you aren't aware of.
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, much more. Thoughts are the same.
This is an important point because the small amount of thoughts you're aware of is usually overwhelming. If those are overwhelming, what effect is the large amount you're not aware of having?
People say things like:
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, without a doubt, what you can see is only a small fraction of what is 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
Mindfulness and meditation can help with these challenges. In the simplest of terms, practicing both will allow you to:
A lot of people are unaware of the problems created by their compulsive minds, and will deny it affects "who they are" and "what they do." Most people have to achieve a certain level of awareness before they even realize how lost in thought they usually are. But, there's an easy way to see it all for 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. And, even though you're attempting to actively observe your mind, you'll still miss the majority of what it produces!
MEDITATION - STRENGTHENING 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 concentrate and observe. 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:
Meditation builds on this by putting focused attention on your mind. You strengthen 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 interrupt it; it's no longer automatic.
We all dwell on thoughts, and much of the time those thoughts are unskillful. For example:
A consistent meditation practice keeps you from indulging in this 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: through direct experience, you see that thoughts aren't permanent. They are like the weather - wait a while, and it will change.
Thoughts will pass unless you give them fuel to persist. We do this by indulging them, making them "ours," or trying to suppress them. When they persist, they appear permanent - and, our minds are happy to help with this illusion by producing even more thoughts to get lost in.
But, they aren't permanent. When you meditate, you are able to observe their temporary nature - you can see them come into being, exist, and cease. And, instead of getting caught up in them, you learn to let them pass the same as you watched them arise.
note - we did not say meditation will help you "stop thinking." That's a common misconception, and we address it in this article. What's important is that you don't need to stop thinking. The fact that your mind is compulsive and the mental noise is constant and pervasive is NOT the problem. The problem is you identify with 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 strengthen 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-sitting and non-practicing time (mindfulness). The goal is for mindfulness to 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:
If you're like the rest of us, you will find that your mind keeps you anywhere but right here and now.
Mindfulness, however, 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, working, 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. But, it's usually buried under the drama your mind produces; 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 "to-do 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.
Address the root cause.
Your struggles and suffering - whether it's stress, feelings of anxiety or depression, low self-confidence, extreme emotions...or anything else - are caused by the difference between the way things are and the way the mind thinks they should be.
Does it make sense to continue trying to control everything "out there" to conform to the mind's expectations? Or, is a more skillful use of your time and energy changing the way you deal with the thoughts and stories the mind constantly churns out?
If you believe it's the second option, continue reading...