Meditation these days is widely promoted as a way for achieving improved health and happiness. People are writing articles with advice on how to develop a meditation practice and there is a proliferation of apps to help you get started. Some say that practising 10 minutes’ meditation a day has changed their lives. Celebrities are practising meditation. If it helps them, then why wouldn’t it be helpful for us?
Meditation has been central to Buddhism for more than 2,600 years. The historical Buddha achieved enlightenment through his practice of meditation. Great practitioners – yogis, if you like – since the time of the Buddha to this very day have meditation at the heart of their practice.
What is meditation?
With so many teaching and writing about meditation, there is a diversity of ideas about what it means to practise meditation. Here I shall provide the Buddhist perspective.
The Buddha, and subsequent Buddhist teachers, have been quite clear that you do not need to be a Buddhist to practise Buddhist meditation methods. Adhering to one or other spiritual tradition, or having any specific beliefs, are not prerequisite. So, what is meditation?
Meditation is a method for training the mind. The idea is to place the mind on the meditation object and to hold that object without distraction for a sustained time – 10 minutes, 20 minutes or longer. There are a variety of meditation objects. What they have in common is that through becoming thoroughly familiar with them we cultivate mental states that are a source of happiness and we reduce states that cause unhappiness.
The opponent to meditation is distraction. A distracted mind is mind that is not able to hold its object. Instead, through being thoroughly habituated with mental chatter, rather than our mind resting on the meditation object there is an unceasing progression of thoughts. And even when we are able to place our mind for a few moments on the object, the object does not appear clearly.
An accomplished meditator is able to hold the meditation object without distraction for a sustained time. By contrast, when we try to meditate, say on the breath, we see that this is not so easy. We can appreciate that an accomplished meditator’s concentration is quite different to our distracted mind.
How can meditation help?
Happiness depends on mind. We may have wonderful material good conditions, but with an agitated or distressed mind we experience dissatisfaction and unhappiness. On the other hand, when we encounter life’s challenges, with a calm, stable mind we face those challenges with equanimity and stability. The thing is, it is possible to train the mind. Our mind is not fixed and through training the mind we change the way we habitually react.
Meditation is a form of mind training. What we are doing when we meditate is cultivating positive minds – minds that are a cause of happiness, and we are opposing negative minds. For example, when we meditate on the breath, observing the sensation of the breath passing through the nostrils, we are cultivating mental calm. The calm we experience during the meditation session brings mental and physical happiness, and that calm persists beyond the session. The more we develop the calm mind during meditation, the more calmness becomes one of our inner strengths. Then, when we do encounter challenges, rather than reacting with upset, we maintain mental equanimity. We can use meditation to cultivate the range of positive attitudes, including serenity, patience, kindness, generosity, compassion and wisdom.
Can meditation help our health? I believe so. There is a growing body of Western scientific research that correlates harmful mental states with various states of ill health, and correlates meditation with good health outcomes. For example, when we are angry our physiology is affected. Perhaps we have a red face, elevated blood pressure or muscular tension. We can surmise that if someone is habitually angry then over time that could have lasting physiological effects. By contrast, having a calm, peaceful mind also has a physiological impact. If we cultivate such a peaceful, relaxed mind that well may bring lasting physiological benefit.