The Psychology of Meditation
by Elena Greco
February 19, 2017
I’ve intended to write an article about meditation for quite some time. I planned to discuss the true nature of meditation, what it is and isn’t, and the best ways of experiencing it—in short, a meditation primer. I have some knowledge and experience that I believe would be useful, and I’ve taught meditation in the past, so that seemed a reasonable, and perhaps valuable, thing to write about.
But what has come to me recently is that what people have the most trouble with about meditation is … getting themselves to meditate! While many of us believe we would like to meditate, actually making that happen in our lives is sometimes a big challenge. And for some people, it is a challenge they don’t overcome. That makes me sad, because meditation is one of the most valuable things I’ve encountered in my life. Many studies support the value of meditation in our mental and physical health, and I know of its value personally, as I have meditated for (most of) 30 years.
Why is it that getting ourselves to meditate, especially when we are novices at the practice—and sometimes even when we are not!—is so difficult? It’s because meditation is something that must be done regularly, usually daily, in order to experience results, so it is a new habit that we must develop. How hard is it to institute a new habit? Pretty hard, if you ask most people!
The Meditation Habit. So how do we acquire the “meditation habit”? It’s pretty much like any other habit we want to acquire. What must come first is an intention, one that is backed by a purpose. Why do you want to meditate? After you’re clear on how you believe meditate could make a difference in your life, formulate your intention. For example, it might be something like this: “As part of my commitment to having a healthy body and mind that supports my success/fulfillment/[____] in [____], I intend to meditate daily.” The variables—commitment, intention, frequency—are all up to you and should reflect something you genuinely want.
Meditation as part of your natural routine. Next, one of the absolute most important things about making meditation an integral part of your life is incorporating it into your natural routine. This means not only having a regular time for it, but that it follows something that is already a part of your routine, and that it flows naturally with other parts of your routine. If it always follows brushing your teeth, for example, you will always do it. You won’t have to think about it, you won’t have to look at the clock and say, Oh, it’s time for meditation, or, Oops, I missed meditation, or, Maybe I’ll skip it just for today. And it will feel natural, like a normal part of your life. If you have to decide every single day whether you’re going to meditate, you won’t. It needs to happen without your thinking much about it, much like brushing your teeth in the morning.
Most of us have a natural morning routine. For example, as soon as I fall out of bed, I grab my glasses, plug in the teakettle, and prepare my morning tea. Then I grab my teacup, turn on some soothing background music, and sit down on my meditation cushion, gradually and slowly getting in to a comfortable meditation posture while drinking my hot green tea. When I’m ready, I reach over and hit the button to turn off the sound. And then I meditate.
I follow this routine every single morning, rain or shine, no matter where I am. My body and mind know the way even if I’m not quite alert yet, so I never have to decide if I’m going to meditate or not; it just happens.
I invite you to think where meditation might fit naturally in your routine. It might take some experimentation to find out where it falls most naturally. For example, if you decide it might fit best before your morning shower, try it one day right after your shower and one day before to see which feels right, which has a better flow in your life. Then do it!
Are we there yet? Is it working? It’s kind of hard to do something regularly when you don’t see a benefit right away. With meditation, you might not recognize the benefit immediately (which does not mean it’s not there). It’s not the same as taking a pill, and an hour later all your symptoms are gone. It’s more like training for a marathon. You have to train every day, and you might not see any difference from one day to the next. But you might, from one week to the next, notice a difference, and you definitely will see a change from one month to the next. When training for a marathon, you can look back and say, a month ago, my time was much longer, or, a month ago, I didn’t have the stamina that I do now. In a sense, meditating is like a long-term training. On the other hand, the results can sometimes be seen fairly quickly; just maybe not when you’re expecting them.
For me, I think the biggest proof was that, after establishing a regular meditation practice, I noticed that when I didn’t meditate the quality of my day was totally different. I didn’t have the equanimity, the positive outlook, the creativity, certainly not the focus, and honestly not the joy in my life, that I normally did on the days when I meditated. After experiencing this a number of times, it just wasn’t worth it to me not to meditate. I find that accessing that place beyond the thoughts, beyond the mind-chatter, even once, no matter how briefly, changes my whole day.
At this point, I look forward to my meditation in the morning. Even when the meditation doesn’t seem to be fruitful, that is, I don’t manage to be the observer of my mind rather than at the effect of it for as much time as I would like to be, or I keep getting caught in the thoughts, it still has an incredible effect on my day, and I am aware of that. And there’s something about the familiarity of sitting on the cushion in the moment, sipping my morning tea, knowing that I’m about to do something that’s really quite easy and relaxing, as long as I withhold judgment of it (and me), something that is actually quite a pleasant experience, that makes it easier.
What if I’m a terrible meditator? I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m not a particularly “good” meditator, at least not all the time. Fortunately, how “well” you meditate is totally irrelevant to the value that you get from meditation. It’s kind of a paradox. In fact, it might even be true that the “worse” you are at meditation, the more value you get from it. If you have a lot of trouble being detached from the constant, rapid flow of thoughts, of being able to access the deeper, wiser part of our self that is impervious to the activities and thoughts, then imagine how important meditation could be to your life. Any meditation is “good” meditation!
Are mindfulness and meditation the same? In short, no. The purpose of meditation is to allow us to experience being separate from the stream of thoughts which normally take us out of the present moment. Meditation is the accessing of that experience of being beyond or separate from the chatter of the mind. That experience becomes deeper over time, and eventually becomes quite accessible in our daily lives even when we’re not officially meditating.
“Mindfulness” has become a buzzword almost to the point of being meaningless. Mindfulness just means Awareness. I use a capital letter to distinguish Awareness of this sort from the usual usage of the word. It means being in the present moment, and it usually refers to being fully present when not meditating. Mindfulness can be a gateway to meditation, but it is not the same thing. I won’t elaborate further in this brief article, but there are distinct and important differences.
What about guided meditation? On a related topic, a “guided meditation” is not meditation, either. A guided meditation can be focused on relaxation or a visualization, neither of which is meditation. However, it can get us into a space where we can get into meditation much more easily. And if it helps you relax or brings you to insight, great! So if you enjoy guided meditations, by all means, start your meditation with one so that you associate the practice with something you enjoy.
I don’t mean to denigrate mindfulness techniques or guided meditations at all. I use them both myself at times. There are a couple of them I really like that I sometimes use at the beginning of my meditation. It’s important to realize that they’re not the same as meditation, though. There are many apps and recordings now that purport to “meditate you.” This is not possible. No one can bring you to the experience of meditation but yourself. However, using these crutches or techniques to make it easier for you to meditate is not a problem, as long as you don’t stop there. If you do, you’re shortchanging yourself.
Is watching or counting the breath meditating? No. Again, this is a technique that can lead to meditation, but it is not meditation. And breathing awareness is important, but I don’t recommend counting for two reasons. One is that counting accesses the linear mind, the left brain, and therefore makes it a little harder to get beyond that part of our mind-chatter. The second reason is physiological. Forcing yourself to breathe to a certain unnatural rhythm can only cause stress. But most of all, it is the exhale that we most need to focus on if we want to relax, and meditation only takes place when we’re relaxed. The inhale automatically activates our autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system associated with the fight-or-flight response; we don’t need more of that. The exhale automatically activates our sympathetic nervous system, the part associated with relaxation and healing; we do need more of that! Most of us habitually tighten the breathing muscles and never exhale fully, causing the autonomic nervous system to be in perpetual overdrive. So the part of our breathing in both relaxation and meditation that is most crucial and helpful is the exhale. The inhale happens automatically and doesn’t need encouragement. You should never try to force the inhale and exhale to be equal because that just makes us more tense. But definitely do pay attention to your breathing, and particularly to your exhale, when you prepare to meditate.
Do I need to follow a spiritual practice to be able to meditate well? No. Often when people decide to find a meditation class or teacher, the classes they find advertised operate out of a spiritual lineage or a religious organization. This often leads the new meditator to believe that real meditation can only occur within a spiritual context. Nothing could be farther from the truth. You don’t need a spiritual path or lineage in order to meditate easily or well or to get major benefits from it, both mentally and physically. However, it is not a bad idea to get your initial instruction from someone who really knows how to meditate and how to teach it. I recommend you find a teacher or practice that resonates with you on both a psychological and sensory level. Real meditation belongs to no organization or belief system. It belongs to your deepest self.
So go for it! Make a commitment to meditate, find a time and place that works for you, fit it into an already-established routine, and just do it!
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A few non-denominational resources:
Adyashanti, a master meditation teacher, offers a terrific little book, TRUE MEDITATION, which comes with three guided meditations on CD at a low cost. In addition, the Downloads Library on his website, www.adyashanti.org, has quite a few free downloads. He also offers a study course, The Way of Liberation, free at www.adyashanti.org/wayofliberation.
Peter Russell, offers a free meditation course at www.peterrussell.com/HMWET/index.php, which has six guided meditations which I love; he has a very soothing voice.
Eckhart Tolle, THE POWER OF NOW, plus guided meditations and meditation-related items, can be found on his website, www.eckharttolle.com. His work is not free; he rather charges a lot for it.
Kenny Werner, EFFORTLESS MASTERY. This gem of a book comes with four guided meditations on a CD. In this case, they can bring you into the state of meditation. Geared toward musicians, it would be beneficial for anyone in the creative arts, or, well, probably anyone.