It may be easiest to understand what meditation is by first explaining what it is not. Meditation is not thinking. It’s seeing, smelling, feeling and experiencing without applying thought. It is a quieting of the mind where the thinking part of the brain is turned off. If you’re thinking, you’re not meditating. Meditation is often viewed as an exotic or foreign activity, but it’s really just using a different part of the brain.
Two of the defining qualities of meditation are focused awareness and a receptive state of mind. The body was not meant to live in the stress response, yet in this modern world we often find ourselves living in a constant state of low-level stress. Stress aggravates everything. It causes inflammation in the body, tightening of the muscles, and interferes with getting good quality sleep (in fact fatigue is the number one symptom of stress). Turning off the stress response helps encourage broader awareness and adaptability. There is an expansive feeling in this adaptive state as all the muscles stretch and relax; a feeling of “oneness” or connection to everything and everybody (contrast this with the stress response which is very disconnecting).
A good place to start when beginning a meditation practice is with the breath. Focusing on the inhale and the exhale develops a moment to moment focus of simply being. You may also find it helpful to focus on an image, or choose a word or words (or phrase/phrases) to link with the rhythm of your breath. Observe the sensations you experience mindfully, try not to be too “thinky,” and avoid judgments. It may be difficult to keep your mind from wandering at first, but a wandering mind is not a sign you can’t meditate – it’s a sign that you need to meditate! Catching yourself drifting and bringing your attention back to the present moment helps build your meditation practice.
It’s recommended to spend 10-20 minutes in quiet meditation 1-2 times a day. Maintaining focus for 20 minutes at a time can be challenging in the beginning, but you can slowly work your way up to it. The more often you practice, the more the brain changes (in a positive way). Meditating daily for just 20 minutes has been shown to remodel your brain away from stress to more pleasant and steadying states of mind – so you can see, it’s well worth the effort!