The idea for this article began a long time ago—after my father asked me what meditation was. At the time, I had spent over 100 hours meditating, completed nearly 1,000 meditation sessions, and read a list of books on the topic. So you’d think answering his question would have been easy, but it wasn’t.
As I unconfidently answered, I found myself reciting the same vague information I’d heard for years.
I said things like, “Meditation makes you more self-aware,” “Meditation improves focus,” and “Meditation helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.”
When my father asked how meditation worked, I was lost for words. I could have stumbled through an answer, but I couldn’t clearly articulate how meditation improves daily life.
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At first, I thought I was the problem. Maybe I had daydreamed my way through the “how meditation works” chapters. But, when I asked other meditators the same question, they had the same problem.
All were able to recite the benefits of meditation. Yet, none were able to explain how meditation improved daily life. So, I set out to answer that question.
Since that time, I’ve read more, practiced more, written about the topic, and even built my own meditation app, Awair, which has hundreds of guided meditation practices. Along the way, I came to an important realization.
I believe our culture’s general inability to understand how meditation works is problematic for two main reasons.
I think people have a hard time understanding how meditation works because a lot of meditation literature is subjective and esoteric. Concepts like spiritual awakenings, balancing chakras, or connecting to infinite intelligence are confusing and hard to believe. Sadly, I think these implausible ideas turn many people away from meditation.
But thankfully, you don’t have to believe in mysticism to benefit from meditation. You can improve your life through meditation without wearing orange robes, sleeping with chakra crystals under your pillow, or bathing in patchouli oil.
With that in mind, I’m going to give you an easy-to-understand explanation of how meditation works and why it improves your life.
If you recorded and replayed the stream of thoughts that run through your mind, you might be surprised by what you heard. For example, your thoughts on a typical Monday morning while getting ready for work might sound like this.
“Ugh, it’s Monday. I need to get out of bed, or I’m going to be late for work. What am I going to have for breakfast? Oh no! I forgot to get food last night. I’ll have to pick something up on the way to work. Wait, is that grey hair? Am I old enough to have grey hair? Maybe I’m working too much. Speaking of work, I have a presentation today. I hope the client likes it. I wonder if they’ll notice my grey hair?“
While this may sound crazy and exhausting, it’s perfectly normal. Your brain is like a radio station that sends you a continuous stream of thoughts.
In many cases, the brain’s radio station is harmless. But, if the radio station gets out of control, it can negatively impact your life.
For instance, assume the radio station constantly sends messages like, “You’re a loser” or “You’ll never fall in love.” Thoughts like this can quickly steer your life off course if you let them.
Broadly speaking, two big problems occur when you lose control of the radio station in your mind.
Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone while scrolling through your phone? If so, how did that conversation go? I’m guessing not so well. That’s because you can’t give your full attention to more than one thing at a time.
When you direct your attention toward your phone, you take it away from the conversation. As a result, the conversation suffers.
The same thing happens to your life when your brain’s radio station is out of control. At times, the radio in your mind gets so loud that you can’t focus on the present moment. When this happens, you miss many of life’s meaningful experiences.
For example, you can’t fully engage with your spouse at dinner when you’re stressed about work. You’re likely to miss the smile on your child’s face if you’re ruminating about the past. And you won’t fully enjoy doing something you love if you’re worried about the future.
All of these examples explain what people mean when they describe “being there without really being there.” In other words, their body is there, but their mind is somewhere else.
To truly experience life’s meaningful moments, you have to engage with them fully. Thankfully, meditation can help you do this.
During mindfulness meditation, you practice by focusing on one single thing. For example, you might choose to focus on the sensation of your breath or the sound of a bell. Many people choose to focus on the breath because it’s always available.
Here’s how a simple mindfulness meditation practice might progress.
Believe it or not, these simple steps are the foundation of nearly every mindfulness meditation practice. While simple, in theory, meditation is difficult in practice. Preventing your mind from wandering off is hard to do, but it’s a great way to improve your ability to focus. Here’s why.
Bringing your attention back to the breath is a lot like doing a bicep curl for your ‘focus muscle.’ Every time you refocus on the breath, you strengthen your ability to focus. This exercise also teaches you to recognize when you’ve lost focus.
As your focus improves, so does the quality of your life. That’s because you can pay attention to what matters without getting distracted by the radio.
For example, you can fully engage at dinner by shifting your focus away from work and toward your spouse. You’ll notice the smile on your child’s face when you stop focusing on the past. And you’ll enjoy doing something you love when you focus on the present moment.
In short, meditation helps you stay focussed by teaching you to notice where your attention lands. This skill is powerful. That’s because learning to identify when you’ve lost focus allows you to refocus on what matters.
Many people believe their thoughts represent who they are. If the radio says, “you’re a loser,” they believe it. If the radio says, “you’ll never find love,” they stop looking.
This mindset opens you up to a host of mental health problems. Here’s why.
When you believe you are your thoughts, they control you. If the radio makes you angry, anxious, or depressed, you think you’ll feel that way until the station changes. Ultimately, this belief makes you feel like a victim subject to whatever the radio plays.
With this mindset, your emotions can quickly spiral out of control, leaving you chronically stressed, anxious, or depressed. This has a huge impact on the quality of your life.
Thankfully, meditation can also help with this problem.
As you meditate, you’ll likely begin to recognize something important about the mind. That is, your mind appears to have two distinct parts.
First, there’s the radio that sends you a continuous stream of thoughts. But there’s also a part of the mind that notices, listens to, or considers those thoughts.
The idea that there is a radio and a listener explains how you can get lost in thought and then suddenly notice that your mind has wandered. Here’s why this is important.
Contrary to what many people believe, you are not the radio. Instead, you are the listener, and as the listener, you get to choose what you believe.
The following analogy will illustrate this point.
Your mind is a lot like the conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant. Like the radio in your mind sends you a continuous stream of thoughts, the conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant sends you an endless variety of sushi.
Believing every thought from the radio in your mind is equivalent to eating every piece of sushi that comes your way. With this approach, you become a slave to the conveyor belt. You feel forced to eat everything even if you don’t like it. As a result, you leave the restaurant feeling overwhelmed, full, and sick.
But, thankfully, you don’t have to eat every piece of sushi that passes by. Instead, you can choose to eat what you want and let the rest go. With this approach, you are no longer a slave to the conveyor belt. Deciding what sushi to eat puts you in control and leaves you feeling satisfied.
You can say the same thing about the thoughts in your mind. You don’t have to believe every thought that comes your way. If the radio says “you’re a loser,” you don’t have to believe it.
Instead, you can listen to helpful thoughts and let the rest go. Using this approach, you are no longer a slave to the radio in your mind and put yourself in control.
Ultimately, meditation reduces the effects of difficult thoughts and emotions because it helps you recognize that thoughts do not define who you are. Instead, it teaches you that thoughts are just thoughts. And, with this understanding, unhelpful thoughts begin to lose their power.
As you continue to practice meditation, the distinction between the radio and the listener will become more evident. As a result, two things will happen.
First, you’ll catch yourself lost in thought more often. And second, you’ll become more aware of your emotions. This improved self-awareness is attainable during meditation and in everyday life.
You can ask yourself two important questions when you recognize thoughts or emotions.
1. Am I focusing on the right thing? For example, if you notice you’re scrolling through Instagram while spending time with your child, use that awareness to redirect your attention toward your child.
2. Is this thought or emotion helpful or harmful? All too often, we mindlessly let unhelpful thoughts and emotions influence our behavior. When this happens, your life veers off course.
For instance, maybe you’re angry because a co-worker upset your biggest customer and lost a sale. As a result, you yell at them and damage your professional reputation.
In a case like this, you can use the awareness of being angry as a reminder to question your thinking. Consider what will happen if you let your thoughts and emotions influence your behavior. Will acting this way take you towards the life you want or away from it?
If you discover that your behavior will take you away from the life you want, resist the urge to let that thought or emotion influence your behavior. Instead, redirect your attention toward something helpful.
Ultimately, learning this skill could mean the difference between being a respected co-worker and losing your job.
One of the most common meditation myths is the idea that meditation is about clearing your mind. In truth, this is not possible. Any healthy mind will always be doing something. That might be thinking, feeling emotions, or receiving inputs from the five senses.
If you expect to empty your mind using meditation, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
Note: Before ending this article, I wanted to thank Mindful Ambition for writing a wonderful article on this topic. 1
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
The following book links are Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase a book after clicking one of the links, I will receive a commission.
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