What is meditation? (Inspired from David Fontana's books)
If meditation sounds like entering into a light trance, nothing could be further from the truth. Meditation is a state of poised alertness, not one of drowsy forgetfulness. As the mind settles into meditation, it frees itself from exhausting effects of its own mental chatter. The mind becomes concentrated and focused, and after the meditation it remains calm and refreshed. And if the practice of meditation seems like withdrawal from the world into an introverted state that cuts off from fellow beings, this isn’t so. Meditation, by helping to free the mind from an excessive concern with its own restless chatter, enables us to be more aware of others, more conscious of their needs, and better able to relate warmly and compassionately to them. By assisting the development of concentration, meditation also allows us to act more efficiently and effectively in the world, and to meet the challenges of daily life with greater clarity and equanimity.
Often, it is supposed that meditation requires sitting on a cushion in a quiet, still room. This again is a misapprehension. Certainly a daily session of quiet sitting is essential for progress, but even in the early days of practice it is possible to meditate at suitable moments during the day – for example, while travelling by train, waiting for a friend, or taking a walk. A few minutes of meditation can help to calm the nerves before a stressful event and refresh the mind after a tiring meeting or a hard day of work.
All the great spiritual traditions have placed major emphasis upon meditation as a path to personal growth. In recent years psychologists have also recognised its value as a method of relaxation and of mind training. For many people in the East meditation is a normal way of life from early childhood onward, and although the practice suffered neglect in the West for some centuries, all techniques taught in the East are now once more being actively and widely taught in Western traditions.
Now think of the same room with much of the unwanted clutter removed, a room in which we can now operate with greater ease and mush less stress. A room where we can enjoy the colours and the decor, a room in which it is now a pleasure to sit and relax. The room is of course our own mind, and the transformation in the room is the result of meditation.
Meditation is thus a form of mental spring-cleaning, or if you prefer, a form of mental purification. It rests and relaxes the mind, develops powers of concentration and awareness, helps us deal with daily challenges and assists us to operate more efficiently and effectively. But it goes much further than this. In a real sense, we are most of us strangers to ourselves. Faced with the hectic pressures of modern living, we have little time for self-reflection, and even less time to experience who we are – what lies behind the surface activity that occupies so much of our attention. So meditation is also a path toward self-knowledge. It allows us to see into ourselves, almost as if a window, hitherto obscured with dust, has been wiped clean.
These are reasons enough for learning to meditate, but there are also physical benefits. As the mind becomes calmer, so the body learns also to relax, to re-discover its equilibrium. As we become better able to handle stress, and better able to experience the wellbeing that comes with tranquillity, so there is often a reduction in blood pressure and in heart-rate that persists even outside meditation. Released from tensions, the body seems better able to ward off infections and perhaps also other illnesses. There is evidence that regular meditators may live longer than non-meditators, and evidence that they take more pleasure in the natural world, in the beauties of the earth and the sky.
Meditation may also help in pain control and healing. It is thus a form of treatment that is free and has, for the very great majority of people, no-side effects or contra-indications.