How meditation changes the way you think
For the last 6 months I have been writing regular newsletters about the courses and teachers that have most influenced me. In the next few newsletters I take a look at different forms of meditation. This week I’m looking at the effects of meditation on our style of thinking, and given the huge health benefits, what are some of the barriers to starting a meditation practice.
What is meditation?
William James described meditation as “voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again”.
It can be categorized into three types; concentrative, opening up and mindfulness.
- In concentrative meditation, attention is paid to an object (perhaps for example your breath or the light from a candle). When the meditation practitioner notices awareness shifting away, they return to the focus of concentration.
- Opening up meditation attempts to expand awareness to feelings, thoughts and emotions as they arise, without offering judgement. Concentrative and opening up meditation offer insights on the inner world,
- Whereas mindfulness is the attempt to focus on a stream of experience, both internal and external.
Wilber stated that meditation is a gradual turning in of consciousness from outward focused thoughts. He notes the slowness of this transition, because of the vibrancy of the gross outer world and the more subtle nature of the inner. This shift he translated as “awareness becoming capable of clear, accurate perceptions”. In my Vipassana meditation training the constant instruction was to see the world as it is – don’t take the world for granted, its changing all the time.
In the Vedic tradition, it is emphasised that the outer, gross world is constantly changing and therefore its shifting nature is fundamentally unreal; the energetic and conceptual boundaries of all things being temporary and therefore indefinable. Sustained focus on the unchanging nature of “true” reality is a source of great comfort at times of chaotic change.
By focusing your attention internally you become more practised at observing what is directly in your presence in this moment. By being less distracted by the past and the future you increase your opportunities for experiencing new events.
Why it may be good for you
In their studies Baumeister & Heatherton consider attention to be key in weakening the potency of impulses and other physiological reactions that result in “undesired” responses.
Given that attention is considered to be the first stage of processing information, responding to situations in a manner which optimises your wellbeing is difficult if problematic thoughts and feelings arrive and go unnoticed (ie you’re not aware of what you’re thinking and feeling and what the events that led up to that state was).
According to Baumeister & Heatherton, learning follows three stages.
- In stage 1, individuals rely on others to help regulate new behaviours (ie we follow the tribe – friends, families and colleagues).
- Thereafter learned behaviours become controlled by the individual.
- The final stage is where the behaviour becomes familiar, requiring little effort, freeing the mind for the acquisition of new processes.
Whilst habitual thinking frees the mind for advancement, it can lock the individual in negative patterns of behaviour and can place a veil over the link between cause and effect (we pay little attention to our thoughts, feelings and actions and don’t investigate whether they are useful for us). Increasing demands placed upon our attention would seem to dictate that we learn ever more habitual patterns simply to allow space for our minds to continue to explore the world.
If an increase in habitual behaviour is a prerequisite of being able to function in an increasingly complex world, what strategies do individuals have to ensure patterns are constructive and serve purpose? Habitual behaviour can be examined by bringing attention to it through meditation. Meditation raises wellbeing through a number of different pathways including the following:
- Liberation of attentional resources (away from anxiety stimulating events – you become more aware of what your thinking about);
- Disruption of non serving habitual thought patterns; and
- Clarification of values (you get to examine which thoughts, emotions and actions are useful for you).
The barriers to a meditation practice
Most people are aware of the benefits of meditation for a healthy mind and a healthy body. In this letter I’ve given some examples of how meditation helps us change the way we learn, think and perceive our environment.
So it seems like no brainer – practice training your mind as hard as you train your muscles during exercise. Being aware of the barriers to meditation is the first stage in understanding how to use your brain so that it becomes your greatest ally rather than an annoying distraction. Some of the barriers include the following:
- We get excited by new experiences and quickly become addicted to the joy they bring
- It can be physically uncomfortable to sit still for long periods
- We can be scared by emptying our mind of thoughts. Without distraction deep troubling thoughts can arise
- We don’t trust that it will be of benefit
- In a secular world the spiritual aspects can seem uncomfortable for some people
You can be assured by the following:
- Practicing being in the moment does not reduce experience it heightens experience. You can see, smell, touch much more and absorb far more information. Refer to previous newsletters – the more joyful emotions you experience the more accurate your perception of the world
- With time the practice becomes easier and you begin to look forward to it – its a virtuous circle of positive experiences. The more you do it the more it becomes magical, mystical and joyful
- The medical benefits are irrefutable – 1,000s of studies in mainstream academic journals
- With time the joyous feelings multiply which squeeze out negative emotions as they arise. You start to view the world through a prism of positivity. Suffering and hardship are ever present but by practicing meditation you sow the seeds for a harvest that you can reap in the future . This harvest will sustain you when times are hard
- It doesn’t need to be a spiritual practice. It may well become that but meditation training is a wonderful wellbeing tool without the spiritual aspect as well
Being mindful of this moment puts the world into perspective. It stops you from getting out of kilter with reality and allows you to experience the fine detail of life as it emerges. We can experience life in a more brilliant way and with heightened experiences by never taking the present for granted.
“The quality of experience of people who play with and transform the opportunities in their surroundings is clearly more developed as well as more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they can not alter.” Csikszentmihalyi, from his book FLOW