Meditation can be a confusing topic, because there are so many distinct things claiming to be meditation, many of which seem to be virtually the opposite of each other. On the one hand, you have people trying to clear all thoughts from their minds, on the other hand you have people intentionally thinking of mantras or visualizing something – basically making more thoughts in their minds. Sometimes people meditate by specifically focusing on one thing to the exclusion of all else, but there are some teachers who claim that in real meditation there should never be any control or “manipulation” of thinking at all. These (and many more) apparently contrary instructions can make it difficult to get a handle on what meditation is, exactly, and how all of these very different techniques could still all be called meditation.

In the simplest way of looking at it, meditation is a combination of concentration and relaxation. This is probably an over-simplification, but it gets to the heart of the matter. Average human beings experience two basic states of consciousness every day: being awake and being asleep. In the awake state, they can pay attention and encounter things consciously. They are also, however, somewhat tense and wound up. In the sleep state, people experience tremendous relaxation and openness. They are also, however, unconscious and usually cannot direct their attention.

So both of these typical states of human experience offer something positive and something negative.

 State   Positive Effects
 Negative Effects
 Awake  Alertness, consciousness, clarity  Anxiety, stress, reactivity
 Sleep  Relaxation, openness, peace  Unconsciousness, lack of clarity, “muddiness”

Seeing things this way, the natural question to ask is whether there couldn’t be a way to get the positive aspects of both of these states, and to let go of the negatives. That is, could there be a way to get both the attention and clarity of the awake state and the relaxation and openness of the sleep state?

The answer to this question is Yes. Such a state exists, and it is what we are aiming toward in meditation. Meditation combines attention and clarity with relaxation and openness. It lets go of anxiety and tension, as well as unconsciousness and murkiness.

This description does not cover ALL that meditation is, of course, but it does describe the underlying commonality in all meditation practice. Beyond this basic understanding, the rest is a matter of emphasis. In Buddhist insight meditation, for example, we use this concentration and relaxation in the service of observing and deconstructing our sensory experience. In the case of Hindu advaita, we attempt to simply notice the awareness and openness that is already present in all experience. In new age visualization practices, we use our attention and relaxation as a platform to support imagining positive outcomes. And so forth.

Why Meditate?

Because there are so many different meditation techniques, and since it is or was a core practice in so many traditions, meditation has, at one time or another, been claimed to be good for everything. From getting a little relaxed, to becoming as powerful as God, and everything in between. The Yoga Sutra claims that success in meditation will allow you to fly, shrink to the size of an atom or grow to the size of a mountain, experience psychic powers, and so on. Many other texts describe people who have gotten enlightened (are “successful” meditators) as having the powers of a God, or more than a God.

Are these claims for real?

Without taking a concrete position on the veracity of such extreme claims, it is possible to survey the field, and see which claims for meditation appear in all traditions, as well as consider which ones seem to fit with our practical understanding of the laws of the universe. This cuts out most of the extreme claims (while, again, not saying that they are necessarily untrue), but still leaves us with a pretty impressive list of positive outcomes for meditation practice.

This list includes:

  1. Relaxation – Because such a large component in meditation practice is the experience of being relaxed and open, meditators get very good at relaxing. Over time, this can “re-wire” your nervous system to a less anxious and activated condition.
  2. Concentration ability – Because another core component of meditation is increasing attention or awareness, meditation can greatly increase your concentration power. Concentration power is so basic in human life, that even a small increase in your ability to pay attention and focus will make a huge difference in your work life, your love life (you will be able to listen!), and even your level of intelligence.
  3. Greater openness and fluidity — Much of our paranoia and guardedness comes from a desire to avoid dangerous or painful situations. Because we are habitually somewhat unconscious of our surroundings, and also partially filtering out data that we consider unimportant or perhaps undesirable, we often experience a world that “blind-sides” us with unexpected dangers. When we learn to wake up to what is actually going on, and allow much more of our sense data to reach our conscious awareness, we can learn over time to feel much less threatened by reality. This allows us to be less
  4. Resolution of psychological difficulties – Many neurotic conditions involve what we might think of as unconscious (“knee-jerk”) bodily reactions to stimuli. Meditation works on both ends of this equation. It increases the awareness of the reactions (i.e. makes them more conscious), while at the same time decoupling the tension that makes an immediate reaction possible. Daily practice of meditation over the course of years can retrain the nervous system to release these neurotic reactions completely. In short, it makes you psychologically much healthier.
  5. Increased feelings of connectedness to others – Normally we see other people from behind a high, thick wall of our own judgments, preconceptions, and unconscious reactivity. The common result of this is a condition of alienation, depression, and terrible loneliness. Meditation allows us let go of habitual unconsciousness, rote thinking, and programmed reactions to others. Thus it becomes possible to encounter other human beings directly, which greatly increases our feelings of connection and community. This also leads to the next point,
  6. Greater ability to interact with kindness and love – Whether due to evolutionary pressures or the will of God, human beings have a natural capacity to love and be kind to one another. Once the conceptual, judgmental filters, and robotic adverse reactions to others are dissolved through meditation, this innate ability to express and receive love comes forward with great strength. This is one of the most extraordinary results of long term meditation.
  7. Insight into the nature of your life and the universe – By paying closer and closer attention to what is going on, while attempting to remove the conceptual filters and overlays that distort our understanding of what is going on, we gradually build a clearer picture of reality. This clearer view is supported by training ourselves to let go of habitual, unconscious reactions (which include suppression) to what is going on. Many, perhaps all, of the mysteries of human existence are occurring right under your nose, if you can only notice them and not resist or suppress what you discover.

Even without the ability to fly or to be like a god, that is a pretty impressive list! So whether you just want to relax and do better on your tests at school or work at the office, or you want to have a deeply spiritual experience of love and insight into the nature of the human experience, meditation can help you to do that. It is mainly a matter of finding an appropriate practice (this wiki can be of great help with that search), and then applying that practice over time. Although many people think of meditation as airy-fairy, it is actually quite practical, in the sense that it requires daily practice, and this daily practice will be rewarded with real life results.