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Understanding Meditation

by Adam Friedman

What Meditation Does to You

Meditation is a way to change your attitude towards life. The act of practicing meditation changes you from inside. It takes a lot of work, but slowly you become more relaxed and more connected to people. It's not an easy solution. But it is a solution.

I've been meditating regularly for about four years now and overall I've become a more relaxed person. Things don't bother me as much. I get angry less, and I don't worry about things as much. When I do get angry, I don't stay angry for nearly as long. I'm a more patient person. I'm also more aware of how my mind works. I see patterns in the way I think and approach things. This makes me more aware of faults that I previously hadn't noticed. Noticing these faults was the first step towards fixing them. I've also become more accepting of my faults. By accepting what's wrong with me I've become more honest with myself and a more genuine person overall. In addition I've become more accepting of other people's faults and the rotten things that they can sometimes do. Because of this, people annoy me less and I'm closer to the people I care about. Obviously, overall, I'm a happier person. Life isn't perfect, but it's better. I can't say for sure what percent of my changes are due to meditation, but I'm confident it's played a significant role.

How it works

The basic idea behind meditation is that it is an exercise that teaches you to accept things the way they are. The way it does this is that when you meditate, you actually practice accepting things the way they are, and like anything, the more you practice the better you get. Gradually you become more accepting of things. When you meditate, you try to do two things. First, you try to pay attention to the breath going in and out of your nose without controlling it. You just watch it. If your mind wanders and you start thinking about something else, when you notice that your mind wandered, you bring your attention back to your breath. The second thing that you try to do is to accept how you are doing. If you can barely pay attention at all, you just accept it without getting annoyed. This sounds easy but it's incredibly difficult because it is contrary to the way we've thought our whole lives. When you try to do something, if you do it well, you are happy. If you do it badly, you become unhappy. Even though it doesn't really matter how well you are doing, just by trying to pay attention, you will want to do it well out of habit. You may accept how you are doing for a little while, but inevitably something will come up in your mind that you don't accept. You may become bored, or tired, or uncomfortable, or you will want to feel differently than you do. You just have to try to accept these feelings. Of course you won't be able to do this. Meditation is an exercise where by practicing, you get better at what you're practicing. It's like working out. You practice lifting weights and gradually you get better at it. In meditation you practice accepting things the way they are and gradually you get better at it. If you meditate regularly, you will become more accepting of how your meditation is going. This will carry over into your life and you will become more accepting of things in life. The more you meditate, the more accepting you will become.

You might wonder how being more accepting of how you pay attention to your breathing will have an affect on the rest of your life. This is the best analogy I can give. Let's say someone couldn't deal with losing at anything. If they lose at basketball, they throw a tantrum. If they lose at chess, they get furious. If they lose an argument, they're pissed off for an hour. Now let's say that person tried to accept when they lost at basketball. Whenever they lost at basketball they would do whatever they could not to get angry, and gradually they learned to deal with losing at basketball. You would think that if they then lost at chess, they wouldn't get angry. It's the same with meditation.

Becoming more accepting of things not being the way you want affects so many different aspects of your life. You become more accepting of things not going the way you want in life and people not acting how they're "supposed to" act. These are the main causes of anger in life so you become less angry in circumstances that tend to make you angry and less angry in general. As you become more accepting of things not going how you want, you start to feel more like, "Whatever happens, happens. I'll deal with it." This helps get rid of the natural fear of the unknown which tends to keep people from having a full life because they're afraid of the negative possibility of new experiences. In the same way, it helps get rid of people's fear of change. As you become less fearful of the unknown, you become less fearful of the future being different from how you want. And when you aren't afraid of the future, you can enjoy the present more fully.

In addition, you become more accepting of your moods. When people are unhappy, angry, or just don't feel how they would like to feel in any situation, they tend to get annoyed or upset by the way the way that they are feeling. This makes the situation worse and it becomes more difficult to come out of the "bad" mood. So when you become more accepting of your moods, you tend to come out of bad moods quicker. Overall, you become more relaxed at your core because your whole attitude towards life gradually becomes more relaxed. You also become more accepting of who you are so you won't try as much to act like something you're not. This leads to a gradual transformation where you begin to feel like you are becoming the "real" you.

As I said before, you also become more accepting of your faults so you become more honest about yourself which makes people respect you more. Because of their ego, many people aren't willing to admit faults that they have instead blaming things on other people. Pretty much everybody does this to some degree. Accepting the fact that you do something that is wrong is the first and arguably most important step to changing that behavior.

The world is populated with people who sometimes do things that are wrong. Even the people you care about most aren't perfect. The more you accept people for who they are, the closer you feel to them. Gradually you start to feel compassion instead of anger. This makes you feel more connected to the people you care about as well as people in general. This doesn't mean once you start meditating you won't get angry and just feel compassion for everyone. It just means that gradually some of the anger will be replaced. It's a long road. But if you practice, there's very little chance that you will say, "My life is better, but it wasn't worth the effort."

You might ask why you should use your breath as the object of your attention. One reason is that your breath is both conscious and unconscious. You can control it or let go of it. In meditation, you try to let go of it but you will often find that you are controlling it. This is further practice in trying to do your best at something and then letting go of the outcome. Because in life, you can't control the world, you can only do your best work to get things to the situation you want. In the end, the more you let go of the outcome, and accept the things that are out of your control, the happier you will be. It's like that old saying, "Give me the serenity to accept the things I can't change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

The second reason that you use your breath as the object of attention is that your breathing is directly related to your mindset. When you are relaxed, your breathing is relaxed, when you are nervous, your breathing changes. There are so many nuances in the way your breath changes related to your thinking. So by paying attention to your breath, you are indirectly looking at your mind. And by practicing accepting how your breathing is, you are indirectly practicing accepting the way your mind is.

How to Practice

It's better to meditate on an empty stomach than after a meal because after you eat you tend to be more tired and less able to pay attention. The question that may come up now is why does it matter if you pay attention well, isn't it only important to accept how you are doing. The first part of the answer is that as you accept how you are doing, you will be able to pay attention better. But also, when you are trying to do something, there are many different ways that your mind might not accept how you are doing. For instance, you might not accept that you are not paying attention well, or if you are doing what you are trying to do well, you might not accept that although you are doing well now, this will change, and you will have difficult periods. This non-acceptance of change can manifest itself as an attachment or clinging to the present situation. When you are paying attention better, as well as accepting your shortcomings in your meditation, you will notice patterns of thought that are deeper in your mind. Things that you were aware of on a subconscious level but didn't really notice. These won't manifest themselves as revelations, (although this is possible) but rather as another way that you won't accept how your meditation is going. So paying attention better will let you work on your mind at a deeper level. The ironic thing is that the desire to pay attention better actually makes it harder to pay attention. The stronger the desire, the harder it is. Ideally, you would try to pay attention well, but not hope for an outcome. However it goes, it goes. Don't count on the ideal happening often.

You can sit with your legs crossed, but it's not necessary. If you do, you should sit on an incline or put a pillow under your butt. This will help keep your back straight. You should sit in a comfortable position. If it's not too uncomfortable you should keep your back straight. You shouldn't lie down because you're a lot more likely to fall asleep. I meditate with my eyes closed to reduce distractions, but there are people who meditate with their eyes open. There are different schools of though on this, both work, so you should just pick whichever one you like the sound of.

You should just try to pay attention to the breath going in and out of your nose. If your breath is deep, that's fine. If it's shallow, that's fine. If it's relaxed, that's fine. If it's not, that's fine. Your job is not to judge or to control, just to observe. If you can feel the breath touching the inside of your nostrils, then you should feel it. If you can't feel anything, just notice when it is entering your nose and when it is leaving. It doesn't matter how well you can pay attention, only that you keep trying to pay attention. Your mind will wander, and it's shocking how quickly it will wander, often after less than one breath. When you notice that your mind has wandered, bring it back to your breath. When it wanders again, bring it back again.

The goal is to work at it without caring how it goes. However, you will find that you do care how it is going. As you practice and try to accept how it is going, you will improve and you will become more accepting of how you are doing.

There are many different ways you may not like how your meditation is going. You might get frustrated at your awful concentration; you might get bored; you might feel angry, sad, upset or annoyed; you might want the meditation to relax you and get frustrated that this isn't happening, or countless other things. The way to deal with these is to realize that this is how meditation works. It's supposed to bring up these feelings so you can learn to accept them. When you work out, you use weights that are difficult to lift because that is what makes you stronger. It's the same way with meditation. It's designed to be difficult.

Usually you can't just accept that you don't like how it's going. Here's how to work at it. Let's say you notice that you are annoyed because you don't feel like sitting anymore so you have the desire to stop. You realize that you are not paying attention to your breath but thinking about how you want to stop meditating. At this point you should try to pay attention to your breath realizing that it is more difficult because you are annoyed. Just try to do the best you can given the fact that you are annoyed. You might not even be able to go back to your breath well. Just to to do the best you can understanding the fact that it is more difficult simply because you are not accepting how you are doing. By doing this, you learn to better accept the thing that is making it difficult.

As time goes on, you will develop a more relaxed form of concentration. This may seem paradoxical because we normally associate strong concentration with a tense, furrowed brow type of image. Meditation changes the way you view the world, so many of the analogies that people use to describe it can at first seem contradictory. As you begin to practice, these examples begin to make more sense.

Sometimes when you are meditating, you can have strange experiences. You might experience emotions for no apparent reasons. You might see lights or your body may feel like it's a single point. You might have visions pop into your head. There are countless different things like this that can happen, and they all make it harder to pay attention to your breath. If they do happen, you should treat them like every other distraction and try to pay attention to your breath as well as you can given that something is distracting you.

If you become relatively focused and accepting of your meditation, you will start to go deeper into your mind. This will cause you to notice mental patterns of non-accepting that you were previously unaware of. This makes it very difficult or uncomfortable to pay attention because you have to deal with something consciously that was previously in your subconscious. You probably won't know what this pattern of thought is, but you will definitely notice how it affects your meditation. If you accept how it affects your meditation, but still work hard to pay attention, you will deal with this deeper mental habit and be able to work on even deeper levels of your mind.

The way you are meditating can change from minute to minute and from day to day. It can be frustrating to have what you consider a very acceptable meditation one day and one that you are unhappy with the next day. The goal obviously is to accept that it changes from day to day, and it's not going to be how you want it to be. If this is frustrating for you, you should deal with the frustration the same way you deal with frustration while meditating. Realize that the goal is to accept the changing nature of your meditation and not get frustrated. This may not work and you may still be frustrated. Then, try to accept the fact that your mind reacts to certain things with frustration, and that's just something you have to accept (or at least try to accept.) If you work at trying to accept that your mind reacts with frustration, anger, aversion, or other unpleasant emotions, you will become more accepting of these feelings and they won't be as unpleasant.

A method some people use to focus

There is a method that some people use to focus easier; however, it does have a major drawback. Instead of just paying attention to their breath, they count their breaths up to four. The first time they exhale, they count one. The next time they exhale, they count two. After they count the fourth exhalation, they go back to one. This makes it easier to focus; however, instead of observing your natural breathing, which is a reflection of your mind, you are observing the count that you are creating so you are not observing your mind as directly. You have to make the decision which method you use.

Bringing Meditation into life

If you practicing regularly and work hard when you practice, you will gradually become more accepting of things and experience the benefits of meditation. However, you can also work when you are not meditating to bring the benefits into your life. Let's say you are in a situation where you are experiencing something unpleasant. Like you are stuck in a traffic jam and you are upset that you have to wait and you are angry at yourself because you were too lazy to check the traffic report. Look at the things that you can't control like the traffic, and the fact that you didn't check the traffic report (because that happened in the past) and try to accept them as they are. If you can't accept them and you are still angry, realize that the fact that your mind created anger is out of your control right now. Try to accept the fact that you are angry and realize that by practicing this you will become more accepting so in the future this type of situation won't be quite as unpleasant. One way that often helps to accept the emotion is to observe the effect that the emotion has on your body. In the same way that fear creates a sensation in your stomach, all emotions create sensations in your body. Observe how the anger or frustration affects you physically while you are experiencing it. This method can have incredible results.

Using negative experiences to develop your attitude of acceptance has another benefit as well. As you begin to realize that these negative experiences can be useful, it starts to feel like there is a positive side to them so they don't seem all bad.

Many schools of meditation teach that if you want meditation to have an effect on your life, it is important to live in a moral way (what they consider moral varies somewhat, but it's basically the usual with some form of vegetarianism included.) Some schools feel that it is so important that they even teach that morality is part of the meditation technique. Although I can't say for sure whether morality helps meditation effect your life, it does make sense to me that this would be true. One of the main reasons has to do with the way that the attitude you develop through meditation helps you feel more connected to people in general. This feeling is one of the great benefits of meditation. When you act selfishly and screw other people over, you are working to subconsciously develop an attitude that is directly opposed to this feeling of connectedness. When you act selflessly, you are working to develop an attitude of connectedness and therefore enhancing the benefits of your meditation.

Meditation and Faith

From what I've explained, it should be evident that you don't need to follow any religion or believe in God to get the benefits of meditation. However, sects in every major religion incorporate some form of meditation. Eastern religions put a greater emphasis on meditation, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have their own meditation techniques as well. I think this is because there is a relationship between meditation and faith in God.

If you believe in an all powerful God, then you believe that God has the power to stop bad things from happening, but he chooses not to. The obvious question becomes, why doesn't God stop these things. If God is also a loving God, it can't be because God doesn't love the person who is experiencing the pain. So it must be part of a plan that we just don't understand. With some of the incredibly horrible things that happen in the world, this theory of a divine plan can be very difficult to believe at all. That's where faith comes in. If you do have faith, then you believe that every bad thing happens for a good reason (that's why God doesn't stop it.) This makes bad things easier to take. Everything from some guy on the highway cutting you off, to someone screwing you over at work, to a death in the family. Faith is not something that you either have or you don't; there are varying degrees. Almost nobody in the world has complete faith. There are people who think they do; however, you can often see from their reactions that their faith is incomplete. There are many religious fundamentalists who would claim complete faith in God; however, some of these fundamentalists react with anger at different decisions made by the US government. Often claiming that these decisions are against God's will. If their faith was complete, they would feel like it was God's choice to let that happen and not get angry because obviously (to them at least) God made the right choice. In life, a person with complete faith would work to alleviate the suffering of others because God loves the sufferer. However, the faithful person would realize that the suffering that he couldn't alleviate was part of God's plan. He would accept it as necessary, even though he didn't understand why it was necessary. One of the purposes of religious practices like prayer and religious study is to deepen ones faith in God to make negative things easier to take and to reduce anger.

So how does this relate to meditation? As I said before, if you want to incorporate meditation into your life, you should use negative experiences to develop your attitude of acceptance. As you begin to realize that these negative experiences can be useful, it starts to feel like there is a positive side to them so they don't seem all bad. The more you use negative experiences this way, the more clear the positive side of them becomes. As you feel more like negative things have a positive side, it becomes easier to believe that bad things come from a loving God. In this way meditation practice can deepen your faith in God.

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