Almost all of us are seeking more contentment and happiness in our lives. Unfortunately, it seems, the more we seek this elusive happiness, the less we find it. However, the key to long standing happiness and contentment might be closer and easier than we would expect. Actually, the secret might be hiding in plain sight. According to almost all wisdom traditions, happiness will not be found anywhere but within us. These wisdom traditions also insist the key to discovering the happiness is through regular daily meditation practices. The question arises, “is there any scientific basis for these claims and evidence that could support the validity for these assertions?”
When I started meditating 35 years ago, I would not have dreamed of meditation becoming a mainstream therapeutic intervention within psychotherapy and psychology fields. All I knew, was the fact that I felt better when I meditated, and my friends noticed the difference, but within the last 20 years mindfulness meditation practices have become the most researched psychotherapeutic intervention through hard science and neuro-imaging techniques. Daniel Goleman, and Richard Davidson summarized their findings regarding their research in the neurobiology of meditation and mindfulness practices in their book "Altered Traits". Both of the authors of the book have been long term daily meditation practitioners and active researchers in psychology and neuroscience. They have published numerous scientific and neuro-imaging studies on the subject of psychological and neurological impacts of meditation and its long-term benefits. After reporting the summary published studies, they have concluded; long term regular practice of meditation will have a positive profound impact on people’s inner experience, and what we call happiness.
If indeed people can feel better by just "Meditating", and not necessity needing a better car or a bigger house, and if indeed the wisdom and ancient traditions were right, then what is it that we are supposed to do, and what is meditation in the first place? Unfortunately, a lot of people think meditation is only a religious practice, and they have to adopt to certain religious or cultural values in order to learn how to meditate effectively or even being allowed to attend a meditation session. Sam Harris, a radical atheist, and neuro-scientist philosopher, who has been a meditation practitioner builds a case for practicing some form of mindfulness practice. In his book "Waking Up”, he suggests that it is very possible for an atheist, such as himself, to develop a spiritual life without becoming religious. That is certainly true about myself. Although I am not an atheist and have practiced my own spiritual path for many years, I do not consider myself a religious person. Even though almost all meditative techniques were developed within certain religious or spiritual tradition or context, they do not have to remain within that context in order to produce beneficial results.
The realty is meditating as a basic technique is relatively easily. Even though there are hundreds of meditation techniques that are taught by different teachers, they all fit within 4 categories:
2- mindfulness presence practices
4- active/dynamic meditations.
Many people get confused about the difference between concentration practices and classical mindfulness practices, which many traditions consider true meditations. Concentration practices, as their name indicates is about focus on an external object that holds your attention, and examples could be a candle, river, ocean or even someone that you have positive feelings for. You can also concentrate on your own internal experiences such as; observing your breath, or different bodily sensations, or even your heart beat if you are able to feel your heartbeat. The key with these practices is not to get discouraged when your mind starts to go somewhere else or think about something else. In meditation circle, it is called monkey mind, because of our mind’s tendency to jump from one subject to another. Just gently bring your mind back to the subject of your attention. Like any other skill, the more you concentrate the better you get at it. These kinds of practices are great for people with attention, anxiety, or stress related issues. Practicing 15-20 minutes a couple times (when you just wake up in the morning, and right before going to bed) would be great. However, if these are too much, start what you can, and DO NOT make meditation another chore on the top of all your other daily chores. The object is to relax, and look forward to your practice, and do not feel you have to sit in a certain yogic posture to meditate. You can even lie down if works for you, and do not fall asleep.
Mindfulness meditations are slightly more challenging for a beginner practitioner. In these practices you pay attention to the totality of your practice at any given moment without judging the experience, and wanting more or less of it. This practice requires an open-minded, non-judgmental attitude toward that practice, and becoming an observer of your experience and thoughts from moment to moment without trying to intervene or changing them to something else than they are at any given moment. This practice tends to be beneficial with people who might be having depression or personality related issues.
The reality is, meditation is like medication. The reason there are hundreds of meditation techniques is exactly for the same reason that there are thousands of medications on the market. There is no single medication that is able to cure all ailments, and there is not one single meditation that is capable of responding to everybody' emotional or spiritual needs. If you are interested in learning more about meditation, Jon Kabat Zinn’s book “Mindfulness for Beginners” would be a good place to start. You can also try a few introductory meditation classes that are offered in different yoga studios or mediation centers around town. Please try several of these classes before you make up your mind about meditation and if meditation is really for you. Everybody can engage and benefit from some kind of meditation. If you are an active person who has a difficult time sitting still for more than a few minutes, some form of active or dynamic meditation might be very useful to begin with. Yoga, tai chi, dynamic dance, and walking meditation might be great places to start, and eventually progress to some form of sitting silent meditation. On the other hand, if you are someone who is essentially introverted and contemplative, starting with some form of breath-oriented meditation that requires focusing on your breath might be the place to start, and eventually balance your practices and life with an active meditation. walking meditation, yoga and Tai Chi would be great additions to your sitting practice. The key is having a balance between silent sitting meditations, and active/dynamic techniques. This combination tends to produce the best result for maximizing relaxation and over all emotional wellbeing.
Bear in mind, all of meditation classes have their own cultural flavor, and way of doing things that could be vastly different from each other. Do not think you have seen them all after going to a few studios, and not liking their method of their practice, or the way they do things. Your needs as a practitioner will also change as you progress and demands of your life change. This should impact your meditative practice as well. Hopefully by then you have found a competent teacher that can suggest some useful techniques. If after 3-6 months of regular practice, you are not seeing any benefits, it is time to consider changing your practice, and re-evaluate your desired goals. Sometimes what we are hoping to gain from a practice is not what we really need at that point in our life, and that creates unnecessary tension, sabotaging our progress. It is essential to choose practices that are designed to produce the kind of results we are looking for, and we should always approach the practice with an open mind. Be receptive to whatever experience presents itself without expecting immediate results and attaching to the outcome. Paradoxically the more you “try” to make it happen, the less it will happen. If you just allow the process and technique to work, you will eventually benefit the result you are looking for.