Meditation is the art of finding peace and happiness within by using simple methods of calming and stabilising our minds. Modern life can be stressful and busy. Most of the time we are carried along by the force of emotions, habits and conditioning and end up feeling tired and stressed by everyday life. Practicing meditation can change this. Meditation can help bring about a natural sense of peace and well-being that can extend to every aspect of our lives. People who meditate regularly tend to sleep better, handle the ups and downs of daily life with more clarity and ease and relate to others with more compassion and warmth.
At the heart of it, meditation is simply the practice of paying attention to what we are doing while we are doing it, whatever this may be. In the Buddhist tradition, this type of attention is called mindfulness.
Traditionally we have come to think of meditation as sitting on a cushion in the lotus position, but this is simply one form of meditation. Instead, meditation is the patient process of settling our mind in the present moment so that we are fully engaged with whatever we are doing at that moment; and consequently it can apply to all aspects of our lives. For example, when we eat meditatively, we are fully present with eating, instead of eating with our mouth and planning the rest of our day with our minds.
To become proficient at meditation, we learn to identify and work with distraction, which is the tendency of the mind to drift off into thoughts and daydreams. Distraction disconnects us from the present moment. So, in meditation, every time our attention gets lost, we notice this and return it to the focus of our meditation. This is done gently, just as a good parent gently returns a wandering child back to where he should be. And it is done patiently, again and again, until our mind naturally comes to rest of its own accord in the present moment.
As we become competent at meditation, it stabilises our mind and innate qualities of wisdom and compassion start to reveal themselves to us. From here they permeate all aspects of our lives. We begin to understand how things are not as solid and unchanging as we'd first thought, and how our lives are interrelated with those of all other living things. Out of this realisation comes a sense of great joy and freedom. We find ourselves appreciating our lives more and more and living more intensely in the present moment. As we do so, our vision expands to encompass not only our own happiness but also that of all other beings.
When we are caught up in the vicious cycle of planning and worrying, we tend to live our lives in the past, worrying about things we can no longer change, or in the future, anxious about what hasn't happened yet. Out of touch with the present moment, our actual life is lived on autopilot. The problem with this is that life is happening right now. Consequently, if we are out of touch with the present, we are also out of touch with our lives. This perpetual busyness robs us of the precious experiences of our life. Not being present means we miss seeing the beauty of life all around us; we miss opportunities to connect meaningfully with the people who matter most to us. We notice these things only fleetingly and then drift away into the past or the future, following the issues that preoccupy us.
In the beginning, the purpose of meditation is simply to calm down our minds. When the mind is agitated, we experience a continual round of worries, upset and anxiety. With this happening, it is almost impossible to be happy, even if we are surrounded by luxurious things and living in wonderful conditions.
As we become increasingly adept at meditation, our mind gradually becomes more peaceful as it calms down and is able to maintain that equilibrium. When this happens, we begin to experience a natural happiness that comes up from within us. As our practice deepens, this sense of peace and happiness will become increasingly present, even in very difficult circumstances. As this equilibrium becomes more stable, insight into how our mind functions spontaneously occurs. We come to understand the essentially illusory nature of all our mental experiences, and through this insight we begin to feel compassion for everyone else who is struggling with pain and adversity in their lives.