Meditation is the most important and valuable tool anyone can utilize in order to help themselves - with quite literally any problem they may be facing. It is the most powerful foundational practice one can hope to develop; out of which all other practices, and activities will become more skillful and more fulfilling.
The Practice of All Practices
Meditation is commonly referred to as a “practice,” because it is something that one consciously sets aside time for, in order to train for something else. In this way, it is very similar to practicing a sport. When one practices a sport, a certain time of day is set aside to perform certain activities that are specifically designed to enhance one’s ability to compete in that sport. This training is not the sport, and much of a practice session may not even be dedicated to actually playing the given sport - such as agility drills, strength training, or concentrating efforts on a specific movement.
Likewise, meditation is training for thinking (or mindfulness). Meditation is NOT thinking, it is quite different from thinking, and though its practice gives us keen insight into how our mind operates, how to focus our thoughts, how to become calmer, how to enter into states where our mind is not “racing,” and how to distinguish between our thoughts and our emotions - meditation as a practice is NOT thinking.
It is an activity that helps us learn more about our thinking (as well as our emotions and other internal experiences).
Meditation does this by bringing our attention into the present moment, and inviting us to simply be aware. In fact, it might be accurate to say that meditation is simply the “practice of awareness.” Meditation teaches us how to become aware of our thoughts and emotions, and bodily sensations in the present moment, without judgment, without putting any meaning on anything - simply an awareness of what is. Meditation invites us to open ourselves to the experience of “right now,” whatever that experience may be.
With continued practice, the constant motion of our thoughts, the confusion of our emotions, and our disconnect from our physical sensations become calmer, clearer, and more present in our awareness.
The reason why I refer to meditation as “the practice of all practices,” is because this increased state of awareness inherently impacts all other aspects of our life. Our increased awareness is not limited to any specific area of our life, but rather helps us see more clearly the entirety of our lives. As we begin to see our lives more clearly, our options, choices and ability to respond and participate in life also changes.
Very simply, as our awareness increases, our ability to respond versus react to life also increases.
Reaction versus Response
It is ultimately our thoughts that control all of our actions, and the more we become aware of how our thoughts are influenced by our emotional states, and physical states, the more control we develop over our behaviors. We gain the ability to respond to our environment, rather than react to it.
Let’s look at an example of something that nearly everyone will be able to relate to: a passionate argument with a loved one.
Imagine that you are in a heated discussion with someone you’re very close to, and all of a sudden they say something, and you “go to 10!” Before you even know what’s happening, you’ve put your foot in your mouth. You’ve attacked the other person viciously, choosing the weakest part of their self-esteem, or their personality to rip into, knowing that it will give you the upper hand. . .
We all know how that is likely to end.
And the key point here is how this type of reaction is a complete loss of control.
Now, this also happens when you have a stressful day, and all of a sudden you find yourself in a fast food drive-thru ordering some comfort food. We can also react by shutting down, like when we get so overwhelmed that we’re unable to drive ourselves to the gym, or do normal household chores.
The common denominator here is a complete loss of control and the inability to choose the behavior that you genuinely want to do.
At a foundational level, this stems from a lack of awareness of the thoughts and emotions that are occurring in the moment. A disconnect from the thoughts that are leading to a given action - or from the emotions that are leading to a thought, that is leading to an action.
If we take that same example of the intimate argument, imagine that during the argument the other person says something that triggers you intensely. But, instead of instantly attacking, you have an awareness of being triggered. You actually acknowledge that your emotions have intensified considerably, that your breathing and heartbeat quickened, and you’re having vicious attack thoughts.
Now, in that moment, with that awareness you become one step closer to making a different choice from attacking the other person. And, maybe you still attack them. And, maybe you’re able to stay with that awareness for a little longer and see that you have many choices on how to respond. Either way, the awareness opens up more space for responding to occur.
Maybe it's hard to imagine having this type of control in an argument, but can you imagine having awareness of how your emotional state is influencing your hunger, and craving for comfort food, and simply the idea of a different choice other than the fast food drive-thru? This is a powerful awareness, because it means that your emotional eating could actually change.
This is the power of responding versus reacting.
And meditation is a training in the exact skill needed to make this possible.
Meditation as a Universal Spiritual Practice
A short note on meditation and spirituality.
Meditation is a universal practice that is championed by many wisdom traditions. Historically, even Christianity has practiced and taught meditation - and still does in the monastic traditions, as well as the Near Eastern mystical traditions. Of course, the Eastern traditions place a high degree of emphasis on the importance of meditation - but this emphasis is in no way synonymous with or affirming a given belief system.
Meditation is practiced so widely among spiritual traditions because it is a learning of how to not be controlled by the ego-self. Learning how to be presently aware teaches us how to step away from the worldly impulse to interpret meaning in terms of our past regrets and resentments and our future anxieties and desires. No matter what religious background we come from, the experience of God always exists Now, without historical reference or future projection. All else is simply analysis and interpretation.
Side Note on Trauma
Stored trauma within the body may create a scenario where the practice of meditation is incredibly difficult for an individual to utilize in a way where they would reasonably expect rapid growth on their own. The reason for this may be because the nervous system is dysregulated, creating a physiological “reaction” that may be difficult to overcome. Meditation will still be a foundational practice in these situations, though additional guidance may be required. This would be no different than an injured athlete requiring special training from a coach or trainer to return to regular play.