Training the Mind
Put most simply, meditation is a way to train the mind. Most of the time, our minds are wandering — we’re thinking about the future, dwelling on the past, worrying, fantasizing, fretting or daydreaming. Meditation brings us back to the present moment, and gives us the tools we need to be less stressed, calmer and kinder to ourselves and others.
“Meditation is a training of our attention,” Ms. Brach said. “It allows us to step out of distracted thought, and helps us arrive in the present moment in a balanced and clear way.”
There are lots of different types of meditation. Most religions have contemplative traditions, and there are plenty of secular ways to meditate, too. But in recent years, mindfulness meditation has become increasingly popular.
Basic mindfulness meditation is the practice of paying attention to the present moment with an accepting, nonjudgmental disposition. The goal isn’t to stop thinking, or to empty the mind. Rather, the point is to pay close attention to your physical sensations, thoughts and emotions in order to see them more clearly, without making so many assumptions, or making up stories.
It’s a deceptively simple exercise — just be right here, right now, without daydreaming. But with practice it can yield profound results, giving us greater control of our actions, and making room for more kindness and equanimity, even in difficult situations. With time, mindfulness meditation can even help us better understand what causes us stress, and what we can do to relieve it.
Though mindfulness meditation was inspired by Buddhist practices, today it is available as a wholly secular practice that emphasizes stress reduction, the cultivation of focus and the development of tranquility.
“There’s a misconception that mindfulness is religious,” said Mr. Smith. “What we have to explain is that it’s a stress reduction technique and a way to get yourself stronger mentally. It’s a self-care practice.”
There’s a large and growing body of research identifying the measurable effects of mindfulness on the body and brain, and it is catching on in professional settings including education, sports, business and even the military.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation
Though the words are sometimes used interchangeably, it’s useful to draw a distinction between mindfulness and meditation.
Mindfulness is a quality of being — the experience of being open and aware in the present moment, without reflexive judgment, automatic criticism or mind wandering.
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of actually being present in the moment, which in turn trains us to become more mindful throughout the day, particularly during difficult situations.
As Ms. Brach puts it: “Mindfulness is your awareness of what’s going on in the present moment without any judgment. Meditation is the training of attention which cultivates that mindfulness.”
Mindfulness meditation isn’t the only way to meditate. Transcendental Meditation, which aims to promote a state of relaxed awareness through the recitation of a mantra, is also popular these days. But in this guide, we’re focused on mindfulness, which is increasingly popular and easy to learn.