Meditation refers to a variety of mental exercises which have their origin in ancient times and became increasingly popular in the western world over the last decades. While meditating, we practice different kinds of focus to achieve a more mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state.
Meditative practices were developed as part of the path towards enlightenment, self-realisation and the end of suffering. There are various types of meditation, such as focused attention, or mindfulness meditation, which is the most widely studied form of meditation in modern science. Metta or loving-kindness meditation is another example of focused attention. Other forms of meditation are the chanting of mantras or transcendental meditation.
How does meditation work?
The brain is shaped by evolution, and to survive, we've developed a negativity bias, which makes us focus on the negative and possible problems. While this was useful when there were mostly physical threads, in our times, most threads are psychological, such as stress. The brain can be trained "like a muscle". With mindfulness meditation, we train our minds to stay present with what is really here instead of running off to past mistakes or future plans. With active awareness of the present, we learn to savour the moment and enjoy life.
Is meditation and mindfulness the same?
Meditation is a broader term that includes varying forms from many different traditions. Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment without judgement. This is based on a particular meditation practice was derived from sati, a significant element of Buddhist traditions. While having its root in Buddhism, mindfulness meditation is also widely taught in a secular setting.
When is meditation not appropriate?
Meditating appears to be a magical cure for everything, but this is a false promise. While it can have astonishingly positive effects, some of which have been scientifically proven, there are also counter indicators for meditating. For example, it isn't advisable for someone with a severe depressive episode to start meditating, especially not without advice and guidance from an experienced therapist. Generally speaking, people with mental health issues are advised to consult their therapist upfront. It's also more comfortable and safer to begin in a group with a qualified teacher to guide you and discuss your experience.
Where did meditation originate?
Meditation has been practised since antiquity in numerous religious traditions and beliefs, often as part of the path towards enlightenment and self-realisation. Buddhism is the most well known in this context. Today, purely secular forms of meditation are used in meditation based therapies like MBSR, for example.