The purpose of meditation is to bring the mind to its natural state of stillness. The mind cannot be willed into stillness. However, when given something to do, such as focusing on the breath, the mind gradually comes to rest and stops jumping from thought to thought.
Why does meditation work?
Meditation restores balance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is the bridge between the mind and the body. The ANS consists of the sympathetic (SNS) and parasympathetic (PNS) nervous systems that drive glandular activity and organ function. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates production of stress hormones, increasing blood pressure and heart rate and preparing us for the "flight or fight" response.
The parasympathetic nervous system has opposite effects of lowering the heart rate and blood pressure and stimulating the release of "feel good" hormones. The vagus nerve controls the PNS via production of acetylcholine, a potent anti-inflammatory agent which has been shown to stimulate regeneration of tissues, improve memory and creativity and promote well-being.
Chronic stress (even the so-called "normal" everyday type) as well as patterns of anger, hostility, sadness, anxiety result in perpetually elevated stress hormones, which can ultimately result in organ damage and failure. Meditation increases parasympathetic activity and the downstream cascade of beneficial hormonal and biochemical effects. The noticeable effects of this are lowered workload for the cardiovascular system, and a sense of mental clarity and peace.
As with any lifestyle change, it is necessary to commit to a practice. If there is a technique that works, the advice is to stick with it. If not, there are innumerable meditation techniques to experiment with. As an example, the Deep Meditation technique from Advanced Yoga Practices (AYP) is deceptively simple and highly effective. The mind comes up with a hundred different excuses to give up or to not begin at all.
Listed below are the 4 most common excuses:
1. I have an overactive mind—meditation cannot be for me.
An overactive mind is not the real problem. It's the lack of space between the mind and the me that is the issue. Believing thoughts and acting upon them quickly gets life out of control. The mind is a poor master. If we can learn to observe thoughts with detachment, the mind quickly loses its grip upon us and gradually takes its rightful place as the servant. Meditation is a tool to develop this ability.
2. My life is full and I have no time to meditate.
Mahatma Gandhi often said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one." The effects of meditation are seen in daily life—everything we do becomes more efficient and infused with love and joy. It is thus worth making time for: wake up earlier, give up non-essential tasks, use breaks at work, decrease time spent watching television or browsing the internet, meditate in the car while waiting for your kids at school or activities. Once we commit to a practice, time for it just happens.
3. Meditation is for when life settles down after retirement.
As we age, we become more set in our ways and it becomes more difficult to make changes in our lives. It's not necessarily true that old age comes with a natural ability to be easy-going and let go of pettiness, if that is not learned early in life. The roles we play continue to drag us in, continuing to cause stress and ill-health. Thus, meditation is for where we are today.
4. I'm no good at it.
We do not meditate to become good meditators. We meditate to create space between thoughts and emotions "there" and the me "here" so that we can look dispassionately at our own behavioral patterns, long-held beliefs and resentments. This type of looking enables letting go of them. By seeing and letting go of deeply embedded blocks, miraculous healing can (and does) take place. This is the true purpose of meditation.
While modern science is beginning to embrace the positive effects of meditation on human physiology, its secret strength lies in its ability to open us to learn the skill of allowing qualities within ourselves that are waiting to be uncovered—deep peace, love, creativity, joy and an open heart—qualities that cannot be measured objectively.