Meditation and Mindfulness

When most people hear the term “Meditation” they think of Buddhist monks, hippies or general esoteric weirdness. Definitely nothing for normal, down-to-earth citizens.

I used to share this same skeptical attitude, but after stumbling on multiple blog posts about the various benefits of meditation and scientific studies proving countless advantages regarding health and happiness, my curiosity was aroused.

So eventually, when I went to Taiwan as part of an exchange semester, open to new experiences, I accepted a meditation groups invitation to join their class.
We were about 10 people, sitting in a circle and after a short introduction on mindfulness the meditation session began. Even though sitting silently might not sound too exciting, my first meditation was a fascinating experience and I started to join the group on a regular basis. I also got into contact with a German Buddhist nun and visited her in a monastery up in some mountains. From her I learned a lot about the Buddhist philosophy and later joined a meditation workshop there. Eventually I started to practice meditation on a more or less regular basis and back home even bought a proper meditation pillow.

So for the start, what is meditation and why would you ever use your spare time to sit silently in a rather uncomfortable position instead of doing something fun or taking a decent nap?

There are different philosophies about most of the details and the specific meaning of the meditation but most agree on the motionless sitting in silence while trying to overcome the thinking mind to reach a deeper mental sphere.
Have in mind that with the term meditation used here I don’t mean the “flow” when people completely immerse themselves in some acvtivity and lose their feeling of time nor the deep thinking or daydreaming that some people refer to as meditating on something.

At your first meditation, what you will inevitably find is that your mind is continuously active. You find yourself thinking about recent events, plans for the weekend, your shopping list… anything. It seems impossible to force your mind to stop.
For me this experience brought up questions about my identity and the self:
In how far am I really the master of my thoughts?
Am I my thoughts?
What defines my true self?

Further, I found that meditation relaxes the mind and is an excellent method to take a mental break similar to a nap. For example after intense studying when I feel mentally exhausted, the only way for me to recharge is taking a nap or meditating as I've found. And recently, when I had the symptoms of a bad day, I even managed to something like reset my mind through the meditation. Pretty cool!

Additionally there are usually so many impressions fighting for our attention through the omnipresent advertisement, the general hectic and the speed of todays life, that this constant overstimulation numbens our senses and shortens our attention spans. A mental break from this can feel pretty good.
If you want proof about how numbed your senses are, go to a solemn park bench and focus on the surroundings. Close your eyes and listen. You might be surprised how with every minute you will become aware of more and more sounds and just how many things you normally wouldn't notice.

You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour
— Zen saying

Another interesting experience for me was that during sitting in meditation I got a new, very intense perception of my body. I started intensely feeling my own heartbeat and involuntary tiny movements of body parts as fingers or tongue. Sometimes I even got a feeling as if my body perception changed weirdly, as if I was sitting in a completely different, skewed position and once as if my body dissolved.

But the core aspect that fascinates me about meditation is the concept of mindfulness.

Imagine yourself sitting at the most perfect, paradise-like beach.
But what usually happens is that instead of appreciating the perfection of the moment, your mind is preoccupied with some past conversation or plans for the future.
Or imagine yourself in an excellent restaurant, the most delicious food in front of you.
But you stuff the food into their mouth without consciously tasting anything at all while worrying about some event in the past.

The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts
— Marcus Aurelius

When was the last time you walked in nature or looked up to the the sky and felt overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of life and existence?
If this question sounds weird to you, there might be a world in front of your eyes that you don't see because your all-too-busy mind is circling around itself. 

It’s not that I’ve overcome this issue. My default mind-mode is still endless thinking and unnecessarily worrying about things in past and future, but now only 90% of the time instead of 98%.  
Especially after reading „The Power of Now” a book by Eckart Tolle, it was like a seed of understanding was planted into me. This seed invoked an expanding awareness and increasing presence that over time grew stronger and stronger. Some quotes:
The past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”, "The only thing you ever have is now."
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry - all forms of fear - are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

I know, it sounds extreme but think about it. Is the mind really your servant or has it become the master? Maybe here is the reason why people enjoy these moments called "flow" when they lose their feeling of time, when the constant thinking stops and when they forget about all their worrys.
And if you've ever wondered about the meaning of zen - thats what it is all about. Being always 100% mindful in the present, whatever you do.

I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.
— Eckhart Tolle

So if you want to cultivate more mindfulness and to gain more control over your thinking, the practice of meditation is an excellent training. It's not directly fun and keeping the concentrated focus can be quite challenging but I promise, it will be highly beneficial.

You might be surprised to hear that among the fans of meditation are people such as Hugh Jackman, Clint Eastwood, Eva Mendes, Albert Einstein and even Arnold Schwarzenegger! If it's good for Arnie, it must be good for you, too! (lists of more celebrities here and here).
And if you still need more arguments, read about 20 Scientific Reasons to Start Meditating Today.

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
— Oscar Wilde

More on this:

The Power of Now (book) - a deep and inspiring read by Eckart Tolle on living in the present and the relationship between you, your mind and your ego

This is Water (video) - a brilliant commencement speech about learning to think by David Foster Wallace

The Real Meaning of Meditation (article) - An interesting article on the meaning and practice of meditation

Zenhabits (blog) - An inspiring blog on living mindful with regular short posts

Headspace (app) - for guided meditations; recommended for the beginning and to stay motivated, 30 days free