Meditation, Without the Metaphysics
Meditation is the basis for a lot of the activities involved with religion and other supernatural belief systems. Because of this, many rationalists look down on it and consider it metaphysical hogwash like crystal healing or homeopathy. However, this is guilt by association, and not a well considered viewpoint for a critical thinker. Since the early twentieth century, there have been hundreds of different scientifically controlled studies on the effects of meditation, almost all of which have measured real, beneficial effects on the human body.
Why Try It?
Meditation has been shown to produce lower average blood cortisol levels (the "stress" hormone), lower blood pressure (comparable to the use of prescription drugs), decreased risks of heart attack and stroke (from decreased artery wall thickness), lower reported levels of chronic pain, decreased PMS symptoms, increased ability to deal with unexpected situations, decreased physiological age, and lower instances of psychological problems, just to name a few. Arguments have been made that these positive effects can all be explained via a placebo effect, but this is a pointless argument, since the placebo effect is defined as a physiological effect created by the mind, which is rather the whole point of meditation!
Certainly, various supernatural explanations exist that try to drag meditation into a place most critical thinkers would not be comfortable with, but don't let them fool you. Meditation works just fine without the addition of prayer, magical energies, or cosmic consciousnesses!
If you would like to try meditation out for yourself, you can do so on your own with very little effort, and no metaphysical woo-woo. The rest of this article will deal with one very simple way to explore meditation that you can learn in five minutes.
Your First Practice
The first thing to know about meditation is that it isn't about achieving goals. Attempting meditation *is* the goal. There is no such thing as failure, since the very attempt is the act that produces the results. Any particular meditation technique works just fine, even if you "can't do it". You already did!
The meditation technique we will use is often called "breath awareness". There are many other names for it in a dozen different traditions, but they all amount to the same thing. You will need four things: a chair, a quiet room, the ability to count without using your fingers, and air.
To start, sit in your chair, in a quiet room. Take a moment to relax, close your eyes, and try to clear your mind. With your mouth closed, take a deep breath, and release it. When you release the breath, don't try to control it, just let your body do its thing. Try to focus on the feeling of the air passing through your nose, without any thought of telling your body how fast to let it go, or when to take the next breath. If any thoughts pop into your head about anything besides your breath, don't fight them, just let them run their course and move your attention back to your breath. Repeat this procedure several times, until you feel comfortable with it.
Congratulations, you have just completed your first meditation exercise! How did it go? Did you succeed? The answer, of course, is yes. If you tried it at all, you succeeded. It doesn't matter what thoughts may have interrupted you, or whether you managed to let your breath go without your consious control the whole time, only that you made the intention, and attempted to implement it. You could practice just this one exercise for the rest of your life, and get all the benefits of meditation. You'd probably get pretty sick of it after a while, but this one simple thing could be a complete meditation practice! That said, let's take it to the next level...
Building a Complete Practice
Sit in that same chair, in that same quiet room, and start with that same deep breath, letting it go and focusing just on the feeling of the air passing through your nose. This time, as the exhale finishes, in your mind count "one". Let your body keep control of your breathing, and let the inhale come on its own. Focus on nothing but the feeling of the air entering your nose, and as the inhale finishes, in your mind count "two". Keep counting on your inhales and exhales, focusing your attention only on the experience of each breath. Don't worry about losing count. If that happens, ignore it, and on your next inhale or exhale, in your mind count "one". Your goal isn't to "achieve" any particular count, only to attempt to focus your mind on your breathing and keep counting. As before, if any stray thoughts wander into your mind, don't fight them, or worry that you've somehow lost control, just let them run their course and go back to experiencing your breath, and counting. Continue until you feel comfortable and relaxed about the process, and then stop whenever you desire.
This meditation exercise can be as small or extended as you like, and can take you through the rest of your life, or serve as merely an introduction to more complex and advanced meditative techniques. Once you've mastered the basic idea, you can extend it by counting only inhalations or exhalations, or later by eliminating the counting altogether, focusing solely on the experience of watching your body breath without trying to control it.
Whatever you choose, each session of meditating will leave you feeling energized and relaxed, and help you focus your mind on other things. You can practice once a week, or once a day, but the more you do it, the easier it will become, and the less stray thoughts will intrude. Likewise, the more often you practice, the faster the beneficial health effects will happen.
Welcome to the practice of meditation. Give it a chance, and you'll never look back again!