Throughout most of my life, my impression of meditation was colored mostly by the feeling that it was weird. A bunch of people sitting around with their eyes closed, apparently doing something 'spiritual' seemed more ludicrous than exotic. The Yogic fliers who claimed to be able to levitate when they meditated didn't help much. It made the whole thing seem all the more crazy when I saw film of these folks sitting cross-legged, hopping up and down like frogs; yeah that’s levitation. Later, once my outlook as a naturalist and Humanist had gelled, the various claims of meditation as a supernatural communion or out-of-body experience made the entire endeavor seem silly.
Later I would hear that many people were taking up meditation for stress relief purposes. This seemed more credible to me but even then I had no idea what this whole meditation stuff was about. On the outside you just see a person sitting there breathing so, without knowing what it is they're doing inside their heads, it just seemed like relaxation. The idea that simple relaxation would lead to stress relief seemed to make sense to me.
Finally I got around to actually reading more about meditation and discovered, first, that there are a wide variety of types of meditation. I then read about what I believe is formally called Samatha meditation, with breathing as its object. I discovered that this meditation wasn't just "sitting there relaxing" but it also wasn't the mumbo-jumbo variety I had taken spiritual meditation to be.
The mental goings-on that this meditation entails involve focusing on one thing (such as one's breath) for an extended period of time (see below for links on a more detailed explanation). When I first read about this it seemed more of a ritual. I didn't really think it had much effect outside the period where one is actually doing it. I thought that it was merely a means of mentally doing something to try and evoke 'religious experiences' - more placebo than anything else. I would discover later that my conception of meditation was completely uninformed.
Several years went by when I had become interested in certain philosophical aspects of Buddhism. Along the way, I learned that meditation was seen by them as a means of improving concentration and focus. This was a more pragmatic function of meditation than I had previously thought, but was it true? It sounded more like many of the alleged claims of various herbal remedies out there.
Then, very soon after, I came to read about the neurological brain scans of those involved in meditation. As it turns out, the activity in the brain of meditators really does correspond to the areas of the brain one would expect for the effects meditators claim. More importantly, according to these scans, the practice seems to have long term effects on the functioning of the brain outside of times when active meditation is being used.
Here I had come to see that meditation, as it was used and applied traditionally, was for a more pragmatic purpose than I had supposed previously (at least this particular type of meditation). At the same time, I was finding scientific backing of these claims. It seemed that because the subject matter was inherently experiential, subjective, first-person, and internal, that "direct observation" in this sense would mean first person observation was an important component in understanding meditation.
I tried it several times, following the steps as I had read them, and the results were surprising. I have always had some difficulty in focusing my concentration on things, as my mind tends to wander from topic to topic sporadically. This is a common problem for creative-types (by the Myers/Briggs personality formula, that would be an "N" type).
What was most noticeable was the effect immediately after meditation. It seemed my mind was almost perfectly quiet and still. It's a very relaxing situation, but it also makes it very easy to concentrate on whatever thing you select to think about. You almost have to try to broaden your focus after that, but you won't really want to. Over just a short time, you start to notice changes in your focus at other times as well.
Along with all this, I was still learning about some philosophic aspects of Buddhism, which relate to a long term project I have undertaken which involves comparing certain elements of Buddhism, Stoicism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity and more. In these efforts I came to understand (at least partially) why the concept of concentration and focus was integral to Buddhist philosophy.
Buddhism advocates mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings (and more). This means being constantly conscious of ourselves from an existential point of view. It is in this way that we gain some detachment over our passions and knee-jerk reactions. To do this requires a lot of focus and concentration, thus the meditation.
Recently I reported my experience in visiting a Buddhist temple for the first time. In that visit I attended the Dharma talk because I was (and am) learning about Buddhist philosophy. I had skipped the first section where they were having mediation.
More recently, I attended the same temple again when they were celebrating the Chinese New Year - a very interesting experience. Before that there was a meditation session and I practiced meditation for the first time with others. It was here, from Josten, that I learned about counting techniques, walking meditation, and reifying (labeling) external distractions during meditation so as to help put them aside.
Here are some references to the things I've mentioned:
• Wikipedia article on Samatha Meditation (the type I've discussed): HERE
• Wikipedia article on Meditation (see the section called Meditation and the Brain and Meditation and EEGs): HERE
• How to Meditate (I plan to put up my own bare-bones notes on this soon, but until then here's something. Note that there are other forms of meditation on this site which I might not personally find appealing or might even strongly disagree with, but this page seems to refer to the type I discussed to some degree): HERE
NOTE: For some reason the comments section isn't working on my blog at the moment. Therefore I will post comments below for now...
When I first took up meditation years ago, the first thing I noticed was how difficult it was...just sitting still and focusing on the breath is not as easy as it sounds! If nothing else, meditation shows us how to get in touch with something very important for well-being: The present moment.
Very true, it is most difficult. What's amazing to me is that we can actually see that we get better at it with practice.