When you hear the word meditation do you see someone sitting cross legged with their thumb and index finger forming a circle and the other three fingers extended while they chant “ommmmm”? If so then you’re not alone! That’s the stereotypical image we see and for many of us in the west, it can be rather off putting. Especially if we feel like it somehow conflicts with our belief systems, religions, and the like. Fortunately, meditation is NOT exclusively a religious or spiritual practice. I have heard many people tell me that running is a spiritual experience for them. Does that make running a religious or spiritual practice? It most certainly does not. Do you have to take any vows, believe in anything, or deny any of your religious practices to engage in and benefit from exercise? Of course not, that’s just silly. Meditation is the same. There is no prerequisite belief system, no dogmas, no vows, or anything of that nature that one has to accept in order to participate in and benefit from mind training, which is what meditation is.
If I told you, look at that candle flame, watch it flicker, see how it moves and if your mind wanders or you lose focus, then gently refocus on the candle flame, and what if you experienced a reduction in stress as a result? What if you improved your quality of attention and ability to focus? Would you be surprised to learn that staring at a candle flame in that manner is a form of meditation and is cultivating your ability to focus and pay attention? What about training your mind in this manner is religious or spiritual? Now, does that mean that people can have religious or spiritual experiences while meditating? Of course they can. People can have religious or spiritual experiences watching a baby be born, running, writing, sky diving, or myriad other activities but by no means are any of those exclusively religious or spiritual inherently.
William James, the father of modern psychology, had this to say:
“And the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. … An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”
What James is describing here is, in fact, meditation. You are taking the helm of your mind by cultivating this skill of focus and attention, you are, according to James, educating yourself in the most essential way. If you are unable to control your ability to focus and pay attention, you are unable to control anything. Very few of us are aware of the kind of mind we are carrying around with us and in fact, that sentence itself may sound weird. When we take the time to cultivate a meditation practice we are engaging in a investigation of our mind and what we can learn is limitless.