Meditation is a practice that has been around for thousands of years. While traditionally performed as a way of achieving spiritual enlightenment, it is now beginning to be taken up for an entirely different reason; cognitive enhancement.
Throughout history, Buddhists practiced mindfulness meditation to train their ability to clear the mind and focus all concentration on a single ‘object’, usually their breathing. This was so that once they could manage this with little effort, they could then control their thoughts to overcome delusion and become closer to enlightenment. This more practical element of meditation has mostly been overlooked as people wanted to focus more on the spiritual aspect.
Now that people are living busier lives, and are always trying to find new ways to make it easier to focus on a single task, people have come to realise the benefit of meditation on their ability to concentrate. For this reason, more and more people are now taking it up primarily to enhance their cognitive functioning.
So whether you struggle to focus at work or school, or just want to become a more enhanced individual, meditation is the tool that you need to become a master of concentration.
Meditation should be thought of as exercise for the brain. Like most people will go for a run or to the gym for physical exercise to become physically healthier, meditation is like exercise for the brain; it leads to greater mental strength and can make your brain healthier.
Although some people will meditate to achieve greater spiritual awareness, there are many practical benefits that that can be gained through regular mediation practice.
Greater ability to avoid distraction and stay focussed. This is the most obvious reason for modern day meditation. As I have already mentioned, meditation has been found to be greatly beneficial to the ability to concentrate on the task you should be concentrating on. As most people know, when performing a task it is incredibly easy to deviate towards more entertaining and less productive outlets. This is with no thanks to modern day technology, which is specifically designed to target people’s short attention spans, and provide a constant barrage of easy to take in information. Especially when the tools most people use for work (think computer and cellphone) are the same tools used to provide these distractions.
Meditation can train you to avoid paying attention to this constant stream of information trying to stop you from getting your work done, and stay more focussed on the task at hand, allowing you to be more productive.
Achieve a greater level of mental awareness. How often do you consciously pay attention to your own thoughts? Chances are the answer is not a lot. This is because we’ve all taught ourselves to ignore our own what’s happening in our heads. However, there are times when listening to your thoughts is actually beneficial. It can boost creativity, your ability to think in depth on a particular subject, and critically analyse the world around you.
Meditation involves training yourself to always be aware of your thoughts so that you may control them. This means always knowing what is coming and going in your head. With time this level of awareness becomes constant, so that you are always aware of what you are thinking. This allows you to selectively listen to the thoughts that will benefit you the most.
Achieve a greater level of worldly awareness. As with becoming more mentally aware, meditation will allow you to become more aware of the world around you also. Mindfulness meditation is practiced to bring you more present in the moment. It’s about directing your thoughts to what’s happening now, not what has happened or might happen. Most people get into the habit of constantly think about things that aren’t happening in the moment. This makes them less aware of what’s happening around them.
Regular meditation will eventually train you to always be present in the moment and to never deviate your thoughts. With time you will find that you begin to notice things you never noticed before, and will be prepared to react to things in your environment a lot faster.
Develop iron-strong willpower. Meditation is exercise for the brain. It is not easy. It is not fun. You don’t do it for pleasure but because you know the discomfort will eventually pay off for you in the form of practical mental skills. For this reason, willpower is required to perform it. Willpower is essentially your ability to perform tasks that are unpleasant but beneficial to you. Therefore, the natural unpleasantness of meditation requires this ability.
Like most things I’ve mentioned, willpower can be trained. The more unpleasant and uncomfortable things you put yourself through, the more willpower you develop. The more you have, the easier it is to perform those unpleasant tasks in the future. Because meditation is an uncomfortable practice, it can strengthen your willpower, allowing you to perform other uncomfortable tasks a lot easier.
How to Meditate.
There are many different forms of meditation out there that could be practiced, however I will focus on mindfulness meditation as it is one of the simplest forms but also provides the most practical benefits. The main aim behind mindfulness meditation is to clear all thoughts from your head and try to direct all awareness to a single ‘object’. This object can be anything from a sound, a feeling, a word, but most commonly the object used is simply your breathing.
Find a quiet place to sit so that you won’t be distracted by anything. Some practices such as zazen require particular seating positions that minimise your need to focus on it, however it’s up to you to choose which position is more comfortable for you to use. Once seated close your eyes or have them just partially opened and begin to focus on your breathing. You want to be totally aware of the whole sensation of breathing, from the air entering and leaving your lungs, to the rise and fall of your chest. Some people count their breaths, usually up to the fourth breath before starting at one again. This is thought to further help quieten your thoughts and direct focus.
When thoughts do enter your head, and they always will, your goal is to first become aware of them and acknowledge their meaning. This allows you to become conscious of them. Once conscious of the thought, your second goal is to then quieten it completely so that no attention can be directed to it. Thirdly you then redirect all attention back to your breathing. This develops greater awareness and therefore control of your own thoughts.
When starting out, this is usually performed for 10 minute sessions just to get used to it and develop a consistent routine. However, this won’t lead to many beneficial results. To fully gain the benefits of meditation, you should aim to work up to 20 minutes every day, and if that becomes easy, two sessions of 20 minutes every day. This will allow for the physical changes to occur in your brain that lead to greater concentration and awareness.
We are constantly exposed to stimulation vying for our attention, and promising relief from the things we need to get done. However this has led us to become easily distracted and unproductive. Meditation is an exercise for the brain that trains you to reject these distractions and take control of your thoughts. This allows you to direct your total focus to whatever task is at hand. Essentially, meditation is the tool necessary to enhance cognitive functioning through improved concentration, mental awareness, worldly awareness and willpower.