1.There is nothing that is good or bad, but thinking makes it so
When I first started a regular meditation practice, I knew all about thoughts. Of course I did: I’m a clinical psychologist, and all of us are taught that thoughts aren’t facts. We know that how you feel about something depends on what you think about it. Also, there are many possible different things that you could think about it. You could think that the glass is half full or that it’s half empty, and you will feel and behave differently depending on which thought you have.
But it was only when I started to meditate daily that I really got to know about thoughts. Sitting in meditation, trying to focus on the breath but distracted by endless, teeming thoughts, I came to see them more and more for what they are. I started to see that I don’t choose which thoughts come into my head. That many of them aren’t true or helpful. That I can’t stop them or control them, but that I can choose how much I engage with them. I started to see that they are just mental events, and that I don’t have to believe in them, get caught up in them, or let them control me. When we learn to let go of our thoughts and connect with the present moment, it’s like waking up from a dream.
2. Listen to your heart
I wasn’t very interested in my body when I started meditating. I liked to think of myself as more of an intellectual type, and my body as something that just carried my mind around. But science is coming to understand how deeply the mind is rooted in the body. It’s no accident that we talk so much in physical terms (“I fell in love; things were looking up; then I was heartbroken; I fell into despair”).
It turns out that a crucial element of mental health is interoception – our ability to feel the inside of our own bodies. Our instinctive emotional reactions to things take place here. So when we attend to the breath in the chest or the abdomen, or to the feelings in the area around the heart, we learn to tune into these subtle signals and to relate to them skillfully. In meditation we explore them with curiosity and kindness – psychologists call this an approach motivation – instead of spinning off into ruminative thoughts, or trying to control or suppress them. And when we do that, things can change dramatically.
A consistent meditation practice helps you to know your emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. It helps to process them smoothly rather than getting stuck in them, and to empathise and connect with others. Meditation brings a feeling of wholeness: of balance between body and mind.
3. Do the right thing
I like to think that my meditation has not just benefited me, but also those around me. When you sit in meditation, alone with your mind, you start to see how everything connects. Not only do thoughts shape feelings and actions, but also actions shape feelings and thoughts. So the mind that you have to contend with in meditation is shaped by how you act the rest of the time. This is why Buddhists (and meditators in other spiritual traditions) emphasise ethical behaviour. It is a lot easier to sit with your mind if you have a clear conscience.
And now science is confirming that treating others well is good not only for them, but for us. Helping and caring were crucial to human evolution – what would have happened to our ancestors without the bonds of family and community? – which means that our brains and bodies are wired for it, and benefit from it. Studies have linked altruism to greater health, happiness, and even financial success. But don’t take anyone else’s word for it: meditate, and see for yourself!