Summary: a few words about my experience with meditation plus some resources about its long term effect on cognition and emotions.
There are many types of meditation. This practice has a long history (counting in thousands of years) and is a part of several major religious traditions, such as Hinduism or Buddhism. My interest lies in cognitive and emotional benefits of meditation. I did not try any of the formal meditation paths, and I am not interested in its religious or spiritual background.
I got interested in meditation when watching videos about the neuroscience of emotions. They mentioned meditation as an interesting example of a long-practiced tradition that has been shown to have positive long-term effects on human cognition and emotions. It got me curious that meditation has something to do with the interplay between prefrontal cortex and the amygdala (regions of the human brain), in particular that it may improve control we exhibit over our emotions.
Soon afterwards, I participated in a training session for Googlers authored and delivered by Philippe Goldin, researcher at Stanford. The workshop was a mix of theory and practice. Some of the exercises were basically a form of guided meditation. It was the first time I actually "meditated", even if only for a few minutes. It is an interesting experience, and I am convinced by several mentions by businessmen, book authors & scientists that it is worth trying out as part of my daily routine. I haven't made it a habit yet, but I want to.
The practice itself is very simple. You sit in a quiet place and close your eyes to make concentration easier. You stop doing anything else - talking, working, having fun, watching TV, listening to someone, whatever. Meditation is all about not doing. What you are left with is your body and your mind, nothing else. Some experience a moment of awkwardness ("what, am I supposed to do nothing and just listen to my own thoughts? weird"). I haven't. Perhaps it is all too natural for me, because I am a natural born thinker and tend to be with just my thoughts every day, though not in a structured way and without trying to eliminate distracting stimuli as much.
OK, so I am sitting there on my bed or a chair, with my eyes closed. That's not it. Not yet. The point is where I put my attention. There are a few different ways I can do it.
I can focus my attention on breathing. This was part of the workshop in Google. I am supposed to just feel the air flowing into my airways, at the tip of the nose. In and out. In and out. Calm. Quiet. In and out. Easy to start with.
After a few seconds attention drifts away. Suddenly, the train of thought comes in, and my "head" starts to think about something else - an upcoming meeting, how hungry I feel, something that worries me, etc. The key is to learn to catch this loss of focus as soon as possible.
It is all about attention.
Another point to focus on can be my body in general. I try to connect to how I feel, physically and emotionally. Hungry? Cold? Stressed? Uncomfortable in my body position? Is there some pain?
Staying connected with how I feel many times a day is a useful takeaway. I don't need more than a few seconds of focused attention to realize how I feel. I do it many times a day, sort of a checkpoint system. If there is some strong emotion or discomfort, I can act on it. Meditation built this sense of self very quickly.
Another very interesting form of meditation if directing my attention on the train of thoughts itself. Thoughts come and go. I focus on what kind of thoughts come into my attention. Something pops up. Oh, there is this meeting I am having next week. Am I going to get the decision I want? How do I prepare? Who do I need to talk to? Anxiety... stress... at some point, deliberation about the meeting ends. It slowly fades away.
Immediately, another thing pops up. Jason! Damn! I was supposed to call him yesterday, and I forgot. He's going to be mad. I am angry at myself. What a fuckup! I know how important it was. How could I have forgotten? After a few seconds of rumination this topic fades away, too. And this process continues. I let my thoughts go run my head, unguided and unattended to. I do not decide what to think about next. I just keep "looking at my thoughts from a distance".
The intriguing part is that after a while there are gaps between thoughts. I observe a thought as it fades away. Then, before the next thought shows up, there is blank space, a pause, silence. It lasts a second or two. As I practice longer and longer it gets a bit longer, too. Sometimes I can stay without a thought for as long as ten seconds. This state is very fun.
There are two effects I achieve using meditation.
It help me stay calm. When my head is full of thoughts, or my body full of emotionally based sensations, a minute or two of meditation allows me to clear my head and calm myself. Simple, valuable effect.
Second effect, which requires me to spend more time meditating, helps me gain distance from everyday things so that I can see them from another perspective.
These are short term effects. I have meditated maybe a couple dozen times so far. It isn't in my daily routine yet.
Like I wrote before, ability do creative work without distracions is critical to me. I consider meditation to be a tool to help build that capacity. If there are other benefits, so much the better.
Interestingly, research suggests that meditation is supposed to have long term benefits for our emotional health. The fact that meditation is strongly grounded in most long lasting religious and philosophical traditions of the world suggests that there are real benefits to it. Dalai Lama, for example, whom I had the pleasure to see in a short lecture session in Centennial Hall in Wroclaw last week, meditates daily.
Here are some videos depicting the concepts of mindfulness and meditation, and related research: