Is meditation really just sitting doing nothing?

It can be hard to understand how sitting, with your eyes closed, apparently doing nothing, can be as beneficial as it’s made out to be. Even long term meditators can occasionally have experiences that are a bit  ...“wow, I just spent 20 minutes with my eyes closed thinking about ... that row with my boss/decorating my room/breaking up with my girlfriend/etc...”  Yet even these experiences don’t diminish the positive effects of regular meditation (shallow, thought filled meditations are actually good for releasing body stress ;)

The truth is, scientists don’t really understand how meditation works either, any more than they really understand why sleep is so important.  We can measure the effects but still don’t know why they occur. But more and more studies  (for example here and here) show its many benefits - from improved general physical and mental health, to actually changing the structure of the brain in positive ways.

Perhaps we can just use a simple analogy from the computer age.  What is the most common fix for almost every computer problem you’ve ever experienced? “Have you tried turning it on and off again?” your computer geek asks.  

Well, sleep is certainly a kind of turning off and many problems seem easier to solve after a good night’s sleep. But what’s interesting about meditation is that being conscious during this ‘restart’ of your body’s computer appears to be much more powerful than just going to sleep. 

Even though sleeping is absolutely essential, it doesn’t have the ability to change your brain’s structure or function. Not only that, it’s actually impossible to go without sleep – your brain will switch off into ‘micro-sleeps’ if it’s been denied the possibility of a proper night’s rest. It’s right up there next to food and water, as one of life’s essentials.

Few people would say, ‘what’s the point of sleep – you’re just lying there doing nothing!’ We know that sleep restores us to face another day of activity. We know that it’s healing, that the body undergoes maintenance and repair during sleep that it can’t achieve so effectively whilst we’re active. Like restarting your computer, it allows the brain to assimilate and re-organize information – moving short term memories into its longer term databases, fixing glitches and enabling a fresh start. Everybody does it. But sleeping more doesn’t make you more healthy, in fact it starts to have the opposite effect

On the other hand, although spending hours everyday meditating is not a realistic option (unless you’re a monk), meditating twice a day certainly appears to have more than twice the benefit as just once, and bringing more and more mindfulness to your everyday life (a kind of meditation in action) has obvious on-going and increasing benefits (naturally, it's better to be aware of your thoughts, what you're saying and what you're doing than reacting more unconsciously).

In the end, your own experience will make you the best judge of just how beneficial meditation is.  Give it a go! 

(It's recommended that you find a good, experienced meditation teacher if you are going to make it a part of your regular routine. Just like everyday life, meditation experiences can have their ups and downs and it's helpful to have someone guide you through this.)

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