Meditation is in vogue these days, as evidenced by the proliferation of mobile apps like Calm and Headspace, and of meditation rooms at airports and startup offices.
This has exacerbated a common mistake people make, which is to think of meditation primarily as a means to relax or unwind.
If you think this, you're missing the point completely. Relaxation is a side effect of meditation. Its actual function is far more profound.
Here's how to understand why meditation is way more powerful than this.
Your brain is magical
First, realize that, ultimately, your brain is equivalent to you. Every desire, memory, and preference you have ever had is physically encoded in your brain. Consciousness is sustained by the brain. All of your experiences manifest inside three pounds of wet tissue between your ears.
Second, note that the brain is the only organ in your body that you can volitionally edit from the inside. You can't at this moment decide to prune the bronchial structure of your left lung. But you regularly move things around inside your brain at the micron scale. In fact, you're doing this right now.
Third, recognize that the way you normally use your mind is that you direct your attention to things in the world---other people, physical objects---and the changes inside your brain just sort of happen. Memories form, preferences develop. You aren't consciously directing the activities of your hippocampus, it's just doing its own thing, forming and discarding memories in the background.
But if instead of directing your attention to the world, you direct it to the activity of the brain itself, remarkable things happen. Being the phenomenal pattern discovery engine it is, the brain slowly learns to understand how the brain works. From the inside. And because it has the ability to change its own structure, it slowly becomes an expert neurosurgeon. This is what it means to meditate. You gradually unlock a phenomenal degree of control over your own cerebral cortex.
Here's how it looks in practice.
You begin by forming a very strong conscious intention to pay attention to a meditation object. It can be anything at all that is stable or repetitive, but it's both common and useful to focus on the sensation of air entering and leaving your nostrils as you breathe.
The first time you do this, you'll find that the mind doesn't do what you want it to.
You only moments ago decided to pay attention to your breath, and here you are, thinking about ordering pizza for dinner, or watching the next episode of something on Netflix, or your to-do list, or that awkward thing you said once.
You resolve again to just pay attention to only the feeling of air hitting your nostrils. Pretty simple, right? Inevitably, something pops ups. Time and again. Sometimes it takes just a few seconds before you realize you're no longer attending to your meditation object. Other times, you're lost in a stream of thoughts for minutes at a time.
What's going on here? You had set a clear, simple intention, but your mind isn't obeying. It wasn't you who decided for those other thoughts to surface. So who did?
As you've just realized, the behavior of your mind is not at all under your conscious control. Your mind just does things on its own, all day, every day. By and large, you only witness them.
Once you've discovered this, you've entered the rabbit hole. There's no turning back. The discovery that your mind is completely non-compliant should be alarming. In fact, it should be disturbing.
The brain is where you live, after all. It is the very substrate of your experience on Earth. How is it that it can disobey you, when it's supposed to be you? Is "you" a tiny part of your brain, trying to direct the rest of it?
The next milestone arrives after you meditate for a few weeks of daily 20+ minute sessions. As it turns out, when you keep instructing your mind to stop projecting whatever it wants into consciousness, it learns to just shut up and stay quiet. This state is referred to as "access concentration," named as such because it unlocks access to two new skill trees:
By training your concentration, it becomes possible to experience the most physically blissful states1 achievable to humans, sex and drugs notwithstanding. I can't think of any reason2 for these states to exist, but they do, and they're accessible to anyone, for free. Buddhists call this Shamatha practice.
By paying attention to the contents of consciousness moment-by-moment, with a quiet mind, you can teach the brain to become experientially aware of the inner workings of its own function and architecture. This is called Vipassana practice.
Both of these trajectories were discovered over 2500 years ago by people who lived in the Indian subcontinent, and have been independently rediscovered by nearly every major civilization.3
The Buddha became famous because he was the first person in recorded history to take Vipassana practice---using the mind to investigate the function of the mind---to its utmost extent, which Buddhists refer to as Nirvana.
Since the age of about 15 months4, your model of the universe has been that you are an independent decision-making agent, moving around and interacting with an external spatiotemporal world. The idea behind Nirvana is that this is wrong.
First, you are not independent of the world---you are a temporary agglomeration of molecules that came from the world, arranged in a very particular configuration that is capable of sustaining conscious experience. All of the molecules in that agglomeration are constantly swapping out with other molecules, and at some point, they are no longer capable of sustaining conscious experience, and then they disperse and get reused, probably to eventually help sustain another conscious experience.
Second, there is no you sitting inside your brain. The experience of being you is simply the experience of information being exchanged inside the cerebral cortex. If that sounds mysterious, that's fine, because it is mysterious. We don't understand consciousness or how it works. But lots of smart people are studying this 5.
Third, since the moment you were born, every preference you've formed, and every action you've ever taken, have emerged from the exquisitely complex interaction of your environment with the following three basic goals, none of which you chose for yourself:
- Avoid pain
- Seek pleasure
- Live forever
That's your entire operating system.
Maybe your reaction to this is "holy crap, I should probably learn to meditate."
But instead, maybe your reaction is "So what? Neuroscientists know what part of your brain sustains consciousness6. Every materialist knows that we are made of particles that used to be other things7. And I already know that my whole life I've just been running the reward-maximization algorithm I was born with---that my life is an emergent phenomenon governed by the dopamine reward system. Why do I need to meditate to realize this?"
In that case, note that the understanding you have currently is analytical, not experiential.
To know something experientially is different from knowing it analytically. It's one thing to know that hunger is unpleasant because evolution wanted animals to eat so that they can have energy so they can procreate. It's another thing entirely to have felt a deep pang of hunger and to then feel it sated by a meal. No degree of knowledge of the former is equivalent to the latter.
Experienced meditators declare that you can know these things not just analytically, but experientially. You can experience the knowledge that you're made of particles, and that there's no "you" in your head. You can watch the reward maximization algorithm in slow motion, projecting desires into consciousness that you didn't ask for, forming new desires. You can witness the activity of the mind from inside, reverse-engineering it, tweaking it. And that knowledge allows you to reshape your brain and its behavior to an extraordinary degree.
That's the point of meditating.
So, if you've started to meditate, great. If you haven't, start. But either way, don't treat it as a tool for stress relief. You're taking the first steps on the path to discover the most profound truths there are about consciousness and the mind. If you're using it for nothing more than to help take your mind off your stressful job/relationships/homework, that's a good start, but there's a lot further to go.
These states are referred to by Buddhists as "Jhanas", which means, roughly, "Absorptions". Here's the corresponding Wikipedia page, which will probably look like esoteric nonsense. But it isn't. These are real states, detectable via fMRI, accessible to anyone. Long-form article about the Jhanas pending. ↩
Unfortunately, they weren't repopularized by Western civilization until very recently, so we're stuck with the 2500-year-old terminology. ↩
Neuroscientists have spent the last several decades trying to identify the neural correlates of consciousness. As it turns out, while most of your brain isn't conscious, a small part of it seems to be critical for consciousness. ↩
In fact, as Neil deGrasse Tyson famously reminded everyone in 2012, every atom heavier than Helium was formed in a star and released into the cosmos when the star exploded. So every atom of carbon in your body is very literally stardust. To put this another way, "Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas, which if left alone in large enough quantities, for long enough, will begin to think about itself." (source unknown). ↩