which Meditation Practice Helps Improve
From my personal experiences with meditation here are some “mental” skills which usually improve over time. Of course with these, like with most growth skills, it’s an up and down process. Also keep in mind that these skills combine with and feed upon each other. You are usually improving all of them simultaneously even when you don’t realize what is happening.
Relaxing the Body
Meditation can help you achieve physical and mental relaxation that is even deeper than sleep. My own early experience from Transcendental Meditation was that it can be used as a quicker picker upper when you are dead tired (or feeling sickish) and don’t have much time to recover before the next activity.
Systematically relaxing the muscles in your body, from head to toe, is one well known form of meditation. Shavasana, the Yoga corpse pose, is used to accomplish this effect.
Meditation breathing exercises can also help you relax. In fact breathing exercises are often the first techniques taught to beginners to give a feel for what meditation is. Combat breathing is even a technique the military & police use to quickly get rid of the jitters prior to combat.
Releasing Distracting Thoughts
Monkey mind is what meditators jokingly call the random thoughts they notice racing through their minds during meditation. Those semi-conscious thoughts were always there … meditation just makes you more aware of them.
Meditation gives you practice at releasing these thoughts rather than let them take over. One way to do this while meditating is “to just watch the thoughts drift by like you would watch leaves on a stream slowly drift by.” Releasing these thoughts frees up your subconscious for deeper, more restful pursuits.
I have found that after months of meditation practice the jumble of thoughts the mind tends to generate is greatly reduced. I.e., fewer leaves float by. This extends to daily life as well; you find yourself less harassed by your monkey mind and more often experiencing an empty mind. Of course different people get different results at different rates.
Some forms of meditation (e.g., centering prayer meditation) may even dredge up repressed negative thoughts & feelings you didn’t realize existed. After several meditation sessions you typically find such junk starts getting released as well. Don’t worry too much about it; just let such thoughts pop up and drift away on their own. It’s a cleansing process.
Being Here Now
Learning how to “be here now” is one of the prime objectives of meditation. It is a way to temporarily escape past sorrows and future worries. It is a way to temporarily escape the incessant noise of the monkey mind and the explanations (true or not … it doesn’t matter) our minds seem determined to provide.
Meditation is about paying close attention to immediate sensations rather than to the verbal stories we are all continuously weaving with our minds. By practicing meditation we can get closer to reality and less blindly driven by our ego and judgmental selves. With increased awareness we can learn to make better, more realistic judgments and to be happier with what is right in front of us.
So, meditation is about practicing the awareness skill of being here now. One indicator that this skill is increasing is that during deep meditation time seems to disappear; now when the timer bell rings it is a surprise rather than something for which I was expectantly waiting. Also, as one gets more into the here and now the pain of boredom is reduced; this is another thing to look for in both meditation and in daily life. Escapes such as TV and overeating will become less needed as your being here now skill increases.
In every form of meditation you practice holding your attention on one thing … perhaps a candle (yoga candle gazing meditation) or your breath (breathing meditation) or even a blank wall (Zen meditation).
Such concentration practice automatically increases your will power and your ability to resist distracting urges. These strengths are beneficial in many phases of your life since they help keep you on course towards the things that are most important to you. You drift less and accomplish more.
Other Possibly Related Skills?
Going to Sleep
Going to sleep more quickly is another skill it would be nice to obtain from meditation practice. However, quickly & purposefully moving from the conscious state of wanting to go to sleep to the unconscious state of being asleep is something I have not yet completely mastered.
I’ve heard of decathlon champions being able to sleep under the bleachers for 15 minutes during breaks in competition but that’s not me. So far, putting myself in a sleep provoking situation (e.g., dead tired, no outside distractions, etc.) seems to be the best way to accomplish quick sleep.
However I have found that a full, purposeful, timed meditation session can help provoke sleep when nothing else can. I don’t go to sleep during the meditation itself but find that I am more mentally relaxed and then sleep usually just happens shortly thereafter.
Getting in the Flow
Many people describe their flow experiences by using the metaphor of a water current carrying them along. It is being in the zone … a positive, optimal, completely absorbed state which sometimes happens when an artist gets lost in her work or an athlete is performing at his best.
Flow would be another skill which would be great to have quickly & purposefully accessible. Several meditation skills seem related so it seems possible to me that practicing meditation might possibly lead to more flow in one’s life.
Meditation may also help you learn how to increase your ability to delay gratification. The famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment suggests this ability leads to better life outcomes.