Since my 20s, I have been meditating on a semi-regular basis; having attended meditation classes, retreats and read multiple books on the subject.
The brain is not idempotent: as the mind thinks, the brain changes too. For example, London taxi drivers with years of navigating the twisty and confusing streets of road developed a larger hippocampus since that part of the brain is used for visual-spatial memories [Maguire et al 2006]. There is increasing evidence that meditation improves cognition [Lazar et al 2006] [Luders et al 2011]
Even after just a few days of training and practice, participants with no prior meditation experienced reduced fatigue and anxiety, together with increased mindfulness [Zeidan et al 2010]. Moreover, brief mindfulness training significantly improved visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning.
Meditation trains your mind to treat negative situations with equanimity, which results in a natural state of calm and happiness.
Buddha’s Brain: Neuroplasticity and Meditation (online article)
Can Meditation Make You Smarter? (online article)
Evidence Builds That Meditation Strengthens the Brain (online article)
What is meditation?
In this article, I use the word meditation to refer to Concentration (or Samatha) meditation and Insight (or Vipassana) meditation. There are multiple meditation methods, but the forms that I have practiced extensively with are breath meditation and body scanning.
Samatha is really simple, and is used in the Theravada tradition as the preliminary meditation technique to build a foundation to embark on Vipassana meditation. The practice I have learnt and practiced most extensively is the the breath meditation. Follow the sensations of the breath as it flows in through and nostrils, keeping your attention at the tip of the nostrils. Your mind may wander, but keep patiently returning to the breath.
It is not necessary to develop concentration to the point of excluding everything else except the breath. The purpose of this practice to to allow you to rein in the mind, and allow you to ntoice the workings of the mind. The entire process of gathering your attention, noticing your breath, noticing that your mind has wandered, and re-focusing you attention develops mindfulness, patience and concentration. Deep and sustained practice in Samatha allow you to reach various states of consciousness called Jhanas.
Vipassana are meditation techniques to develop mindfulness and is used to become aware of the impermanence of everything that exists. Vipassana provides you with the guidance on how to see clearly into the nature of the mind, which claims to lead to liberation. I am practicing the body sweeping meditation to develop mindfulness.
Mindfulness in Plain English (book)
How to practice?
My practice in my 20s has been spotty: I would diligently meditate an hour every day for a month, and then lapse into meditating once a week (maybe) for 10 minutes. Even the type of meditation would vary: one month it would be concentration meditation like breath meditation on the tip of the nostril, the next it would be Vipassana or Insight meditation by scanning the body, and yet another it would be loving kindness meditation. Heck, I even tried meditating for a period of time on a burning flame.
A few years back, I realized that this inconsistent practice meant that I was not incorporating the goal of meditation by integrating the practice into my daily life. I was riding the whims of my monkey mind and siloing the practice into a separate aspect of my life.
Unfortunately, meditation as an activity is so mind-numbingly boring (initially). Some motivation techniques suggested can be using the carrot or the stick. The carrot includes the benefits of meditation, both secular (mental wellness) and spiritual (enlightenment). The stick might be to practice “death” meditation to become aware of our morality.
One mental hack that I have learnt over the years is to institute a habit to perform a desirable activity. The label “habit” is very persuasive, especially since you are engaging in an initially undesirable activity. I currently meditate for at least 30 minutes before going to bed, and meditate on weekends for an hour. You only have a finite amount of willpower each day, so forming a habit makes it easier to carry out. How long will it take to form this habit? Research suggests that forming a meditative practice will take over two months of daily repetition before the behavior becomes a habit (and skipping single days is not detrimental in the long-term). [Lally et al 2009]
Habits: How They Form And How To Break Them (online article)
The Power of Habit (book)