Meditation is all the rage. Just this weekend, the New York Times published an article purporting to debunk meditation because there are other ways to relieve stress and anxiety.
That's entirely true, but it also entirely misses the point of meditation. The true purpose of meditation is to be able to recognize that your thoughts are not reality. Your thoughts are an attempt to make sense of reality. Our minds are like machines, constantly trying to make sense of the world by generating meaning, and we do so with words and images. When you meditate, you begin to see the difference between your thoughts and the data that your eyes and ears receive.
That is the starting point of waking up, so that you no longer act on or react to thoughts that are not really real. To paraphrase Virginia Wolff, we are all living in a room of one's own--our own heads, that is. With a consistent meditation practice, you begin to realize how little of your thought is based in anything concrete: most of your thoughts are reflections on a past that cannot be changed or projections about a future yet to occur. More often than not, those thoughts are anxious and concerned with your security. That is why meditation helps with stress and anxiety. You begin to see those thoughts as less real, and therefore don't have the same emotional reaction to them. From there, you are more at peace.
But the health benefits are secondary to the real benefit of meditation: it shows you the architecture of your mind so that you can see how your mind is actually structured. Most of us don't really understand how our minds work. At the most basic level, meditation shows you where you don't love yourself completely and unconditionally. It shows you where you cling to the past and regret, grasp at the future with worry, and criticize and judge yourself incessantly.
When you see clearly where your mind's architecture is lacking in love, you can begin to undo that structure, slowly but surely, so that your mind no longer produces those same thoughts. Meditation itself can't undo those structures; it only illuminates them, which is why so many people ultimately abandon meditation or never really change. Other tools must be brought to bear on the structures of judgment and criticism (more on that in another blog post). But meditation is the foundation for changing how you relate to your thoughts and, ultimately, changing how you think.