How to Improve Your Mental Health with Meditation

Article by Joseph P. Kauffman


The mind is a powerful force. Without even realizing it we drift off into mental fantasies, judging and interpreting the events in our lives, labeling our experience, worrying about imaginary scenarios, projecting our beliefs onto reality, talking to ourselves endlessly. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said:

“You are what you think. All that you are arises from your thoughts. With your thoughts, you make the world… Speak or act with a corrupted mind, and suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox. Speak or act with a peaceful mind, and happiness follows like a never-ending shadow.”


This verse helps to explain just how powerful our minds are. They can be the source of our joy, or the source of our misery. It all depends upon how we perceive our experience. 


Each one of us has been conditioned by our culture, our family and friends, our education, the media we have been exposed to, and many other factors that have shaped our minds and influenced the way we now see the world. Because no two people have had the same life experiences, no two people perceive life in exactly the same way. We all interpret life a little differently, associate distinctive meanings to events, and relate to things uniquely based upon our own life experiences. Because of this, our minds really do shape our experience of life, or as Gautama Buddha said, “with your thoughts, you make the world.”


So, what is the experience of your world like? Do you experience life with a deep sense of calm, relaxation, peace, and joy? Or do you experience it with stress, anxiety, fear, sorrow, and frustration? All of these are mental states, and so the ability to influence them lies within our minds.

 

Changing Your State of Mind

We may think that circumstances determine our happiness, that when everything is going okay we can be happy and relaxed, and that when things are not going according to our ideas then we should be stressed and upset—but this doesn’t have to be the case. It is the state of our minds that determines our happiness or unhappiness, and so we can be relaxed and at ease regardless of our circumstances. It all depends upon our mental attitude, and how we choose to react to a situation. 


This is one of the first things that most people realize when they begin to practice meditation—that circumstances are not the cause of your suffering, it is your reaction to circumstances that causes you to suffer. Or as Goi Nasu said:

“An entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship. Similarly, the negativity of the world can’t put you down unless you allow it to get inside you.”


Typically, we react to situations in a habitual way, based upon our individual conditioning and how we have learned to react over time. But we do have the ability to consciously respond to a situation, rather than blindly reacting to it, and this is one of the greatest things that meditation offers us. Meditation helps us bring awareness to our minds, giving us the ability to witness our thoughts and our habitual reactions. With practice, we begin to feel a sense of space between us as the observer, and the thoughts and reactions that we are observing. It is in this space that we find freedom, for when that gap between us and our thoughts is recognized, our thoughts and reactions have far less influence over us. With practice, we develop the ability to simply witness the thoughts, to let them come, and to let them go, without identifying with them or being affected by them emotionally. 


However, the force of our conditioning and our habitual patterns is strong. It is where our comfort zone lies, and so the act of observing these patterns and seeing them for what they are can make us feel a bit uncomfortable. Yet, as many of us know, it is outside of our comfort zone that we grow most.


If our thoughts are responsible for our happiness or misery, then it makes sense that becoming aware of our thoughts can help us tremendously in cultivating mental health and well-being. A simple analogy to help us better understand the mind is comparing it to a garden.

 

Nurturing Yourself through Meditation

Your mind is like a garden with many seeds in it—seeds of happiness, seeds of love, seeds of gratitude and joy, as well as seeds of suffering, seeds of anger, greed, hatred and lust. The seeds you water with your attention are the seeds that are most likely to grow. So, if you are watering the seed of anger in yourself, that seed will only grow stronger. Conversely, if you water the seed of happiness in yourself, that seed will grow stronger. You are the gardener of your mind, and you decide what seeds you would like to water. Meditation helps us become aware of these seeds and which ones we are watering, and therefore helps us to become master gardeners of our mental gardens.


Meditation makes you aware of your thoughts, aware of your reactions, and aware of the content in your mind. Perhaps more importantly, meditation gives you the power to accept yourself as you are, to make peace with what is in your mind, and it is only when you love and accept yourself as you are that you then have the real strength needed to say no to what doesn’t benefit you, and to say yes to what does. Through meditation we gain freedom within our minds, and therefore within every area of our life.


“Meditation is not a way of making your mind quiet.
It is a way of entering into the quiet that is already there -
buried under the 50,000 thoughts
the average person thinks every day” 
― Deepak Chopra