Meditation of any kind takes practice and patience, which can sometimes seem like a tall order in the hustle of everyday life. However, devoting that time to developing awareness through Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction or other meditative techniques can pay real dividends for one's health via stress reduction as well as sharpening one's clarity and focus.
W. Dent Gitchel Jr., an author and longtime practitioner and teacher of meditative arts, said an important first step is to set the correct expectation of what meditation and mindfulness are and what they are not.
"A common misunderstanding is that awareness is an experience of not being alert and focused and completely knowing what's going on," he said. "What many people think of meditation is a sort of zoning out or daydreaming or spacing out. It's not that at all. It has the quality of relaxation but there's complete awareness and clarity there.
"Another misconception is that it's easy or that you will get quick results or that benefits accrue in a short period of time. People can become frustrated quickly because of this. I like to use the example of exercise; if I had never run in my life and I want to do a half-marathon, I would need to train a little bit at a time. Meditation is the same way. I encourage people to start in very small doses, like five minutes a day, and build up the meditation muscles, so to speak."
An associate professor of the School of Counseling, Human Performance and Rehabilitation at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Gitchel has studied Buddhist, Christian and secular contemplative traditions and teaches Stanford University's Compassion Cultivation Training.
Those who stick with meditation long-term become adept at leveraging various techniques to engage the mind in a variety of ways, he said.
Gitchel, whose book "Pursuing Purpose: A Guide to Finding Meaning Through Meditation" was published in July, posts meditation exercises on his website, dentgitchel.com, that seek to spur attitudes of kindness, interconnectedness, gratitude and courage.
"Part of what we're doing in cultivating these qualities is trying to experientially tap into those qualities through meditation and then allow ourselves to experience those in little moments and to stick with them," he said. "What it's doing is getting our brains used to the experience. The idea would be to either recall or imagine a time when you were or are or will be in a situation in which you embodied courage, for example, or when you somehow felt courageous.
"If we are experiencing courage time and time again in meditation, we're enhancing our ability to feel what courage is like and so we can tap into that in the so-called ordinary world when we're not meditating. Basically, it's practicing an experiential learning where if you come back time and time again it will change the nervous system or emotional system in some way."