The benefits of meditation are fairly well known - the ability to still the mind, develop calmness, deep insight and considerable self awareness, and of course the big one - the "big E" - ENLIGHTENMENT - one day, in 10 million lifetimes, if you are lucky!
I rapidly discovered that the downside to all this is that meditation is simple in theory - but very hard in practise.
For a start it takes considerable discipline and that requires serious motivation.
Then there's the time it takes. 10 minutes twice a week just won't do it. You need to do at least two 30 minute sessions a day EVERY day - as an absolute minimum.
And even more depressing is the elapsed time required to START to see any benefit. It can take months of disciplined persistent (and consistent) practise to start to see any serious lasting benefit.
And even longer for the big juicy benefits - like being able to control your mind, stop your thoughts at will, acquiring deep insights into the nature of oneself and the world "out there" takes many (10+) years of meditation practise.
The underlying reason why meditation is hard and takes so long
In a nutshell the reason why meditation is hard is all to do with evolution - or more precisely, the current stage of the neurological evolution of the "average" or "normal" human brain - which is that (what is conventionally and colloquially referred to as) the "left brain" and the "right brain" do not communicate easily or much at all.
The same is also true for the other 2 major brain centres (conventionally and colloquially referred to as "the emotional centre" and "the reptile brain" or the survival instinct).
The lack of communication between these 4 major brain centres, or to express it another way the lack of brain balance, is the underlying evolutionary and neurological reason why we experience life the way we do, why we suffer so much, and as a species why we inflict so much suffering on each other. It is also the root cause of all of our personal internal conflict and inner resistance or immunity to change.
As a massive simplification and generalisation the average person's brain is just not balanced, i.e. the different centres of the brain literally do not - frequently cannot - communicate.
So improved and more frequent and conscious communication between these different brain centres is the route to peace, insight and all the benefits and other "goodies" quite rightly attributed to meditation.
The reason why meditation takes so long to deliver significant and lasting personal change is because the meditator is, (quite literally) at the physiological level, re-wiring or re-routing the neurological pathways in their own brain. Initially this is primarily between left and right brain, and then from the balance achieved there, between all 4 major brain centres. So meditation is fundamentally a re-programming of the brain.
This may all sound very reductionist, un-glamorous and unspiritual, but at a physiological and neurological level when we meditate we are strengthening the corpus callosum - the tissue containing and comprising the neural connections between the left and right brain.
A simplistic developmental analogy of all this is to compare or contrast the "average" or "normal" human brain with a baby, and the brain of the Zen master with an experienced mountaineer. The gap is that wide and the difference is that profound.
It was at this point that I had my own "Grasshopper" moment (you do remember the 70's "Kung Fu" series starring the late David Carradine - don't you?), when I discovered that there is a technology based around binaural beats that can considerably speed up this whole reprogramming process. And better still, the only effort required is physically putting on headphones and sitting in a chair for 30-60 minutes a day!
Having used a binaural beat meditation product for over 8 years now I can safely say that whilst in most respects I remain the same flawed human being I was before, at least I now know that I am!
I find that traditional meditation is now much easier to do than before, and more enjoyable - as are a range of other mindfulness practises.
I can largely stop thinking - well to be accurate about 80-90% of conscious thoughts stop when I want them to, and the rest is like a sort of "white noise" in the background.
I have developed the capacity to be able to witness (or mindfully watch) my thoughts and emotional states more or less automatically. I still get caught up in the them - but at least now I know when I do, and it isn't the 100% it used to be - more like 80% now, and I can "get out of" negative states much more easily and more quickly.
I can access right-brain states more or less at will and switch between a left or right brain state fairly easily.
This is a very subjective observation, but I feel that I have developed far more self-awareness to the extent that I now know or realise who I am - or more accurately who I am not.
For any Buddhists reading this, I feel a deeper insight into and direct experience of emptiness and the wider teachings on interdependent origination.
And what about the big "E"? Well I can say four simple things on that:
(1) That I do realise now what it isn't - namely it is not to be sought, worked towards or somewhere "out there".
(2) That we are all enlightened NOW - it is our true natural state, many of us have brief and transitory enlightenment experiences, but as it is not a part of our regular day-to-day experience we don't recognise or describe it as such.
(3) That it is a progressive awakening and comprises continuously deepening experiences that take place over many years - or at least it is for most of us - very few people have what is regarded as a "spontaneous awakening", and of those who do, not many successfully integrate the experience.
(4) That ultimately, enlightenment is just to BE - aware and fully present NOW - free of the mind...