There are many circumstances in our lives in which we hold a specific conscious intention, or we concentrate for extended periods, or we try to really understand what’s going on, but we don’t call it mediation or mindfulness.
What’s going on in meditation that’s different or special?
It has to do with going meta. Normally we’re wrapped up in the objects themselves — the interesting idea, the worrying thought, the irritating noise, the scary possibility — and we’re somehow dealing with that. What we’re not doing is watching the internal processes unfold — the attending, thinking, feeling, fearing.
In meditation, we attempt to step back from the objects, to de-fuse our attention from them, and we attempt to sustain the intention to observe the unfolding cognitive and attentional processes as they occur.
To do this is hard because it’s explicitly not doing whatever the mind wants to do. The mind wants to ruminate on that project that isn’t going well, and we don’t let it — we instead bring our attention back to the chosen meditation object.
And doing this is special because it’s not what we normally do. Normally our minds do the things they habitually do — that’s why those are the habits of the mind. It’s unusual to do something different. But when you do unusual things, unusual outcomes ensue. In the case of meditation, those outcomes take two forms: insights into the lawful operation of our nervous systems, and (gradually) new habits of mind.
Those insights can have immediate effects: a new model on how the world works can be employed right now, causing us to see different options and choose different behaviors.
Those new habits of mind can be deep and powerful, even if they don’t take effect immediately. What if your mind were 10% less prone to rumination? What if 10% of the time that you would normally have ruminated unproductively, you instead find spontaneous enjoyment in some circumstance present in that moment? That amounts to trading 10% of your suffering for satisfaction. If you, like most of us, are a person who spends a significant amount of time worrying, that’d be pretty powerful.