The hallmark practice of Buddhism is meditation, the process of focussed mindfulness. There are different schools of thought on approach to meditation, ways to do it, effects, and even the purpose of doing it.
So many answers, so little time... Much of that answer depends on what your reason for meditating is, and what your particular situation is. For example, if you're trying it out just once for a class, what you do may be very different than a monk with many years experience.
Let's assume you're not going to be putting on orange robes and shaving your head anytime soon. If you are, you've got much better resources to tap than my little personal website. Whatever way you decide to meditate, there tend to be some things one notices, particularly if you take on meditation as a regular practice. You typically find yourself less prone to stress-related illnesses, and suffer from less stress in general. Calmness, particularly after meditation, is common. And many people find they are in much better control of their state of mind with regular practice, less likely to get caught up in situational tension.
Bearing in mind, of course, that everyone's experience is different! Some folks take to this like ducks to water, and for some of us, it's a struggle to find that internal quiet.
Monastics may have more labor-intensive objectives with their meditation -- the complete extinguishing of suffering, and ending the rounds of rebirth. Yeah, I'm not qualified to talk about that here any more than I'm qualified to talk about String Theory.
Ways to Meditate
Again, so little time! I've experience with two or three different methods, depending on how one counts these things. There are more, many more, and a vast number of results and mind states that one can experience during meditation.
One thing to note before going any further is that we call it a practice for a very good reason. It's not something you do once, and expect to gain any ground. Nor is every meditation session going to be what we would hope for. Sometimes, your mind just won't settle down. That's okay! It's not going to every time, or even most times.
There is no such thing as a bad meditation session. As Ajahn Brahm describes in one of his books, it's like your job. You don't get paid every day, sometimes it's just plain work. But all that work does indeed contribute to gains later on, even if you don't experience them right now.
I can't recommend strongly enough that interested people find a teacher to help them with their practice. Meditation can be very challenging to do on one's own, without encouragement and support of others, even if you're very disciplined. At the very least, a teacher can provide guidance with the things that come up in meditation, and direction when you're seeking some progressive goals.
It would also be helpful to do a little reading, and find a kind of meditation that appeals to you. Zen is one kind, Vipassana (mindfulness) is another, and Jhana (concentration) may be viewed as yet another. I can recommend a few books that may help, and links to all of them may be found on the Resources :: Buddhism page:
- Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook by Ajahn Brahm. This one is my favorite, dealing with what I would call Jhana, or concentration. Of course, he makes the case that Jhana and Vipassana are one, and certainly the practices start out the same way. What I like about this book is the very clear language used as it describes a step-by-step approach to... well, letting go! Please don't be put off by the idea of "concentration." This is the practice that can lead to very blissful states of mind. I've only scratched the surface, and from experience, can tell you that even basic practice can help one be very light.
- Mindfulness In Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. This is a wonderful introduction to the meditative practice of mindfulness, which is often associated with Vipassana meditation. Bhante Gunaratana's writing is clear and helpful, particularly to the Western audience, and is a perfect place to start this kind of meditation.
- The Art of Just Sitting, Second Edition: Essential Writings on the Zen Practice of Shikantaza by John Daido Loori. This is more of a set of essays than a guide to practice, but can still be a good set of guide posts in your meditation journey.
So, How's That Going For You?
Glad you asked! It really is a practice, complete with gaps and stumbles. And, blisteringly helpful insights. Long way to go, really long way to go, but... as time goes on, the whole framework makes more and more sense, internally. You hear about something, study it, practice it, and eventually experience it.
I'm much better able to view my motivations -- which has been quite an eye opener. It can be shocking how often one does very good things simply for the validation, instead of out of more wholesome roots.
One puts into practice (that word again!) mindfulness to see what we're doing as we do it. Concentration to really see it as it is, the root of it. And you decide, moment by moment, to do better.
One step at a time.