Meditation helps us in many ways. Practising mindfulness meditation regularly helps to develop mental stability and reduce habits of reactivity which get us into trouble, and it can give us a vehicle for working with difficult emotions. Heart-opening practices such as metta and compassion help us to cultivate beautiful qualities of the heart-mind and extend those to others.
Another way meditation can help is to provide insight into our lives, by shining a light on processes which normally take place under the radar, in the unconscious or subconscious mind. For example, through regular meditation practice you might start to notice patterns that you've never consciously identified before.
Looking a little deeper, we start to see major trends in our behaviour. We start to notice that we play many different roles in our lives. Using myself as an example, depending on the situation at the time, I might be in any of these roles:
Each of these roles places different demands on me and comes with the expectation of a different set of behaviours, and in some cases even different ways of dressing and speaking. As I go through a typical week, I have to shift from one role to another many times.
Roles are not inherently good or bad by themselves; they're useful vehicles to help us relate to one another. But sometimes our relationship to our roles can be a problem. Sometimes a role demands something of us that we can't give at that moment. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in roles that have outlived their usefulness, unable to move on. Learning to understand that roles are just roles, nothing more or less, and to be mindful of the process of inhabiting these roles in our own lives, can bring about a great loosening of tension and sense of openness, lightness and freedom.
(You might like to think about which roles you find yourself playing as you go through life. Which ones do you find particularly stressful, and why?)
Going further still, some of the deepest insights available to us in meditation practice concern more fundamental aspects of who we are and how our sense of self is constructed from moment to moment. These insights have the power to change our relationship to our own experience in fundamental ways, leading to significantly greater freedom and well-being. (This is the process sometimes called 'awakening' or 'enlightenment' in spiritual circles. In Zen we talk about 'kensho', or 'seeing one's true nature'.)
Many meditation techniques can result in insight - the key is to have a sense of investigation, inquiry, looking to see what's going on. We aren't trying to think our way to insight, to analyse ourselves and come up with a clever way of understanding what's happening; rather, we simply observe our minds, and allow the insights to come to us in an intuitive, experiential way. So insight meditation practices typically involve a technique which sets up a good environment in which insight can arise and encourages us to pay attention to see what happens next.
One very effective way to generate insight into the self is to work with the question 'Who am I?' If you'd like to try this, you can find a 10-minute 'Who am I?' meditation in the Audio section of this website. Give it a try and see what comes up for you!