I have struggled to maintain a regular meditation practice for years. I have found that when i do meditate regularly, my stress levels go way down, my immunity goes way up and that i am generally in an even-keeled state of well being.
The form of meditation i use is mindfulness meditation which is simply sitting and paying attention to my posture, my breathing and my thoughts. I like the Zen master Dogens word for it shikantaza or "just sitting."
I would like to point out that "just sitting" is not as easy as it might sound.
Have you ever tried to just sit?
The first thing that will happen is that thoughts will start popping up. I don't mean that you will begin to think things, for if you pay attention you will notice that thoughts simply arise.
Like bubbles up from a stagnant pond.
In more ways than one.
No, you will find that when you sit and are mindful of what is going on in your land of thoughts you will find that often you are not really thinking your thoughts they are simply arising unbidden from the bio-machinery of your mind.
At this point of noticing, i acknowledge the thought, decide if its anything i should pay attention to (such as the smell of smoke in my home) or not (a moment in kindergarten i suddenly and without prompting recall) and then, since 99.99 per cent of the time it is an unimportant thought, i turn my attention back to my posture and my breathing. These strangely unbidden thoughts, like pop-up ads on the screen of an infected computer, are pesky and will pester the meditating person often.
I find that counting the breaths is a useful tool, it is a simple form of attention or focus which is not something one needs to attach himself to very deeply. Breathe in (one) and breathe out (two), breathe in (three) and breathe out (four).
It is simple.
There is no mystery here, no drama, nothing of interest to distract one from ones intention to just sit.
When a thought arises i simply return to my breathing count. Sometimes i realize i have been entertaining some long train of thought and i have no idea where i left off.
The train doesn't have to be very long for this to occur, so nipping it in the bud is wise advice.
As ones meditation practice matures it often becomes easier and easier to catch these thoughts sooner and sooner. However, as i said, i have struggled to maintain a healthy meditation practice and i have found this affects my ability to meditate when i do get around to attempting it again.
This reminds me of the saying "Zen mind, beginners mind." which implies that the mind is something we all have to deal with no matter how long we have been meditating. Meditation is not an activity with a goal in mind, there is no "end result" it is simply a practice. An ongoing practice, like our other practices of sleeping and eating.
One does not get good at eating and finally arrives at the point where we no longer need to engage in the practice of eating.
It's the same for sleeping.
I find that meditating cultivates a healthy sense of serenity in my life. A place from which i can respond to life in a level headed and peaceful manner instead of habitually reacting to events in my life as though they were the last straw, you know, the one that broke the camels back.