23/07/2013 07:30 BST | Updated 21/09/2013 06:12 BST

Are We Getting the Most From Meditation?

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Meditation has caught the attention of Westerners in recent years, becoming a daily routine for those in search of calmer, healthier, more productive lives. We're told it will calm us down, make us more productive, and improve our memory. It's even been said to make music sound better. But are we overcomplicating an inherently simple activity?

A recent article in The New York Times outlines the difference between the benefits we seek from meditation and its original intentions. Buddha once said:

"I teach one thing and one thing only: that is, suffering and the end of suffering."

America, on the other hand, has hailed meditation 'the new push-up for the brain'.

Meditation is appealing because it promises to undo the effects of too much Facebook, caffeine and stress. We want it to send us to sleep, keep us calm, and improve our performance at work. But just like having a five-page check-list for Mr or Mrs Right - high expectations can to lead to disappointment.

The Dalai Lama says that wellbeing can be found in one way: cultivating compassion. He celebrated his 78th birthday recently and said the best gift he could receive was for everyone to have a 'more compassionate and a genuine, selfless concern for others' wellbeing.'

And if you've ever seen the way he giggles through an interview, you'll know it's working for him. In fact, a study on meditation and compassion by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison proved that thinking about other people's suffering puts your own life into perspective.

It might sound like compassion is reserved for the religious, but Ratnaprabha, Director of the West London Buddhist Centre and ordained Buddhist, says that 90% of people coming to his classes are not interested in the religious aspect to Buddhism.

"Buddhism isn't really that religious, anyway", he says.

"Compassion isn't about being a martyr", Ratnaprabha says, "It isn't about ignoring yourself. Meditation is about leading a happy life for yourself, and it's a win-win situation because the happier you are, the more helpful you can be to others".

Whether it's someone not thanking you when you open a door for them, or a flatmate who never takes out the bins - there are some people that can make it a challenge to be genuinely compassionate. Luckily, compassion often a natural side-effect of regular meditation.

David, a volunteer at the London Buddhist Centre, says that compassion for others isn't usually the initial reason for people attending meditation classes.

"Most people generally come to meditation classes because they're stressed out or sad, and can't cope with modern life," he says.

"They don't necessarily think, 'if I develop compassion, I'll be happier'. This realisation tends to come later on, but to begin with, it's all about alleviating their own suffering."

When asked if people should expect a million things from meditation, or simply aim for more compassion, David says:

"The more you put into it the more you get out of it. Why not aim for enlightenment?"