Interest in meditation is rapidly on the rise in the West. Why would not it be? There is so much research now demonstrating the positive health effects stemming from the practice. It is amazing it took so long to catch on here. Meditation is often thought to be the sole domain of many Eastern religions or beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism. It turns out that many religions have forms of meditation dating back thousands of years including: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Perhaps why this might surprise some people is that different labels were used to describe the practice and in some cases the intent was different. For many religions, meditation was a time when one's thoughts were to be directed towards a communion with God or recital of scripture. The Hindus practiced yoga as a preparation for meditation.
In a recent study, nearly 3/4 of all Americans declared themselves as Christians with more than half of that group claiming to belong to a Protestant belief or church. Americans claiming their religion to be either: Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism collectively account for less than 4% of the population. Statistics such as this help to shed light on the slow growth of meditation in the West. While prayer has been a consistent part of Protestant practice, meditation (depending on the definition) is less common. Recently, the word "meditation" is used more freely in all religions — including Protestant religions.
According to Wikipedia, the word meditation, "comes from the Latin word meditatio , which has a range of meanings including to reflect on, to study and to practice." By this definition, any form of prayer certainly fits. While there are several types of recognized meditation practice: mindfulness, kundalini, zazen, TM, qi gong, and others, it is mindfulness meditation that has really caught on and is the focus of research. I think mindfulness meditation is gained in popularity because it is reliably easy to learn and is the least tied to a specific religion. Buddhists call mindful meditation, "Vipassana". It is simply the act of focusing your mind on present moment. While the concept is simple, many struggle with keeping them mind from running back or jumping forwards to future events. Some people mistakenly think that they should have "control" of their minds and not have any thoughts. I think this type of training is not only futile but leads to people quitting on the practice.
Thoughts must be accepted as normal. The mind loves to make movies to run in your head. It makes movies of what you did yesterday or last week and it makes movies of what you will be doing next. Of course, like most movies, it is a bias and fictional version of reality. You goal in mindfulness is to focus on one thing that is present like your breathing! As thoughts come, just let them go and attach no meaning or judgment. It is recommended in this practice to be sitting upright. Do not fuss about how your legs or hands are placed but try to be sitting symmetrical. Close your eyes and focus on your breath moving in and out. Thoughts will come and go. Know that even the Dalai Lama has a constant stream of thoughts coming and going — the key is to let them pass without judgment.
Like any new skill, it takes practice. Do not judge your improvement by the reduction of images but rather the ability to not hang on to them.