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How Does Meditation Work?

November 10, 2011

Over the past few weeks I’ve been writing about how meditation has the power to effect profound, transformative changes in the quality of one’s consciousness. By changing the way we relate to ourselves, meditation unlocks a secret power within us to change the way we relate to others: to our families, our friends, our loved ones, to strangers, and even to the world. I’ve insisted throughout my posts that–far from being a remote set of abstract ideals–the reality of meditation is one that you can experience for yourself, so long as you put in the work to practice it on your own.

But there’s been one large question I haven’t yet really touched on, and that’s the obvious question of: how does it work? I’m insisting to you that it does work, after all — before you sit down for yourself to see if I’m right, I should be able to at least explain myself, shouldn’t I?

Ironically, although the question is one of the most basic ones that could be asked, it is also one of the most difficult questions to answer. Meditation is a mental practice, after all — to explain it, we’ll have to discuss the workings of the mind. How does the mind work? What does the mind really want?

A few years ago I did my meditation alone in my room, as I do everyday. It was a nice meditation, but nothing life-changing. Just an ordinary, pleasant meditation. Afterwards I went downstairs, where my roommate Bryan and his friends (whom I had never met before) were watching the Yankees game. Watching the game for about five minutes, I started to realize that I felt extremely happy. Five minutes later, it was becoming a little unreasonable. Five minutes after that, and I was so overcome with it that I thought my brain was going to explode to reveal the universe for what it really was: endless, shimmering light vibrating with the very presence of the Divine.

Bryan suddenly woke me up in that moment. “Hey?” he asked, looking at me from across the couch. “Are you okay dude?” Looking at him, I suddenly saw myself, reflected right back at me through his own eyes. Looking around at the whole room, the Divine Self was all I saw, all I felt, all I could understand. Finally reaching the brink, I broke out into uncontrollable sobs.

“I love you so much,” I tearily confessed to my poor, confused roommate. “I love you all.”

You can only imagine what these perfect strangers thought of me, but funnily enough, it was well-known in my typical college house that part of living with me was that, every once in a while, something like this might happen. “Don’t worry about him,” they would sometimes say to others. “He just meditated.”

So — how does it work? How does it happen?

Meditation works upon a basic principle of the mind that people rarely consider: “as you think, so you become.” Or, to quote the Buddha, “you are what you think, having become what you thought.”

But what does this mean? Well, let’s consider even the most mundane thing the mind can do: sensory perception. For example, the action your mind takes in order to read the words I’m writing here right now. Light reflects off the monitor and reaches your eyes, which sends signals to your brain. There in your mind, an image is created of the words on the screen that your mind interprets.

But! Something just happened here. Something powerful; something profound. Did you catch it?

Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine a pink elephant. Make it as realistic as you can. Imagine the wrinkles of its skin; its long, pink trunk; the ivory of its tusks.

Pretty easy, right? The fact that you can imagine not just an elephant (which you’re not physically seeing), but an imaginary pink elephant, proves that there is a portion of your mind that is almost like playdough or silly putty, shape-shifting constantly into whatever form the mind commands it to take. To return to our original example of reading the words on a screen, that same part of the mind that can assume the form of a pink elephant in this case takes the shape of the words perceived initially by the eyes and the brain. In other words, to read the words written here by me, a part of your mind has to become the shape of those words so another portion of your mind can interpret them.

Thus, we can say that there is an objective mind, which takes the form of whatever you think or perceive, and a subjective mind, which commands it.

This understanding raises serious questions as to why we should ever rely on our five senses as our only source of knowledge. What are you actually perceiving? When you drink a cup of coffee, for example, what are you tasting? Are you actually tasting the coffee? No. As this line of thinking clearly shows, a certain physical portion of the coffee activates your taste buds, which sends a signal to the brain. A portion of your objective mind then becomes the taste of the coffee so that your subjective mind can either enjoy or not enjoy it. You’re not even enjoying a shadow of the coffee, in other words, you’re enjoying a shadow of a shadow of the coffee — rather than experiencing anything directly, your mind enjoys a mental creation of a reflected portion of a physical object. Ultimately, it is only enjoying the mental creation, and not any physical object directly.

There’s an easy way to understand this. Imagine your favorite food. Pizza, tacos, pasta — whatever it is, imagine it. Imagine eating it, and imagine how happy it will make you. What’s the more reasonable statement? That happiness is somehow intrinsic to your favorite food and eating it allows you to somehow magically access the happiness held within the food? Or, that eating that food arouses a sense of happiness that is already there within you? The fact that your favorite food only arouses happiness that is already there dormant within you proves that what you are actually enjoying isn’t the food in-and-of itself, but your mental creation of it.

As the mind literally becomes whatever it thinks about, whatever it does, whatever it perceives, it becomes apparent that what we choose to think and do is extremely important. Thoughts and actions literally shape our minds.

This is already an established precept of psychology — we call it conditioning. If, for example, you spend your whole life telling yourself that you’re not “good enough,” this distorts the mind incredibly, creating negative, destructive emotional patterns that repeat themselves throughout your life endlessly. Very likely, by telling yourself that you’re not “good enough,” you ensure that you never will be. The opposite is also true.

To return to that very basic aphorism of meditation: “as you think, so you become.” Or, to once again quote the Buddha, “you are what you think, having become what you thought.” And to return to our original question: how does meditation work? Very simply, by using our subjective mind to command the objective mind to take the shape of, not merely a positive, empowering thought, but a liberating thought.

Mantras and visualizations are powerful methods of meditation, and by understanding the mechanics we have just gone over, it’s easy to see why. The objective mind is constantly assuming shapes and forms, and very often these tend to be negative, destructive ones. We live in a materialistic world, after all. By constantly meditating on crude matter, the mind will tend to develop a fragmentary, alienated sense of self that endlessly tries to categorize things into safe, limited little boxes. Spiritual meditation is the opposite. By meditating on the oneness of all things, on the oneness of our Selves, we begin to perceive that Truth everywhere we look. Much more than just a “positive” way of looking at the world, rather than our previous “negative” way, meditation allows us to see the Truth behind all things, transcending both positive, negative, as well as all dualities. We see the unity in diversity, suddenly; we see synthesis instead of analysis.

How does this happen? It happens because rather than simply finding a “positive” object to meditate on, spiritual meditation is meditation upon one’s deepest, innermost Self. The Self alone has the power to liberate us, because the Self alone is infinite in character. By meditating on something that ultimately transcends our little, limited, ego-driven “selves,” our mind is able to overcome its own barriers and see the Self for what it really is: infinite. This is a truth that can’t be realized intellectually, it has to be realized experientially — intuitionally. It can only be realized by your OWN personal practice — not by anybody else’s.

Realization of the Self is different from what you might think. It is something much more powerful than simply a content feeling of being “in tune” with yourself, because your true Self is completely beyond the wildest dreams of your “little” self. Sitting in the room with Bryan and his friends watching the Yankees game, after all, I didn’t just feel that my “self” was infinite — I saw the True Self within, reflecting itself in everybody in the room — not just me.

To quote the Christian mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” This is your ordinary waking life. Meditation, very simply, allows you to harness the basic mechanics of your mind to see yourself and everything as it actually is: spiritual.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2011 5:37 am

    Wow Alok, there is so much wisdom in your thinking! Thank you.

  2. November 16, 2011 10:31 am

    Thanks for helping us to understand how the meditation works.

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