Ask anyone what Meditation is or means to them and everyone seems to have a different take on it. Depending on whom you talk to, one can expect something like this. You have to get up early in the morning, sit still in a quite place and just observe your breath or focus on an object, try not to think, no! think about just one thing, let thoughts bubble up, bring your awareness back, focus on positive thoughts……… and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately a lot of this stuff is from the so called gurus and yogis. So, what hope there is for a lay person to even understand what needs to be done, let alone mastering it.
So lets break meditation down and try and understand what is the objective behind it and what is one trying to achieve, by doing meditation or being in a meditative state. What is the true purpose of meditation?
For starters, have you ever wondered, out of all the potential thoughts, why only some bubble up to the surface? Some we can understand because they might have a strong emotion, feeling, memory attached to it or simply they might be related to a pressing matter at hand. However a lot of them are just fickle, fleeting and totally random, which has no real relevance or significance. They just come and disappear. For them to come and disappear, they need to first take form. So, how exactly are thoughts generated to begin with?
We generate thoughts based on our memories, which are an accumulations of our past experiences. Each memory has an emotion associated with it and emotions are the end product of past experiences dug up from all three layers of our memory (genetic, epigenetic & knowledge driven). Our thoughts that are supposedly fleeting are not so random after all and are a result of all the drama that happens inside our head. How exactly do we control or stop these random thoughts then? And if the idea is not to control them but merely be aware of them, then what do we do with this awareness?
Once we become aware of our thoughts, the next thing is to observe them as a third party witness to all of the things happening within us and create some sort of a distance so that we are merely an observer observing the inner happenings. If the objective of meditation is to create this distance so we can be a witness to everything; like being aware of the thoughts that are arising, then being a witness to the awareness of the thoughts etc. So, how far do we go along this line of thinking? Being aware that I am the witness of the thinker who is thinking about these thoughts? You see, we get locked into this infinitisome of layers like a scene from Inception.
Maybe the real objective of all this is just to give ourselves some ‘Me’ time to introspect about what’s swirling inside of our heads, so we can modulate our behavior. Because end of the day, thoughts over the course of time give rise to a certain feeling, feelings lead to a certain emotion, emotions leads to behaviour. These factors come together to produce a brain state that sets a behavior in motion, the result of which is observable to the individual in the form of an ACTION.
An action is a physical expression of a mental process. This process can be conscious or subconscious, which is part of our consciousness that is usually suppressed. It is information that we are not actively aware of in the moment, but can influence us nonetheless, such as the information that we have gathered through our senses but without awareness. Apart from our conscious and subconscious mind, there is another level of consciousness, which is our unconscious mind where our repressed information is stored. Information pushed so far back that it is no longer (almost) available for retrieval and from this place is where one of the two forms of an 'Action' predominantly stems from. A ‘Reaction’. An action that is instinctual and operate autonomously.
What’s stored in our unconscious mind comes from years of evolution and also typically takes
root when we are fairly young, when our mental capacity and judgment is seriously limited.
For better or worse, Reaction is something that drives and compels our behavior.
However, there is another form of action called a ‘Response’. This is the kind of action that is done with the engagement of our conscious mind. The one which is often the least used. This process requires awareness coupled with self control. It is more thoughtful and it contains cognition. It is guided more by reasoning and logic rather than emotions and instincts. In doing so we listen, we think, we reflect and then we act or in other words we ‘Respond’.
So, the real purpose of meditation, is nothing but being mindful of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, behavior and responding accordingly. There is a lot of value in responding. Yes it takes a lot of effort and we need to exercise a good dose of self control, which is pretty taxing on our brain, it literally needs to use a lot of energy to exercise self control, esp if we resist it, so its easier to let our unconscious and subconscious mind drive our actions. However the upside to practicing responding as opposed to reacting is, it slowly influences our unconscious mind as well.
So practicing mindfulness or in other words meditation on a regular, long term basis will fundamentally change the connection between our limbic system and cerebral cortex by making the bond stronger, which is usually rather weak due to differences of their evolution; thereby changing the very way we think, feel and act/respond both physically and mentally. That is the true objective and purpose of meditation, as far as I can tell. Now the question is how exactly do we practice it? That’s coming up...