Our mind is still a mystery. Despite using it our whole lives, we haven’t yet found the user guide let alone the remote control to switch it off. And while modern science is constantly making new discoveries about the brain, the mind or consciousness is still so mysterious.
The oldest books in the world (the Upanishads) detail this mystery and offer a way of unravelling and understanding the enigma that is the human mind and consciousness. The system of yoga is derived from these books which is why yoga is often referred to as the science of consciousness.
Many of us go through our whole lives not paying attention to our minds. It’s only when we hit a major hurdle in life that we stop to examine our minds and contemplate the nature of our existence. In my experience, there are two main reasons people start meditation:
- they’re distressed/suffering, or
- they’re looking for something.
Many people turn to meditation to alleviate their suffering. Whether we’re suffering physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually, meditation is often our last-ditch attempt to try to feel better. We may have tried all other avenues and arrived at meditation at our wit’s end, or we may have come to the realisation ourselves that our mind and what we think/believe is a source of much of our suffering.
Others start on the meditation path out of curiosity; they’re seeking something. Maybe they’re not sure what they’re seeking, but they sense they’re missing a piece of the puzzle of life. Some are looking for meaning, understanding or contentment. Others approach meditation from a philosophical or spiritual angle, or they’re looking to improve their performance/develop themselves.
How meditation works
When we start meditating, we’re just trying to stabilise our attention. Goldfish have a terrible reputation for their short attention spans, but we’re not much better. We’ve been trained to scatter our awareness across a wide variety of stimuli. We’re sold the lie of multi-tasking. We need more hands to juggle the number of balls we’re trying to pay attention to.
We spend much of our lives lost in thought, not really paying attention to anything. And often, what does occupy our headspace is menial or trivial stuff like our shopping list, earworms or how someone is annoying us.
So when we sit down to meditate, we’re practising paying attention. We’re reeling in our net of awareness. And this is where many of us give up. Suddenly trying to shift our attention from a million external things to just one thing can be hard. And paradoxically, we can get anxious about taking our attention away from our work, our to-do list and our problems. We worry about forgetting our stress.
Shifting our focus from the external to the internal can be likened to pulling the handbrake while driving on the freeway. It’s extreme, and that’s why we usually prepare the mind for meditation first through yoga and breathing techniques. We need to slow down before we come to a stop.
If we continue and we’re able to sustain our attention, we can observe our experiences without attachment. We can see when we’re getting distracted, angry or annoyed, yet we can also know that it is just temporary. We’re able to observe what happens without getting caught up in it or being so reactive. Imagine a movie projector showing images of a fire on the screen. The screen doesn’t get burnt. We can learn to detach from our negative experiences so that we don’t get burnt either.
Going beyond thought
This ability to observe without attachment creates a meta-awareness (awareness of awareness) different from ordinary thinking. It’s this meta-awareness that elevates our consciousness. We’re able to rise above our ordinary thoughts and experience another state of being.
When we rise above our ordinary consciousness and experience meta-awareness, we experience a sense of peace and calm. Our thoughts are still there, but they don’t bother us as much. We become less reactive, we become more circumspect, we can see the stories we’ve been telling ourselves and the workings of our ego.
With regular practice, we drop into the state of awareness with more ease. It’s almost like we merge with the field of awareness, or we become awareness itself. Everything that has ever or will ever happen to us occurs in our field of awareness. When we become meta-aware, we become the field of awareness in which everything is taking place. With meta-awareness, we experience a simultaneity of our awareness to encompass everything we’re experiencing in the moment. Our awareness expands.
This expanded awareness gives us even more perspective. We can see our thoughts, emotions and problems as temporary objects in our field of awareness. And this broader perspective can be a source of great comfort during tough times. I love the following analogy to demonstrate the effect of expanded awareness:
If you have a glass of water and put a tablespoon of salt in it, it will taste salty. If you have a freshwater lake and put a tablespoon of salt in it, you won’t taste the salt. It’s still there, but it’s diluted. That’s what our expanded awareness does to our thoughts. They become less bothersome as the ratio of awareness to thought increases.
Our expanded awareness eventually spreads into our everyday life where we can see the bigger picture and feel a sense of connection to something bigger than us. We feel that field of awareness everywhere, the field of awareness we all share, the field of awareness that’s one and the same between you and me (just a different observer).
This expanded awareness quiets the mind. It IS possible to experience a state of mind where you are awake and alert yet have no thoughts, where the only thing that exists is the field of awareness. The stilling of the movements of the mind is the definition of yoga. And Yogis describe this stillness, this state of awareness where there is no thought, as pure bliss.
You don’t have to go to India to learn this. You don’t have to sit in a cave to experience this. Average, everyday people are experiencing this each week in The Meditation Habit. We can show you.