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Meditation: Relaxation or Awakening
In my last blog I wrote about Human Flourishing – the realization of our innate potential for an enduring happiness, optimal well being, expansive consciousness, and effortless serenity. I used the word realization because these qualities are already and have always been innate to our essential nature. It is more a remembering than the creation of something new. Although this quality of optimal existence is inherent to our being, like clouds cloaking the sun it is obscured by dysfunctional learned mental habits, afflictive thoughts and emotions, and the stress and distress of an overactive mind.
In order to discover and dissolve the veils that conceal our authentic self, we need methods and tools. To explore our biology, for example, we use the microscope and its more sophisticated versions such as the MRI or CAT scan. These tools allow us to penetrate surface appearances, enabling us to gain a more detailed and precise understanding of our internal physical ecology. Similarly, when studying the mind, we can use the tool known as meditation. Meditation allows us to penetrate the surface experiences of the mind and gain a more detailed understanding of its workings and essential nature. That understanding allows us to remove the veils that obscure our authentic nature, revealing the qualities of human flourishing.
However, in modern times the use of meditation has strayed far from its original intent and use, which was to awaken the mind to its fullest potential. It is now used to calm the mind and alleviate stress and distress. This is achieved by temporarily focusing the mind on an object such as a sound, a word, or the breath. This diminishes mental distraction and quiets the overactive mind – temporarily! In this way meditation has been reduced to a relaxation technique, a remedy. It has become a quick-fix. It calms our mind for a few moments. Unfortunately, like a pain remedy, it lasts only as long as we use it. When meditation is used as a relaxation technique, it fails to get to the root source of stress, distress, emotional affliction, and the overactive mind
When used properly, meditation, called “incubation” in the Western tradition of ancient Greece, is an investigative tool rather than a temporary remedy. It cuts to the root source of cognitive misunderstandings and mental afflictions that obscure our natural self. It does this by penetrating surface levels of consciousness, directly observing and eliminating the mind’s habitual and faulty mental habits and revealing the insubstantiality of afflictive thoughts and emotions. In this way the mental sources of dissatisfaction, distress, and suffering progressivelydissipate, like morning dew. When this occurs, our authentic self and the qualities of an expansive consciousness are revealed. The result is an awakened and full life rather than temporary relaxation and pacification.
For this to occur, meditation must be taught in its full scope in accordance with its traditional aims. That includes three progressive phases:
(1) taming the mind’s ceaseless mental chatter;
(2) creating an undisturbed mental clearing that allows for an oasis of stillness and clarity; and
(3) resting naturally and with ease in the presence and beingness of an expansive consciousness.
Our initial effort, which may continue for a year or more, is directed at taming the mind and gaining a foothold in mental clarity and stillness. This will allow us to further explore the mind, undermine its faulty and dysfunctional tendencies, and build a bridge to our natural expansive consciousness.
When taught in accordance with its traditional purpose, results are seen within weeks. It is common for individuals to report enhanced mental calm that persists beyond the practice session, diminished reactivity, and improved personal relationships. As meditation practice continues, new insights, capacities, and skills are developed, stabilized and fully integrated into daily life. Life begins to change, from the inside out.
Meditation, taught in this manner, is part of a larger process of study, reflection, practice, and lifestyle change. These lifestyle changes can include:
(1) turning away from the mistaken notion that outer objects, people, or experiences will result in sustained happiness;
(2) turning towards inner development;
(3) cultivating loving kindness and other qualities which support inner development; and
(4) gaining a more detailed understanding of the nature of suffering, mental afflictions and the qualities of human flourishing.
This holistic process of mental training and lifestyle change is quite traditional and its results – a full and vital life – have been well known to wise women and men throughout time and across diverse cultures.
Seen from this perspective, meditation, when used as a tool for temporary relaxation, can be life-betraying as it provides no more than momentary relief while supporting the illusion that we are actually creating substantial and permanent change. When we use meditation solely as a relaxation technique we distract ourselves from the real task ahead. However, when meditation is used as a tool to awaken consciousness, we place ourselves directly on the path to realizing the precious qualities of human flourishing.