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Now that meditation has caught on widely, it’s time to understand why it works. The physical findings measured by neuroscience gives intriguing hints about changes in brain wave activity, but that’s an effect, not a cause. The same holds true for physiological changes outside the brain, such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure. The how and why of meditation must be sought “in here,” in the meditator’s subjective experience.
This isn’t a mysterious route to take. Pain studies are based on how much pain a subject feels; there is no objective way to measure this. In the case of meditation, I believe the correct model is that the mind in meditation is rebalancing itself. Medical studies have known for a long time that the body tends toward a state of dynamic balance known as homeostasis. If you push your body out of balance by shoveling snow off the driveway or running a marathon, as soon as you stop that activity, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen use in the muscles, and even digestion and the immune system return to homeostatic balance.
Something similar is supported by psychological studies into emotion—everyone seems to have a set point for a level of mood to which they return after an emotional event, whether the event is happy or sad. But the notion that the mind rebalances itself is new. We all pay attention chiefly to the activity whirling around in our heads, and this activity takes only brief pauses here and there, awaiting the time when we fall asleep, where conscious activity ceases (except in dreams). So it has never seemed that the mind is rebalancing itself. Indeed, what would that even feel like?
I believe that meditation wouldn’t work unless the mind already had a rebalancing mechanism. It’s not as if meditation is magical. It only deepens what the mind naturally does already, the way that relaxation techniques deepen the relaxed state that the body returns to in homeostasis.
If we look closely into our own experience, it isn’t hard to identify the states of mind that rebalance it. The names we give to different kinds of meditation techniques shows the way.
I believe that these techniques are simply ways of deepening a process that the mind already uses to rebalance itself.
Mindfulness is how your mind rebalances distraction. You are brought back into the present moment. This is naturally where every cell in your body lives. It is also where the mind should live.
Self-Inquiry is how your mind rebalances habits. By asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” you bring conscious choice into a situation where you have been ruled by habits, routines, obsessive behavior, knee-jerk reactions, and outworn beliefs.
Reflection is how your mind rebalances thoughtlessness. You regard your behavior, see what is self-defeating or heedless about it, and realize wh at is actually going on. The mind is naturally thoughtful when it reflects upon itself.
Contemplation is how your mind rebalances confusion. When faced with multiple choices, each with its points pro and con, you sort everything out by contemplating the situation until you have clarity. The mind naturally prefers clarity over confusion.
Concentration how your mind rebalances pointlessness. It is pointless to do a careless job, having careless opinions, and relate to other people in a lazy, careless way. It creates many kinds of trouble when you feel that life is pointless. By concentrating itself, the mind gets absorbed in something deeply enough that it has a point. This satisfied the mind’s natural urge to find life meaningful.
Prayer how your mind rebalances helplessness. By contacting a higher power, you no longer feel isolated, alone, small, and lost. Those are the qualities of helplessness, and for centuries humans have summoned God or the gods to bring a higher power into their lives. The mind naturally wants to be rid of feeling powerless.
Quiet mind how your mind rebalances restlessness. The mind is constantly processing daily life and its challenges, but when mental activity becomes restless, there is a risk of exhaustion, anxiety, and mental agitation. The mind naturally wants to be quiet when no activity is necessary. In peace and quiet lies the simple contentment of existence, but also the potential for confronting the next situation that demands a response.
Controlled breathing is how your mind rebalances stress. Stress is the term we’ve devised for an imbalanced state of mind and body under pressure. Breathing becomes rapid and irregular. Behind the scenes many other signs of imbalance are occurring, but breathing is connected to the whole issue of responding to pressure. By taking a few deep breaths, sighing deeply, or falling asleep (a natural state of regular, relaxed breathing), a choice has been made to return to balance.
Bliss is how your mind rebalances suffering. The mind naturally prefers well-being to suffering, no matter how much we rationalize that certain forms of suffering are good for us. Bliss, joy, or ecstasy is a state of perfect happiness. It seems to arrive unpredictably, but we all have experienced it, and the mind wants to be there as much as possible. Bliss is a natural state; suffering is an unnatural distortion, a kind of persistent bad vibration that destroys the mind’s good vibrations.
This new model contrasts with age-old viewpoints about the mind being like a monkey, a metaphor often cited from Indian traditions, or like the struggle between virtue and sin or angels and demons, which is more Christian. We need to go beyond metaphors now. Clearly the human mind is the source of our greatest achievements. This alone is enough to support the notion that the mind isn’t a battlefield of happiness versus suffering. The mind is a self-balancing process in constant dynamic motion that is subject to imbalances that create conflict, confusion, and suffering.
The advantage of this model is that it allows meditation to become more central as a healing mode. By accentuating the mind’s rebalancing ability and deepening it, by bringing the mind’s natural tendencies under our conscious control, meditation in all its forms is the most natural way to heal our minds of everyday difficulties, without any side effects. From this modest basis all the promises of higher consciousness can be explored, because they are only a further deepening of the same processes.
Reprinted from SF Gate with permission