The Powers of Meditation

Just How Far Can Your Mind Take You?

Life on planet Earth is threatened from many directions; many responsible sources warn of this. There is the possibility of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare by the superpowers. There is worldwide pollution of the air, land, and sea by all nations. Nonrenewable resources—topsoil, water, various minerals, tropical rain forest, and the ozone layer, for example—are being wasted or destroyed. Overpopulation is straining the biosphere, bringing drought and pestilence.

All these threats to life are manmade; all of them originate in the minds of people. Our behavior is a manifestation of our thinking and emotions, and, in turn, our thoughts and feelings are dependent upon our state of consciousness. Our present world situation, then, is one in which we exhibit much irrational behavior. That, in turn, is due to what we might call “a crisis of consciousness”. If so, the solution to the problem presented by these threats can be stated very simply: change consciousness.

Survival demands a change of consciousness. Not just survival, either, but also evolution. As I read the history of nature, I see evolution as a record of ever more complex forms of life coming into being in order to express more fully the consciousness behind life, indeed, behind all creation. The history of evolution is a story of creating ever more complex forms of life displaying ever more complex consciousness, from unicellular organisms through plants and animals to the human species.

Evolution is always at work. That means now, today. And what I see today, in addition to the threats to life, are signs that the life force itself is mobilizing its resources to resist extinction. How will it resist? The answer is simple: by evolving forms of life which are suited to the new conditions on Earth—forms of life which know how to live in harmony with the planet and its creatures. They will know how to live this way because their consciousness will have changed.

“They” in the making is us. If we have seen the “enemy”—human irrationality—we also have seen the possibility of participating in the evolutionary process and changing ourselves in a conscious, self-directed fashion. Meditation is one of the means to help ourselves make the necessary change of consciousness which a New Age demands. Meditation is a means of personal and transpersonal growth. Meditators claim that the best way for people to change is by “working on yourself” from within via meditation. It is a time-honored technique—perhaps humanity’s oldest spiritual discipline—for helping people to release their potential for expanded consciousness and fuller living.

As a technique for assisting in the enlightenment process of knowing God or ultimate reality, meditation appears in some form in every major religious tradition. The entranced yogi in a lotus posture, the Zen Buddhist sitting in za zen, the Christian contemplative kneeling in adoration of Jesus, the Sufi dervish whirling in an ecstasy-inducing trance: all can be properly described as practicing meditation. Although the cultural or religious trappings may vary, meditation’s core experience is an altered state of consciousness in which the ordinary sense of “I”—the ego—is diminished, while a larger sense of self-existence-merged-with-the-cosmos comes into awareness.


Meditation Research

Meditation works on all levels of our being, however: physical, psychological, and social, as well as spiritual. Research shows that it improves general health and stamina; it decreases tension, anxiety, and aggressiveness; it increases self-control and self-knowledge. Drug use and abuse are usually curbed, and sometimes even stopped. Psychotherapy progresses faster than usual. Personal and family relations seem to improve. And except for borderline psychotics, meditation is safe, harmless, extremely easy to learn, beautifully portable, available in endless supply, and completely legal.

Michael Murphy and Steven Donovan have reviewed meditation research in their very valuable book, The Physical and Psychological Effects of Meditation. It covers scientific research, from the first meditation study in 1931 through 1988, and summarizes what has been found to happen, physiologically and psychologically, during and after meditation sessions. Murphy and Donovan show that most claims for meditation are valid, so far as the first stages of meditative activity go. Although more and finer research is needed, they say, to look at the “greater heights and depths of transformative experience,” research to date corresponds with traditional accounts by meditators sufficiently well enough to suggest that, “the ancient paths toward enlightenment produced the kinds of integration and illumination they claimed.”


Definitions and Techniques

The promised experience of peace and unity in meditation is difficult to attain, however, because the mind is always wandering. Meditation might be described as a technique for developing attention control so that worry, fear, anger, and all other anxieties gradually dissipate. The dictionary definition of meditation, based on Western psychology, is inadequate to describe this experience. “To contemplate” or “to ponder” is not synonymous with meditation as a spiritual practice. Going further in the dictionary, we find a better sense in which it may be understood, namely: “a form of private devotion consisting of deep, continued reflection on some religious theme.” This is closer to the true meaning, but still is not completely adequate to explain meditation.

In physiological terms, meditation is neither ordinary waking, sleeping, nor dreaming, but rather what has been described as a “wakeful hypometabolic condition.” Brainwaves, heartbeat rate, blood pressure, respiration, galvanic skin resistance, and many other body functions are altered in meditation. They slow to the point achieved in deep sleep, and sometimes beyond, yet the meditator remains awake and emerges from meditation with a feeling of rest and loss of stress and tension. All this certainly is not included in the dictionary definition of meditation.

The common core of all meditation experiences is an altered state of consciousness, which leads to a diminishing (and, hopefully, a total elimination) of ego, the self-centered sense of “I.” This core-experience has been called “relaxed attention,” “non-anxious attention,” “detached alertness,” and “passive volition.”

To attain this state, many forms and techniques of meditation have been developed. Some are passive—for example, when a yogi sits cross-legged in a lotus asana with so little motion that even his breathing is hard to detect. Other forms of meditation, such as tai chi, involve graceful body movements. Sometimes the eyes are open; sometimes they are closed. Sometimes other sense organs than the eyes are emphasized, as when beginners in Zen pay attention to their nasal breathing. In other traditions, however, sensory withdrawal is dominant; attention is taken away from the senses. Some meditative techniques are silent; some are vocal. Transcendental Meditation is an example of the silent form while the Krishna Consciousness Society uses the “Hare Krishna” chant (which means “Hail, Lord Krishna”). Some meditations are private and some, such as a Quaker meeting, are public. And although most forms of meditation are self-directed, sometimes they are guided by a group leader.


In the Silence

The silent forms of meditation center on three techniques: concentration, contemplation, and the mental repetition of a sound. The sound, called a mantra, may be a single syllable such as Om. It may be a word, phrase, or verse from a holy scripture. The Tibetan Buddhist Om mani padme hum (meaning “the jewel in the lotus” or enlightenment) is an example. So is the simple prayer in the book called The Way of A Pilgrim which goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” Many Christians use the Lord’s Prayer as a basis for meditation. Saying the prayers of the rosary is likewise mantric meditation. The Indian sage Kirpal Singh taught his followers to silently repeat five names of God, which he gave them in a ceremony. Likewise, Maharishi MaheshYogi and his teachers of Transcendental Meditation initiate people into TM with various Sanskrit mantras; the meditator then uses his mantra during his meditations. Zen Buddhism has a variety of meditative techniques, some of which involve use of a koan, that is, an apparently insolvable riddle that the meditator silently examines. A widely known koan asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Another inquires more directly about the basic nature of self-identity: “Who am I?”

In contemplative forms of meditation, the eyes are open so that the meditator sees what is called in Sanskrit a ‘yantra,’ a form on which he centers his attention. The focus of attention may be a religious object such as a crucifix, statue, or picture. It might be an inscription, a candle flame, a flower. They all serve the same purpose. Or the meditator may use a mandala, a painting or drawing, typically a square-in-a-circle design of many colors, which symbolizes the unity of microcosm and macrocosm.

Concentration is generally considered the most difficult form of meditation. In concentration techniques, an image is visualized steadily in the mind. It could be the thousand-petaled lotus of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions or the crescent moon of Islam. It could also be Judaism’s Star of David or Christianity’s mystic rose. Alternatively, the mind may be held free of all imagery and “mental chatter”—a clearing away of all thought. Or the attention might be focused upon some part of the body. For example, the mystical “third eye” at a point midway between the eyebrows is often used. (This is said to coincide with the pineal gland.) Also common is the so-called “concentration on your navel.” This phrase is actually a misunderstanding of the process of directing attention to the abdominal area about two inches below the navel and simply becoming one with your breathing. The meditator flows into awareness of the rhythmical, cyclical body process by which life is sustained and united with the universe.

Some disciplines combine different aspects of several meditative techniques. For example, some styles of the martial arts use meditation in their training regimen. The Russian mystic Georges I. Gurdjieff taught his students to combine movements and meditation. Psychotherapist-author Dr. Ira Progoff of New York City guides people through therapeutic sessions using a technique he developed called ‘process meditation’. It is usually performed in a group, and he speaks in order to guide the meditators into exploration of whatever imagery appears in their minds.

So meditation cannot be defined in a sentence or two. The term means many things to many people, varying in this or that aspect, depending upon culture, religious traditions, psychological orientation, the individual’s purpose, and other factors.


Experience Counts

In meditation, it is not really the definition but the experience that matters. Historically, the goal of meditation has been a transformation of the whole person. Research data, as I said, dramatically validates many of the claims that meditators make. Traditionally, these behavioral changes are reinforced through voluntary conformity with the meditative ethos and lifestyle—an aspect still little researched by science. Throughout history, teachers of meditation and spiritual masters have emphasized “right living” to support one’s meditation. By that they mean a healthy diet; an honest means of income; association with virtuous and sympathetic people; truthful speech; kindness and humility in relations with others; a social conscience; giving up egotistical desire for power, fame, prestige, wealth, psychic powers, and so forth. As psychiatrist Arthur Deikman points out, “Probably the importance of meditation lies in its changing a person’s orientation toward living, not in its ability to produce dramatic changes in states of consciousness. It’s fairly easy for a normal person to have ‘unnormal’ experiences, but people meditating without the supporting philosophy are less likely to be involved long enough for some of the subtle changes to occur or to change their orientation from doing to allowing things to happen spontaneously.”

This does not mean, however, that successful meditation requires extreme asceticism and withdrawal from society. The true aim of meditation is to bring the meditator more fully into the world, not to retreat from it. A religious retreat may be appropriate for some in the course of their meditative training and discipline. This is an honorable tradition—the way of the anchorite, monk, nun, and religious devotee. Yet even renunciate monks and nuns living reclusive lifestyles often undertake efforts of a social nature—like Mother Theresa, feeding and clothing the poor, for example, or offering spiritual sustenance to the ignorant and uneducated.

Here it is also important to note that meditation does not require abandonment of the intellect. It is true that in meditation the intellect’s limitations become apparent, and other (usually unsuspected) modes of creative problem solving and insight emerge. However, enlightened teachers, even illiterates such as the Indian yogi Ramakrishna, have always been recognized as brilliant people with finely honed intellectual powers who have enhanced their meditation “research” through study that cultivates the mind.

Their writings and discourses display clear logic, a keen analytic discrimination, and knowledge of tradition. It is no accident, then, that students frequently report improvement in their grades and ability to study after beginning meditation.

The best that can happen through meditation is enlightenment. Spiritual masters of all ages have been unanimous in declaring that through meditation, people can come to know God. Through direct experience—not through intellectual conceptualization—people can reach a state of conscious union with ultimate reality and the divine dimension of the universe. In that state, all the long-sought answers to life’s basic questions are given, along with peace of mind and heart. There are other paths to God-knowledge, of course, but this is one path easily available to many and the chief reason for the worldwide interest and enduring value placed on meditation. It is a tool for learning spiritual psychology, a technique for expanding consciousness.

The highest development in meditation, regardless of the “school” or “path” brings technique and daily life together. When learning and living are integrated in spontaneous practice moment to moment, the meditator becomes what has been called “meditation in action.” Meditation is no longer just a tool or device or mental exercise, no longer just a “visit” to that state in which the larger sense of self-as-cosmos emerges. The gains from meditation become integrated in a manner of living, which is best described as enlightenment. The meditator has so completely mastered the lessons of meditation that his entire life is a demonstration of the higher consciousness, which can be experienced if sincerely sought.

People such as that have always been recognized through the ages as special persons for whom attention and reverence is proper. For them the alteration of consciousness called mediation has led to a transformation of consciousness. Changing consciousness changes thought, changing thought changes behavior, and changing behavior changes society. Thus, the changed ones live as inspiring examples for others who are on their way to personal transformation and who seek a viable, benign means of effecting planetary transformation.

That is the fullest development of meditation. Personal evolution becomes social revolution. By changing yourself, you help to change the world. That is the value of meditation.


The above is an edited expansion of the introduction to John White’s book, What Is Meditation? (Anchor-Doubleday, 1974)

John White