“Our ordinary sense of practical reality…is a construct of socialized conditioning and repression, a system of selective inattention whereby we are taught to screen out aspects and relations within nature which do not accord with the rules of the game of civilized life.” – Alan Watts – from This is It
While meditation is commonly understood to be a practice of calming the mind with certain techniques, and entering into a self observant, relaxed yet very alert awareness, in India and Tibet, the concept is more complicated, based in the root meaning of the word as concentration and familiarization of mind. Concentration is the foundation of meditation, but the issue is always: concentration on what? Aren’t we often concentrating, if what that means is training our minds upon something? Of course, yes, and what is recognized in the East is that we mostly concentrate our minds on what we have previously concentrated our minds on, that which we have grown familiar with, been directed to attend to, and what seems to be important to our particular sense of self-in-the-world.
Importantly, this can even include our focus restlessly shifting, flitting from thing to thing, thought to thought, emotion to emotion, because this is what is familiar to our minds. We are focused on using our minds in the manner we are personally accustomed to and upon what has been socially conditioned into and out of us. We are living within set habits of mind. It is important to realize that after a fashion we are meditating, that is, concentrating, all the time, it’s just that the meditation we mostly practice is the one of holding together our personal/cultural world-view and personality with its particular habits of mind. This can be called the meditation on self, and is another way of defining ego. It is the story of “me”. We are generating the thought stream of our self-in-the-world with its past and projecting it into the future, attempting to make the story of me turn out the way we want it to, fearful that it will turn out in ways that we do not want. This meditation, or relationship to mind, is recognized in the East as what creates all the difficulties of the human condition.
We fail to experience the full potential of the moment, not within the circumstances, the environment, nor ourselves. We think we are present and fully aware of the potential of what is occurring, but how can we be when we are projecting our preconditioned expectations onto the moment? The moment is experienced primarily as a means to an end, some imagined future. It is not realized as the only place that we ever have to actualize our lives. We fail to live deeply, skillfully and perceptively in the present. Obviously, when the present moment is only a blur getting from our past to our future, we guarantee that our lives will be experienced without much depth or sense of placement in life. Our experience is one of obsessive, sometimes scattered, mental activity in a story in time always colored by fears of not being enough. It is a very limited and limiting way to live.
What we more commonly know as meditation, however, emerging out of the Asiatic cultures, is the concentrating of the mind and familiarizing it with deeper, calmer and expanded dimensions of mind that are the antidotes to these human difficulties. Meditation training in the Buddhist, Hindu and other mystical traditions teaches us to awaken out of this trance-like state of ego-story-myopia through specific practices, meditations, meant to familiarize the mind with that which is larger than the confines of our personal story, our ego, which after all, is only the contents of the mind, not the mind. These contents have as their source, other people and society. How can this be our essence, who we are at our truest and deepest level?
These traditions teach and guide a person to access a deeper dimension of stillness and silence within the mind that is the realm of pure awareness, free of the conflicts of the restless and noisy surface dimension of egoic mind. This dimension of pure awareness and the regions of consciousness that become activated with the experience of unsullied awareness is the realm that religious practices recognize as where God can be realized directly, and what Buddhism refers to as our true or original Self. Recognizing this, these meditation practices both fulfill and then transcend mere religious practice. They become powerful tools for psychological healing as awareness of mind activity and what lies beneath the mind activity awakens an intelligence that is free of conditioning and is able to intuit the true source of self as this witnessing awareness.
In all these forms of meditation, a deep calm and capacity for insight often develops as the mind trains itself away from the restlessness and insecurity of ego into an experience of certainty about placement within life. All need for self-justification or to measure up to socially imposed standards relaxes. We are free to be in society, pursuing occupations, maintaining relationships and families, but we are no longer the prisoner of social anxieties. In this way, meditation traditions originating in spiritual contexts can have profound psychological benefit.
In Buddhism, albeit practiced by millions as a religion, we find what is fundamentally the most psychological tradition of meditation. Having emerged from the Hindu cultural context that teaches that the Divine (Brahman) is to be found within the human soul (Atman) as well as all of life, Buddhism teaches that the divine source is Nature, the Universe, needing no naming or deification. Nature penetrates all existence, including, of course, humans. Buddhist meditation is meant to awaken the realization that the perfection of Nature unfolds within as well as around what is experienced as self. It realizes that beneath the small self, within the realm of inner silence, there exists a greater Self uncorrupted by socialization into dualistic thinking of inside and outside. Self is then a function of the Universe unfolding through localized awareness in the form of a person. At first glance, this can seem an obscure, esoteric concept, but in reality is immensely practical and liberating.
In Buddhist meditation, the mind is trained to “awaken” beyond the confines of the small egoic socially conditioned self, into where there is only Life, and the mind that can comprehend this directly is an awakened mind, untainted by social/cultural training into dualism. The mystery of the Universe unfolds everywhere, including within and as human consciousness. Buddhist practice is specifically intended to bring a person in touch with their own nature and source, free of the confusion and delusion of egoic constructs. Thus, it functions non-dualistically as a psychology that is also a theology, a cosmology, a way of life. One need not be a religious Buddhist to benefit deeply on all these dimensions from its practices. The practice can even deepen spiritual experience that is not Buddhist in doctrine, as Catholic priest Thomas Merton famously discovered.
Moment to moment, what we know to be true is that the mind is concentrating on something. The purpose of Buddhist meditative training is to thoroughly familiarize the practitioner with what the mind is concentrating on, what it is familiarizing itself with, what habits of mind are active, and to see how limited and limiting our socially conditioned mind is, literally living within a conceptual prison. Then the practice and philosophy leads a person into deeper and deeper insights as to the true dimensionality of mind. It deliberately retrains the mind into expanded and deeper awareness, able to encompass non-dualistic experience and ultimately awakening into Enlightenment, mind’s true and original nature, completely breaking free of the trance of the meditation on self and social/cultural conditioning, while still free to live a completely engaged and productive life.
But don’t let ego entice you into Enlightenment as a goal. In a twist on that old saying from Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” likewise, you can’t get here from there. Just stay with here. Be free of habit, meaning you can use or not use habitual patterns of thought and action, for habits have their uses, but they can also be what trap us. Let your new habit be to hold your habits in clear awareness, seeing them for what they are. Enlightenment is the freedom to see and act clearly, your meditation concentrating on the truth of the moment, the universe unfolding through your experience. You can change the habits of mind. Most importantly, you can change the habit of mind from imprisonment within ego and conditioning into freedom and harmony with life unfolding. This liberation is Buddhism’s “awakening.”