The REAL Purpose of Meditation (Hint: It’s not to “stop thinking”)
The way most meditation is taught currently there is a big fuss about thoughts. The typical instruction for mindfulness/vipassana meditation is to gently ignore your thoughts and return to the breath/mantra/point of focus. Though this is a crucial part of the practice it has the unfortunate consequence of making it seem like the whole point is to not think or to think as little as possible.
But that’s kind of silly. A heart beats, a foot walks, a hand grasps, and a brain thinks. Trying to get your brain to not think seems useless at best and cruel at worst.
So why is this the instruction?
The purpose isn’t to “not think.” The purpose is to train your brain to flip a U-turn, to recognize when you are getting distracted, turn around, and refocus.
This obviously is great training for a hyper-distracted world. However, the results of this exercise can be much more powerful than that. The experiential knowledge that lays “between-the-lines” is that your thoughts exist SEPARATELY from your consciousness.
If You can recognize your thoughts as thoughts, and return to a space where there are no thoughts, obviously You are not the thoughts.
It’s just like if you can walk into a room, realize you didn’t intend to go there, and walk out, obviously you are not the room itself.
It’s a cosmic joke that the steady stream of dialogue or images that we are SO attached to is in fact not You at all. Same goes for emotions.
Despite being dramatic and all-consuming sometimes, emotions are actually temporary flavors of being. Similar to the weather’s relationship to the earth itself, emotions change and flux and can color your experience of reality, but they are NOT you.
In English, we have the unfortunate linguistic pattern of saying “I am angry” or “I am happy.” In fact, it is impossible for YOU, pure consciousness, to be defined by such a limited experience as an emotion.
If you “are” angry, then when your anger subsides? Do you disappear? If you “are” hungry and eat food until you are full do you suddenly vanish?
At first this separation between You and your thoughts/emotions/mental experience is only a moment. But as you increase in your practice, this disidentification with the voices in your head increases.
When you begin meditating your identity is fused with your thoughts. Your firmly identify with the voice in your head that rambles on about parking spots and worries about finances. The experience of meditating is incredibly boring and your mind just chatters away.
When you are an intermediate meditator you experience enough mental spaciousness between thoughts to experience that you are not your thoughts. However, it is incredibly difficult to tap into that spaciousness for longer than a moment or two. The experience of meditation is hard, exhausting work as you bring your focus back to spaciousness again and again and again...
When you are a more advanced meditator you realize that you can hold both the deep spaciousness of your consciousness and your thoughts at the same time. You can recognize them as separate from one another and let both exist simultaneously. Your thoughts can ramble on and on and you just ignore them and continue basking in the peace of your own consciousness.
It’s similar to the way an experienced parent can ignore the ramblings of a talkative child and continue doing whatever they are doing. The experience of meditation is peaceful, blissful, and deeply restorative.
Overall, this process leads to deep spiritual growth. A degree of spiritual awakening happens when, to whatever depth, you realize that You are in fact not all of these stories and identities your thoughts keep talking about.
At the deepest possible spiritual level, beyond even your individual soul, You are not a man or a woman. You are not of this race or that race. You are not wealthy or poor. You are not your thoughts. You are not your emotions. You are not tired or energized. You are not even the void that rests beneath all those things.
So if You’re not those things, then who are You?
You are the Universe experiencing itself.
You are the Universe experiencing itself through all the things that You are not. You are an inherent expression of the Divine stuff that makes up everything. You are the All expressing itself as a particular flavor just to see what it’s like. Anything else is only an illusion.
It can be tricky to remember this when you’re dealing with taxes or on-hold with customer service. So spiritual teachers throughout the ages have encouraged students to have a regular meditation practice. To take a moment to breathe, rest, and remember what they are not.
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