So, what is meditation anyway?
Meditation is simply the art of focusing your attention, consciously and deliberately, on anything.
Remember last week, when you had an exercise to just sit and think about your life? Well, you were meditating.
What? Is it really that simple? Yes it is. Meditation is an extremely simple process, and yet it can be a very powerful force for insight and change in your life. To understand why, we need to briefly explore the way our mind works.
Your critical mind
When we think of our mind, we often think of the voice inside our head that narrates our life. The voice that decides what we should do next, what we should worry about, what we should and shouldn’t do.
We are often very attached to this voice. We feel that without it, there would be no us. “I think, therefore I am,” said the philosopher Rene Descartes, and we take that quote very seriously: If I don’t think, I just won’t . I will cease to exist.
This feeling can be terrifying, and can help make sure that the voice in our head – “the stream of consciousness” as we like to call it – remains as loud as ever.
But wait a minute. If this voice is really as all powerful as it seems, how come it is often so ineffective? How come we so often make resolutions, are crystal clear about our plan of action and what the right thing to do is, and yet find ourselves making the same mistakes and failing in the same places?
Even worse, this voice in our head is often extremely critical. “You are a failure,” it says. “You don’t deserve love, happiness, or success.” And these voices, no matter how well-intentioned – “if you realize how bad you are, you’ll be driven to improve,” says the voice – often just drags us deeper down into the pits of despair instead of helping us do the right thing.
What’s going on?
What’s going on is that you actually have a completely different mind. In addition to our conscious, critical voice that we know and love, we also have a subconscious mind. Whereas the conscious mind is logical, critical, and constantly analyzing every aspect of life, the subconscious is emotional, irrational, and spontaneous.
In simplistic terms, it can help to visualize these two parts as two separate parts of our brain. Our critical mind sits in the left side of our brain and helps us reason, read, and notice where the floor ends and the table begins. Our subconscious mind sits on the right side of our brain and helps us feel, create, and desire.
This left and right distinction is a gross simplification, but it makes it easier to understand the difference between these different, contradictory forces that live within us. There’s an amazing TED talk delivered by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, describing her experience of having a stroke in the left side of her brain. She speaks about no longer being able to read, or differentiate between her hand and the wall – her critical mind was no longer able to make distinctions.
At the same time, she speaks of a great, overwhelming feeling of love and connection with the entire universe, as the right side of her brain was freed from the limitations imposed by the left – there was no longer a feeling of “me” versus ‘you”, only one greater “we”.
Watch the video here:
The root of motivation
Now that we understand that there are actually opposing forces within us, we can begin to make sense of all those times that we vowed to change, to not have the same arguments, to act differently next time, and never did.
It’s because it’s not our conscious mind that really decides our lives for us. It’s our subconscious.
Our conscious mind blusters loudly. It bristles with perceived self-importance. It beats us up and it tears us down. But beneath the surface of our mind is a much quieter, more powerful force, our subconscious desires.
If want to actually impact change in our lives, we are better served to not just make logical resolutions based off of rational understandings. We can gain tremendously by examining our subconscious, irrational motivations, our secret fears, our childish desires.
If only there was a way to communicate with our subconscious mind, to understand it better, to teach it new things. If only there was a way to reprogram ourselves to want different things, to let go of irrational fears or unhelpful habits.
There is. It’s called meditation.
How meditation works
When you focus your attention on your conscious thoughts, and remember, all meditation is is just deliberate focus, it is the nature of these thoughts to disappear, or at least lose their intensity.
Your conscious mind thrives off of you believing the illusion that you are your thoughts. The moment you take a step back and examine your thoughts, you reestablish control. And in the stillness that results in the quieting of your mind, your subconscious is able to rise to the surface.
When you turn your attention inward and focus on what you are feeling, instead of scurrying from task to task, from tweet to tweet, or from thought to thought, you begin to discover a deeper part of yourself.
The simplest meditation is to simply sit in a quiet place and observe your thoughts – without judgment. It is the practice of accepting everything that surfaces from within your psyche unconditionally, no matter how irrational, wrong, juvenile, or weak that thought or impulse might be.
And it is in this place that you can learn the most about yourself and your subconscious, and actually insert powerful new ideas and practices into your daily life.
Meditation is a learned skill. Until this point, you’ve probably spent your whole life at the whims of your thoughts –your conscious mind jumping from idea to idea and from worry to worry with no prior notice.
You are now setting out to reverse the role, whereby you will be deciding what to think about and when. When people usually set out to meditate on their own, they find that simply sitting and focusing on their thoughts is difficult thing to do, and that their mind quickly wanders to other things.
That’s why in this meditation course we will be using guided meditations to help you get started, which make it a lot easier to meditate for several reasons:
- You still get to focus on something. When we invite ourselves to focus on our passing thoughts, our mind quickly wanders, since we can easily fixate on a specific, tantalizing tidbit of brain fluff and go floating off into the outer regions of distractionville. By fixating on the instructions of the guided meditations, you get to focus on a helpful “anchor” that keeps your attention on track.
- You are receiving direct instructions. The part of our mind that craves structure (I wonder what part that is?) still gets its desires fulfilled in a guided meditation, even as these instructions guide you to focus on your emotions and your subconscious memories and desires. It’s a win-win.
- These guided meditations will help you relax your body, which in turn will allow your mind to relax as well. Our minds and bodies are very much connected, and it can be a lot easier to slow down our thoughts once our body is in a relaxed state.
So there you have it. You now understand why meditation is such a powerful tool for insight, since it allows us to access our subconscious mind. This is the part that actually controls most of our daily choices, but yet normally gets drowned out by the chatter of our conscious mind and the distractions of our hectic lives.
You may have noticed that so far, we’ve explained what meditation is, but haven’t yet clarified what makes it Jewish. That’s a topic for another lesson.
In the meantime, below you will find the first guided meditation. It is very simple, and takes only a few minutes to complete, and it demonstrates just how quickly and easily you can relax and quiet your mind. I recommend practicing it at least once daily, at a set time, until next week’s meditation arrives.