What Relevance does Meditation have Today?
Meditation means awareness, consciousness. But don’t we already have that? Why do we need to practice (the sometimes boring) techniques of meditation?
Well – there’s good news, and there’s not so good news.
The not-so-good news is that actually we are rarely aware. On the contrary, we are almost always unconscious!
Cognitive scientists say that about 99% of all our activities – thoughts, behaviour, emotions, reactions – are controlled by our unconscious. Even when we think we are having a ‘conscious’ thought, sophisticated brain scans show that milliseconds before we ‘had’ that thought, a part of the unconscious mind was activated.
Neural scientists agree. By applying modern technology to study the brain, they estimate that most of us use less than 1% of our conscious brain power.
So the reality is that our unconscious minds run our lives.
It means we go through life mostly acting on automatic pilot. This is one of the reasons we have lost touch with the simple joy and wonder we had as small children, with the full use of our senses, with the capacity to love deeply, sometimes even the capacity to have intimate friends.
What is our unconscious mind?
Thoughts are bursts of electrical energy moving around on neural pathways in the brain. And generally, the pathways they move on are pretty well defined, and fixed.
The basic structure of those pathways was laid down in the first six years of our life. Nature created our brains like that so that we could absorb and learn as much as possible in those first six years, to help us survive. It was a good system, except that we absorbed and learnt not only the positive influences from our parents and environment, but also the negative influences.
For example, it is quite common for very young children to pick up ideas like, ‘I am not good enough as I am’, ‘Other people are better’, ‘I am not loveable as I am’. These messages are learned from verbal and non-verbal cues given (unconsciously) by parents and the society. Because they are learned at such an impressionable age, the child has no possibility to consciously question whether they are really true or not, so they go straight into the unconscious mind as beliefs, as truths.
From there, they direct the way we interpret everything that happens to us from then on. And as we keep on interpreting everything according to those beliefs – for example ‘It is my fault’ - the neural pathways (trains of thought) based on those beliefs get stronger and stronger. As they become stronger, they create a habit, an attitude, that governs us the rest of our lives. That habitual attitude becomes part of our personality, our identity, our concept of our self. But because this is all unconscious, we are not aware of it.
Put simply, if I learned when I was very young that I am not loveable as I am, then that became a belief – I didn’t have the capacity to question whether it was true or not. Just like the religious beliefs we are taught. So that belief lives in my unconscious as a truth. And because of that unconscious idea, I interpret everything that is said or done to me through the eyes of that belief – “Yes, I am not loveable, that is why that person is treating me the way they are”.
And I will go on recreating negative experiences in my life that reinforce this unconscious belief. It is like a filter, which allows events to be interpreted only in that light. And the more I see things that way, the stronger this belief becomes – that I am not loveable. I don’t even allow myself any other possibility. I just expect not to be loved for what I am. I believe that I have to be different to be loved, that I have to prove myself, I have to earn love.
These old unconscious programs influence every aspect of our lives. And they cannot be changed – they are deeply embedded. Pretty depressing when you think about it, huh?
The good news – we can change the way our brain works.
It used to be thought that the brain didn’t change – that once its structure was set around the age of ten, it was not possible to ‘overwrite’ the programs that were put in place before then – primarily in our first six years.
However, modern neural science, with the help of quantam physics, is beginning to catch up with what Osho and all the mystics have been saying for millennia.
And that is: we can transcend our unconscious minds, we can bypass those old neural pathways, by being more conscious, more aware.
Scientists now say that the brain is plastic – that we can design new neural structures in the brain that allow us to totally change our attitude to life, our perception of our self and of others, and our behaviour, including our emotions.
They say that, in addition to the unconscious part of the mind, there is a conscious part that, although rarely used, has the ability to be creative. The old unconscious programs are not creative, in the sense that they cannot change. This other part, science says, gives us ‘free will’ – the ability to change how we are in every aspect, in spite of the old programs.
This is because whatever the conscious mind focuses on, it can control. Otherwise, everything is controlled by the unconscious.
But it is not easy
It takes a lot of effort to override the strong unconscious neural pathways.
For a start, according to Dr Bruce Lipton, best-selling author and former professor at Stamford University, the programs of the unconscious mind, the old habits and beliefs, run at 40 million bits of data per second.
He says the conscious part of the mind - which is in a very small part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) which most people don’t use - processes at only 40 bits of data per second.
So the conscious mind is a million times slower, and is used by us at the most five percent of the time. You can see the odds are stacked against the conscious mind!
In addition, the programs in the unconscious mind are fixed – they can't change or adapt. They run automatically, as habits.
The unconscious is like an MP3 player – press a button and it will play from its pre-programmed selection. If you want to play something new, if you wan to change the program, then talking to the player, no matter how insistently, wont work. You have to program in the new song.
In other words, to change the way you are, you have to consciously create new neural pathways in the brain.
You can only do that by acting or thinking in a totally different way, and that requires creative conscious awareness. You cannot do it simply by positive thinking, for example – that is just like talking to the MP3 player. It wont change the song program.
You have to actually make an experience of being different, of stepping out of the old fixed habits, patterns and ideas. You have to step out of the old neural pathways that have been running your life, and that takes courage and determination.
It takes courage because the old unconscious patterns represent our identity, and it is a bit scary to think of who we would be without our old identity. The old pathways create what is often referred to as our ‘comfort zone’ – they are comfortable because we know them. And to do something, or be something, different is very uncomfortable, at least for the mind!
There is a lot of research to show that meditation is one of the few ways to do that.
The whole purpose of meditation is to get some distance from the old unconscious mind. So meditation techniques are specifically designed to allow you to step out of the old habitual neutral pathways and experience something radically different.
They achieve that by bringing the meditator into the present moment. If you are totally in the present moment, it means that you are not in an old pattern. In the present moment you are just responding – seeing, hearing, feeling - as if for the first time.
Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that meditation actually alters the physical structure of the brain. Through brain scans, they discovered that experienced meditators have increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and with processing input from the senses.
"Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being," says Sara Lazar, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and leader of the study. "These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice."
‘Practice’ is the important word here. Meditation is not something to be done occasionally. As seen above, it takes a big effort to grow new neural pathways. One or two totally new experiences will certainly start to create a new neural pathway, but the old pathways are very strong and thick. We all know that it is much easier to just give up and let the old mind patterns take over. But with consistent practice, the delicate new neural pathways become stronger and stronger, allowing the possibility to jump out of the old more easily.
And meditation does not have to be boring. Or uncomfortable. In fact it should not be. It is only boring or uncomfortable for the old mind, the unconscious mind, which wants you to stay on its controlled pathways. Meditation should be taken as a joy, an experiment with your wonderful senses.
There are hundreds of techniques of meditation, including 112 in Osho’s The Book of Secrets alone! The idea is to play with different techniques until you find one that ‘clicks’ for you, and then to practice that, whenever you remember during the day. After some months, you can find a new technique, allowing even more new pathways to develop.
If you really seriously want to change, then try it out for yourself and see. Meditation is no longer just a ‘new age’ concept. It has science on its side!