Meditation: Relaxation or Awakening

Human Flourishing is the realization of our innate potential for an enduring happiness, optimal well-being, expansive consciousness, and effortless serenity. I used the word realization because these qualities are already and have always been innate to our essential nature. It is more a remembering than the creation of something new. Although this quality of optimal existence is inherent to our being, like clouds that obscure the sun, it is obscured by afflictive thoughts and emotions and the stress and distress of an overactive mind.

The overactive mind will not change by itself. Further understanding and specific techniques are required to remove the mental veils which obscure our authentic self and its great treasures. To explore our biology we use the microscope and its more sophisticated versions such as the MRI or CAT scan. These tools allow us to penetrate surface appearances enabling us to gain a more detailed and precise understanding of biology. Similarly, when studying the mind we use the tool known as meditation. Meditation allows us to penetrate the surface experiences of the mind and gain a more detailed understanding of its workings and essential nature. That understanding allows us to remove the veils that obscure our deepest self, revealing the qualities of human flourishing that are seamless one with our essential nature.

However, in modern times the use of meditation has strayed far from its original intent and use which was to awaken the mind to its fullest potential. It is now used to calm the mind and alleviate stress and distress. This is achieved by temporarily focusing the mind on an object such as a sound, word, or the breath. That diminishes mental distraction and quiets the overactive mind – temporarily! In this way meditation has been reduced to a relaxation technique, a remedy. It has become a quick-fix. It calms the mind for a few moments. Unfortunately, like a pain remedy, it lasts only as long as we use it. When meditation is used as a relaxation technique it fails to get to the root source of stress, distress, emotional afflictions, and the overactive mind.

However, when used properly meditation, called “incubation” in the western tradition of ancient Greece, is an investigative tool rather than a temporary remedy. It cuts to the root source of cognitive misunderstandings and mental afflictions that obscure our natural self. It does this by penetrating surface levels of consciousness, directly observing and eliminating the mind’s habitual and faulty mental habits, and realizing the insubstantiality of afflictive thoughts and emotions. In this way the mental sources of dissatisfaction, distress, and suffering progressively dissipate like morning dew. When this occurs our authentic self and the qualities of an expansive consciousness are revealed. The result is an awakened and full life rather than temporary relaxation and pacification of the overactive mind.

For this to occur meditation must be taught in its full scope in accordance with its traditional aims. That includes three progressive phases: (1) taming the mind’s ceaseless mental chatter, (2) creating an undisturbed mental clearing that allows for an oasis of stillness and clarity and, (3) resting naturally and with ease in the presence and beingness of an expansive consciousness. Our initial effort, which may continue for a year or more, is directed at taming the mind and gaining a foothold in mental clarity and stillness. This will allow us to further explore the mind, undermine its faulty and dysfunctional tendencies and serves as a bridge to the mind’s natural state of being.

When taught in accordance with its traditional purpose, results are seen within weeks. It is common for individuals to report enhanced mental calm that persists beyond the practice session, diminished reactivity, and improved personal relationships. As meditation practice continues new insights, capacities, and skills are developed, stabilized, and fully integrated into daily life. Life begins to change, from the inside out.

Taught in this manner, meditation is part of a larger process of study, reflection, practice, and lifestyle change. The latter includes: (1) turning away from the mistaken notion that outer objects, people, or experiences will result in sustained happiness, (2) turning towards inner development, (3) cultivating loving-kindness and other qualities which support inner development, and (4) gaining a more detailed understanding of the nature of suffering, mental afflictions, and the qualities of human flourishing. This holistic process of mental training and lifestyle change is quite traditional and its results – a full and vital life – has been well known to wise woman and men throughout time and across diverse cultures.

Seen from this perspective meditation, when used as a tool for temporary relaxation, is life-betraying, as it provides no more than momentary relief while supporting the illusion that we are actually creating substantial and permanent change. We are not. When we use meditation solely as a relaxation technique we distract ourselves from the real task ahead. However, when meditation is used as a tool to awaken consciousness we place ourselves directly on the path to realizing the precious qualities of human flourishing.

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Written by Elliott Dacher MD

Explore Wellness in 2021