How Does Meditation Work?
To gain an understanding of how meditation works, we’ll approach it from a practical perspective. We’ll look at how it helps root out that which perpetuates and exacerbates the symptoms that most people come to meditation for - wanting to de-stress, relax and switch off; wanting to reduce anxiety, over-thinking and emotional reactivity; and wanting to improve sleep. These are the reasons I hear again and again as to why people join the Meditation 1 course.
The perpetuation of these symptoms is due to the habit of allowing the mind or attention to continually focus and fixate on thoughts and emotions – whether they are wanted or unwanted, pleasant or unpleasant. This habit is especially troublesome when an emotional disturbance is present and one is compelled to dwell on the associated thoughts and feelings until they pass. This is an unfortunate consequence of the seemingly harmless habit of letting the mind wander and think aimlessly.
Due to this habit, most styles of meditation for beginners, give the mind something to focus on, such as the breath, body sensation, a mantra, candle flame or some other focal point. By focusing the attention on the breath, for example, it breaks up the minds’ usual wandering habit and its fixation on the thoughts and feelings churning within. This creates a sense of space or distance from thoughts and feelings, which allows them to be seen and observed.
For many, thoughts/emotions are very much in the foreground most of the time, meaning the attention has become mostly or fully absorbed in them. When the attention has merged with or been absorbed into the thoughts/feelings, they can no longer be objectively seen. As an example, if you put your hand right up against your face, you can’t see it. Only when you start to take your hand away is there enough distance and perspective for it to come into full view.
Another example is when someone (or yourself) is really angry. In these situations the anger has temporarily taken over the attention and one has become the anger. The anger is not only pressed up against the face, as in the example I gave of the hand, but has actually taken over the psyche, facial expressions and actions of the body.
This is the same for all thoughts and feelings the attention has identified with. Identification means that there is not the space to distinguish the thought/feeling as separate from what I am – my attention has identified with it as me (to varying degrees). An example of this is someone who says “I am an anxious person” or even more commonly “I am stressed”. Anxiety and stress are no longer being seen or perceived as distinct energies within but have become amorphous with the sense of myself.
Further, the identification with, and belief in, thoughts/feelings perpetuates and reinforces the sense of stress and anxiety, as events are no longer perceived as they are, but interpreted and distorted through a subjective and emotional filter.
So how does meditation work and how can it help?
Again, meditation, to start with, gives a focal point for the attention. By focusing on the sensation of the body (the hands for example) the attention is aware of the tingling, warmth or heaviness in the hands. This allows the attention to focus on something that is natural (i.e. not created by the mind) and neutral (does not contain an emotional charge or subtle emotional feeling). This focus transitions the attention away from the subjectivity of thoughts and feelings to the always present, natural sensation of the body.
This space and objectivity allows room for authentic, appropriate response to situations. Just as a good driver will be aware of traffic conditions at a distance, allowing greater response time to other drivers.
With continued practise, one becomes aware of a greater expansiveness, aliveness, and peace, and thoughts and emotions are experienced more as background phenomena and, at times, disappear altogether in states of greater stillness.
Meditation and Relaxation
Another common thread between different styles of meditation for beginners is the endeavour to bring about a sense of relaxation. Nearly everyone these days would benefit from being guided to relax and calm their mind, emotions and nervous system. Relaxation is our natural state, but unfortunately many people no longer know how to relax.
Meditation allows the gradual return to this natural state of relaxation. This does not mean that there will be a continuous state of relaxation of the body, mind and emotions, but a gradual realisation of the state of Being or Presence which is inherently at ease and at peace. The state of Being is present even when the body and mind are stressed or agitated. As most people starting meditation are out of touch with this, explicit guidance is given to assist in relaxation so that this always present, still state can begin to be perceived.
Receiving guided meditation in a group setting further assists with this. A good teacher/facilitator is not only guiding the attention of those in the group with the words being spoken, but is also, through presence, creating and holding a still space conducive for meditation. The group will begin to attune to and resonate with this sense of presence as the thoughts/feelings begin to subside.
The Key to Meditation
For beginners, the key to settling into a meditative state is to start with where you are at. This means to become fully aware of any thoughts, tensions or disturbances that are active in the mind and psyche and to let them be as they are, to fully allow and accept them, without trying to change them.
This is the opposite to what most beginners do when they sit down to meditate. The habit to push away, distract from or suppress thoughts and emotions in order to meditate seems to be universal. I have observed that often people do not even know they are doing it.
When we meet the thoughts/emotions with our attention, seeing them exactly as they are and fully allowing them, the tension and conflict in relation to them relaxes. In the absence of this conflict, peace is naturally present and one is able to drop into a meditative state, even when the thoughts/emotions are still active and uncomfortable.
From Meditation to Being
This is the point where the practice of meditation has served its purpose and is naturally superseded by simply Being. This does not mean that there is no longer a need to meditate, but the practice of it changes – from a perspective of identification with the mind and emotions and needing to quieten them in order to reach a peaceful state, to realising peace is already here and ever-present as my own Being.
Summary: How Meditation Works
Meditation gives a focal point for the attention (for example the breath) to help break up the minds’ usual wandering habit and fixation on thoughts and feelings. This creates a sense of space or distance from thoughts and feelings, which allows them to be seen and disidentified with, i.e. to no longer associate them with a sense of self.
The key to settling into a meditative state is to start where you are at. To become fully aware of any thoughts, tensions or disturbances and to fully allow and accept them, without trying to change them. This will allow the settling into a naturally peaceful state, rather than trying to create an artificial peace though fighting and suppressing.
When the mind and emotions have been disidentified with sufficiently, the state of Being becomes clearer and more evident. This is when a fundamental change in perspective can happen where one realises the sense of Being as their own fundamental essence.
“When Joshua’s Meditation 1 course was recommended to me I laughed and thought ‘I don’t need that, it will be quacky and too spiritual and carry no personal meaning for me’. Despite the reservation and skepticism, I realised that I needed some help to become more calm, so I went ahead and joined. It turned out to be very, very different from what I was expecting. I found that Meditation 1 is absolutely grounded in practical exercises that have really assisted my life and which I continue to practise.
Joshua is supportive, informative and very knowledgeable, yet not impersonal. He’s happy to share his own personal experience to help us understand ours.“
Wholebeing Meditation Courses and Sessions
About Joshua Rasco
Growing up on fast food and pharmaceuticals in Southern California and continuing with a fit but unhealthy and unhappy lifestyle in the U.S. Air Force, I fortunately discovered meditation at the age of 19 during an intense period of anxiety.
Over the 25 years since, I have been with different spiritual teachers and masters, attended countless retreats, and given many hours a day to reading, listening, watching, meditating, integrating and applying a deeper sense of presence in my daily life.
I first started teaching meditation in 2013 when a Bowen Therapy client asked if I could teach her son meditation. I am not sure how she knew that I meditated, but I agreed. The idea of teaching classes came soon after and the classes have continued to grow organically since then.
I particularly enjoy guiding others in becoming more aware of and moving through the unseen, unresolved emotion driving the pressure, stress, thinking and unhelpful behaviours they experience in their lives.
The inspiration behind teaching these meditation classes stems from a deep commitment of service to Life and those who participate in the classes.