by Michael Maciel
Mental discipline is key to spiritual development. Your mind is your vehicle, and just like your other vehicle—your car—it requires maintenance and improvements. If you plan to drive up a mountain or travel to faraway places (metaphorically speaking), you need to get your vehicle in shape. It has to be able to stay on the road. It has to keep from overheating, and it has to be able to go the distance, no matter the weather or road conditions.
Does this metaphor ring a bell?
Working on your vehicle—your mind—is important. It has to do what you want it to do. Just like a car, it has to be able to go in a straight line without having to fight the steering wheel (your attention). And you want it to have enough power to make it up a steep incline without bogging down, especially if you plan to take it into high places. But most important of all, you don’t want it to break down out in the middle of nowhere. Because nowhere isn’t a place you want to get stranded. Lots of people have perished getting stuck in nowhere!
Your car gets you where you want to go—to work, to play, to family, to friends. It takes you to all the places you want to go. So does your mind, but you have to know how it works. You have to know not only what to think but how to think. And, you have to know how to NOT think. The ancient Hindu philosopher, Patanjali, said in his Yoga Sutras, “Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the substance of the mind.” So, using the metaphor of your car, in order to work on the vehicle of your mind, you must first turn off the engine.
Have you ever seen those two-colored posters that have hidden 3D images that you can only see if you focus your eyes on a point behind the image? The mind is similar in that you have to look behind its surface images before that which is hidden can reveal itself. In other words, you have to master your attention so that it goes where you want it to go. In the outer field of experience, the number of points on which you can focus is infinite, so many, in fact, that the brain has evolved in ways to filter out most of them, so that the senses don’t get overwhelmed. In your inner world, you have to construct your own filters, because the place you’re trying to go is a place your brain knows nothing about.
But while your destination is supra-physical, your point of departure is always right where you are, which is in your body. So you have to understand how your body works and use its mechanisms properly. The first thing to understand is that the eyes and the mind’s attention faculty use the same neural circuitry. If you keep the eyes focused on one thing, your attention focuses, too. But if you let your eyes wander, so will your mind. So, if you want to quiet your thinking, don’t move the muscles of your eyes, neither the extrinsic muscles that move your eyeballs nor the intrinsic muscles that control the dilation of your pupils. It doesn’t matter whether your eyes are open or shut; if you keep them still, your thinking will naturally come to a halt.
If your mind is prone to take one thing at a time and exclude everything else, then meditation will come easy for you. But if your mind is wired to pay attention to many things simultaneously, meditation will feel unnatural, and it will be difficult to learn. But regardless of your mind’s innate tendencies, the principle remains the same: your eyes and your mind’s attention faculty are inextricably linked. What you do with one profoundly affects the other. So learn to focus your inner vision as well as your outer.
Paying attention to one thing is a lot like using the fingers of your hand. If you like to focus on one thing at a time, it’s like putting your index finger on one spot. But if you like to keep your attention on many things at once, it’s like putting all five fingers on five different spots. It allows you to focus on something quite different from just “one thing.” It allows you to focus on the relationship of many things to each other. That relationship quality is also a “one thing,” only of a different order. Those who like to take one thing at a time find this approach impossibly difficult, while those whose natural ability allows them to pay attention to many things at once find it quite easy.
The eyes also share a neural link with the hands, which operates independently from your conscious decision-making process. The brain doesn’t see objects as objects. It sees them in terms of what the objects are for. In other words, you don’t see a cup. You see something to pick up and put to your lips. You can’t look at a cup without the muscles in your hand being put unconsciously on alert. Your brain begins to calculate the action, even so far as to activate your appetite and the muscles that control swallowing a liquid before you have a chance to think about it. If the cup contains something hot, like coffee, your brain will also activate the muscles of your entire body, the ones that will allow you to pick it up carefully. The entire process takes place automatically and below the threshold of your conscious awareness.
The purpose of this approach is to get these automatic mechanisms to work for you, not against you.
So, what you do with your hands while meditating is also important. Your hands can either make it easier or more difficult, depending on how you use them in relation to the attention faculty of your brain. Letting your hands just lay there flaccid is the same thing as letting your eyes wander. You have to focus your hands in the same way that you focus your eyes, because the two share a neural link. Hands, eyes, attention – it’s almost like they’re a single faculty. How do you “focus” your hands? You already know, but more specifically, your hands already know. Just imagine picking up a sewing needle.
The whole point of meditating is to quiet your thinking, to bring it to a standstill so that that which is hidden can be revealed. And just as the hidden image in the 3D poster springs into view, you will KNOW when the hidden dimension of your mind reveals itself. This is a profoundly life-changing event, one that transforms you. That which is hidden, the thing for which you’re waiting to show up, is not an image. It’s not a concept. It’s not a feeling. It’s an entirely new way of being, one that changes your relationship to yourself, to other people, and to the world. It cannot be described. It can only be experienced. And when you experience it, you will know that you have experienced it, and you will know it beyond all doubt.
The ancient spiritual masters, like Patanjali, really knew their stuff. Find out what they had to say about meditation and the purpose of meditation. It’s not just a stress-reduction technique. It’s not a walk in the woods or a way to expand your awareness of the world around you. Meditation is for expanding your awareness of the world WITHIN you. And for that, there are specific techniques. Learn them. And then put them into practice. Don’t stop until…you know…3D.
Oh, and if you’re one of those people who can’t see the 3D image in the poster, get one. And don’t stop looking at it until you see the image. Just the effort alone will teach you a lot about what it takes to meditate.