Before I began meditating I felt that I had two advantages: I came from India, and because of my medical background, I had looked into the health benefits of meditation. So when I think of five things that I wish I'd known 30 years ago, I would amend the topic to "things I wish everyone knew."
- Meditation is natural. It's not an exotic import from the East and the cultural values of the East.
- Meditation is about mind, body, and spirit as one continuous whole, not three separate things.
- The benefits of meditation probably go deeper than we imagine. At the very least, genetic activity responds very quickly and substantially to meditation.
- Meditation uncovers the true self that lies at the core of every person.
- The state of pure awareness that is reached through meditation is the ground state of everything.
I wasn't completely unknowing about these things. Three decades ago, the mind-body connection was quickly emerging, with research to back up experiences that had previously been dismissed as subjective, religious, alien to Western values, or pure fantasy. But I did assume, wrongly, that meditation was somehow in my genes as an Indian, and this would make me a “natural," while my Western friends who meditated were driving with a learner's permit, so to speak.
As you look over the five things I've listed, their importance will vary, of course, depending on your background, how long you have meditated, and other factors personal to you alone. But one common thread runs through the list: There is a hidden reality in human awareness.
I use a fairly neutral term, the true self, so that this hidden reality doesn't get confused with various religious traditions. In the world's wisdom traditions, there is always the contrast between two states of consciousness. The first is the state of duality or separation. The second is the state of wholeness or unity consciousness.
From all appearances, separation is natural, because the reality we confront on a daily basis consists of opposites: good and bad, light and dark, pleasure and pain etc. Our minds are conditioned to "solve" duality by choosing the preferable side of each opposite. Therefore, we try to be good, moral people who abide by humane values. But somehow the state of separation perpetuates suffering, no matter how good, pure, and well-intentioned you are. Therefore, for thousands of years there have been wisdom traditions that say, "Separation is a given if you choose to remain in a certain state of awareness. It feels natural because you accept that the mind is the same as the contents of the mind, all the thoughts, images, desires, and sensations that fill your head. But this activity takes place against a background that is silent, whole, and free of suffering. This is your true self, and when you arrive here, wholeness is just as natural as separation."
In every tradition, this promise of a higher state of consciousness is central. In modern language, consciousness is like a movie screen on which any movie can be projected. No matter what happens in the movie, the screen isn't affected. Therefore, each person has a choice between an "I" that is at the center of constant activity or an "I" that is consciousness itself. The five things I listed are entry-level realizations, one might say, that allow your mind, even though it is steeped in duality and the play of opposites, to see another facet of itself. That’s the first and most precious thing, to see an opening to wholeness.
When I started meditating, and to some extent today, it was clear to me that people are reluctant to start the practice unless you hold out incentives that appeal to the separate self, or ego. This is certainly valid. The mind-body benefits of meditating have been proven through hundreds of studies. At the other end of the scale, other people are persuaded to start basically to become spiritually pure and improved in their sense of self. This is also valid, but it subtly places spirit in a privileged position above mind and body. The truth is that wholeness can't be achieved like a jigsaw puzzle by assembling a collection of pieces.
Wholeness is a state all its own. If it wasn't, someone could come along and tear apart the jigsaw puzzle you so carefully assembled. But being a state all its own, wholeness or unity consciousness is the ground state of being. It is the womb of creation, the only real "stuff" from which the world "in here" and the world "out there" are created. Thus, meditation is mysterious in its ability to transform someone because no matter how much harm the state of separation has created, both personally and for society, each of us is inseparably whole. How can we be whole and not know it? That's the mystery that meditation presents. At the same time, it presents the answer to the mystery: Wholeness is the silent ground of existence and therefore cannot be known as a thing, the way we know other things like rocks, clouds, and trees.
When awareness is aware of itself, it is whole. When awareness focuses on an object, either "in here" or "out there," the state of wholeness is disguised. You become the observer of something that seems to be outside yourself. In reality, the entire universe exists in consciousness; therefore, all experience is in you.
To know and understand this would have been too much for me to ask of myself when I first began to meditate. Looking back over my shoulder—with the awareness that meditation has created over the years—I appreciate the process that takes any person out of separation into wholeness. Life has come down to this one choice, and by meditating, the choice to be whole happens naturally.
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