Thirty years ago, when I first wrote about the mind-body connection, there was convincing research about the benefits of daily meditation. It steadily entered people’s minds that they could expect good things to happen to them, from physical effects like lower blood pressure to mental effects like a sense of inner peace. Today, these positive effects have expanded many times over. It’s fair to say that meditation is the key to personal transformation.
But when you sit down for your first meditation, please don’t expect anything to happen. This seems like a paradox to many people. We are accustomed to having expectations. In fact, it’s almost impossible to do without them—we expect to be loved in our relationships, to trust our friends, to feel safe in our homes. Meditation, however, should be approached differently. It’s like a blind date with yourself, in that you will encounter your mind wherever it happens to be.
The most common way that people set themselves up for disappointment is by assuming in advance that they know how meditation works. For example, they have heard that meditation makes the mind silent, and when they don’t get this effect, when their meditation seems filled with random thoughts, they feel let down. Either they think they have failed or they think, “Meditation doesn’t work for me.” Neither is true in the vast majority of cases.
How to Be Present
The Buddhist expression about not stepping into a river in the same place twice applies to your mind. There is a daily flow of feelings, sensations, thoughts, and images that fills the mind unpredictably. Into this river you step when you close your eyes to meditate. What happens next isn’t the same as ordinary thinking. You are not setting out to engage the mind’s contents but to experience consciousness itself.
In the spiritual traditions from which meditation emerged, it was noticed that the mind naturally becomes quiet when you first wake up in the morning or go to sleep at night. At these times of natural quiet, you feel present and in the moment, yet there’s nothing particular on your mind. If it’s morning, you haven’t yet begun to entertain thoughts about the rest of the day. This moment of simple awareness may last only a few seconds, and you might not notice it until it’s pointed out to you. (For someone under stress, the anxious mind generally works overtime, so there isn’t a time when it’s not thinking.)
The ancient sages and seers of India took this seemingly blank space and explored it. What they discovered was that the apparent emptiness of a quiet mind wasn’t empty at all. It was the source of all possibilities. With deeper exploration, they found a field of creative potential that transcended daily life. Where our attention today is mainly drawn to the benefits of meditation for the body and the brain—which are quite remarkable—the ancient seers were focused on the freedom and bliss that can be attained through dedication to the practice.
The scope of meditation is so vast, in fact, that no one can realistically anticipate what is going to happen. At the Chopra Center we’ve conducted studies that show how quickly meditation begins to influence the brain and even the expression of genes. From very early on in the practice, including the first time a person meditates, changes begin to occur.
What Happens During Meditation
To explain how this can happen with no expectations requires a little explanation. Think of your mind as being like a flowing river. On the surface a river flows the fastest and is broken up by waves and currents. But if you dive deeper, the waves disappear and the current is slower. Finally, at the bottom, where the water meets the riverbed, the current may be nearly motionless. The mind is like that, yet we identify only with its active, fast-moving surface. What lies deeper can’t be accessed by thought. You must allow your mind to seek its own quiet, to return to its own source.
This will happen, because the mind in its deeper levels is actually the most powerful mind. In silence, every cell in your body is receiving messages from the brain that leave no traces in anything you are thinking about. No one knows where a thought comes from or how consciousness interfaces with the porridgy mass of cells that constitute the brain. The brain’s electrical and chemical activity, when examined under a microscope or through a brain scan, reveal nothing about how our perception of the three-dimensional world is created.
This means that the domain of the mind below the surface is mysterious. Through meditation you open the door to the mystery, and the only proper attitude to take is no attitude. Take meditation as it comes. This is the rule for every meditation, not just the first one. But if you adopt it at your first meditation, you will have set yourself on the right course for a fascinating journey. As interesting as your thoughts, feelings, and sensations are, consciousness is more interesting, because it is nothing less than the womb of creation.