“So, when you meditate do you sit quietly and go “Oooom” to get rid of stress?” This is a question a student of mine asked several years ago. Thinking of what my own spiritual trajectory had been over the last 30 years, I smiled and nodded, but at that moment a thousand thoughts went through my mind. Why has our culture turned something so deeply sacred as meditation into an over-the-counter remedy for overworked professionals? On a second (and more compassionate) thought, however, I realized that the emotional healing that meditators experience is not to be underestimated. In today’s world, our brain is constantly bombarded with an incessant flow of stimuli. Stress hormone levels rise and then begin to dwindle even as our body keeps trying to kick our adrenals into high gear, thus triggering a physiological roller coaster that depletes us of our mental and physical well-being.
In writing his Yoga Sutras, Indian sage Patañjali was among the first to point out that meditation quiets the disturbances of the mind. In more recent times, meditation is touted as the solution to the ills our modern world imposes on us. Indeed, when faced with the inevitable challenges of life, meditators are known to meet them with a more balanced, peaceful attitude. They may respond thoughtfully instead of reacting with anger or fear, thus showing a greater ability to handle even difficult situations. In and of itself, this would be a good enough reason to undertake a meditation practice. Yet, stress release is barely a side effect—though certainly a welcome one–of a meditative practice.
On a deeper level, meditation brings us closer to the realization of who we really are. When our mind goes quiet and we get a respite from the stimuli and the stressors of our life, the bright, luminous nature of who we really are begins to shine through. As the mind becomes increasingly able to go quiet and let go, our true self manifests itself in all of its majesty. Our ability to deal with the stressful circumstances of our life changes as we no longer perceive them a matter of life and death. Little by little the effects of meditative bliss expand into everything we do and everything we are. Our priorities become reorganized: we are still in the world, aptly handling whatever task is thrown at us; however, we are no longer of the world. Our mind will no longer be able to throw us into loops of obsessive, anxious thoughts. The challenges of life become trifles in the face of the effulgent universe shining inside you. Do not meditate because you want to get rid of stress (though you most definitely will). Meditate because you want to know who you really are. Once you begin to get glimpses of your true nature, the healing will happen spontaneously.
Meditative practices are the tool through which we peel off vikalpa as the mental constructs that organize our perception of the world even as they hinder our understanding of ultimate truths. First explicitly formulated in the 10th century by Abhinavagupta, the notion of vikalpa as the human-made structures of the mind through which we organize our world is remarkably modern. Contemporary social scientists agree that, as human beings, we are enveloped in a dense web of shared meanings that we consistently co-create as we go about our daily lives. While these webs are more or less effective maps that help us be successful as a species, none of them is definitive.
For its much-touted health benefits, the path of spirituality is not for the faint of heart. If you are serious about your spiritual practice, your inner guidance will tear through all you are and all you know in the process of shredding your maps and ridding you of your earthly ego. With time, new maps will emerge to help you navigate your ever-expanding horizons. Beware of a false sense of security: as you pursue a spiritual path, all you think you know will be challenged. Expedient though they may be, our maps of the universe are still not the territory.
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