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One of the biggest gifts I’ve gotten from meditation came out of my struggle with my own mind.
As you know, the mind famously resists settling down and getting quiet. It much prefers to plan, critique, worry, and obsess over questions like, What year did Kendrick Lamar win his first Grammy?
When I was first meditating, and for many years afterward, my meditation sessions consisted of 40 minutes of rumination broken by brief stretches of focused mantra repetition and then a short period of relaxing into stillness.
Facing my overactive (and sometimes overwrought) mentalogue was a little like facing down a dragon. I clung to my mantra, seeing it as a kind of tether that steadied me while my dragon mind belched clouds of fire and smoke. But every few minutes, the dragon would slip its leash and thrash around wildly. And often, I couldn’t get it to come back until, at last, the bell on my timer would ring and release me from the struggle.
After a while, though, I noticed that a funny thing started happening. Even though my mind rarely got quiet until the last five minutes of an hourlong session, it had begun behaving differently. I wasn’t taking my thoughts as seriously when they arose. In fact, I was starting to be able to choose which thoughts to give weight to.
As it turns out, the daily struggle to stay focused and present in meditation teaches you to separate your identity from your thoughts. You’ll be thinking some ordinary disempowering thought such as, I’ll never get this right. Then some other part of your mind will pipe up and remind you, This is just a thought, and I don’t have to believe it. That means something: A part of your mind has actually stood apart from that negative thought, observed it, and let it go.
If you keep doing this for even 15 minutes each day, you’ll eventually learn a lot about how your mind works and how to tame its wilder manifestations. You’ll recognize which thoughts make you feel bad, which thoughts enhance your love and clarity, and which thoughts are just noise. You’ll learn to discern the infinite tricks the mind uses to get you to believe what it tells you—If I don’t get up and eat now, my roommate will polish off the bran muffins!—and you’ll experience letting go of a thought without missing it!
Eventually, you’ll realize that even when your thought-stream feels like a whirlpool of confusion and negativity, something in you can always step out of the maelstrom and become its witness. Little by little, you’ll start to identify with that witnessing part of your mind rather than with your thoughts. You’ll start to become more and more intimate with your own knowing, unconstructed awareness.
In some traditions, this recognition that I am the witness—not the thoughts! is considered the goal. There’s truth in this; discerning the inner witness is key to personal and spiritual progress. It’s obvious: If you can continue to identify yourself as the witness to your emotional states (rather than identifying with the emotions themselves), you will be a lot freer even when life sucks. Mindfulness practice cultivates witness-awareness, as do the meditation practices of sages such as Ramana Maharshi and contemporary teachers of Zen. In fact, in these traditions, learning to identify as the witness and not as your body, personality, and mental creations is called liberation.
But there are other traditions in which discovering the power of the witness is just the beginning. Tantric philosophy has a particularly practical and, for me, exciting attitude toward the mind. Tantra identifies the mind with the absolute creativity of Universal Consciousness—the subtle intelligent energy that underlies all life, and that some people call God. Tantric sages claim that your mind is the microcosmic version of the universal mind, the vast creative intelligence that imagines this universe into existence. One major text, The Recognition Sutras, says that universal intelligence becomes your mind by a process of contraction, analogous to the way H₂O can start out as steam, condense into water, and then freeze into ice. Your thoughts seem very solid when they are in their densified form, but they can also melt, evanesce, dissolve, and reform themselves into different configurations.
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From this point of view, our thoughts are actually condensed squibs of consciousness. From one perspective, they are insubstantial, like clouds. But just as clouds carry moisture, every thought carries energy. That thought’s energy can be harnessed, shaped, played with. You can change a negative thought to a positive thought, and that will affect your mood and even your physical state. You can use your imagination to visualize a positive outcome for a project and influence that outcome.
Thoughts, we learn, are creative powers. Consciously or not, they are the tools with which we shape our experience. And though not every stray thought has that power, if you know how to collect and harvest those casual thoughts, you can use their energy to create more loving and empowered realities.
Learning to witness the ebb and flow of thoughts is the first step, because we can’t consciously manage the mind’s creative potential until we know how to stand aside from it.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Life
Neuroscientists now call the state of habitual, repetitive, often-negative thinking patterns that most of us are in “the default mode network” of the brain. Meditation (as well as psychoactive substances like psilocybin and LSD) can turn off the default mode network, freeing us to experience the nearly unlimited power that exists in the subtle field of intelligence that we call the mind, once we are no longer subject to the uncontrolled movements of our own mental chatter (vrittis).
The sages of the yogic traditions have known this for a very long time. A great text of Vedanta states baldly: “Consciousness plus thoughts is your mind. Consciousness minus thoughts is God.” The implications of this idea are radical, and they were not lost on the Western thinkers who discovered Indian thought in the 19th century. Pragmatic idealists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James understood the immense power of the imagination. They realized that when we know how to liberate the mind from conditioned ideas about our own possibilities, we can dramatically change our experience of life.
The more you enact the daily discipline of shaping your own thoughts in meditation, the more you discover its possibilities for changing your life.
For instance, if every morning during meditation you create an intention such as, “I am focused, aware, and loving,” you will begin to notice that this affirmation affects the way you move and act and think throughout the rest of the day. Of course, you’ll forget it, you’ll lose it over and over again, but when you look back after some time, you’ll start to realize that the thought itself has created a different climate in your mind. You’ll be more focused, aware, and loving than you had been before.
In other words, you’ll have sculpted the subtle material of your own consciousness into a more beautiful form. You can use the power of visualization to imagine a future of abundance and success for yourself or someone else. You can ask questions and receive inspiration. You can offer blessings to others and even reimagine a world where people take care of one another and nourish the planet.
Once you’ve had a direct experience with the sheer energy of your thoughts, you can become an activist of the subtle, using your own consciousness to create palpable shifts in the atmosphere—in your family, in organizations, and even in the political sphere. Sports psychologists have known since at least the 1960s that a tennis player who visualizes a perfect serve has a much better chance of executing one. We know that believing you will succeed makes a big difference in your ability to complete a task. You can apply this principle to every aspect of life once you’ve learned to play skillfully in the field of consciousness that is your imagination. And when your motivation is to be of benefit to others and to the world, your thoughts will have even more power than you’ve imagined.
Becoming an Active Participant
Consider doing this as part of your meditation. You might set aside just five minutes at the end of a meditation period to cultivate an intention for your life that you believe will transform it for the better. Consider filling your mind with a healing vision for the planet or a prayer for someone you care about. Before you start this process, spend some time contemplating the intention you want to manifest. Write it down using the present tense, knowing that it may morph during the weeks ahead. For instance, here’s an intention a friend created for herself when she began running a small nonprofit: I am living in love, intimacy, and abundance, surrounded by dear friends who, together, are helping bring more art, music, and dance to the schools in our town. By 2017, we will have arts programs in place in all the public schools in the state.
She wrote this intention down in a notebook in 2013 and promptly mislaid the notebook. A couple of years later, discovering her notebook in the bottom of a drawer, she realized that everything she had intended had actually taken place.
Of course, she had to work hard for the outcome. Her intention had not just been a mental exercise—it had given direction to her organization’s work.
So here is my suggestion: Take a few minutes to sit for meditation while asking yourself, What do I want to create that will serve the highest good, for myself, my family, and the world? Write down what comes up, and then craft an intention or a prayer that expresses it succinctly and powerfully. Then take it into meditation.
Sit as you normally would, focusing on the breath or a mantra or any other technique that helps you get centered. Take some time to observe your thoughts. Notice how thoughts arise and subside. Remind yourself, These thoughts are energy, and every thought has potential power to transform my reality.
Now, introduce a simple thought, and follow it with great concentration until it dissolves. Make it a positive thought, such as, I love you—or at least a neutral one. I like to use the simple mantra I am as my focal point.
As you focus on the word or phrase, you’ll gradually notice the slight pause, the pulsating space in your mind where the thought comes to an end.
Focus your attention there in the fraction of a second before a new thought arises. In that space of quiet, bring to mind your intention, remembering to couch it in the present tense.
Imagine yourself living in the satisfaction of complete fulfillment of your intention. Imagine that your life is filled with abundance. Imagine how a world would look in which all people had enough to eat. Imagine your child enjoying new friends or walking on the campus of the school she is hoping to be
Focus on your intention and its fulfillment for several breaths. Then, let it go, and let your attention return to the feeling of your breath rising and falling on the edge of your nostrils. Or, simply stay present with the space in your mind where your intention has dissolved.
Recognize that this space, where stray thoughts and even charged thoughts can melt back into their source, is loaded with creative power. Notice how the quiet center within your mind is constantly creating. Let yourself be awed by the creative power within your own mind. And one more time, make the decision to use that power—which is your birthright—for growth, for self-transformation, and for healing your world.