There are many purposes for which one can practice meditation, from stress reduction to lowering your blood pressure to improving your concentration or sleep. All of these are excellent reasons to practice meditation. But out of respect for the cultures that developed these practices, especially as they originated in Asia, I’d like to underscore the primary purpose and the deeper promise that meditation can offer: awakening to our true nature.
If you’re allergic to terms like religion or spirituality, as I used to be, then you can simply think of awakening as one of several streams of personal growth. Ken Wilber’s Integral Model is a helpful one. We can conceive of three main domains of development: growing up, cleaning up and waking up.
Growing up refers to personal growth along the lines of what development psychologists such as Abraham Maslow and Robert Keegan articulated.
On the relative level, we were born with a particular temperament, in a specific time and place, in conditions that shaped our context: the culture of our family, community and nation, for example. All of this conditioning (karma: cause and effect) shapes the dimensions of how you conceive of yourself: your beliefs, preferences, identities.
Growing up includes our ability to move up hierarchies of competency: the personal growth that comes from embracing challenges and taking on new responsibilities and the way these experiences allow us to mature and self actualize. It is the natural life force of the universe, evolution, manifesting itself through us. Setting goals and moving towards those goals fires dopamine across our synapses. On a relative level, we want to get somewhere in the future that’s different from our current location. By design, we strive for progress.
Cleaning up refers to working with the shadow aspects of our psyche, those areas of our unconscious that can manifest in ways that harm ourselves or others.
Much of cleaning up draws on the language of Jungian psychology, as well as more recent psychological work around trauma. This facet of development also exists on the relative level: the ego structure. In a very true sense, our ego is wounded and needs to heal.
Waking up invites us to turn inwards and understand the ways in which our mind creates reality.
We gain insight into the ways in which our habitual patterns pull us into suffering and we start to cultivate deeper, more reliable sources of well being. Increasingly, we realize that happiness has less to do with having the right kind of experience and more to do with how our mind is relating to experience. Increasingly, we develop a mind that is open and spacious, not reactively grasping after what’s pleasant or pushing away what’s unpleasant.
As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche succinctly put it:
“Samsara is a mind turned outwards.
Nirvana is a mind resting in its own place.”
Awakening introduces us to truth on the absolute level by helping us to recognize the true nature of our mind. While on the relative level it’s true that the ego is wounded and needs to heal, on a more fundamental level, our true nature is deeper than the ego. This is a truth that one can directly recognize for oneself.
The sense of self is yet an appearance in the mirror of consciousness. The default mode of subject-object duality underpins the basic experience of separation that leaves us feeling constantly dissatisfied, unworthy and otherwise unfulfilled.
Encountering this language is understandably confusing at first, so don’t worry about grasping all of the concepts. What truly transforms one is not a conceptual understanding anyways, though that is an important step on the path to direct recognition.
Metaphors can point us in the right direction. So to begin simply consider that the true nature of mind is like the sky: it is vast, wide open and without limit. Awareness, the background to all of experience, is like the sky. The contents of consciousness–feelings, thoughts, sensations, perceptions–are like the clouds. Even when the clouds cover the sky, the sky is still there. Of course, contents and its consciousness are not separate just as the sky and the clouds are not separate.
It is only the use of concepts that even creates the appearance of separation. But all of these processes are not independent; they are interdependent. This is a crucial distinction that we will uncover with time.
As a starting point, just rest in the nature of this sky like mind, the mind which can notice all of conscious experience.