I was thinking recently about the workings and purposes of meditation (at least samatha meditation) and I thought of an interesting way to explain some of what it’s about.
As most people know, during meditating one attempts to achieve a still mind; that is, a mind that is not wandering onto various topics and is simply conscious without active thought. Why do this? It’s not that there is anything intrinsically valuable about having a still mind. Frogs probably have a still mind, and I will have a very still mind when I’m dead. Thinking is a good thing. But a still mind is a symptom, or an effect that is an indicator of something else.
Imagine yourself and a small child in knee-high water. Now imagine that you are trying to discipline yourself to be still. As you can imagine, the small child will have a more difficult time of this. He lacks the ability to be still and this means he also lacks self control. The water about the two of you will have many ripples or waves in it. Once you learn to control your body and remain still, the water’s surface will be smooth.
Likewise, one seeks a still mind during meditation because it is an indicator that one has achieved greater control over one’s thoughts. The natural inclination of the mind is to wander about various topics. Because the brain has a neural network sort of architecture, activity in one cluster of neurons will easily stimulate others. In this way, one thought reminds you of another, and so on – a sort of mental rambling.
By practicing the clearing of our minds and reaching stillness for extended periods, we train our brains to be capable of directing thought and attention as we decide it is to be directed. If we can achieve this still mind at will and often in meditation, we find that we are also more capable of concentrating on the activities and thoughts we choose to focus on without being scatterbrained or constantly consumed with a worrisome influx of thoughts.
Those who have practiced meditation, even for a short time, have noticed this increase in concentration, focus of attention, and control (I am one of them). Is it placebo, or an improvement of reasoning ability, or a neural restructuring? There are a lot of unanswered questions about the physiological nature behind this experience. I look forward to hearing the results of continuing neurological studies on meditation. But, in any case, it definitely seems to be a fascinating and promising activity, as millions of other people for thousands of years have found.
I have not been consistent in my meditation practice, but hope to improve it. Right now I’m still on 'training wheels'.