Traditionally, meditation has been considered a means to mystical experience. Yet in recent decades, meditation has taken a surprisingly public turn, especially in the West. It has even enjoyed a growing stamp of approval from the medical and scientific communities—as a method of stress management, a tool for providing much-needed deep rest and relaxation.
As affirming as this recognition may be, isn’t meditation more than this? By focusing on such scientifically verifiable effects, are we in danger of neglecting meditation’s deeper purposes? Can we see meditation from a wider perspective, one that embraces both the mystical and scientific views? I wouldn’t be writing this article if I didn’t think so…
One might define meditation in a number of ways, but here is a definition that should be meaningful to both scientists and mystics alike: Meditation is a mental process by which thought becomes progressively more subtle.
There are subtle and gross levels to everything. The computer screen you are reading this article on, for instance, appears to be solid and more or less inert matter. Yet were we to enter into it more deeply, we would discover that it teems with activity—molecules shimmering with motion. At a deeper level yet, even the plastic casing of your monitor holds inconceivably dynamic activity: electrons rotating around their atomic nuclei millions of times each billionth of a second. This is the unseen, inconceivable power before you—and it’s in all things.
We also hold such power in our mind. Thought, too, has deeper, hidden levels. Just as with matter, these subtler levels are vastly more dynamic and powerful, and this may be directly experienced in meditation. During meditation one may feel one has entered an inner world of unlimited expansion and energy, sublime subtlety, and indescribable divinity and bliss. True, as the mind becomes subtle, the body gains profoundly healing rest and relaxation (and there are plenty of other fascinating side effects, like brain wave coherence, that should keep scientists busy for a while), but much more than a method of stress management, true meditation allows us to open to, and tap the cosmic resources within us. It allows us to connect with the cosmic energy that is the very source of existence, of our own Being. That’s significant, too.
This experience of making the mind subtle is largely unique to meditation (or more broadly, to meditation-related spiritual practices). It’s unique because normally, outside of meditation, it just doesn’t happen—certainly not systematically and reliably. From birth our mind is drawn outward by the senses towards the objects of the world. As we are ever engaged in the world of matter around us, the mind tends to stay fairly gross in its functioning. Christ noted this when he observed:
“You may hear and hear, but you will never understand; you may look and look, but you will never see. For this people’s mind has become gross; their ears are dulled, and their eyes are closed. Otherwise, their eyes might see, their ears hear, and their mind understand. . .” (Matthew 13:14-15)
Spiritual experience is subtle experience. Recognition of the full spiritual truths of existence requires the subtlest capacities of heart and mind. As long as the mind is functioning on a gross level, Spirit remains invisible. Truth eludes us. Why has meditation been at the heart of nearly every spiritual tradition in the world? Because it makes the mind subtle. This is precisely how meditation opens us to the world of Spirit, and why it is a practice close to the heart of all spiritual experience. It is also a journey that parallels the direction of modern Physics, which finds ever more powerful paradigms of knowledge as it moves from grosser to subtler strata of the universe.
Now a person just beginning meditation will not immediately appreciate the tremendous vital power of the finer levels of thought. The blossoming of spiritual experience takes time, for as we are accustomed to experiencing thought only on the gross level, our inner faculties require purification before we can gain clarity at the subtler levels. When entering a dark room from the bright sunlight outdoors, it takes time for the eyes to adjust and see clearly. This is why meditation may at first seem to some simply an exercise in deep relaxation.
Yes, the profound rest and peace of meditation heals body and mind from negative affects of stress. Yet in truth, by tapping the atomic-powered levels of the mind, much more becomes possible. The inconceivable creative energy of those subtle levels can joyfully manifest any life-supporting desire. As we open the mind to cosmic intelligence, the heart to divine love, the body to pure healing energy, life is found to be, as the sages say, bliss. That is the birthright of each and every person. Eternal life is ours. Infinitude is our very nature. We can enjoy a heavenly existence, even here on earth, if we simply open to the heaven within.
And in the meantime, as we are growing towards this realization of our full human potential, we can join practical-minded scientists in appreciating more immediate and obvious benefits of meditation: mental clarity and creativity, enhanced physical vitality, more joy and well-being, an increase in fineness and delicacy of feeling, more love and compassion. These are the natural qualities of a refined heart and mind. These are the natural qualities we develop as we make the mind subtle.