It’s a sultry summer afternoon in your hut in South India. The electricity is out and the fan isn’t working. Beads of sweat flow down your face in rivulets. But just before the electricity went out, you dished up a large bowl of your favorite ice cream, which now sits on the table before you, still frozen hard and topped with chocolate sauce and chopped almonds. You pick up your spoon and prepare to savor the ice-cold treat.

The way you feel about that bowl of ice cream in that moment is the ideal attitude with which to approach meditation. Such enthusiasm as this is the natural result of childlike, innocent faith. When we approach meditation with this attitude, we cannot but savor the charm of meditation, and as discussed in the previous article, that charm will surely take us within, towards our own divine Self.

Yet, as good as that sounds, even with such an attitude, we may find that meditation is not all divine bliss. Our minds may still teem with unwanted thoughts, wanderings, emotions, discomfort. What then?

If we really have that deep enthusiasm, we will not be easily put off. We will continue our practice, regardless of the immediate experience and results. This perseverance is part of our innocent faith and is an essential spiritual quality. But in addition to perseverance, we also need to understand the process of growth through meditation. This understanding itself will be a great help in maintaining equanimity through the ups and downs of our inner experience.

Spiritual growth is not linear. Meditation is not a one-sided process of simply experiencing ever deeper peace, expansion, and bliss. Rather, meditation is a holistic spiritual evolutionary process that not only unfolds our inner, divine nature, but also cleanses the impurities obscuring our divine nature. Sooner or later, all the impurities in our being that keep us from recognizing and living our full potential must be uprooted and cleansed.

At times this process of purification may give us the feeling that we are going backwards on the spiritual evolutionary scale. Nevertheless, this purification is a necessary part of growth. Only by purifying the veil of ego, purifying our past impressions, can the inner light of our true Self shine.

One of the main symptoms of purification due to meditation is actually an increase in thoughts. Due to purification our meditations may at times seem to be going backwards; instead of divine silence, the mind may literally boil with thoughts or emotions. Yet believe it or not, this is a good thing.

Perhaps nothing causes more frustration for aspiring meditators than the concept that thoughts in meditation means failure. This misconception is the downfall of innocent, childlike faith. It leads us back to trying, forcing, agitating the mind until we have hopelessly strayed from the innocent charm of meditation. (See the previous article in this series, Innocence: the Secret of Meditation.) These thoughts, emotions, and even physical sensations that come in meditation are not symptoms of incorrect meditation. Rather, this can mean that the meditation is really working—the divine is mercifully purifying the impressions of past experience. We are finally getting down to business. These latent impressions and negativities are on the way out. Why lament? Why struggle or resist? This is reason to rejoice.

Okay, but when the mind is boiling away with thoughts, what do we do? St. Francis of Assisi compared thoughts in meditation to birds flying overhead. We may notice them flying over us, he said, but we do not let them roost in our hair. By this he meant that we should not intentionally dwell on thoughts in meditation. Neither would St. Francis—that great lover of God’s creatures—have recommended trying to shoot the birds out of the sky. That is, we need not try to push thoughts out. We simply do not mind them. We practice vairagya (detachment) towards them.

When lighting a fire, we naturally want light and heat, but when the smoke comes, we do not become frustrated; we just ignore it and continue to fan the flames. Soon the smoke will disappear and we will have what we’re after. Meditation is a purifying fire. Anything that comes into our mind, other than the object of our meditation, we can consider to be the smoke of purification. We do not mind the smoke of thoughts; we just continue to fan the flames with childlike, innocent faith. We gently nudge the mind back to the object of our meditation. Sooner or later, the clouds will clear, and we will enjoy the inner radiance of the Self.

Still, a doubt may arise: Perhaps not all thoughts in meditation are the smoke of purification. What about the nagging thought that persuasively says, “This meditation is a joke; it’s not working for me at all”?

That thought, too, is coming up to release and purify impressions of past experience—for instance, impressions of some experience that left us feeling self doubt. The key to the efficiency of purification lies in our attitude of detachment. If we identify with the thought that says, “I can’t meditate,” and so decide to get up from meditation, “for after all, what’s the use?”, then that old impression of self-doubt maintains its hold on us. (Or, from a larger perspective, we may say that the impression is in a gradual process of dissolving that will take more time, for the entire Creation is evolving gradually.)

If, however, we have the firm faith that the thought is simply the smoke of purification, our resulting attitude of detachment vastly accelerates our release from that old impression. Detachment itself shifts our identification from the thoughts (in this case of self-doubt) to that silent awareness that witnesses thought. We cease to identify with the impression, and we instead identify with silent, pure awareness, which is free. Guess what: We are getting liberated.

In fact, provided we practice detachment in meditation, every thought becomes occasion for the purification of old impressions that have held us. Every thought becomes occasion for the expansion of silent, pure awareness. Every thought becomes a step towards freedom, towards the Self abiding in Itself. Gradually, we find that inner, silent awareness expanding and deepening, until we know ourselves to be that eternally silent and pure ocean of divine consciousness.

This is the value of knowledge. By simply understanding that meditation is for purification, and that purification isn’t invisible (it involves release through thought and feeling), frustration begins to melt away, and our growth is made far smoother and faster. Such is the purifying effect of knowledge.