The Function of Meditation

The fourth fundamental of the teachings at the Center for Sacred Sciences reads:

The Way to Gnosis is the way of Selflessness, cultivated on the basis of boundless compassion (Love) and profound insight (Wisdom).

"Profound insight" here means insight which goes beyond or transcends all forms of thought and sees directly into the true nature of situations and things. This differs from intellectual insight which merely substitutes one form of thought for another. For example, as an adult visiting my parents I may have an intellectual insight about their relationship. Perhaps because my father has always been somewhat cold and distant, while growing up I imagined that he was the strongest member of the family. Now, however, I realize that it has been my mother who has actually been calling the shots behind the scenes. Consequently, I come away with a new image of their relationship in which their roles are reversed.

Such insights, of course, can be very valuable, but they still remain within the realm of thought and imagination in which one image (or configuration of images) is replaced by another. Profound insight, on the other hand, occurs when attention by-passes thought altogether and grasps, not a new image of a thing, but the 'thing' itself. Making us capable of such insights is the function of meditation.

Having said this, however, we must be quick to correct a common mistake made by beginning meditators, and that is assuming that meditation accomplishes this by suppressing thought. This misconception is unfortunately reinforced by descriptions found even in classical texts on the subject (or, at least, in their English translations) where meditation is sometimes equated with "mind control" or "thought control" As a result of reading such phrases beginning meditators are apt to sit down with the idea that they can forcibly clear their minds of all thought. When the attempt to do so fails, they then become extremely frustrated and may even abandon meditation altogether. This approach, however, is completely wrong.

Part of the problem comes from a paucity of precise terms in our language to describe the subtle processes of our minds. In fact 'mind' itself is quite vague. What does it mean? Thought? Imagination? Attention? Awareness? Consciousness? The ability to perceive sensory phenomena?

Defining Terms

We can clear up some of this confusion by creating a few working definitions. Let us call consciousness-awareness the total field of experience at any given moment. Let us define sensory phenomena as anything arising in this field that can normally be correlated with our sensory organs—i.e. sights, sounds, sensations, etc. Let us call thought that running commentary (whether in words or images) that interweaves with sensory phenomena invoking memories, expectations, judgments, etc. And finally let us define attention as the power of awareness to focus on whatever arises in the field of consciousness-awareness, whether it be sensory phenomena, thought, or some mix of these (e.g. feelings and emotions).

What is valuable about these definitions for our purposes is that they make a clear distinction between attention and the objects of attention—i.e. thought and sensory phenomena. This distinction is something we are not usually aware of because attention is so often dominated by thought and sensory phenomena. Right now, for instance, if your were to hear the sound of a car crash outside your window, your attention would leap from reading these words to that phenomenon. And in the very next instant it would probably be captured by a stream of thoughts identifying what you have just heard: "An accident has occurred. How serious was it? Was anybody hurt? Should I call an ambulance?" You might even assume that by 'thinking' about this sensory phenomenon (in this case the sound of a car crash) you were giving it your 'attention,' whereas actually your attention would now be focused, not on the sensory phenomenon itself, but on the thoughts this phenomenon aroused. Finally, if at this point one of your children tried to get your 'attention' by tugging at your clothes and mumbling some questions about homework, you would probably find it very difficult to tear your 'attention' away from your thoughts about the car crash and direct it towards your child's problem. In such a situation we usually say we are 'distracted', by which we mean our attention has become fixated on one thing to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Such a sequence of events illustrates how habitually our attention is captivated by thought and sensory phenomena with thought usually playing the dominant role, directing our attention to various phenomena, telling us what they are, and how we should think and feel about them.

The Liberation of Attention

Now the problem with this whole process is not that it happens—thought here is merely fulfilling its natural function—but that most of the time we are convinced that what thought tells us is true. Put differently, we believe unquestioningly that thought reflects Reality. It does not.

What thought does is create a metaphorical (i.e. an 'as if') world, made up of imaginary distinctions which thought itself draws on the field of consciousness-awareness. Furthermore, the particular metaphorical world which thought constructs at any given moment is always only one of many possible world variations—variations which, if we could but recognize them, would provide different and often more appropriate opportunities for response.

The reason we fail to notice this metaphorical character of the world (or worlds) is because we have lost sight of that Ultimate Reality which transcends both thought and sensory phenomena—which is to say the true nature of the total field of consciousnessawareness or Consciousness Itself. And the reason we have lost sight of this Ultimate Reality is precisely because attention has become the slave of thought, forced to view all experience through the filter of thought's own self-created distinctions. As long as attention remains in this servile condition it cannot possibly give us profound insight into the true nature of 'situations' and 'things'. Thus the real aim of meditation is not to eliminate thought, but simply to liberate attention from its tyranny.

The next question, then, is just how does meditation accomplish this? Because the relationship between attention, thought, and sensory phenomena is highly complex and multi-dimensional, a vast array of meditative techniques have been developed by various spiritual traditions to deal with different facets of their interaction. This makes the whole subject of meditation itself vast and complex. Nevertheless, we can try to get some basic idea of how it works by considering the three principle stages in which most meditative practices unfold. These are: concentration, stabilization, and contemplation.


Concentration literally means "centering on." Anyone who has tried to meditate even a little knows first hand how domineering thoughts can be. Almost as soon as we begin they catch our attention and carry it off into innumerable fantasy worlds and imaginary landscapes. The first task, then, is simply to train attention to hold still and this is done by concentrating it single-pointedly on one object. Although different objects will produce subtly different effects, at this stage of practice the choice of object is far less important than the principle involved—i.e., the development of concentration.

Sitting motionlessly in a comfortable posture, focus attention on any stable object such as a picture or a statue (icon), a mentally repeated word or phrase (mantra), or the rhythmic sensation of your own breathing. When thoughts or sensory phenomena distract your attention, simply notice that your attention has been distracted and, without any anxiety or fuss, gently but firmly re-focus it on your chosen object. By constantly repeating this practice of focusing—being distracted—refocusing, your ability to hold attention single-pointedly on the object will grow stronger and stronger.

It is important to remember that this is a gradual process, much like practicing scales in order to train your fingers to play the piano. Although consistency and discipline are essential, any attempt to speed up the process through an artificial effort of will is doomed to frustration. The real trick is, instead of forcibly trying to suppress distractions, to learn to relax and ignore them.


Stabilization literally means "to stand firmly." Once you learn to concentrate attention on a single object in a relaxed manner for an extended period of time, you can begin to practice observing multiple objects as they arise and pass away in the total field of consciousness-awareness. For instance, you might start by observing various sensory phenomena—sights, sounds, sensations, etc. as they occur moment-to-moment. Next, you can begin observing more subtle objects: emotions, feelings, desires, impulses, and even thoughts themselves. At this stage attention becomes like a mirror. It neither focuses on, nor is distracted by any of the objects appearing in it. It simply holds still, reflecting everything just as it is.

Finally, after formally practicing in this manner you will be able to bring your meditation to bear on situations encountered in everyday life through what is called 'mindfulness' or 'witnessing'. You may simply observe activities you are engaged in, or conversations you are having from this space of relaxed but stable attention. Again, this does not mean forcibly suppressing any emotions, no matter how agitated they may be. For instance, if you are experiencing anger, you do not try to get rid of it. You just observe it steadily and clearly, realizing vividly what it is, how it arises, how it passes away. It is only when you have developed at least some degree of stability and mindfulness that you are ready for the next stage of practice.


Contemplation literally means "to view extensively from a temple"—i.e. a "sacred place." Contemplation is the stage in which profound insights usually begin to occur in a consistent fashion. This is because, although insights themselves happen spontaneously, they can be fostered through application of spiritual teachings to one's own immediate experience. For example, all traditions teach that suffering comes from attachment to 'worldly' things because 'worldly' things are by nature impermanent. The meditator who has attained stability and mindfulness can now begin to observe directly and in every moment of experience that this is, indeed, true. In other words, you can see for yourself that all phenomena arise and pass, arise and pass, without cessation, and their apparent continuity is only the construct of thought, which itself comes and goes. Thus 'situations' and 'things' have no permanent or substantial self-existence: their true nature is selflessness.

More importantly, you can now use your stabilized attention to contemplate the seemingly central fact of your experience-your 'self'. Who or what are you, really? In trying to isolate and identify exactly what this 'self' is you observe all sorts of secondary phenomena—bodily sensations, emotions, desires, memories, impulses, etc. But by carefully and steadily contemplating them you discover that they, too, are all impermanent. They come and go, and yet you still seem to be here. Therefore, whatever you really are, you cannot be any of these purely transitory phenomena which are constantly arising and passing away. They do not constitute your true self.

The Last Barrier

It is in this stage that a meditator is apt to get gnostic flashes, or glimpses of that Ultimate Reality that lies beyond all thought. As the sense of self weakens, attention becomes freer and more spacious—open to rivers of a Divine Bliss and Beauty which periodically flood the whole field of consciousness-awareness, transforming its contents into symbols and signs of a Reality that both informs and transcends them. Now, it becomes abundantly clear that it is not only attachments to transitory 'things' which produce suffering, but more fundamentally the sense of self itself; for it is this very sense of 'self' which separates you from that Divinity which has been so tantalizingly glimpsed.

At this point, a meditator may choose simply to contemplate that Divinity, turning increasingly away from self and towards Its Radiant Light. Alternately, spurred on by the realization that this bare sense of self is the last barrier to be overcome, the meditator may undertake even more refined practices. Through utilizing advanced meditative techniques, one can learn to experience and manipulate 'subtle energies', maintain mindfulness during dreams and sleep, and enter states of awareness in which all but the subtlest forms of self and world are ignored and transcended. However, the purpose of meditation is never to maintain any particular experience or state for its own sake. Rather, it is always to isolate and identify that basic sense of self, because whatever can be identified as 'self' within any state or experience can also be recognized as not-self by virtue of the fact that it will always prove to be composed of transitory and impermanent phenomena.

And this is precisely the point. Somewhere along the line it must dawn on you that there really is no 'self', no'!', no 'observer', no 'witness'—that selflessness is not only the true nature of all thought and phenomena but of your 'self' as well! But if all 'situations' and 'things' including your 'self' are selfless, what is there? Since time immemorial Gnostics have tried to express this. We could call it Brahman, or Buddha-nature, the Tao, or God, Abba, or Allah; we could say there is only the total field of consciousness-awareness, or Consciousness Itself, but in the end words must fail. All that can be truly communicated are sets of instruction, such as those given by meditation teachers or found in the sacred texts, along with the advice to follow them and see for yourself. Then, you will have no need of words, for you will have something much better: your own Realization of what they mean.

- Joel Morwood, Center Voice: Fall 1991. Joel is the spiritual director for the Center for Sacred Sciences in Eugene, Oregon.

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