So far we have talked mostly about the effects of meditation. Now it is time to ask the question, “What is meditation and how does it work?”

“A candle does not flicker in a windless spot.” This is a description of the state of mind when there are no disturbances to alter its innate brilliance and steadiness. It is the same as saying, “When the wind subsides, there are no waves and the surface of the water is smooth and serene.”

How do we reach such a state? Teachers have told us that the mind is complete, that it contains all wisdom latent within it, but how do we uncover the dust that has gathered and obscured the natural brilliance of the mind? For this we use meditation techniques with the firm conviction that in time we will reach the serene state described by the Chinese monk-poet, Tao Yuanming, in the following poem:

I gather chrysanthemums at the eastern hedgerow And silently gaze at the southern mountains.
The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset, And the birds, flocking together, return home.
Among all these things there is a very real meaning, But, when I try to describe it,
I become lost in ‘no-words.’
Creativity and Taoism, translation by Chung-Yuan Chang

This is a wonderful example of the true meditative state of mind functioning in the natural world around us. Such a condition is reached by regular practice of meditation, which has stilled the waves of the mind so that the affecting natural scene has imprinted itself on it, without the mind in any way being influenced by intellection, conceptualization or memory. In such a state it reflects things exactly as they are, the way a still pond reflects the flight of geese overhead – unintentionally and accurately.

Here the mind is one-pointed, focused on only one object to the exclusion of all others. This condition can be reached by intense concentration on a Mantra (a formula of sound), fixation on an internal or external point of the body (such as the diaphragm in the rising and falling of the breathing process), or through unbroken concentration on a vexatious problem known as a koan in Zen practice (“If all things return to the One, to where does that One return?” is a representative beginner’s koan). The focus of the mind on only one thought, in which the mind merges with its object (according to Indian concept), results in the one-pointed state in which the meditator is fully alive and aware, but reacts to only one stimulus. In Zen meditation, all other sights and sounds are appreciated, but there is no reactive tendency to them. And then, when the mind has become one-pointed and fully concentrated, the great miracle may take place and the mind becomes no-pointed (mushin – no mind), blissfully lost in the state of no thought, far beyond the disturbing reactions of the senses.

In Indian meditation it is a trance state; in Zen and Buddhist concentration, it is a condition of choiceless awareness, which Krishnamurti has cited as the true meditation. It is a state that cannot be described in language, hence the poet’s statement, “I get lost in no-words.”

Is it a happy state? Certainly not in the sense of pleasure and pain, which are only two sides of the same coin. But to determine if it affords a higher level of peace and equanimity, let’s examine one more Chinese poem, by the 17th century artist and poet Bada Shanren, in a translation by the same scholar:

When the mind is transparent and pure,
As if reflected on the mirror-like surface of the water,
There is nothing in the world that you would dislike.
When it is serene as the light breeze in the sunshine,
There will be no one whom you would like to forget.

Surely this is a state to be envied. The great teachers of meditation all tell us that, without exception, it can be ours if we create the right conditions and unfalteringly practice the type of meditation that is best for us.

We can approach this state through the mind (as in Zen meditation or Mantra repetition) or through the physical organism (as in T’ai Chi Chih, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, and the secret Nei Kung). Either way, the ultimate result is the same. The mind-body continuum is stilled and the inherent wisdom shines forth without hindrance.

Although the ultimate reward is the same, the immediate effects vary widely. In Indian meditation (such as japa and the Breath-Dhyana), we reach a condition known as the Turiya state – the unchanging fourth state of consciousness that underlies the ordinary waking, dreaming and deep sleep states. These latter three, which the average person experiences at different times, are not constant as they last for only short periods of time and are bewildering in the profusion of different, often painful, phenomena they produce. Carrying our “self” is a great load at all times in these three states, and we have the unutterable relief of laying down the ego burden in this type of meditation. The stresses of strain and tension, worry and fear are unraveled with corresponding relief to the physical organism. Carrying this painful ego burden and its many problems is somewhat like pouring water in a small jar and floating it in the sea. The water in the jar is separate from that of the sea around, bobbing up and down aimlessly on the surface of the water. But let us break the sides of the bottle, and the water merges with the great ocean, without a particle of separation.

Similarly, the “individual consciousness” (if we can invent an almost meaningless phrase) in the state of deepest meditation, when the Turiya state is being experienced, becomes one with Universal Consciousness and is in its natural condition. Practiced daily, the type of meditation that takes us to this state (with eyes closed, breath subsiding as the mind merges in one-pointedness with its object) is healing from the standpoint of relieving stress on the nervous system. It is not healing in the way that some of the Chinese meditations are (circulating and balancing the Chi). Physical movement or posture that does cause the intrinsic energy to flow smoothly should follow such type of trance meditation. If there is long practice of the trance state without the offsetting physical stimulus, illness may result.

As we see from the above, meditation is the focusing of the mind on one thought, to the exclusion of all others. It is usually practiced in absolute body stillness, but such is not the case with moving meditations. When the Indian sage, Patanjali, talks about “inhibition or cessation of mental modifications,” he is talking about the end of the reactive tendencies of the mind, whether in trance state (as in japa) or in a reactionless state of heightened awareness (as in Zen). In either case he is saying that the mind is perfect and complete when no habit energies are being formed, when no new grooves are being formed from apperception, and when, as a result of the above, no long lasting tendencies are developed (through many lifetimes). In order to understand what meditation is, and why it works, it is necessary to examine the meaning of such Sanskrit words as vritti, vasana and samskara. The meanings of these words will give us a clue as to what meditation really is and what happens with continued practice.

In India it is said that every thought results in a sound, which is imprinted on the brain (deeply or otherwise) as a vritti, a groove, which explains the fact that we can recall experience afterward in memory. In the Bible, the phrase “In the beginning was the Word,” seemingly points to the same idea. Since both the Indian and the Chinese believe that first comes the thought, then the sound (and flow of Chi), followed by the manifestation (in the body, the flow of blood), we have a concept that points both at creation (the first manifestation of being) and the physical functioning of the individual. In Indian cosmology, it is believed that all this (the cosmos) is the thought of Brahma, that is, from the initial thought came the sound that resulted in the flow of Prana (Chi), which has shaped this and other universes.

As the mind becomes one pointed in meditation, the vritti becomes widened and intensified and becomes habit energy (vasana), which not only governs our everyday life, but actually shapes our bodies and personalities and makes us what we are. An analogy to this is the following: If we continually take a short-cut through a field of deep, waving grass, gradually a path will be made, and it will be easy for us to get through it.

The first walk across the field was equivalent to the vritti and the following walks, widening the path, corresponded to the habit energy, the vasana. Eventually we become used to following the easy way, the path or shortcut, and our habit of going that way becomes deeply imbedded. Others may follow this path, even after our death; it may become a road. This is the samskara, the tendency that goes on life after life unless stern practice of meditation annuls it (in other words, unless we stop using the shortcut through the fields and allow the long grass to grow together again).

Translated into human terms, we have this example: A man, experiencing great disappointment, turns to drink and finds the clouding effects of the alcohol help him to forget his troubles. He gets used to reacting to any disappointment by taking a few drinks, thus building the vasana (habit energy) of drinking. Carried to an extreme, where he becomes an unknowing alcoholic, he has created the samskara (tendency) that may follow him and influence him through future lives, causing him to become an unwilling drunkard without even knowing why he drinks. Only stern discipline, over a good period of time, can erase such a tendency. If he simply takes himself away from the environment in which he drinks, or removes himself from the proximity of alcohol, this may dim the vasana, but the samskara will still remain and become active when the proper circumstances manifest again. Thus we have the monk in the desert (as in Anatole France’s Thais) who has completely removed himself from carnal thoughts (vasanas), but has not erased the tendencies so that when the mind is ready, once again the sensuous temptations enter his thought, even after he was certain he had done away with them. Removing one’s self from temptation will, necessarily, stunt the habit energy, but as long as the tendency is not done away with (i.e. the seeds of karma are not burned), there is always the probability that the habit will reestablish itself in the future.

Two things now become apparent to us. Through concentration and affirmation we can shape our thoughts to bring about whatever we want in the future, providing they are strong enough to counter the existing habit energies and tendencies. We can plant any seed we want, knowing that in time we will harvest the fruit. This does not take enthusiasm; it demands steadfastness and continual practice, not only in periods of meditation, but also in all times when the mind is active.

Also, through care in how the mind thinks and through frequent and regular meditation, we can undo the negative traits that have been established in the mind – that is, we can nullify the vasanas and eventually eliminate the undesirable samskaras. This is the raison d’être of meditation, and this is what Patanjali means when he talks of the “inhibition or cessation of mental modifications.” These mental modifications are the vrittis that become vasanas, eventually resulting in the long-lasting tendencies known as samskaras. For the monk, who may work toward total abstraction, the idea is to erase these modifications, to eliminate the karma that is keeping him bound, thus reaching total liberation.

Most of us, however, are not monks and renunciates, so we wish to be able to shape the habit energies so as to have more fulfilling lives. Therefore, we are careful at all times, and we meditate. In meditation, we concentrate on one object to the exclusion of all others. Thus we build one big vasana that overpowers all the others; we become one-pointed in that which is pleasing to us, and points the way to our becoming what we wish to be. In such a way we reshape our world. The mind making all things, we let it dwell on the chosen object and it becomes that which we have decided upon as our ideal. As we say, this demands persistence and steadfastness. So we work and live in the world in control of what we become – and thus are masters of our karma, not pulled willy-nilly by tendencies that are beyond the conscious understanding. This really is the deepest, and most practical, form of psychology (as many doctors and psychologists are learning). It is the way to heal ourselves and remake ourselves through meditation. One-pointed concentration, and its aftermath, affords the answer.

This article is published in Meditation for Healing.