The most common understanding of meditation is this idea that you should “empty your mind”, a phrase used time and again in modern discussions of meditation, but it is actually totally wrong, and a common misconception of what it means to meditate.
In fact, if you’ve ever felt disheartened that you couldn’t make your mind go blank, you weren’t actually doing anything wrong. Here we delve into what should actually happen when you meditate, and why your mind shouldn’t be going blank.
Firstly we need to distinguish the difference between ‘making the mind blank’ and ‘not thinking’ and how this applies to meditation. These are actually very different from each other, but it’s understandable if you automatically link the two, seeing as our everyday existence is experienced via our own thoughts.
Even as you read this sentence, your understanding of it and the concept it is explaining is through your own inner-voice.
Meditation is precisely an escape from this kind of thought; silencing the verbalization of thoughts, feelings, or emotions, and replacing it with experiencing these in their purest, rawest forms. You empty your mind of the filters through which it interprets the world, rather than the thoughts themselves. You can therefore stop thinking, but your mind is far from blank or empty.
Why is it hard for us to focus?
All of this is much easier said than done, as you are probably aware of if you’ve ever tried stopping your inner mind-chatter. Neuroscientist Dr. David Rock explains why, “In the case of human brains… our braking system is part of the most fragile, temperamental and energy-hungry region… the prefrontal cortex.”
In order for us to just ‘stop’, we actually consume quite a lot of energy, especially when we try to stay in this state for an extended amount of time.
There is a phrase about the natural world used by those studying it which neatly summarizes the issue: “Nature abhors a vacuum”. What this essentially means is, when one force is withdrawn, another rushes in to fill the newly empty space.
Withdrawing attention from one preoccupation, leaves a space for another will rush in, thus emptying the mind is incredibly difficult to do.
Energy Levels in Meditation
Meditation centres the mind and its energies, and helps those who practice it to recover by rewiring critical pathways in the brain. With time and dedication, meditation changes the way your brain processes self-awareness, introspection, stress, and anxiety, which can lead to more reasonable evaluations and reactions to everyday situations.
If you have a blank mind when you meditate, this process doesn’t take place in the same way. By trying to blank the mind, you can slip more easily into a low, passive energy. Meditation is a relaxation to an extent, but it certainly isn’t a passive experience.
This is where the importance of avoiding a blank mind comes to the fore. Author and teacher of meditation, Nayaswami Asha, asks: “Do passive… people without willpower accomplish anything in any field?”
By entering low-energy or empty, passive states during meditation, it could have the opposite effect that meditation should have. Your energy, with no specific focus to head towards, becomes scattered and easily lead to distraction. Meditation progresses the mind by being fully aware of a specific thought, experiencing and understanding it, rather than pushing it aside, or evacuating it from the mind.
Focusing on One Thing
If you visualise your mind as a chalkboard, you shouldn’t be wiping it clean during meditation. Rather, you should focus on one of the words written on it, pushing any clutter out of focus.
Concentrate on how it makes you feel, how your body reacts to it, how your interpretation or understanding of it changes, and how it is related to your life. Through this concentration of energy, you usher in a calm around that particular issue. Development of the self cannot happen if you are avoiding this focus of energies and inward looking.
It can be all too easy to see our various agitations as the result of thinking too much, rather than not having thought enough. Meditation can be a very useful and effective way of cleansing our minds from incessant chatter, but it is wrong to think that we should totally silence it.