The purpose of Meditation, Yoga and other mindfulness practices is not to stop or control our thoughts, but rather stop our thoughts from controlling us.
The notion that humans only use ten percent of their theoretical brain capacity has been floating around since the late Victorian Era. It has been mis-attributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. Scientist claim that we use all our brain all the time and Neurologist Barry Gordon* says, "we use virtually every part of the brain, and that (most of) the brain is active almost all the time." The entertainment industry has jumped on this myth and several movies have been made that are inspired by this notion. Lucy, in particular, depicts a character who gains increasingly godlike abilities once she surpasses 10 percent, though the film suggests that 10 percent represents brain capacity at a particular time rather than permanent usage.
Often when I encourage my students to introduce meditation to their lives they say that they are no good at meditating, their minds are too busy. That they can't stop thinking. The purpose of our mediation practice is not to stop all our thoughts. It is to be still and quiet long enough to hear what lies between the thoughts of our conscious mind. The thoughts we wish to stop are the thoughts of duality - planning, shoulds and should haves, the misconceptions or Vrittis that function as a conversation with ourselves. One of the oldest yogic texts Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, (100BC - 300AD), tells us that if we sit quietly, pay close attention to our mind, and practice this diligently, then we will gain supernormal powers, very much like Lucy. These advanced capacities, known as siddhis, are not regarded as magical; they’re ordinary capacities that everyone possesses. We’re just too distracted most of the time to be able to access them reliably.
So what lays beyond our conscious mind?
People practice meditation for different reasons. Some turn to meditation for its many benefits for the body, mind, and relationships; others are seeking personal growth, emotional healing, or spiritual development. Regardless of what your initial intention was or is for starting the practice, when you meditate long enough, you are bound to discover many things about yourself. These are the things and thoughts we want to focus on, these are the thoughts and emotions that once worked through will bring us healing and allow us to bring change into our lives.
Our personality, together with our conscious thoughts, emotions, decisions and interactions with the world, all happen at the level of our conscious mind (10% of our brains capacity) Could this be what Einstein was referring to? However, that is just the tip of the iceberg of our consciousness. Beneath this conscious layer of our mind is our subconscious mind (50%) and, even deeper, our unconscious mind (40%). Together they are the structure of our personality. They are the hidden motivating forces behind all our decisions, thoughts and feelings. They have a profound influence in our life, and yet we know very little about them. Our conscious mind is so busy and agitated that we rarely get the chance to look deeper.
Very much like a beginner Yogi will discover emotions, thoughts and behaviours previously hidden within themselves, so will a beginner meditator discover challenges and discomforts within that they have not before come across. They may think, “Since I started meditating, my mind has become busier”, or “Meditation is making me feel more anxious and restless.”
Giovanni Dienstmann writes on his blog that meditation is not making your mind more noisy or anxious. It’s simply revealing the noise and anxiety that was already there. However, with fewer distractions, you see it all too clearly. It’s like allowing a cup of muddy water to settle, so you can clearly see all the dirt that was already in the water.
Apart from making your mind more calm and clear, meditation also heightens your sensitivity, and sharpens your attention—so you will be able to perceive things in yourself that you were blind to before. Trapped energies in your psyche will come up. It’s the opening of the “Pandora’s box” of your subconscious mind. It’s not always a lovely sight, but it is a sign of progress in the practice.
As meditation deepens, our attention begins to dive into the subconscious. The conscious mind becomes less busy, and the awareness is thus allowed to recede back to deeper levels of our being. With that, things that we had repressed, or chosen to overlook in life, are there waiting for us.
You are meeting—and freeing—your shadow!
Diestmann continues to write that our shadow self is made up of everything we feel ashamed of thinking and feeling, as well as every impulse that we have repressed, consciously or unconsciously, for the sake of keeping ourselves tame, likeable and “civilised”. According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the ‘‘sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life’’.
The idea, in Jungian psychotherapy, is that to genuinely become a whole and healed person, you need to fully integrate your shadow. You need to meet it face to face, understand it, unlock its secrets, and reuse its energy.
This has always been the purpose of meditation. All of this messy work is part of the liberating process of meditation. The question to ask yourself is: Am I ready to hold up the mirror and look at the remaining 90% of my brain. Are you up for this challenge?
If you look at meditation as a tool for personal growth, healing, or spiritual development—you may say “Yeah! Let’s do it”.
But if you see meditation as a simple stress-relief exercise, or a no-pill approach to manage depression, or a tool to improve your cognitive skills, then you might not want to go through this shadow work thing. “That’s not what I’ve signed up for!”, you may rightfully object.
In any case, there are steps you can take to either avoid going through this or to at least make the process feel safer and less troublesome.
*Live and Dare