You’ve probably heard or read that meditation can reduce stress and high blood pressure. That’s true enough, but did you know that meditation makes changes in the mind and body the same way a new operating system optimizes your computer’s digital capacity? The similarity between the workings of your computer and the workings of meditation lies in the fact that both employ engineering sciences. Just as a programmer can write and install a new software program to increase your computer’s effectiveness, a daily meditation practice can re-engineer the software of your mind to enhance overall physical, mental and emotional health, happiness and well being. Here’s how it works.
From a yogic perspective, the body is a projection of the unconscious portion of the mind known in Sanskrit as chitta. It’s a veritable catalogue of all your pleasant and unpleasant memories, imaginations for the future, and the experiences and information you have deemed vital to self-preservation. It also serves as the repository for fear, anger and unfulfilled desires.
Yoga Science describes the character of the chitta as being analogous to that of wet sand. When you were a child playing at the beach and you pressed an object into wet sand, an impression was created. Similarly, when you repeatedly give your attention to any thought, desire or emotion, that subtle object is stored in the chitta––thereby forming a deeper and deeper indentation in the topography of your unconscious mind.
Each of these channels is known as a samskara, and consciousness or awareness (chit) always flows through the sluice of least resistance. This means that the deepest, widest, most unobstructed channels in the unconscious mind become the software of the mind, the pathways through which consciousness (awareness) travels. These samskaras include both our creative, healthy habits and destructive, unhealthy habits, compulsions and addictions.
According to mind-body medicine pioneer Dr. Hans Selye, the mind’s mental software constantly interprets the environment to decide if or when we might be threatened. As the body reacts physically to the mind’s concerns, the mind immediately calls our attention to examine the body’s new feedback. In turn, this observation intensifies the body’s response. This cycle of stimulus and response can become increasingly stressful. Stress, therefore, is not caused as much by the challenging situations we experience as by what we think of such situations. Our perceptions are continuously skewed by pre-existing concepts. We habitually react out of fear, desire, anger, attachment, expectation and judgment––trying to find security and happiness. If you observe anyone suffering from stress, whether that suffering manifests as a migraine, high blood pressure, arthritis, depression, over eating or some other malady, you will often find a person habituated to strong and inflexible likes and dislikes. When people don’t have what they want, don’t want what they have, and find themselves with no other options, they suffer––physically, mentally and emotionally.
Over 300 years ago John Hunter, a British physician who suffered from a heart disorder called angina, was known to have tightly held opinions and a very bad temper. Dr. Hunter would often complain to friends and colleagues, “My life is at the mercy of any scoundrel who chooses to put me in a passion.” Not surprisingly, his comments proved prophetic. During a board meeting of St. Georges Hospital in London he became involved in a heated argument, walked out, and fell dead of a heart attack in the arms of a fellow physician.
In less extreme ways this mind-body connection applies to each of us. Just imagine: other people and external situations can regulate our blood pressure! Have you ever known anyone who experienced abnormally elevated blood pressure when visiting the doctor’s office? This “white coat syndrome” occurs quite frequently simply because a fearful samskara from the unconscious mind has convinced the body that a clinical setting harbors potential danger. Another example of the mind-body connection relates to our physical passion for sexual satisfaction. As soon as we reached puberty we learned by our own experience that sex starts in the mind before it manifests physically in the body. In part, this mind-body connection explains why an estimated 28,258 internet users are viewing pornography online every second. In 1955 Harvard Medical School professor Henry K. Beecher, MD evaluated 15 clinical trials concerned with different diseases and found that 35 percent of 1,082 patients were satisfactorily relieved by a placebo alone. In other words, the mind and a person’s belief create powerful medicine, even if the treatment itself is a sham.
In laboratory conditions and under the observation of research scientists at the Menninger Institute in the early 1970s, Swami Rama demonstrated that blood pressure, heart rate and many autonomic nervous system functions can be voluntarily controlled. The real contribution of Swami Rama’s ground-breaking demonstrations was not the fact that he could stop his heartbeat or regulate the skin temperature in different areas of his hand; rather, it was his ability to clinically demonstrate the profound, interconnected nature of the mind and body.
But you don’t have to be a swami to produce such effects. The next time someone carelessly cuts you off in traffic or you go to the doctor’s office for a medical procedure, just place your index finger on your wrist and check your pulse. There is absolutely no question that the mind can control the body. The real question for those of us who desire the best health possible is this: can we control the power of the mind that controls the body? To that question, Yoga Science answers a resounding, “Yes.”
Because you have created and deepened your samskaras through your previous attention, you tend to think virtually the same thoughts, speak the same words and take similar actions every day. You are responsible for having created the software of your own mind through repeated attention to certain thoughts––both helpful and harmful ones. Your previous attachments to a variety of thoughts, desires and emotions have created the information highways in the unconscious mind. These, in turn, have determined the development of the personality’s actions and life experiences.
Nevertheless, samskaras are not permanent constructions. As Mahatma Gandhi wrote, “Humankind’s greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world . . . but in remaking ourselves.” Samskaras are always works in progress. Like the highways our automobiles drive on, samskaras can be altered. Many samskaras are very beneficial, but unless you consciously acknowledge and monitor their growth, debilitating samskaras can grow strong. Over a lifetime, these
tendencies can increase bondage to physical, mental and emotional dis-ease.
Remember, for every action, there is an equal reaction. When you consciously defer to the wisdom of buddhi in choosing which thoughts deserve your attention and which do not, you can prevent many painful consequences. It’s like tending a garden. If you want the rewards of growing beautiful flowers and delicious vegetables, you must be diligent about pulling the common, vigorous weeds. If left to grow unattended, those weeds will quickly crowd the more delicate plants and will eventually choke off their nutrient supply.
Changing Your Mental Software
Before you attempt to change your mental software, it’s necessary to recognize that there are two distinct categories of thoughts that have the power to affect the outcome of your effort. A preya thought is some form of pleasant, comfortable, familiar and attractive ego or sense gratification that conflicts with your inner, intuitive wisdom. A shreya thought, which is always in harmony with your inner wisdom, may not be initially pleasant, but it will always lead you for your highest and greatest good.
Once you have begun to observe the mind’s inclinations toward both preyas and shreyas, your daily meditation practice can provide a reliable, systematic method for creatively rewriting the old, debilitating software. When you sit regularly for meditation and learn how to direct your attention consciously, you create new, healthy samskaras of love, fearlessness and strength.
Before you sit down to meditate, you are asked to accept only the mantra as the shreya. When any other competing thought, image or sound comes in to your awareness during your meditation practice, you are asked to consider it a preya––to be willingly sacrificed. This classical form of meditation trains the mind to direct its attention exclusively toward the sound of the mantra––a word or series of words containing the name of the Divine Reality. During meditation the mantra is always considered to be the shreya to be given your attention––because it will empower you with the skills of detachment, discrimination and will power to make lifestyle choices that will boost your immune system and positively enhance all your relationships. Whenever a competing thought comes forward from the unconscious mind into the conscious mind in meditation, you lovingly welcome and witness the thought, sacrifice it and then gently redirect your attention back to the mantra.
When you consciously withdraw your attention from a competitive thought, two important things occur. First, because you have willingly given up your attachment to the preya in favor of the mantra, that same, subtle thought-object (preya) returns to the unconscious mind in a weakened state, and the depth of its samskara is subtly reduced. Second, as you replace your attention on the mantra (shreya), you’re deepening this new, healthy samskara that will aid you in every relationship that comes your way.
When you experience this process, you will understand that meditation is an engineering science. As the modern Indian sage Eknath Easwaran often taught, “Meditation re-engineers the topography of the unconscious portion of the mind.” It frees you from enslavement to unconscious fears, anger and self-willed desires by gradually bringing the elusive power of the unconscious under the direct control of the conscious mind. Learning to choose the shreya over the preya during seated meditation breaks the power of habit and prepares the meditator to make similar discriminating choices in daily life.
Meditation in Action
The techniques for training attention and your capacity to reengineer the software of the mind you’ve learned in seated meditation can be applied to every duty and responsibility throughout the day. The process is called meditation in action. Remember that every thought is only a suggestion of what to give your attention to, and that the buddhi will always identify the shreya to be served by your mind, action and speech.
Each day is filled with many choices. What am I going to think about? What will I say? How am I going to act? In every circumstance, learn to remain centered in the witnessing state; witness the mind’s activity before taking action. Instead of dealing with the world from the limited perspective of the personality––mindlessly giving attention to the debilitating energy of thoughts that evoke or reflect fear, anger or self-willed desire––you can choose to consciously serve the intuitive wisdom that emanates from your Essential Nature.
Thoughts, desires and emotions are powerful reservoirs of potential energy. Just as gasoline fuels the automobile, fear, anger and self-willed desires––when they’re transformed––can supply the power needed to fulfill the goal of life. The key to successful living lies in choosing not to let the potentially destructive and debilitating preya determine our actions.
Meditation in action instructs us to honor our powerful mental resources through the conscious control of our attention. By learning in seated meditation to withdraw our attention willingly from distracting thoughts and to surrender our attachments for them, we acquire a skill that can transform the inherent power of preya. Then, as meditation in action is practiced, we work at rewriting our mental software in ways that continuously provide us a fresh supply of creative energy for meeting every challenge. By skillfully surrendering the preya and serving the constructive and expansive shreya, we boost the efficiency and effectiveness of every bodily system.
Compassionately watch the mind. When a self-willed thought appears, recall your true nature as the Eternal Witness and listen to the mantra. The power of the mantra will break the connection between the attractive preya thought and your attention.
A compelling thought, emotion or sense craving has no power of its own. All the power any thought possesses comes from the attention you give it. When you consciously and willingly withdraw your attention from the preya, the samskara from which the thought originated is weakened. Renunciation of the preya stops the suggestion from propelling you into action and its raw power is transformed into a positive and healing force.
A computer is a programmable machine designed to carry out a sequence of operations. With modern technology, today’s computers possess lightning fast processing speeds and enormous capacities to run a variety of complex applications. With such an impressive array of computer technology available today for both work and recreation, would you willingly settle for the outdated computer you used ten or fifteen years ago?
If your answer is, “No,” imagine that your life can become immeasurably more healthy and rewarding if you update the old, ineffective mental software package you’ve been using since childhood. Every human being has the capacity to create habits. We do it every day. So, just as your mind became attached and conditioned to certain biases in the past that have brought about dis-ease, you can now create new, healthy habits that will serve you well as you complete the marathon of life.
Instead of continually trying to shoot the messenger of pain through drug therapy or imprudent lifestyle choices, why not rewrite the software of the mind through the daily practice of meditation? From my own personal experience, I guarantee that when you meditate regularly and earnestly you will feel more calm and will find freedom from the mind’s painful prison of outdated likes and dislikes. With a new, improved and updated mental operating system authored by your own inner wisdom, all the vital functions of the body will operate at optimal efficiency, and you will be able to fulfill the noble purpose of your life with greater ease, grace and reward.