In Week 1 we developed a clear idea of what meditation is and explored a few simple techniques for relaxing the body and calming the mind. In this lesson we’ll look at how meditation actually works.

The principles behind meditation are not complicated, but understanding them is important. Without an appreciation for the ‘mechanics’ of meditation people tend to blindly follow a formula, which may or may not work. When you know how meditation works you can adapt the techniques to suit your own lifestyle, temperament and needs. You’ll be able to evaluate your own practice, and rather than wondering whether you’re doing it right — you’ll know.

In order to develop a good understanding of how meditation works we’ll compare the way our minds normally function with the way they function during meditation.

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The “Normal” Mind

The default setting for the human mind seems to be one characterised by compulsive thinking. Quite frequently, we think without even noticing that we are thinking. It’s as though thoughts ‘think’ us. When we’re in this ‘normal’ state, the mind:

  • tends to remain perpetually occupied; busy contemplating, analysing and processing
  • has little — if any — chance for rest, and therefore may become overworked, fatigued or stressed
  • may be filled with worries, plans, concerns, what-if’s, fantasies and inner dialogues (about things of little consequence)
  • may find it difficult to take in and process new information and hard to stay focused
  • may cycle endlessly through past mistakes or future difficulties without resolution
  • lacks awareness of what it is doing and of what is happening in the present

This is mind as “Worst Case Scenario Generator”. It tends to identify and highlight the negatives so that your reality becomes one characterised by anxiety and fear. This is a judgmental mind, impossible to satisfy.


The Stress Cycle

There is no point demonising our capacity to think. On the other hand, it is worth recognising that our thoughts have an uncanny ability to trap our attention.  And because most of us haven’t been taught how to think well — or to identify when thinking is useful and when it’s not — we tend to try and think our way out of every situation. Unfortunately, many of the things that cause stress do not have rational causes — so thinking about them doesn’t necessarily help. Much of our thinking often prolongs and exacerbates our stress. Under these conditions we tend to grow tired of our racing or repetitive minds, and our minds grow tired in turn. We get scattered, lost in habitual patterns and end up feeling hopelessly stuck.


Ironically, while we think we’re thinking rationally, our thinking is nearly always powered by unconscious belief and emotion. Fear or anxiety might be driving your thoughts about work. Anger or irritation may underpin your thoughts about family. Desire may be driving your plans for the weekend.

These emotions churn along just beneath our thoughts — largely unacknowledged — sending a continual drip feed of hormonal signals to the body saying, “This is no time to relax. We’ve got things to sort out!”.

In this way our thoughts activate the stress response, a process which can even prevent and interrupt sleep.


So how do we break this dysfunctional cycle?

The Meditative Mind

So how do we convince our brain to relax? We can’t just turn our minds off. Nor is it possible to just think positively, or to block our thoughts out. The effort to do so will just make us

Not surprisingly, there are many views on how best to calm the mind. It’s an endlessly debated subject and has spawned all kinds of therapies and techniques. Rather than insisting on the efficacy of one approach, we’ll here explore a few. You’ll want to test them out for yourself, and hopefully develop a nuanced and flexible approach. I don’t believe there is any foolproof or guaranteed way to calm the mind. How you feel and what you think about will be dependent to a large degree on what’s going on in your life; how stressful your job or relationships might be, whether you are fit and healthy and so on.

I don’t believe there is any foolproof or guaranteed way to calm the mind. How you feel and what you think about will be dependent to a large degree on what’s going on in your life; how stressful your job or relationships might be, whether you are fit and healthy and so on.

Most traditional approaches to meditation recommend that you divert your attention away from thinking every time you notice a thought. This seems excessive to me, and over the years teaching I’ve found that the injunction to stop thinking causes most people a great deal of difficulty. You end up replacing one mode of dysfunctional thinking with another.

The more gentle and nuanced approach I recommend is as follows:

When you become aware of a thought, as you meditate, recognise that you have dozens and dozens of options. For example, you could:


  1. Consider whether the thought is helpful or unhelpful.
  2. Evaluate the importance of the thought. Does it need thinking about, or thinking about more?
  3. Patiently wait until the thought runs out of energy and fades away.
  4. Listen to the thought as you would to a good friend or a child who needed soothing.
  5. Investigate the impulses and emotions that fuel the thought.
  6. Describe and/or identify your patterns of thinking and mental states using metaphors. (e.g. mental traffic).
  7. Give priority to your sensory experience; that is, what you can see, smell, taste, touch and hear.

Note that nearly every meditation technique is essentially an invitation to redirect your attention into the sensory world. It’s rare to find meditation techniques that encourage you to investigate your thinking, though such approaches can be very useful. In practice, you will likely need a combination of investigative and sensory approaches.


Thinking and Sensing

The changes that occur when you shift from thinking to sensing can be illustrated clearly on an electroencephalograph (EEG), a device which measures electrical activity within the brain.

Studies show that busy or anxious thinking produces beta brain waves — fast, erratic and of low amplitude, while sensing produces alpha waves — slow, rhythmic and of high amplitude. You can read this shift on an EEG after just 20 seconds of sustained sensing.

The illustration above graphically represents the different nature and feeling characterised by thinking and sensing. Thinking can feel hurried, jagged and haphazard — and may put the body on alert. In contrast, sensing seems smooth and rhythmic — it encourages the body to relax and let go.

Sensing and thinking are in some ways opposites. They relate to the relaxation and stress responses, the two opposing branches of the nervous system. Sensing typically relaxes you, whilst thinking is often more stimulating. Consider the following.

is activeis more passive
involves past and futureis in the present
is complex and fastis simpler and slower
has high emotional chargehas low emotional charge
is stimulatingis relaxing
burns energyconserves energy
tightens the bodylets the body soften
  • Sensing is an instinctive mode of relaxation — meditation just makes the act conscious, deliberate.
  • When we take an ordinary moment and pay extraordinary attention, magic happens.
  • Interestingly, it’s not what we sense that relaxes us, it’s just the increased sensory input.
  • When we sense there’s less energy available for thinking — thinking and sensing are functions that inhibit one another.