Week 2

How Meditation Works

In Week 1 we defined meditation. We also explored some simple techniques for relaxing the body and calming the mind — through movement, touch and regulation of the breath. In this lesson, we’ll look at how meditation works.

The principles of meditation are simple, but they are rarely clearly explained or understood. This can be a problem, because without an appreciation for the ‘mechanics’ of meditation people tend to blindly follow a formula. No formula, however, works for everyone, or in every situation — and to get the most out of meditation, you’ll need to adapt it to your own needs.

When you know how meditation works, you’ll be able to do just that (and you won’t have to rely on a teacher — or app — to find your meditation mojo).

But first, let’s look at the ‘normal’ mind.


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 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 tense.

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 way to calm the mind. How you feel and what you think about will be dependent on what’s going on in your life; how stressful your job or relationships is, whether you are fit and healthy, and so on.

Most traditional approaches recommend that you divert your attention away from thinking every time you notice a thought. This seems excessive to me, and over the years 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, recognise that you have 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.


Thinking Sensing
is active is more passive
involves past and future is in the present
is complex and fast is simpler and slower
has high emotional charge has low emotional charge
is stimulating is relaxing
burns energy conserves energy
tightens the body lets the body soften


  • Sensing is an instinctive mode of relaxation — meditation just makes it more conscious or deliberate.
  • When we take an ordinary moment and give it our full attention, we are able to respond more skillfully.
  • 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.