Meditation can seem like an esoteric and confusing practice to start.
Not only is it difficult to form the initial habit, but there are multiple different approaches and effects.
So what is supposed to happen when you meditate?
I started meditation in response to confusion and overwhelm, seeking to gain clarity of mind.
When I started, I knew it was better to avoid analysis paralysis and simply stick with one resource.
Fortunately, I found the book, Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, in which I was introduced to an 8-week course, covering exercises such as single point breath focus, body scans and sound meditation.
It proved a fantastic introduction and one I highly endorse.
Developed in part for clinical research purposes, it’s an evidence-based approach that offers all the tools, minus much of the dogma inherent in other teachings.
After practicing these methods for many months, however, I began doubting my approach, trapped in the results-based mindset endemic to modern society.
Although I certainly felt greater peace of mind, I wondered whether I was applying the techniques correctly and progressing at a satisfactory rate.
If you’re in a similar position, you might be unsure of your approach or on the verge of giving up entirely.
Don’t worry, this is completely normal.
Note that there are many different meditation techniques and they all vary in their approaches and effects. I’ll simply recount my own experiences with my chosen practices.
What is supposed to happen when you meditate?
Most meditation teachings sound simple.
They usually instruct you to train your attention on your breath and become aware of every sensation.
When you lose focus, you’re instructed to gently bring your attention back to your breath.
This helps us use the breath as an anchor, training our attention and experiencing our thoughts impartially.
While this appears to be an easy exercise, it really isn’t.
In reality, your mind is besieged by thought during meditation.
Seemingly, every few seconds you lose attention, mesmerised by daydreams.
Perhaps you’re thinking of what your boss said earlier or planning what to cook later.
These fantasies may continue unabated for minutes, and it’s only after an extended interval that you realise you’ve been lost in thought.
In effect then, meditation is about being able to recognise when you’ve lost track and how quickly you can refocus your attention.
This is true even for experienced meditators, who consider thoughts as teachers, helping to hone our awareness.
No two meditation sessions are the same.
One day you can experience a profoundly peaceful mind, while the next offers only racing thoughts and scattered focus.
In some sessions, where attention feels easy to maintain, I intermittently experience a hyperaware sensation where time seems delayed and every sensation arises in show motion.
It’s a pleasurable full-body feeling which can last minutes at a time.
As a direct matter of experience, often we imagine locations for our experiences, such as the feeling of our head being the centre of proceedings and an automaton in our brain controlling events.
With eyes closed, we consider our hips to be below our hands and our feet further away than our knees.
However, when we truly investigate these assumptions from a sensory perspective, we realise that as a direct matter of experience, they’re illusions.
Everything simply occurs within the space of consciousness, with no distance between the spontaneous arrival of thoughts and feelings.
More recently I’ve engaged in direct path meditation, a Dzogchen practice which investigates the nature of consciousness itself.
Also popularised by the philosopher Douglas Harding and his Headless Way instruction, it involves briefly turning your attention back on itself to experience consciousness itself and its contents.
Many practitioners often recount an expansive, open sensation, coupled with a boundaryless, formless feeling to the practice.
Apparently, it can be a sudden, but also subtle realisation, easy to overlook in our daily mindfulness practice.
Unlike other methods of meditation, which emphasise observing whatever is arising, moment to moment, in consciousness, loving-kindness meditation, or metta, is an active exercise where we repeatedly bring a person to mind and wish them well.
When I engage in this practice, actively imagining health, wealth and happiness for friends and strangers, it’s common to feel an inner mind smile and warm, full-body sensation, depending on the subject of attention.
If you want any further instruction for what to expect during your practice, try some guided sessions.
Although initially, the thought of constant interruptions seemed inconsistent with the aims of meditation, I sporadically used them for reassurance that I was “doing it right”.
After dabbling with a few free options, I invested in the paid Sam Harris Waking Up app.
We may also experience various benefits of practising meditation.
Seeing our thoughts for what they are – simply contents arising within the condition of consciousness, might affect the following:
You see, meditation teaches us that these conditions are simply mental patterns created by our thoughts and feelings.
By simply observing their process from a place of conscious awareness as they arise, their power automatically diminishes.
Paradoxically, however, these benefits cannot be targeted systematically or within a certain timescale, but only as a by-product of meditation.
As soon as you aim your practice at particular desires, you can never be fully present for whatever arises in the moment.
So, what is supposed to happen when you meditate?
As you can see from the descriptions above, it completely depends on the practice.
At its core, meditation is about shining a light on mind-made illusions and the implicit assumption that all we are is thoughts and feelings.
The realisation that they’re simply aspects of the greater condition we call consciousness is perhaps the ultimate liberation.