So, what really is happening in our brains when we meditate? There is all this great research about the benefits to our bodies and psyches through regular meditation practice, but what are we doing differently in meditation that we aren't doing in our normal waking hours or while we sleep?
Most people are familiar with "consciousness." We are aware of the things that are happening in our consciousness. I can see my kitten playing on my desk as I type (no, I probably won't ever write a post where I don't mention a pet - lol!); I am consciously aware that she is up to mischief. I'm thinking about it, I'm seeing it, I'm aware of it. I am consciously writing this post, taking this sip of water, noticing the beep of the construction truck outside. There are meditative practices that aim to get you more into the conscious state. Mindfulness, for instance, encourages you to closely notice all the things your senses can take in at a given moment. For example, during a meal really chew and taste your food. Notice how it changes the longer its been in your mouth, the longer you've chewed it. Feel it slide down your throat as you swallow it. Feel the fork in your hand - its smoothness, its temperature. You can also do this while sitting and meditating - really noticing the breath, watching the thoughts pass by, pay attention to your emotions as they arise and pass. All of these sensory elements that we can bring to our awareness are happening at the conscious level.
Most people have also heard of the subconscious state. Freud did a lot of work with the subconscious in his work with dreams. The subconscious state is the part responsible for dreaming, our habits, our autonomous bodily systems (breathing, heart beat, digestion, etc), memories, likes and dislikes, etc. Our subconscious has strong hold on us even though we are not very aware of it as it is at work.
Which of these states are we accessing in meditation? In fact, neither! There is a third state of awareness that ancient yogis have known about for centuries but we Westerners are not always very exposed to: the superconscious state. This is the part of us that is eternal. It goes beyond our body. It has been with us since long before we were born and it is the part that will survive death. It is where our highest potential, creativity, intuition, true joy, peace, and any other uplifted feelings come from. In meditation, we are connecting with this highest state of awareness.
We talked about how information we get from our five senses happens at the conscious level; the superconscious level is when we get in that sixth-sense territory. This is where those feelings come from when you don't know why you know something or feel a certain way about a person, but you really have a feeling inside you know you can trust.
The more we meditate, the more familiar we get with this superconscious state, and the easier it can be to access it outside of meditation. We find that we are able to keep ourselves open to our highest self more easily in our regular waking hours. When we are new to meditation, it can be difficult to recognize the differences between these states. However, like anything we practice, we become more familiar with the elements of meditation the more we do it. Over time it becomes easy to tell if you are slipping down into the subconscious (most likely, you are fighting sleep at that point) or if you have lifted up into the superconscious. Spending as much time as we can in superconsciousness is the goal, as this is where true healing in the broadest sense can take place the easiest because we are connecting with our eternal self.
I am an Ananda® certified meditation teacher. I am passionate about meditation and embrace a yogic lifestyle for greater wellness physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
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