My last post was about being an informed consumer of meditation, because there are so many methods (although I summarized research showing that when it comes to brain waves, there appear to be mainly three types). Why so many? Behind every method, somewhere, sometime there was an enlightened person who set out to try to share that state with others. Those who teach meditation in the West often gloss over the idea of enlightenment. They emphasize the sorts of benefits we have more faith in, like better sleep or less anxiety. Some even feel that having a goal, like enlightenment, keeps you from being in the moment, which is to some the essence of enlightenment.

Nevertheless, if you look into any method's history, you will see that meditation tries to cultivate some facet or description of enlightenment: deep inner peace, silence, bliss, or "pure awareness" along with whatever you are doing; a feeling of being one with everything; a loss of a sense of personal self so that there is no real suffering or fear of death; witnessing what one feels, thinks, or does, so that one is not overshadowed by any situation or personal complex; a deep love for God, the Beloved, or all beings; or embodying enlightened values and behavior, such as compassion and a lack of fear or anger. Perhaps enlightenment is all of these, but again, it seems that different methods emphasize different aspects.

Jonathan Shear, in the journal Biofeedback (vol. 39, pp. 51-55), suggests that the various approaches to meditation and enlightenment can be reduced to two, which is helpful for a brief blog post like this!

In one, what you do in meditation is what you want to become better at doing outside of meditation. He calls it "practice makes perfect." Many types of practices from India and Buddhism follow this philosophy. You might be taught to try to be very focused, or to have compassionate thoughts, or get rid of all thoughts, or be more detached from your thoughts. When you can really, really do the desired mental activity, you will be enlightened in all ways.

You are also usually encouraged to, in a sense, "practice enlightenment" outside of meditation, for example by doing yoga or breathing exercises, inquiring intellectually into "Who am I, really?" or what part of a person suffers; or by having a generally more enlightened mindset of compassion, detachment, being in the present, avoiding anger, lacking fear, thinking positively, and so forth. You can associate with others having the same goal, perhaps in a sangha, ashram, or monastery, and have a teacher who is hopefully enlightened. As you progress in all of this, you will be happier and healthier, but also according to the "practice makes perfect" approach, you will be more and more like an enlightened person. (Although trying to become enlightened may be viewed as an impediment, it is still the desired end state.) One might think of a pyramid, and most of the work involves building a broad foundation.

The second approach—used somewhat in Zen Buddhism and even more in Transcendental Meditation (TM) and Christian Centering Prayer—turns the pyramid upside down. With this approach, the purpose of meditation is to have a single repeated experience or state of consciousness, an experience of pure awareness, without thoughts. All traditions see the experience of pure consciousness as essential to enlightenment (Buddha sat down under the Bodhi tree and would not get up until he had it), because it means you "get" it that consciousness is in some sense the ultimate constituent of everything, present in everything (and thus most easily experienced at first when other objects of awareness are gone).

But instead of ending here, at finally attaining this experience, this second type of meditation begins here. Other enlightened qualities are expected to arise spontaneously as a result of more and clearer experiences of pure consciousness. More love; improved breathing, posture, diet, and moral behavior; equanimity; wisdom—these are all thought to follow from regularly experiencing the essence of consciousness and of enlightenment, pure consciousness (TM), or having a direct experience of the true self without the "false self's" self-centered thoughts (Centering Prayer).

According to this second approach, you are enlightened when this inner silence is always with you as a background to everything else (at this point your awareness of pure awareness is there even along with thoughts, perceptions, and actions). But from start to finish, you only "water the root" and the tree produces more and more branches, leaves, blossoms, and fruit.

How to have this experience is another issue. Zen uses koans and other methods to push the mind until it falls into this state almost by default, although correct posture, breathing, and behavior are also essential. TM and Centering Prayer try to keep it even simpler. You sit comfortably, and while many think of TM and prayer as involving concentrating on a mantra or prayer, TM and Centering Prayer actually ask the opposite of you. The idea is to use one word or "mantra" as a vehicle to slip down into deep rest so that the body can repair the effects of stress. Once in this state, sometimes the word or mantra slips away, is lost, forgotten. One does not try to hold on to it. Any effort or work at it, according to this philosophy, is counterproductive. But when the word slips away, you are in pure awareness.

Which type is for you? "Practice makes perfect" or "water the root"? If you aren't sure, many people have begun with one and moved on to the other, and some even combine them. I know many TMers who prefer Buddhist philosophy and thoughts on skillful behavior. And one Buddhist monk has taught TM to 3,000 other monks. They use the TM method but adhere to their other Buddhist teachings.

Personally, I've been happy enough with TM to do it every day for 42 years. It feels like wrapping a comforting shawl around me after a hard day, or sinking into a warm bath. Pretty nice. Am I enlightened? In most traditions it's not cool to talk about that. However, having watered the root so much, I can attest to enjoying a taste of sweet fruit. But maybe it's just because it's summertime.

About the Author

Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.

Elaine Aron, Ph.D., is a research and clinical psychologist, and the author of The Undervalued Self, The Highly Sensitive Person, and The Highly Sensitive Child.

You are reading

Attending to the Undervalued Self

More Thoughts on the Wound with No Name—First Aid

Deep, early, unhealed wounds deserve compassionate daily care.

4 Allies and Too Anxious Beat 1 Shade of Gray

Wrestling with anxiety and depression

36 Questions for Intimacy, Back Story

This post is the real story behind research I was involved in.