Meditation and Mental Health
In modern medicine, we have a well-known concept of side effects. Every prescription drug comes with a warning about its potential. We have less of a concept of side benefits. However, this concept is crucial to understand meditation and mental health.
In the West, we associate meditation with stress relief or relaxation. Too often, we see that as its only purpose. This reflects a reactive approach that is characteristic of western medicine. We engage in stressful patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling, and then we do something to try to counter the effects.
Certain types of meditation that provide deep rest to the physiology are great for this. This is how we recover from stress. What we don’t realize is that the deep rest and relaxation that comes from meditation are side benefits — they are a result of the process, not its means, nor its deeper purpose.
Meditation's deeper purpose is inner growth and development, particularly the development of consciousness. And this has many keys when it comes to mental health, to transforming habits, and to furthering the practice of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda understands this deeper purpose of meditation. Charaka, the father of internal medicine in Ayurveda, describes the purpose of this health science as the following:
“Mind, soul, and body, this trinity we call the human being, rests upon Unity (unity with the underlying field of consciousness)—the whole world arises and is supported by this underlying unified field just as a tripod is supported by the ground beneath it. This unified field of consciousness is called Purusha. It is the source of life, animate and sentient. This is the true subject of this Veda (Ayurveda). It is for the sake of knowing that (unity consciousness) that this science is brought to light.”
Why would a sage describe the essence of a health science as knowing consciousness? Basically, if we understand that all of creation arises out of this underlying field of consciousness, we understand that our life force arises from it and it contains the organizing intelligence that directs the cells of the body. It also contains the keys to manifesting—whether it be manifesting abundance or manifesting health.
Understanding Consciousness and Mental Health
If we truly understand consciousness as a field, as physicists and sages alike have described it, then we must realize that all thought, all ideas, all desires, all needs, all feelings arise from the field of pure consciousness. Our impulses, energy, and intelligence all arise from this level of life. They arise like bubbles at the bottom of the ocean and get bigger until they rise to the surface of our awareness.
The nature of the initial impulse itself is a positive impulse and is always intelligent, pure, perfect, and life-supporting. However, rarely does it come into our awareness in its original pure form. As it arises, it becomes modified, distorted by the subconscious mind—by the accumulated stress, tension, habits, concepts, and past associations.
For example, let’s say a desire for an apple arises, expressing something sweet and light that the body needs. As it hits the subconscious mind, the associations with “sweet” morph it into something else. What was a desire for an apple is morphed into a desire for ice cream.
Or let’s say a feeling arises in subtle seed form from the underlying field. It is an affirmation of the gloriousness of being. The personal subconscious senses this feeling “good” and a fear comes in. “If I let myself feel this, I am destined to be let down. Something will take it away. I just have to face my problems.”
Out of fear we turn an impulse of gloriousness and the joy of existence into a fear of something bad happening and the energy gets transformed into a dread that comes into the conscious mind—we experience a vague underlying anxiousness that seems to come out of nowhere.
This is important to understand: when we morph the impulses of the True Self and its wisdom, we create tension, stress, and strain. If we want to become free of anxious feelings, heaviness, suffering, and fear, if we want to grow and develop, and if we want real mental health, we must do four things:
- Make the subconscious conscious. Move the line between the conscious and the subconscious down. Or, said another way, make the subconscious conscious. That means increasing awareness and this is done with meditation combined with attention or a moment-to-moment centering type of practice.
- Purify the subconscious. We must purify or clear out the tension and stress that hold and energize the patterns, programming, and complexes in the subconscious mind. This is done with meditation and energy work or forms of yoga that attend to the subtle bodies.
- Reprogram old patterns. We must reprogram the associations and habits of the personality to align with the true, authentic expression of ourselves. Inner growth is a process of rebuilding one’s very being and personality. This involves learning to love with the mind.
- Trust your intuition. We must connect to the intuitive level of life and learn to think with the heart, so that we know where our true path leads. We intuit what is right for us in each moment of life in the context of our True Nature, making each choice a step in the process of awakening.
So this is the process of inner growth, of coming to our True Self, of becoming free from tension, stress, and strain. It is one of learning to think with the heart and love with the mind. It allows us to come into alignment with our True Self. This harmony with Nature itself is what promotes health. That being said, this inner growth also dramatically improves mental health. How?
How Meditation Improves Mental Health
Meditation increases awareness. We can't interrupt and rewire our outdated mental-emotional patterns if we are unaware of them.
Mental health challenges are often worsened by their constant presence. The practice of meditation gives the mind a break, allowing us to come back to a situation with a fresh pair of eyes. It allows us the space to interrupt the old programming and patterns and replace them with new ones.
Finally, meditation takes us into our True Self, which is blissful in its nature. With that bliss, we have more resilience and are better able to buffer the stressors that can lead to mental health challenges.
Ultimately, with meditation, centering practices, and mentoring, we can come to the bliss that Sushruta described in his sutras when he described the healthy person:
“He whose doshas (fundamental physiological elements) are in balance, whose appetite is good, whose dhatus (tissues) are functioning normally, whose malas (waste products) are in balance, and whose mind and senses remain full of bliss is called a healthy person.”
While this may sound like a good theory, it is far more than just a conceptual idea. A quick look at the research shows unequivocally that science supports the benefit of meditation in relieving anxiousness and heavy emotions, while simultaneously promoting strong mental health.1 2
With scientists and sages alike extolling the power and importance of meditation, I will leave you with one wish: May you dive into a deep style of meditation practice that allows you to come to that bliss that heals and awakens and leads you to true mental health.