Does Meditation Alter Reality?
Got this interesting question from a reader:
‘Hi Roger, I’ve been interested in doing meditation so I’ve been reading a lot of material including your blog, and I have a question. The idea I’m getting is that meditation changes the sense of reality because it clears our conditioned mind. So my question is, because our reality is made from our conditioning, does this mean that meditation changes reality?
And my reply:
Though I can see what you’re getting at, your question rests upon a premise that’s a little wonky. So lets clear that up first.
Yes, the ultimate effect of meditation is to position us within an ongoing awareness of our life ‘as it is’ rather than ‘as we think it is’. That is, it weakens the influence of our conditioned view of reality, with all its preconceptions and reactions, so we can experience life as it happens – rather than from the standpoint of perpetual review.
But this is not a black and white proposition – I mean, it doesn’t mean that our conditioned reality disappears to leave another ‘more real’ reality in its place. It’s all one reality – meditation just helps us see it more clearly.
Let me put it this way:
Let’s imagine our unconditioned awareness – that is, the unconditioned, purely experiential aspect of our mind – is the naked body of our being – the reality we were born into before we clothed it with our conditioning.
Then we grew up, and our societal conditioning shaped our minds to fit in with the culture we’d been born into – the clothes we now wear over the naked body of our awareness.
So now, as adults, we’ve lived in the clothes of our conditioning for so long we think that’s all there is. Our entire life experience is filtered through the clothes of this conditioning, so we think the distorted reality it gives us is ‘the way things are’.
But it’s not. As I said, it’s a distorted view of naked reality – a view that’s mixed up with all our opinions, perceptual habits and emotional reactions.
But it’s the reality we’ve been taught to perceive, and we all experience the same thing, so we go with it. We accept that this mind, clothed as it is with the concepts, memories, desires and reactions we’ve been taught, is just the way it is.
So then we begin to meditate.
And one of the functions of meditation is it shines a bright light on all the patina of conditioned muck we’ve learnt to live with, and the more we practice, the more meditation makes it transparent, so we begin to perceive reality as it actually is.
Slowly, (and it is indeed a slow process), we let go of the layers of mental clothing we’ve accumulated, and begin to experience glimpses of the original reality we were born with. The naked reality behind the conditioned clothes our mind has learnt to wear.
We begin to experience life and everything around us ‘as it is’, instead of ‘as we think it is’.
At first we get a shock – not because anything is radically changed. Trees are still trees, buildings are buildings, up is up and down is down and so on. Our shock arises from the realization that we’ve been living in a prison of mental and sensual preconceptions about everything – a thick cloth of conceptual and perceptual habits that were, in effect, numbing us, and obscuring the elegant perfection of life.
I’m sorry if that description is a little obscure. I’ll give you an example.
I remember one time – after a decade of fiddling about with meditation, I jumped in and went on my first meditation retreat – a ten day retreat with Goenka’s Vipassana Foundation. After meditating intensively for five days, one afternoon, as I stepped out of a session into the daylight, a bird flew by.
As I watched this bird pass, I suddenly saw every moment of every movement it made as it slipped through the air. And I was shocked to realize I’d never actually seen a bird fly until then. Not really. For sure, I’d registered birds flitting past as a kind of visual shorthand, but I’d never actually experienced the magic of a bird in flight.
And it was the same with the colors of flowers – superficially they were the same as they always were – red was red, green was green and so on. But somehow, the colors glowed with a depth I’d never noticed before. And the patterns I saw everywhere – the world was a sublime work of art. And trees – I’d spent a lifetime walking past trees without registering their slow and gentle life – I can’t explain it, but suddenly I could sense the life force in everything around me. I could feel it.
And my body – rather than being a vehicle of appetites and sensations hanging off the bottom of my head, as it had always seemed to have been, I increasingly became aware of the myriad sensations within my body – of flesh, and bones, and organs and blood. Sensations, rather than simply being either an entertainment or a pest, became brighter and more responsive – communications from a friend and partner.
This is just a few of the thousands of small revelations that gradually appeared over the following years – until, inevitably, my mind adapted, and it all became normal – leaving me with an overall sensitivity to things I’d never considered before in my life – my new reality.
Same as the old one – but different.
So you see, meditation does not reveal a new reality – it simply cleans it up and makes it amazing.
‘BEING STILL – MEDITATION THAT MAKES SENSE’, Roger’s new book, is available now.
(The audiobook includes all the exercises, as well as ebooks of Being Still, to fit any device.)