For me, the first great breakthrough in meditation practice came from contemplating where I wanted meditation to take me. Until then, it had been a rather haphazard process. I'd close my eyes, follow the instructions that I'd been given, then hope that something would happen. I'd wonder if I was doing it right. Did correct meditation mean sticking like limpet to the point I was focusing on? Or was something just supposed to ‘happen', to arise on its own?
Like me, a lot of new meditators have wasted months, even years, wondering what they should be looking for or doing when they meditate. There's a paradox here, of course. Meditation is a state of being rather than doing. Yet, like everything else in life, it requires a sense of direction. Why? Because when we have no real idea where we are going, we often end up lost in thought, or in a kind of trance or dream state.
There's a football legend about Roy Riegals, a center-lineman for UC Berkeley's 1929 Rose Bowl team. Reigals carried the ball the wrong way down the field, and had almost reached his own team's end-zone when he was tackled. Supposedly, Riegals was a great lineman. But, of course, none of his skills were of any use once he started running in the wrong direction.
In the same way, no matter how serious a meditator you are, it won't help you if you're not clear about where you're going. So, even when you're beginning your meditation journey, it's important to understand your goal. Being clear about your goal helps give direction to your attention. It keeps you from getting stuck in thought-trains, or even in the interesting images or insights that often come up when you're meditation.
So what is the goal of meditation? Let me give it to you straight.
The ultimate goal of meditation is to experience the full emergence of your own pure Consciousness, the inner state of luminosity, love, and wisdom that the Indian tradition calls the inner Self or the Heart. (A Buddhist might call it Buddha nature; a Christian might call it Spirit.) In fact, we want to do more than experience that state. We want to realize that we are that at our core—not just a body or a personality, but pure Consciousness, pure Awareness. By this definition, a successful meditation is one in which we enter the Self, even if just for a moment. For this to happen, we need to approach each session of meditation with a conscious understanding that the Self is our goal and with the intention to experience it. Our intention gives directionality to our consciousness. It's like aiming an arrow. But—and here's the gorgeous paradox—even as we aim our attention toward the Self, we need to remember that we are the Self.
So the first key to deepening your meditation is to become clear about your goal. To begin to look for, to identify, and to identify with your Essence. Your True Self. Or, as the great Hindu mystics say, God as you.
Identifying the Self
The great secret about the True Self, the inner God, is that it is your own awareness. Your normal, everyday capacity for being aware, awake, sentient, is the connecting point to the deepest recesses of the soul. You don't actually need to get into an altered state to experience this. All you need to do is to become aware of the part of you that sees and knows. When you touch that inner Knower, even for a second, you touch your essence.
The way I find this easiest to understand is to think of myself as composed of two different aspects: a part that changes, that grows and ages, and a part that doesn't. The changing part of me—the body-mind-personality part—looks very different now than she did when she was a 12-year-old playing Fox and Geese with the neighborhood kids in Princeton, New Jersey. Her occupations and preoccupations have changed radically since then. Not only has this person played all kinds of different roles through the years—student, journalist, spiritual seeker, disciple, and monk—she also has taken on several dozen inner roles. So this changing part has various outer personalities and as many secret selves. There are aspects of us that seem ancient and wise, and parts that seem impulsive, undeveloped, and foolish. They assume different attitudes as well. There is vast detachment along with a large capacity for emotional turmoil; there is frivolity and depth, compassion and selfishness. There are, in short, any number of inner characteristics inhabiting our consciousness, each with its own set of thought patterns and emotions and each with its own voice.
Yet amidst all these different and often conflicting outer roles and inner characters, one thing remains constant: the Awareness that holds them. Our awareness of our own existence is the same at this moment as it was when we were 2 years old. That awareness of being is utterly impersonal. It has no agenda. It doesn't favor one type of personality over another. It looks through them all as if through different windows, but it is never limited by them. Sometimes we experience that Awareness as a detached observer—the witness of our thoughts and actions. Sometimes we simply experience it as our felt sense of being: we exist and we feel we exist. The unknown author of The Book of Privy Counseling, a 14th-century Christian text, describes it as "the naked, stark, elemental Awareness that you are as you are." In Kashmir Shaivism, it is called purno'ham vimarsha, the "pure awareness of I-am"—the true "I" that is free of the body and continues to exist even after death.