Why Does Meditation Take so Long to see Results, to Awaken?

It seems that many people may give up on meditation or other contemplative practices because they do not provide quick results, particularly in our instant gratification culture today. It can take significant dedication and discipline in practice before we see any fruits. But there are other possibilities on the horizon that may help us along the path.

Why does meditation take so long to “work,” to see fruits, to see anything happening, to come to deeper realizations, mystical awakenings, enlightened consciousness? Sometimes it can take months or even years of regular practice before mystical insight arises in consciousness. Why so long?

I don’t think it is because anything spooky or supernatural has to happen. We aren’t waiting for God to do something magical, to intercede, or finally send us Grace (although that does happen, I perceive, but not in the way we usually think). I think it may be because we are actually training our minds to enter an altered state of functioning. We are actually and literally “changing our mind” (metanoia), or at least are allowing it to be changed. We are surrendering the thinking mind to a deeper level of perception and being. Meditation is known to induce such altered states of consciousness:

[T]here is the cultivation of meditative and contemplative techniques aimed at producing what might, for the lack of a suitable technical term in English, be referred to as “altered states of consciousness”. In the technical vocabulary of Indian religious texts such states come to be termed “meditations” ([Skt.:] dhyāna / [Pali:] jhāna) or “concentrations” (samādhi); the attainment of such states of consciousness was generally regarded as bringing the practitioner to deeper knowledge and experience of the nature of the world.

Rupert Gethin, 1998, p. 10

The “meditation” is perhaps not what we are doing, but the mind-state we are coming to experience. We are training our focus and attention and concentration so as to stay aware and present, with a singular focus of attention, usually on a meditation object of some kind (perhaps the breath, the body, some physical object, a candle flame, a “mantra” or word, spoken or mentally repeated, or even one’s own inner awareness itself).

And as we learn to do this for an extended length of time, and concentration develops, the mind begins to settle down out of its typical hyperactive thinking state (often called “monkey mind”) into a much deeper state of perception, of seeing, or seership. Instead of the thoughts of the mind being objects of our attention, the mind enters a more fundamental mode of being, of stasis, perhaps because of semantic satiation or some other psychological or neurological phenomenon that is actually happening within the brain. A more “low level” state of mind or consciousness is experienced in which perceptions are no longer objects of an observing subject, but simply are, in raw beingness. There is no judgement, no analysis, no categorizing, no discursive thought, no differentiating, no objectifying, no rationalizing, no imagining, no projecting, no remembering, etc. There is simple being.

The mind enters a clear state of perception, of seeing, sometimes called pure consciousness. It is the seer. It is free and clear and empty. The mind becomes free of any thing, and could be said to be perceiving nothing. It is perceiving nothing perhaps because all that it perceives is not made into an object of perception, some thing for the subjective mind to consider, something the mind observes as separate from it, but rather it is just the percept itself. What is perceived is perhaps the percept. It is itself, and it is only that. There is no more subject/object split or duality, but what the mind perceives, the mind is. The mind perceives itself. Consciousness becomes aware of its Self.

This is what I think many call nondual unitive consciousness. It is a state of consciousness that may be what Jesus referred to as the “Kingdom of God,” where all things are at-one with one’s own being, and one’s being is the All. The Kingdom is near “at hand” because it is something within us, of which we are normally unaware, the ego-mind veiling it from our perception, separating us from it. But in this state the perceiving, the perceived, and perceiver are all One, and there is no separation between them. Or as some mystics put it, the knower, knowing, and known are One. We realize that what one is perceiving is one’s own deepest Self, and all things are included in it, even the totality of the cosmos. The consciousness that is arising is the cosmos itself becoming aware of itself. This is what I think is also referred to as Christ Consciousness. It is seership, or the “third eye,” the “all-seeing-eye.” It is the annihilation of all separation, and an infinite Oneness in the Divine. It is awakening to Buddha-nature, this fundamental quality of Reality. There are many terms for it in each of the spiritual traditions.

But I think it is also a very real and measurable psychological and physiological change in the state of consciousness that is occurring in our mind and body. As the Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault has said, it is “a whole new physiology of perception.” We are normally only aware of two states of consciousness—waking, and sleeping, with perhaps dreaming sleep as a third. Another state we may be familiar with is hypnosis, this kind of altered state in which the mind deeply relaxes, opens itself, and we become hypersuggestible, which makes for fun hypnotist shows. But I think we are discovering that there are many more states of consciousness that we can experience, and this kind of deep contemplation is perhaps one of the most desired in the history of humanity, for it allows us to see past the everyday waking ego of the mind. It helps us see past our own “self.”

What is the ego? It seems to be the construction of our sense of being a “self,” a person, an individual, a particular human, with all the life experiences, knowledge, education, skills, memories and abilities that go along with that “self.” In these deep state of consciousness, this construction of the sense of “self” can also relax, and even fall away from consciousness. We can actually be conscious without being conscious of being someone in particular. All of our particularity falls away from the mind, and we perceive the world in absolute purity, free of all assumptions, preconceptions, human knowledge, prior experience, etc. Without all of these thoughts and ideas floating around in the mind, consciousness can see things as they are in their most pristine isness, untouched by the thinking mind. It sees reality as it is, and it is that reality.

This seems to be the state that many mystics, sages, saints, prophets, swamis, gurus, and others have pointed to for millennia. It is the contemplative mind. It is nondual consciousness. It is samadhi. It is jhana. It is absorption. It is stream entry. It is the unitive consciousness. It is at-One-ment, the Kingdom of Heaven. It is God consciousness. Why is it “God consciousness”? I think it is because there is no “self” in the picture. We see things as they are in their undefiled untouched unseparated unjudged unselfized state. Things are what they are, and nothing more. We see their original condition, their Edenic nature, and as I noted above, we are not separate from this nature. There is nothing separate in it, but it is radically unified. We are that purity, that Eden, that perfection, that clean being, that Holy (Wholly) One.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition and other spiritualities we may have captured this experience of the wiping clean of the slate of consciousness, and the transcendence of the ego-self, as “redemption” or “forgiveness of sins.” In that state there is no separate self to be guilty of anything, or to be ashamed of itself. That critical self-construction “dies” from consciousness. It cannot withstand the Divine Presence. We are “saved” from our own “sinful” self by and through this unitive Christ consciousness, which reveals the Christ in us. The Indian yogi and guru Yogananda once said:

No amount of sin can change [our] eternal soul-nature of divinity. Sin is a crust of ignorance accrued during man’s lost wanderings that hides the perfect soul; when by meditation the soul is led back to God, the crust is washed away and the perfection is revealed.

—Paramahansa Yogananda

But, to return to the original point of this post, it takes time to train the mind to be able to concentrate, focus, and attend to a single thing long enough so that the mind becomes quiet, thought activity slows, and consciousness enters a different state of being. It takes time to learn this, to practice it, which is why it is called contemplative practice. Just as we have to practice any other skill to get good at it, so too we have to practice meditation in order to develop skill in entering these deeper meditative states of consciousness. And it seems there is not just one, but perhaps several progressively deeper states that we may enter into, as has been mapped out in many of the Eastern spiritual traditions.

There may also be other means of entering these altered states, of inducing the mind to change its mode of being, and losing our sense of being the ego-self. This may include hyperventilation, fasting, dancing (whirling), action sports, chanting, drumming, pain, trance, brain stimulation, hypnosis, sexual activity, psychoactive substances (i.e. psychedelics or entheogens), illness, epilepsy, stroke, brain tumors, trauma, oxygen deprivation, infection, brain blood loss, fainting, childbirth, g-forces, sleep deprivation, psychosis, near death experiences, singing, music, mantras, yoga, exercise, sweating, sensory deprivation, mental stress, exhaustion, etc.

As you can see, there are many things which may trigger these shifts in consciousness, some more desirable than others. Some, such as the taboo entheogens, may be a way of facilitating a much faster initial shift, an initiatory glimpse beyond ego to deeper realms of consciousness, which may later be developed, deepened, and integrated through more traditional contemplative practices and activities. But it is a journey that is not to be taken lightly. As atheist neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris has eloquently pointed out:

…it cannot be denied that psychedelics are a uniquely potent means of altering consciousness. Teach a person to meditate, pray, chant, or do yoga, and there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending upon his aptitude or interest, the only reward for his efforts may be boredom and a sore back. If, however, a person ingests 100 micrograms of LSD, what happens next will depend on a variety of factors, but there is no question that something will happen. And boredom is simply not in the cards. Within the hour, the significance of his existence will bear down upon him like an avalanche. As the late Terence McKenna never tired of pointing out, this guarantee of profound effect, for better or worse, is what separates psychedelics from every other method of spiritual inquiry…

I have visited both extremes on the psychedelic continuum. The positive experiences were more sublime than I could ever have imagined or than I can now faithfully recall. These chemicals disclose layers of beauty that art is powerless to capture and for which the beauty of nature itself is a mere simulacrum. It is one thing to be awestruck by the sight of a giant redwood and amazed at the details of its history and underlying biology. It is quite another to spend an apparent eternity in egoless communion with it. Positive psychedelic experiences often reveal how wondrously at ease in the universe a human being can be—and for most of us, normal waking consciousness does not offer so much as a glimmer of those deeper possibilities.

People generally come away from such experiences with a sense that conventional states of consciousness obscure and truncate sacred insights and emotions. If the patriarchs and matriarchs of the world’s religions experienced such states of mind, many of their claims about the nature of reality would make subjective sense. A beatific vision does not tell you anything about the birth of the cosmos, but it does reveal how utterly transfigured a mind can be by a full collision with the present moment…

Meditation can open the mind to a similar range of conscious states, but far less haphazardly. If LSD is like being strapped to a rocket, learning to meditate is like gently raising a sail. Yes, it is possible, even with guidance, to wind up someplace terrifying, and some people probably shouldn’t spend long periods in intensive practice. But the general effect of meditation training is of settling ever more fully into one’s own skin and suffering less there.

Sam Harris, “Drugs and the Meaning of Life.”

But whatever the means, it usually takes time, patience, discipline, trust, surrender, acceptance, regularity, length, guidance, training, pointing out, and letting go, in order to develop the ability to enter into this divine state of consciousness, and then integrate it back into daily life, which contemplatives have been pointing towards in so many ways throughout history. On the retreats I’ve been on, it could take 3 or 4 days of near continuous meditation before consciousness would relax into being, the mind would let go, and I would sense a palpable drop into a deeper state. This state gives the practitioner a kind of overview effect of life itself, of consciousness itself, of the cosmos itself, and one realizes that they are fundamentally not separate from it all, but a manifestation of it, an expression of it, an incarnation of it, a “child” of the One, its very “offspring” or creation or unfolding.

And this has been called liberation, salvation, exaltation, resurrection, awakening, enlightenment, the beatific vision, making one’s calling and election sure, the Second Comforter, and more throughout the ages and throughout the world. It’s coming to know the Divine, the Sacred, the Transcendent, and that one is that at the most fundamental level. Our consciousness is God waking up to its Self, the Cosmos becoming aware, and this is perhaps the greatest Mystery and Miracle of the universe. And the only way of knowing it is through direct experience of it in one’s own consciousness, for it is that consciousness, that Life, that Being, that Breath, that Energy that is flowing within you and me and everyone.

What are your thoughts about the seeming never-ending practice of “boring” meditation, of the struggle to continue practicing without seeing fruits, of the difficulties we find in meditation as we try to let go, of the monkey mind that keeps us from settling, of thinking we are not doing it right, of thinking we have to do anything at all to get there? Please share with us your experiences, thoughts, practices, tips, and suggestions in the comments, and let’s talk about it.

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6 thoughts on “Why Does Meditation Take so Long to see Results, to Awaken?

  1. Thank you Bryce. You have broadly covered the many aspects of meditation. One quotation which seems to be applicable here (there are many others):

    “Extensive as the ‘external’ world is it hardly bears comparison with the depth- dimensions of our inner being, which does not need even the spaciousness of the universe to be, in itself, almost unlimited. It seems to me, more and more, as though our ordinary consciousness inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us…broadens out to such an extent that the farther we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of the earthly and, in the widest sense universal existence, which are not dependent on time or space.” Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
    Note: German-language poet, acknowledged as one of the greatest of the 20th-century.

    1. Thanks Ron! That is a great quote from Rilke. I agree that our everyday consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg, and it tends to hide the depths beneath the surface.

  2. There are many good insights and perspectives in this post, Bryce. As you organize your posts and writings, I hope that you can designate this one as one of the more central pieces. I particularly like the first half, as you explore meditation in a way that is similar to neurobiology, recognizing that it is not some thing we do but a mind-state that we experience. I believe that there are many different experiences with meditation – which can be transformative for some and a seeming dead-end for others. Stephen Bodian talks about awakened awareness – direct pointers that don’t involve sitting meditation. I’m spending a little time with Loch Kelly’s approaches of a similar nature. Its OK if meditation is boring since the focus is on awakened awareness that is there in every state. Clearly our normal self, and the increasingly prominent Default Mode Network described by neuroscience, are very entrenched consciousness states, that limit our openness to wide, unstructured states. For myself, I don’t have a general expectation of seeing things “as they are” and knowing an “ultimate reality”. In this infinite and eternal universe, I occupy a tiny and vanishing place. I perceive just a fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum and even when I drop the ego, my experience is hugely influenced by subconscious and unconscious wiring that fused in place long ago. So, I am drawn to open the doors of perception, but the reward for me is to simply stand in larger breezes and brighter light which feed my being and my sense of larger being while always knowing that immense mystery cloaks the whole project.

    1. Great thoughts, David! I’m glad you liked this post. I love exploring the neurobiology and psychology associated with mysticism. It’s fascinating to me to consider what may be going on at the brain level, and the psychological level, as we enter mystical states of consciousness/awareness. You’re right that it is ok if meditation is boring. In fact, maybe it is that boringness that can bring on the altered states of awareness. When the mind gets tired of what it is perceiving, maybe it shifts in other directions, or perhaps expands to wider degrees of awareness. The neuroscience that is being done on the Default Mode Network is very interesting, particularly as it relates to our sense of ego or “self.” Hopefully this research will help us design better practices and tools to help awaken awareness and grow consciousness more broadly and efficiently.

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