11/20/2013 02:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Getting Back to Our First Nature: Why the Mind Is the Key

When the importance of some form of meditation is pointed out to us, we often think we are being told about an esoteric, high-level, Buddhist practice, something largely unnecessary for ordinary folks. We imagine that meditation is an add-on for the elite and the few; and largely pursued by those who are already introverts. (I am coming to prefer the word meditation for the disciplined practice itself, and contemplation for the non-dual mind, eyes and behavior that result from such practices.)

Meditation is often presented in a way that misses how urgent and central the underlying problem is for each and every one of us: we are all well practiced in a repetitive way of thinking -- and the problem is not what we think nearly as much as our universal entrapment in our own compulsive way of thinking. The problem only becomes clear when we fully realize that we are all victims of the mind and its hard wiring. The human capacity for true inner freedom is initially quite small in all of us, because our mammalian brain pretty much runs the show -- until love, suffering or meditation expands it.

I have become much more patient, forgiving and even loving, as I realize that most people have little choice in their initial knee-jerk reactions to almost everything. What it means to be a spiritual person is quite simply to become someone who is expanding one's bandwidth of free, conscious responses to the moment. Normally, this can only happen for those who experience being held safely inside of love (which many of us would call God).

We are all conditioned, programmed, wounded, addicted, repetitive, habituated and compulsive in our brain processes -- which indeed largely determines the content of what gets in and what stays out. True free will is largely a myth, as most of us initially operate almost entirely out of conditioning and culture (read The Social Animal, where I think the author, David Brooks, makes this point on many levels). We now even recognize that many (most?) of our early attempts at friendship or sexuality are little more than "eroticized wounding" of one another, as we all act out of our own deep needs and hurts. God surely understands this; however, since we do not, we find it hard to forgive one another.

To clarify, the problem in meditation is not the what of our thoughts but the how of our thoughts. How do we receive the moment? Or do we receive it all? Maybe we attack it, push it away or deny any moment that asks something of us. We all must see these deep unconscious patterns or we are minimally free or conscious.

Jesus puts it this way, "Be careful how you see!" and in another place, "Be careful how you hear!" If we do not take ownership and responsibility for our inner processes (largely unconscious tendencies to fear, judge, eliminate, dismiss, attack, merge, take control, pull back and endless variations on these which are eventually "second nature" to us), we quite simply do not see reality or truth -- or others -- at all. We remain addicted to ourselves and our compulsive reactions, which seem entirely real and compelling because we have no distance from them. Perhaps this is the core and the real meaning of sin, and perhaps sin is simply an older word for what we now call addiction. It is indeed a disease, but a disease that can be cured!

Jesus rightly and humbly said of his executioners, "You do not know what you are doing" (Luke 23:34), and I would further add, "Or why you even need or want to do it." Meditation gives us a necessary distance from ourselves when we are faithful to its practice of silence -- instead of too quickly jumping on board with our own feelings and opinions, which are initially "all about me!"

Many of us resist meditation because we think we are being told not to value the mind and its capacity for reason, logic and necessary judgments. That is not the point of meditative practice at all -- in fact, authentic meditation will sharpen and deepen these very faculties, along with purifying our emotional responses -- by getting "us" out of the way with our obsessive and repetitive, even narcissistic and therefore unhelpful, reactions. Without some depth of spirituality, most of us are indeed totally predictable. We cannot act with freshness or freedom; we largely re-act with our dominant mammalian brain in the same old way over and over again, even when it is not working for us.

A good teacher does not take away our "good mind" but simply frees us from how we addictively process information. When we change our how, normally our what takes care of itself. And we will naturally move toward compassion, patience, understanding, forgiveness and inner freedom. We will learn to operate by our "first nature" instead of the learned, largely unconscious, "second nature" responses.

I wonder if this is what Paul was referring to when he told the Corinthians who were "speaking in tongues" (a momentary surrendering of the logical left brain function) that they must not remain children in their thinking, that there is a "grownup way of thinking" (1 Corinthians 14:20). I think meditation teaches us a grownup way of thinking.

Ian McGilchrist states much the same in his contemporary study, The Master and His Emissary. He posits that the right brain was meant to be the master that first received the full context and meaning of a moment, and the left brain was meant to help us place this larger experience inside of words and seeming "logic" so we could communicate it to others. It was meant to be the emissary of the master. But after the printing press was developed and books were published, the left brain took over. McGilchrist states that our entire civilization has now turned the original prototype upside-down, and we begin with supposedly left brain logic and argumentative words -- staying on a perpetual hamster's wheel that we cannot move beyond. I honestly believe that meditation is the only way to get off the hamster's wheel, and to stay off it.

So here are our choices: we can practice meditation, speak in tongues or stay in perpetual non-dual states of deep love and immense suffering (which is normally impossible). So the best ongoing way for most of us is, quite simply, to meditate every day.