The Goal of Meditation: Not a Blank Mind

October 5th, 2021

Written By Bob McAuliffe

“Among the misconceptions about meditation is one where, like, if you’re meditating, your mind will be blank or will be clear. That you’ll make your mind blank. Which is, of course, ridiculous.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn

In the 1990’s, neuroscientists led by Marcus Raichle of Washington University in St. Louis made a shocking discovery. They were researching energy and oxygen consumption by the brain expecting energy and oxygen consumption to increase when the brain is performing a complex task.

To do this, subjects were asked to count backwards from 1,475 by 13 during an fMRI scan. Surprisingly, when they did this, specific areas of the brain went dark. These were the midline prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the limbic system. When subjects were instructed to just relax with out a task to do, these same areas of the brain lit up. Because of this, the energy and oxygen consumption by the brain was relatively stable - no difference when it was “busy” or “idle.”

When asked what they were thinking about, subjects responded that their minds were wandering, thinking about the past, the future, people they cared about and tasks they needed to do. This became known as the “default mode network,” what the mind is doing when there is nothing for it to do. This is the mind building the sense of self and playing through “the me show.”

By nature, the mind never stops. It is a constant stream of consciousness: ideas, images, sensory perceptions, memories, emotions. Unless it is given something to focus on, it slips into default mode and keeps the stream going.

The goal of meditation is not a blank mind — that’s impossible because of the nature of our brain. The goal of meditation is focused attention and open awareness of our thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations and the energy of the world around us. Through focused awareness our default mode network is quieted and we become a non-judgmental observer. In this state we free ourselves from our narratives and constructs about how we think the world is (which are usually the source of our suffering and unhappiness) and begin to experience reality as it truly is.

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