Meditation and Mind Control

by Gregory Ellison


If there is a single practice that is common to almost every spiritual tradition, it is meditation, and with good reason. Spiritual growth and awareness depends on going within to experience a more authentic reality than the separative and ego-dominated material world, and the gateway to this inner reality is meditation.

Meditation means many different things to different people, and in different situations. We often use meditation as a synonym for any form of thoughtful reflection, as when we are pondering a difficult decision and say, “let me meditate on it.” Extended periods of quiet contemplation or prayer are often called meditation. There are meditation techniques that involve mantras, mental images, chanting, listening to music or rhythmic drumbeats, or emptying the mind of all thoughts.

In this article what I mean by meditation is a spiritually oriented practice that turns the attention within, simultaneously withdrawing from the external world around us and seeking a re-connection with our inner spiritual reality. This inner reality may be conceived in religious terms or not, it matters not. We can call it God, our true s-Elf, cosmic intelligence, Spirit, or whatever. Whatever we call it, the purpose of meditation is to directly experience it: once experienced, the labels we use are unimportant.

The reasons for meditating are many: it relieves stress and promotes relaxation, enhances your alertness and improves your mental and physical performance in many ways. The most important reasons, however, are spiritual. The experience of meditation gives us a spiritual awareness that cannot really be attained in any other way. It allows us to experience our Unity with the Source and with all of life, and through this experience we grow in wisdom, compassion and Love.

Meditation is the royal road to conscious evolution!

Mind Control

When I first proposed this article to the other members of our newsletter committee, there was a strong reaction to the term “mind control” in the title. Not surprising, when we think of Manchurian Candidate-style brainwashing or mind-controlled slaves used as CIA assassins. These are unpleasant subjects at the least, and have little to do with the spiritual growth we seek through meditation.

However, there is an important connection between these unpleasant topics and the practical benefits of meditation, and that is the fact that the human mind has no free will of its own; it is a tool meant to be the agent of our will, so it must be controlled and directed. In our current state of consciousness, for most of us, our minds are often controlled by habitual action-reaction patterns that have been programmed into us by our social environment, through parents, teachers, institutions, advertisers and others. A lot of the time we are running on autopilot, pushed and pulled by assumptions and mental patterns we aren’t even aware of. Through meditation we can learn to control our own minds.

You are not your mind

As unflattering as it may sound, the human mind is basically a machine, not unlike the computer on which you are reading this article now (although vastly more powerful and sophisticated.) You — the real you, the spiritual being that is your true essence — have a mind, but you are not your mind. Your mind, like a computer, is a tool that you use to process and filter information and sensory data. Like any tool, it has no will of its own but is used by you, for good or ill. A hammer does not decide whether to drive a nail into a cabinet or a crossbeam, the user of the hammer makes that decision. A computer does not decide whether to send email to a friend or calculate stock prices, it does what you tell it to do. So with the human mind.

Carrying this analogy one step further, the computer can only do what you tell it to do if it is programmed properly. The best computer in the world cannot send email unless it has an email program running on it. Likewise, the human mind must be programmed to fulfill its functions, like combining billions of bits of optical data into a mental image that we interpret as vision, or analyzing the results of an experiment to derive logical conclusions and concepts. Some of the programming our minds require is “hard-wired” into the brain, and some of it is learned through social interaction and education. Interpreting visual images is an innate capacity that develops in earliest infancy, while drawing logical inferences requires specific “programming” in the principles of logic.

What if the programming is faulty?

Here’s the rub. Our minds work perfectly, according to the programming they have received. But if the programming is faulty, the results of our mental processing will also be faulty. Logical fallacies are one example of faulty programming. For example, take the proposition:

  • All fish can swim.
  • John Doe can swim.
  • Therefore, John Doe is a fish.

The fallacy here is obvious, because our mental programming includes the basic rules of logic, usually picked up intuitively in the normal course of development in our social environment. But unless it is explicitly learned and firmly established, such programming can be confused by more complex input. For example, we might hear the proposition

  • Al-Qaida terrorists are Islamic.
  • Kahlil Gibran is Islamic.
  • Therefore, Kahlil Gibran is an al-Qaida terrorist.

and think that it makes sense! As foolish as it sounds when laid out in such simple terms, much of the racial hatred and genocide in the world is the direct result of such faulty mental programming.

More subtle mental programming involves emotional associations. If we come to associate the American flag with things that have made us feel good in the past, we are likely to automatically think favorably about anything that is associated with the American flag. If we have a bad experience with a man with a scar on his left cheek, we are likely to automatically distrust anyone we meet who has a scar on his left cheek … and we may not even realize why we have an instant dislike for such a person.

While these are trivial examples, such mental programming, both useful and faulty, determines the picture of the world we see. It is responsible for our prejudices and preferences, filtering out what does not fit in to our programmed “world-view” and allowing in only what does. We are only capable of seeing, and acting upon, what our mental programming allows into our consciousness. And, since most of our mental programming is picked up from our culture and environment below the level of conscious awareness, to a great extent the world we live in day to day is illusory, shaped by consensus values that allow us to see and act in certain ways while filtering out alternate perceptions.

This filtered and limited world is what the Vedic philosophy calls maya, the illusion of physical reality in which our everyday consciousness has become entangled. Like the dream-reality of the popular movie, “The Matrix,” it is only a mental construct created by our mental programming, but we take it for the real world. The primary aim of meditation in most spiritual disciplines is to “pierce the veil” of maya in order to glimpse the transcendent truth, from which our mental programming and material attachments have separated us. This is accomplished by regaining control of our minds, wresting it from the unchosen programming we have picked up from the environment in which we develop. Only when we are able to know and control the action-reaction and association patterns of our minds are we truly free.

Meditation and Concentration

Although closely related, meditation and concentration are not the same thing. Concentration is the first step toward mental disciplie, while meditation begins where concentration ends. Concentration focuses clarity of thought on a narrow field; meditation expands that narrow focus to take in larger and larger thoughts, ultimately aiming toward the experience of Unity with all that is … the biggest possible “thought” of all! But this expansion of consciousness must be preceded by concentration; otherwise the increased awareness simply results in a diffuse jumble of chaotic images that are too confusing for the mind to grasp. Indeed, this function of filtering or limiting the amount of sensory data and information that is allowed to reach the level of conscious awareness is one of the main functions of the mind; without it, we would be constantly overwhelmed by the confusion and complexity of the world. The mind is like the lens of a camera, able to take in the big picture and focus it down to a small but sharp image that we are capable of comprehending. But, if we enlarge that small picture without improving the sharpness of the lens, it gets fuzzier and fuzzier until at some point it simply becomes an unrecognizable blur.

This, then, is the step by step process of mental and spiritual development through meditation:

  1. A narrowing of consciousness to be able to focus on one small thing or idea with absolute clarity; followed by
  2. An expansion of that point of clear awareness to take in more and more of the totality without losing the focus and clarity gained through concentration.

In the remainder of this article I will describe one specific path for meditative progress.

A meditative path

Bearing in mind the progression outlined above, an effective meditative discipline must be preceded by training in concentration. In practice, most of the meditative techniques taught by the many spiritual traditions do in fact follow this progression, although they do not always draw the distinction between concentration and meditation. Nonetheless, beginning meditative practice almost always involves a narrowing of the consciousness to concentrate on one thing, while gradually excluding all other thoughts and distractions. This might be a mantra, a mental image, a specific feeling such as love or devotion, or a contemplative theme such as the life of a particular guru or avatar.

The techniques I describe here are drawn from a long tradition handed down through a number of metaphysical schools, and focus more explicitly on the mental discipline of concentration as a gateway to meditation. They were given their current formulation by the Theosophical writer Ernest Wood in his popular books Mind and Memory Training and Concentration: an Approach to Meditation, first published in 1936 and 1949, respectively.

The first step in learning concentration is to observe what makes concentration difficult. When you sit down to relax and focus your attention on a single image or idea, the first thing you will notice is how difficult it is to do this simple thing. You may start off by silently repeating a mantra, or visualizing a candle flame, but before you know it you catch yourself thinking about the TV show you just watched, or something a friend said, or the items you need to pick up at the store. You pull your attention back to your point of concentration, only to discover that within a minute or two you are chattering away to yourself again!

If at that point you do not try to force your attention back, but instead just sit back and pay attention to the flow of thoughts in you head, you will soon discover that as your thoughts and self-talk jump from one subject to another, it is not a random movement: there is always some connection between any thought and the thought that came before it. The connection may seem far-fetched at times, but it is always there. For example, you may be thinking about your dog needing a new flea collar, then the next moment you will be re-living a family picnic at a house you lived in as a child — but if you are paying very close attention to how your thoughts move, you will discover some meaningful path between the first thought and the last. Perhaps your dog is the same breed as a dog you had as a child, so you recall fond memories of playing with the earlier dog. Perhaps one of your memories is tossing the Frisbee to your dog at the aforementioned family picnic! From there your attention might be drawn to the picnic basket, which reminds you of a basket you saw hanging in a roadside shop on your last vacation, which reminds you of other vacations you have taken, and on and on.

Paths of Association

A powerful exercise to get these undisciplined thoughts under control involves consciously choosing these paths of association, and following them intentionally rather than as a spectator. When you sit down to begin your practice, give yourself a central focus of attention. Let’s say it is the image of a burning candle. After holding this image gently in your mind for a few moments to get into the “mood” of concentration, begin sending your attention to things that are mentally associated with the image in definite ways. For example, you might begin by recalling other flames in your memory: the campfire at your last weenie roast, a house fire that burned down a neighbor’s home, the burning tip of a welding torch on a construction job, and so on. Don’t linger on any of these images, merely contemplate them briefly then send your attention back to the burning candle, then out to the memory.

When you have exhausted your memories of other flames, notice something else about the candle — perhaps its shape or color — and send your attention off to things related to that quality. A white candle, for example, may remind you of a glass of milk, or a white house you lived in, or a piece of white chalk on a classroom blackboard. One by one explore these associations, again taking care to return each time to the burning candle. When you’ve exhausted every memory of “white” you can conjure up, move on to the candle’s shape, or its scent.

When you have finished tracing in your mind every association you can think of to every attribute of the burning candle, there is no place further to send your attention, so let it linger gently on the candle. You will be surprised to find that you are much better able to hold your attention there this time!

This meditative — or actually concentrative — exercise is deceptively powerful. Practiced consistently you will gradually acquire the ability to enter a state of quiet concentration, and to remain there for extended periods of time without mental wandering. This state is the pre-requisite for true meditation, as well as being greatly therapeutic and beneficial in its own right.

The exercise as I’ve presented it here is actually a simplified version, but it is still an excellent starting point. The full exercise is presented in Ernest Woods’ books mentioned above, and I strongly recommend obtaining a copy of Concentration: An Approach to Meditation if you choose to explore this approach. In the expanded version, you identify the different kinds of associations among thoughts, such as similarity of appearance, similarity of function, spatial or temporal association (separate things that occurred at the same time or place can be associated in the mind), and so on. Then, in your practice, you send your attention out along specific associative pathways to retrieve related thoughts and memories. This makes the exercise more difficult, but vastly improves your ability to control and direct your own mental processes.

And in the end...

Meditation proceeds naturally from concentration. Having gained the ability to calmly focus the mind and direct its inner working at a high level of mental clarity and alertness, meditation takes this to the next stage by expanding the awareness of the thing focused on, to fully “enter into” it and understand it in all its depth. At this stage the focus of awareness shifts from some arbitrary object to something worthy of deep contemplation — perhaps a sacred symbol, a lofty ideal, or the virtues embodied in a great spiritual teacher. Meditation is a complete flow of thought into a symbol or idea upon which you have successfully concentrated. In this process we essentially “become one” with the subject of the meditation, expanding it and enfolding ourselves in it. Generally there are two stages to this process: the first is one in which our thoughts so completely explore and identify with the subject that we come to know it as if we were it. We hold every possible thought and idea about the subject, but in such a way that every thought is intimately connected with every other thought and we experience it as a totality. This process leads to great strides in spiritual understanding and insight, gradually breaking down the artificial barriers of separation and perceiving the subject as a whole in relation to ourselves as a whole and in relation to ALL as a whole.

The final step of meditative practice is one about which little may be said. Having attained the deepest possible thought and intuition about the subject, we find ourselves with nowhere further to go. We have reached the limits of the mind, and the next step is beyond the mind. As Ernest Wood describes this point:

“... when you have completed your meditation on an object or subject, and cannot go further, you do not drop it with a sigh, but, poised in that condition, you look expectantly at it. Your conscious activity is preserved if you gaze quietly at your highest thought. Then comes a moment of self-forgetfulness which is really the dropping of your limited viewpoint, and you receive an intuition, insight or illumination.”

Such an illumination does not come from the mind, but from beyond it. It is beyond personality and ego, beyond our sense of separate identity, beyond any name or label that may be attached to it. It is the spiritual gift toward which all seekers aspire.