Now that meditation has caught on widely, it’s time to understand why it works. The physical findings measured by neuroscience gives intriguing hints about changes in brain wave activity, but that’s an effect, not a cause. The same holds true for physiological changes outside the brain, such as lowered heart rate and blood pressure. The how and why of meditation must be sought “in here,” in the meditator’s subjective experience.
This isn’t a mysterious route to take. Pain studies are based on how much pain a subject feels; there is no objective way to measure this. In the case of meditation, I believe the correct model is that the mind in meditation is rebalancing itself.
Medical studies have known for a long time that the body tends toward a state of dynamic balance known as homeostasis. If you push your body out of balance by shoveling snow off the driveway or running a marathon, as soon as you stop that activity, heart rate, blood pressure, oxygen use in the muscles, and even digestion and the immune system return to homeostatic balance.
Something similar is supported by psychological studies into emotion—everyone seems to have a set point for a level of mood to which they return after an emotional event, whether the event is happy or sad. But the notion that the mind rebalances itself is new.
We all pay attention chiefly to the activity whirling around in our heads, and this activity takes only brief pauses here and there, awaiting the time when we fall asleep, where conscious activity ceases (except in dreams). So it has never seemed that the mind is rebalancing itself. Indeed, what would that even feel like?
I believe that meditation wouldn’t work unless the mind already had a rebalancing mechanism. It’s not as if meditation is magical. It only deepens what the mind naturally does already, the way that relaxation techniques deepen the relaxed state that the body returns to in homeostasis.
If we look closely into our own experience, it isn’t hard to identify the states of mind that rebalance it. The names we give to different kinds of meditation techniques shows the way.