Man, in order to escape his conflicts, has invented many forms of meditation. These have been based on desire, will and the urge for achievement, and imply conflict and a struggle to arrive. This conscious, deliberate striving is always within the limits of a conditioned mind and in this there is no freedom. All effort to meditate is the denial of meditation.
– J. Krishnamurti
Superficially, meditation seems to be one of the most meaningless practices a person can engage in. The world is full of enough activities, entertainment, and other people to keep our minds occupied for a lifetime. Such a practice seems to contradict what it means to be a social creature while also being in direct opposition to the ‘doing’ that has contributed to much of human progress. So why are so many sitting alone in silence while observing the contents of their inner worlds? A quick Google search will produce an array of blogs and studies touting a wide range of supposed health benefits including, but not limited to, reductions in stress, pain, and depression. However, a meta-analysis out of Johns Hopkins University looking at 47 separate trials on meditation found only low to moderate improvements for these conditions and ‘insufficient evidence of any effect of meditation programs on positive mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.’ The Buddhists tell us that meditation is necessary in order to attain liberation from suffering and gain insight into the nature of reality but such claims are too esoteric for most. Those considering meditation are left with a dilemma. From the outside meditation seems like a rather boring practice that threatens to rob one of precious Netflix time, from the scientific perspective the benefits are debatable, and the Buddhist reasoning is difficult to swallow as a lay person. And yet modern gurus, Western Buddhists, and self-help aficionados continue to ever more aggressively pound the drum of mindfulness, inviting us to take a seat on the cushion. Is this now just a marketing machine run amok, fueled by it’s own momentum? Or is it that we all need to shut up, sit down, and actually listen? Perhaps the latter is actually the point after all.
It is important to sort out our understanding of what meditation is or isn’t before we can ask why we should do it. It could be argued that to meditate is actually not to do anything at all but it is rather just to be. This ‘non-doing’ definition is quite common. A smug critic will be quick to point out a problem by saying something to the effect of, ‘But even aiming to not do anything is to aim at doing something!’ He will then proceed to give himself a solid pat on the back for so intelligently dismantling this definition. And he would be partially right. So long as we exist then whatever state we happen to be in, regardless of effort or passivity, could be said to have the quality of doing. However, there are clearly varying degrees of doing. Working on a complicated math problem probably involves more doing than scrolling through one’s Instagram feed. On the other hand, wasting away on the couch in a pathetic state of indolence probably involves less doing than meditating. Perhaps what we’re going for isn’t the total absence of doing, as proponents of the ‘non-doing’ argument are driving at, but rather a doing that is tuned towards observation over production; awareness over results. Meditation, specifically Vipassana, simply invites us to carve out a period of time to sit with ourselves and non-judgmentally observe conditions arising in consciousness. Looked at from this perspective, meditation is actually quite different than almost everything else we do. We aren’t observing for the purpose of getting results, we are just developing awareness. Contrary to popular belief the practice is not done to become calmer or less anxious or to traverse the cosmos on a chakra powered rainbow. Meditation asks that we re-calibrate our goal driven minds and not become overly consumed with doing or getting. From this vantage point perhaps we will notice something worth noticing.
When we take the time to sit with ourselves and become more aware we begin to uncover states of being that are, well, quite unremarkable. Meditation never ceases to showcase the most ordinary features of the human mind: boredom, doubt, frustration, anger, judgement, sleepiness, laziness, and sadness. This is true for both novice and veteran practicioners. A non results-obsessed approach means the path is paved with the acceptance even of mental states that might normally be buried. Simple observation, absent the urge to change, manipulate, or suppress, allows us to view emotional and mental states from a novel perspective. A mature practice enables the observer to view unfavourable mental states as simply being objects of mind as the desire for avoidance is given up. It is this ‘simple but not easy’ perspective shift that begins to demonstrate that the Buddhist teachings are perhaps not so esoteric after all. Letting go of the desire for mental purification can allow suppressed thoughts and feelings to rise to the surface of consciousness uninhibited. In this space one can just feel what one is feeling rather than chase it away by desiring it to be different. During periods of intense meditation, such as on retreat, this approach can cause an outpouring of emotion as one begins to realize that their typical mode of suppression has created an emotional wasteland within. If we are only concerned with the desire for emotional states to be other than what they are then we aren’t tuning in to the awareness of what is. Meditation can become a process of dissolving the layers of self that have hardened through years of neglect. We may realize that we need to treat ourselves better, that we need to spend more time with family, or that we haven’t properly grieved a loved one who has passed. It can be quite a cathartic experience as we begin to recenter ourselves towards meaning. And yet it is here that we need to again remind ourselves that catharsis isn’t the goal. We don’t open ourselves to unpleasant states in order to release emotions we’ve been neglecting or to attempt to discover meaning, we do so because we’re simply accepting what is.
Emotional turmoil and psychological unrest are states of being that will never cease to exist. They have always been present in some form and will continue to be for the duration of our lives so we should probably learn to accept this reality. Part of the basis of this unrest is the fact that we humans are survival machines that happen to be saddled with the knowledge of inevitable death. That’s a rough combination. Setting that aside, happiness and pleasure are fleeting states that provide no lasting satisfaction. This often leads to an endless pursuit of the next hit of pleasure or at least the avoidance of pain. It’s this constant striving and avoiding that keeps us forever tethered to a mode of being that is ultimately unsatisfying. Meditation offers another way. The Buddha tells us that the cessation of craving is the end of dukkha (roughly translated to ‘suffering’ or ‘unsatisfactoriness’). Meditation is the methodology that can break this perpetual cycle of pushing and pulling. It’s a lofty claim. However, if we take the time to sit we are able to see that there is at least some truth to it and that perhaps there is in fact a pathway to liberation.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of dukkha: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.
– The Buddha
During a recent retreat I may have been, albeit very briefly, able to catch a small glimpse of what the Buddha was getting at. On a calm morning after breakfast I took a short walk to a nearby lake and took a seat by the shore just as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Without force or expectation the dusty veil that normally overlays experience was temporarily pulled away. For those moments it was as though the world glimmered anew. Trees danced and shimmered in the breeze, birdsong was freshly melodic, and insects caused the lake to ripple as it reflected a rising sun whose light ever so slightly intensified from one moment to the next. The vividness and interconnectedness of the surrounding environment was quite literally overwhelming. After a minute or two the usual analytical, obsessive mind came back online. Dusty veil restored. Neuroticism intact. I could be grasping for meaning or context but it seemed to me that this was a momentary cessation of dukkha. During these moments there was no craving or desire. It just was. The very act of letting go of expectation and the absence of obsessively needing more allowed the experience to simply unfold and for reality to fully present itself. Tellingly, the confusion, frustration, and analysis that followed in the hours and days after the experience was a result of needing to attach meaning and the wanting for more. I immediately began to expect that such experiences should now be the norm while on retreat. Needless to say, such expectations were a mild source of torment in the several remaining days of the retreat as I sought to create a new peak experience. Such attempts were, of course, unsuccessful as I clearly missed the lesson at the time. The temptation to seek out new, better, longer lasting states is a common pitfall in meditation but one that has important implications off the cushion as well.
Meditating for the purpose of achieving an outcome is based on the expectation that the practice will bring about positive change. Most of the time having expectation, whether in meditation or not, is a recipe for disappointment. If we are attuned to it we can notice that the practice continually demonstrates this truth. We typically go through life having expectations of what our days should bring and how other people should be. Of course some base level of expectation is necessary in order to properly function in the world but when we begin expecting every situation, regardless of complexity, to unfold according to our will we set ourselves up for unnecessary frustration. How often do we expect a family member or friend to behave in a certain way, and when they don’t, become disappointed that they let us down? This is usually true even if this person doesn’t normally exhibit the behaviour we so desire. When we form expectations we create a false reality that exists alongside actual reality and then live inside that illusion. Rather than seeing reality as it is we instead see how we want it to be. This mode of continuous expectation undermines our happiness as we become irritated that life isn’t what we feel it should be. The meditative philosophy asks that we take a lighter approach by loosening the reins and accepting that life will often unfold, and people will often behave, in ways that do not meet our desires. Such an approach frees us from much of the disappointment we would normally face while sometimes delighting us with outcomes that may have otherwise been taken for granted. It is this letting go that relieves us of the many burdens we become saddled with when we endlessly form expectations.
When we listen to our minds what we find may surprise us. We can be bombarded by negative mental states or find dormant emotions waiting to be uncovered. We may even realize that desire and expectation have distorted our view of reality to a degree. Such realizations are by no means conclusive, they are merely an outstretched hand offering to lead us another way. This alternate route of being will unquestionably meander through doubt, anger, and hostility but it is necessary to tread if we wish to know ourselves. The choice to walk the path, even in the face of these difficulties, points to perhaps the most direct and simple answer to the question ‘Why meditate?’ We do so because we wish to understand our minds. We simply need to shut up, listen, and let go.