Meditation and mindfulness, until recently belonging to the language of the arcana, have in recent years become much more mainstream and accepted. So much so, in fact, that they are perhaps on the verge of being trendy! Much has been written about their benefits, often from scientific, psychological and business perspectives. But sadly much of what is written either misses the most important reason why you should meditate, or worse, is downright wrong or maybe even dangerous. This is very sad, because a meditation practice is perhaps the greatest gift you could give yourself….but to appreciate the gift you need to know what it IS!
Popular Ideas About Meditation
We’ll get into why you really should meditate a little further into this article, but I want to start by looking at some of the benefits attributed to meditation which are often put forward as the reasons why you should meditate:
- Meditation reduces stress: This is certainly true. There is much scientific evidence correlating blood pressure, happiness, sleeping patterns, and response to stimulation with the thickening of the frontal cortex that occurs in the brains of experienced meditators, as well as the patterns and density of brain activity that occur. This is actually a pretty important benefit…but it you should accept it as a wonderful side effect rather than take it as the primary reason for meditating;
- Meditation opens up creativity: This is also true. And like the last point, I have also experienced this in my life: I had, from my teens into my mid-thirties, believed that my academic rigor, discipline and organizational skills were responsible for my business success. After I started meditating, my right brain woke up and I started writing. I wrote a lot. Eventually I self-published two novels. Neither will be the long-awaited next “Great American Novel”, but they are pretty good. More importantly, though, they come out of a dramatic change brought on by meditation. This same change also affected my work and other behaviors. However, like stress reduction, this is not a primary reason to meditate; rather it is a wonderful side-effect. And importantly it can also be dangerous, as we’ll discuss in the next point;
- Meditation is a tool of therapy: Many therapists have adopted meditation as a technique within their practice. They “use” meditation to help clients look deep so that they can “fix” themselves. This is well-meaning and can offer real benefits, but there are a couple of cautions and problems: (1) this can actually cause more harm than good. In my own case, my meditation practice opened up creativity but did nothing to integrate my brain hemispheres. I would oscillate often wildly between two different ways of being, and was reaching a point of considerable confusion where I simply didn’t know how to behave. I needed someone to help me integrate. In my case I found a therapist with considerable experience and understanding of meditation who saved my life. In an important sense, though, the therapy helped my meditation practice rather than the other way around; (2) a second problem is that using meditation as a tool in this way simply misses the greatest value of the practice; and finally, (3) the direction of much of therapy is to learn about yourself and your history so that you can fix yourself, but you do not need fixing. We’ll discuss this more later.
So…I’d say this last point about therapy is actually kind-of backwards. Meditation and therapy can be partners, but I see therapy as a support to meditation rather than the other way around. A good therapist can help you with problems that can come up in your meditation practice; and therapy can give you the tools (soft starts, understanding of behaviors, etc.) that help you integrate more compassionately and effectively in the world. Like the two earlier points, there is a truth here, but rather than being the core truth, it is an incidental if wonderful side-truth.
Before I take us to the real reason why you should meditate, I want to look at a couple more misconceptions that are not just corruptions, but can be dangerous:
Meditation can give you power, and this has resulted in it being co-opted in ways that completely misdirect the energy and benefit of this wonderful and ancient practice. Here are a couple:
- “Meditation can help me get what I want”: A semi-popular and pseudo-cult movie popped up a few years ago called “The Secret” which advocated that if you want a Ferrari or a beautiful wife (yes, the tones of this way of seeing meditation are often very chauvinistic), all you had to do was imagine it, see it clearly in your mind, and it would happen. This way of thinking has been adopted and integrated into the fabric of a number of self-help and “spiritual” organizations (Agape Live comes to mind), but this approach profoundly misunderstands and misdirects the value of meditation. If meditation gives power, then as Peter Parker said at the end of the Spider Man movie, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Yes, you absolutely can get a Ferrari this way, but something goes deeply wrong if the energy of meditation is directed in this kind of materialistic and selfish way. At a fundamental level, “stuff” can never bring true happiness, and more than that, anything directed towards oneself in this way will ultimately miss the mark;
- Meditation is a networking tool: A couple of years ago I read a New York Times article about a group on the Upper Westside that met weekly for a short (maybe ten minute?) meditation session followed by cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and networking. Those interviewed for the article said that they liked doing business with “people like them” who had a spiritual practice. Once again, this is not only to completely miss the point of a meditation practice, but is to take it in a very harmful direction.
A simple way to figure out what is going on is to look at the underlying motives and behaviors of those “in charge”. If meditation is done for the right reasons, nothing about it should be directed to self-advancement in what we view as the traditional American way. Yes, we all need to have a livelihood, but a modest one is far more healthy, spiritually, than an extravagant one. So a movement with a leader who has a large expense account is likely founded on unsound principles. And anything that leads with material gain or career advancement as a primary goal is probably dodgy.
Why You Should Meditate
So we’ve examined popular misconceptions of meditation. Let’s move on and talk about the real reason why we should meditate.
The dream of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is central to much of American life, behavior, and self-propoganda. “We hold these truths self-evident” has been accepted into our cultural mindset to the extent that we simply accept the consumer-driven economy as a path for pursuing happiness. We have lost sight of the intuitive truth that buying stuff can never make us happy, that acquiring stuff chronically makes us want more stuff, the next thing, the better thing. We have moved away from seeing that happiness cannot be pursued in this materialistic sense, but rather must be pursued internally. I’d argue that the language of the founding fathers has more to do with the right to religious liberty and to pursue one’s own spiritual path than to anything else.
Which gets to why you should meditate:
- Happiness: the greatest good is happiness. In true happiness you are deeply connected with others, with the world, and you care for their happiness and health as much as your own. True happiness is not to be found in self-directed behaviors such as getting a Ferrari, or the promotion, or even going on that wonderful vacation. Rather happiness is to be found in altruistic acts, in compassion for others, in offering unconditional love;
- Know Yourself: and here we get to the heart of the matter. Meditation comes in many flavors and is practiced in many ways, but at its core all meditation is about slowing things down, ultimately stopping, and just being. It is about realizing, in this silent place, that you are not what you think you are. It is about recognizing that “you” don’t have consciousness, rather it has you; that “you” don’t do things in the world, but rather are done by things. It is about directly experiencing the truth of being reborn which lies at the heart of the spiritual experience of all of the worlds faiths; of recognizing that the “old self” you used to take so seriously is no more than a collection of ideas which have no reality; of finally knowing who and what you really are. It is about knowing that actually you are at once the whole world, and nothing, and the sack of skins and bones that wanders around and makes a mess of things!
- Save The World: as you move into knowing yourself, you will simultaneously discover – or rather become – deep and persistent happiness, and in doing so you will save the world. You will save it by coming to see that you are the world, that it is you. In this intellectually incomprehensible way you will save the world by finally seeing it clearly. But you will also save the world in a practical sense by recognizing that it is you, and as a result by completely changing how you interact with it, as well as with everyone and everything in it. And in doing so, that deep, and persistent happiness that you have become will stabilize.
Four Tips On How To Start
Hopefully this is a glimpse into the real reason to meditate. It might not be completely clear, but I hope that it resonates in a way that you don’t quite understand with your subconscious and pulls you forward. And if it does not, stick with the side effects of meditation – at least the ones that don’t have anything to do with getting a Ferrari or growing your business! – as your motivators for meditation and keep coming back to this until the deeper reason does start to click. To get started, here are a few simple pointers:
- Establish a Space: one of the hardest things about starting meditation is establishing it as a habit. This is much harder to do if you have to set up and take down a space every time. Why not set up a clean, simple, and quiet space with whatever works for and supports you – a cushion or a chair, maybe incense or a bell or a special object? That way you are always ready to go. And if you’re not in the mood, you can touch your cushion or chair to acknowledge your practice and come back another time;
- Start Small: there are only so many hours in a day, so building a new habit generally means something else has to give. If you try to start with a meditation practice that imposes too much, then it is likely the other things you seek to replace will push back, and eventually your energetic start will likely peter out. It is usually better to start small, meditating maybe a couple of times a week for ten minutes, and to let the practice stabilize and grow. Perhaps after a while you add a day…and then later extend it to fifteen minutes;
- Self-Compassion: you’re trying to do something new here, and you’ll not always get it right. You might miss a planned meditation time, or find that a couple of periods of meditation felt “bad”. You might decide you’re going backwards. All of these are opportunities to be kind and generous to yourself and forgive. This, itself, is actually an important part of the practice;
- Expectations: In short, try to have none! Of course you want to see the benefits, maybe to be suddenly enlightened, or at least to find that happiness and see yourself becoming more compassionate. I promise you all of this will happen, but it is a slow process, and often it is visible to others before you see anything yourself. Trust and be gentle, kind and patient. Letting go of expectations is not just supportive of your meditation practice, but you’ll come to realize that it is a central part of the practice itself.