Meditation: What is the Point?

A young, bearded colleague of mine approached me one Friday afternoon at work and asked me if I could teach him how to meditate. It was about 3pm. I was tired of working on whatever it was I was working on. We walked to a quiet, sunny corner of the interaction area on our floor (think open office with softer chairs and no electronics) and I listened to his experiences with meditation to date. His account sounded familiar to me. He described his wandering mind, its cacophony of thoughts and feelings, and his lack of power to control them. Meditation videos had left him confused and frustrated with his lack of progress. To start, we had to change his frame of reference. We covered how meditation is not, contrary to popular belief, emptying the mind of thoughts and feelings, but rather the training of attention. Our brains, and thus our minds, constantly generate thoughts and feelings and experience sensations. It is the nature of the organ that we must accept. What we can learn to do is to fix our attention to an object of our choosing. We practiced this by sitting and observing the length of our inhales and exhales and pausing for three heartbeats at the top of the inhale. After five minutes, signaled by the crescendoing bird-chirping of my cell phone timer, we took deep breaths and opened our eyes. My colleague blinked a couple of times. “That was nice. I feel more relaxed. Feeling relaxed is nice and all, but is that it? I’m a pretty goal oriented person. I need something to shoot for. How do I know if I have successfully meditated? What is the point?” My reflexive response was that he sat and practiced and created some objective distance from his experience. As those words passed my lips, the seed of dissatisfaction in my own response had begun to take root in my mind. My bearded friend’s staring and head-nodding reinforced that my terse answer to his question was perhaps lacking in context. In that millisecond, my brain was twisting and contorting to find the right words both to reveal to him the path of self-inquiry without “telling him the answers” and to articulate why setting goals — external objectives — is counterproductive. In the end, I punted with a “Let’s discuss this more later.” We stood up and joined the rest of our group for some Friday afternoon ice cream before parting ways.

His question replayed in my head over the next days. I was where he was in my path towards understanding just a couple of years ago, knowing that I needed to be liberated from my own head and recognizing that meditation was tool I needed even if I wasn’t exactly sure how it would help or why. Over the next days, I reviewed my own spiritual growth over the years. Here are the key realizations and milestones.

Meditation is:

  • practicing the skill of concentration: of training all of your attention of a single object
  • practicing the skill of objective inquiry
  • practicing the skill of distinguishing fact from belief, and pursuing fact (knowledge)
  • practicing the skill of observing your body and how your brain works
  • practicing the skill of refraining from jumping to a conclusion: creating space between ourselves and objects (both physical and experiential, including characteristics we might conflate with self). A conclusion is not a fact. It is a belief.
  • a means to inquire about the nature of the situation in which we find ourselves at present, including the world around us, our physical reaction, what we are thinking and feeling (our subtle reaction), and why we are reacting as we are. This is the first step in deciding what is the right course of action, but not the last.
  • practicing the skill of honesty regarding the facts of situations and self
  • a means to inquire about the roots of our programming, both conditioned (through culture) and physical (through DNA and its urge to survive and to propagate): our default views, our reactions, our habits, and our drives.
  • practicing the skill of recognizing when we are being motivated by attachment (running toward something that we like) or aversion (running away from something we don’t like), and recognizing when we are ignorant (missing information) and are operating based on an assumption or belief that might be incorrect. This is the second and last step in deciding what is the right course of action. Courage is knowing that our course of action is what the situation calls for. When we act, we act without regards to outcome. We act because it is what the situation calls for, not because we are attached or averse to a potential outcome.
  • a means to understand how attachment, aversion, and ignorance not only affect our actions, but our mindset and defaults. With knowledge of this, we can cultivate other mindsets: generosity, discipline, patience, diligence, compassion, truthfulness, forgiveness, and service.
  • a means to understand the roots of suffering in both ourselves and in others
  • a means to understand the nature of desires, how and why we become attached/averse to desires, and how we can dissolve attachment and aversion through knowledge
  • a means to cultivate compassion through understanding of others’ situations
  • a means to orient ourselves away from the temporary satisfaction of gratifying the fickle body and ego and instead orienting ourselves towards service: doing what the situation calls for. Fulfillment comes from service.

The present situation is always changing. Even our bodies and minds, and thus our capabilities, are always changing. By applying the above, we can become more adaptable and more resilient in a constantly changing world, share our talents with the world, and do what needs to be done. Once you recognize that your body and your mind are not you, the ego dissolves and with it, the need to protect it. No insult can touch you. No injury can touch you. Equanimity — accepting any situation in which you find yourself — becomes your default. That is liberation.

A few weeks passed and my young, bearded friend happily reported that he has been meditating regularly and practicing what we covered. I’m glad I didn’t do too much damage!

What are your thoughts and realizations from your experiences?

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