Buddhist Books Blog

Readings and writings on Buddhism, yoga, and contemplative science

What is meditation? or Why meditate?

I go on meditation retreats.  Not everyone understands this–my sister, for one.  She knows I’m reasonably intelligent and sane (I’m her business partner, after all), so she wants to understand this odd behavior.  However, it’d difficult to explain yourself or have a discussion with someone when there’s so little, maybe no, common ground.  So I recently sent her a note, the text of which is as follows:

Hi J-,

You’ve on several occasions asked me about meditation and my retreat experiences.  However, because of the strangeness or newness of these activities from your perspective, I think what I say about them is likely to go in one ear and then mostly out the other.  Writing it down, so you can read, review, consider, read again, and—if you are so moved—to ask further questions, seems the more productive approach.

I think rather than lengthy theorizing or explanation the best approach is through demonstration.  The following are a few exercises you can do on your own time which illustrate what meditation is and what it might offer.

Exercise 1, “The everyday mind”

Stop reading this paper.  Put it down.  Wherever you are, whether standing or sitting, look around.  Don’t do anything you would not ordinarily do.  Do this for one minute.  After one minute or so, ask yourself the following questions: “Was I breathing?”  “What was I just thinking?”  “Where is my self?”  You will note these questions are progressively more profound.  I suggest you try exercise #1 three times, each time concluding it with one of the above three questions.  The first two ought to be readily answerable.  The third will be much more difficult, and assumes you’ve already developed the faculty of internal awareness to a good degree.  The point of this exercise is to show several things: 1) Your “everyday” experience is unaware of a great deal that is happening inside you and around you. 2) Much of what you consider “my self”—such as thoughts and memories—is automatic and conditioned, carrying on without apparent control or supervision. 3) The entity/center/ego you refer to as “my self” is actually a very difficult “thing” to find or pin down, which begs the question: “What exactly is it?”

Now, I am going to make a proposition: The reason you “suffer” (and you can interpret that word in the narrowest or widest sense, however you wish), is because you are fundamentally confused/ignorant/unaware of the real nature of your experience/self/consciousness.  In other words, not only is ignorance not bliss, it is in fact hell.  The more acutely you become aware of this, the more you will want the situation to end or resolve.  (Which is why I go on these retreats!)

Exercise 2, “Attempting to focus attention”

Put this paper down.  Close your eyes.  Adopt a restful posture.  Be aware of your experience, whether of thoughts or sensations or whatever.  Don’t try to do anything special.  After a minute or so, direct your attention to your breathing, whether in the chest, the abdomen, or in the nostrils.  Do not follow the breath.  Just be aware of the sensations, of the fact of breathing.  You can even label the in-breaths “in”, the out-breaths “out.”  Do this for five minutes.  (It might help if you set an alarm watch for this.)  Now reflect on what you’ve just experienced.

Probably you had to struggle to stay focused on the breathing.  Thoughts, sensations, sounds, whatever, intruded.  Your attention chased after them, then you had to bring it back to the breath.  This continued until the end of the period.  Don’t worry, this is perfectly normal.

I am going to make a second proposition: This state of affairs—of having a mind that jumps and wanders and scrambles every which way—is not optimal.  In fact, it is the cause of immense human stress, sickness, negligence and foolishness, even great evil.  In other words, it is a prime symptom of human suffering.  (This assertion is massively supported by scientific research as regards the causes and conditions of mental health and illness.)

My third proposition is as follows: This state of affairs is not fixed; it can be changed.  You can train your mind to more optimal states.  That is what meditation is.  Note, this is not easy.  It requires work, just like toning your muscles or developing your lungs.  In fact, it is really not so different from these things with which you are very familiar.  The big difference, however, lies in that body training of that sort will never fundamentally alter your mode of experience in the world, how you exist consciously, moment to moment.  Meditation can do this.

There is of course much more I could say on this topic; as I said on the phone, whole libraries have been filled with books about it—it is inexhaustible.

As is always the case, after I send something off I think of other incredible things I could have, should have written.  So, I append these here for your reading pleasure.

From Nisargadatta, the Indian nondual teacher par excellence (after Ramana Maharshi):

Question: All teachers advise to meditate. What is the purpose of meditation?

Answer: We know the outer world of sensations and actions. But of our inner world of thoughts and feelings we know very little. The primary purpose of meditation is to become conscious of, and familiar with, our inner life. The ultimate purpose is to reach the source of life and consciousness. Incidentally, practice of meditation affects deeply our character. We are slaves to what we do not know. Whatever vice or weakness in ourselves we discover and understand its causes and its workings, we overcome it by the very knowing; the unconscious dissolves when brought into the conscious. The dissolution of the unconscious release energy; the mind feels adequate and becomes quiet.

Finally, see here this wonderful article from Gary Weber’s blog on nondual teachings.

Now you know what meditation is and why you should do it.  What are you waiting for?

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