So my brother Paul was able to join me for meditation at the DC Shambhala Center one evening a few months ago. Afterward he said he really enjoyed the experience but . . . well, he wasn't quite sure why he should meditate. What's the point? Here is what I wrote:
I've been thinking about your question "Why meditate?" Here’s my attempt to answer that.
First a cautionary note: I am not a Buddhist. I have no authority to transmit Buddhist teachings. I don’t even know which teachings have been transmitted to me. And obviously there is a lot about meditation that can’t be passed from one person to another, that has to be experienced directly on the cushion, and I have just started to meditate so my practical knowledge base is pretty shallow. So what follows is not necessarily dharma but just my own memories of and reflections on what has been shared with me and what I have experienced.
I’m going to go ahead and cc my friend Larry on this because he is acting as my guide, so if I make a grievous error or omission he can come knock me upside the head like the Buddha Bouncer he is. Fortunately he is swamped with work right now so I will take his inability to respond as acquiescence in the face of my enlightened wisdom. ;-)
Okay, now that I got that off my chest:
Basically meditation is a path to freedom. Freedom from our own suffering and freedom to alleviate the suffering of others.
When we meditate, we learn to allow our thoughts and feelings to rise and then float away, so we are not held captive by them. We are not imprisoned by our initial narrow concepts of how things are, nor are we mastered by our emotional responses. Instead of thinking about why we feel so angry or sad or delirious with joy, we begin to notice how these emotions feel. We can touch them, finger them like cloth, without being carried away on a magic carpet ride we have no control over.
We are very aware and noticing what happens around us and in us - our breath, our pulse, the toilet flushing, the cars whizzing by - we are allowing these sensations to touch us lightly and pass through.
Whereas usually you might be thinking about what Kelley said last night or that annoying commercial you hate or the guy who cut you off in the parking lot or the pretty lady who smiled at you, as you meditate you are not bringing to mind anything that is not there. Nor are you fixating on your sensations of what is there - the toilet flushes and you don't think, "I wonder who's in the toilet?" Eventually you don't even think the word "toilet." It becomes just a sound that passes through and onward.
It is that act of allowing sensations to pass onward that is really the meat of meditation. It’s the key to our freedom, because when we get up off the cushion and things happen to us, we can allow them to pass through. We don't try to hold on to the pleasant experiences and we don't try to ward off the unpleasant experiences.
The act of grasping after pleasure and avoiding displeasure is the root of suffering, because nothing lasts forever. Our desire to keep a firm grip on our pleasures and run away from what we find distasteful is doomed to fail. We wish to keep things one way, our hopes are thwarted, and we suffer. But when we learn to let go, we can no longer lose anything. We have no hopes or expectations and so we have no disappointed hopes and no frustrated expectations. We stop suffering.
The funny thing is that allowing sensations to pass through also frees us to experience them very deeply. You might be afraid that when I say, the meat of meditation is to allow experience to pass through you, that I'm telling you we should have very shallow experiences in which we are always thinking, "But none of this is real. It's all a dream. It doesn't matter, everything's cool," and not feeling those very deep passionate feelings of love and sadness. But really the opposite is true. Because our minds are not fixed on, "This is so amazing! I wish it would never end!" or "Oh God I have to get that project done! When will this ever end?" because they are not drawing conclusions about whether we are enjoying our experiences or not, we are free to notice the experience so much more completely.
It's as if we all have a crazy writer living in the attic of our minds. He stands by the window and instead of watching the cars drive by or listening to the birds or feeling the cold rain coming in, he holds his notebook up very closely to his face, so that all he can see is paper, and writes, "There are too damn many cars driving on that road down below, I'm glad I'm not down there because the smell of the exhaust would probably choke me, when I was four I almost choked on a cookie, cookies are yummy I like chocolate macadamia, I used to have a parakeet named Macadamia it was green, I wonder where my green soccer jersey is? I need to do the laundry, my life is just an endless cycle of sleeping and standing by this window and doing laundry, why am I always alone?" and on and on and on, so he totally misses the fact that a car pulls up, a beautiful woman steps out, she climbs the staircase and stands behind him hoping he will turn around and notice her.
So when we meditate, what we are doing is noticing. We are training our inner journalist to do some fieldwork, to put down the pad and the pen and walk out the door and just sit and experience without labeling that experience as good or bad or worthwhile or a waste of time. And the point is not that noticing in this way will make us happy. The point is that we will not be deceived, not even by ourselves; we don't make up stories about our lives, and so everything becomes very vivid because it is very true.
Our experiences don't change but how we interpret them does. Because you know that your current pleasure - oh my wife is looking at me with so much love! - is fleeting, you accept that in the future she may or may not look at you with love. You don't fight against losing her love, you don't concern yourself with how to prevent it or wonder how you will survive if it happens. Because you are aware that you cannot command or avoid the future, you are free to float along on the reality of this moment. Not that you are a passive blob – very frequently the moment demands some exertion, some effort from us – but whether we are absorbing or responding, we are fully present.
Because you are floating instead of trying to direct your travels, you are not distracted by trying to impose yourself on the moment. You don't stake out an "I" and then try to satisfy the "I" by feeding its sense of specialness. You don't fish for compliments from your wife or try to figure out how she really feels about you or wish that she would say this or do that or even obsessively consider how happy you are; you are just available.
So you begin to notice everything deeply - you truly see her face with all of its flashes of expression; you really hear her words and they make you think, they are fully absorbing; you respond to her, the complete and actual her that you are seeing very clearly, and you ask her questions or make observations that make her feel acknowledged and known.
Your authentic presence has implications both for you - you are fully joyful - and for her - your initial presence makes her feel seen and your continued presence makes her feel valued. So not only do you find your own suffering relieved but you alleviate the suffering of another, all with skills you develop through being still.
You have found your stillpoint. You cannot be toppled or plundered or cut down because you have nothing to defend. From your firm steady position of stillness you discover that you are free to serve others without hesitation or fear. You claim nothing and so you no longer have anything to lose.
So we have an experience of being very rooted in the ground, very present and firmly planted in the moment. But we also experience our own impermanence. We see how dependent we are on the rest of the universe not only to sustain our physical lives but to give us any sort of meaning or identity, what you might call a “soul.”
You realize that we only exist because other beings have an experience of our existence. For example, let's say you are meditating and someone arrives late. You think, "Hey I'm glad Joe made it. I know his kids were sick and he wasn't sure if he could be here." But maybe another person thinks, "Oh Joe’s here! There is Joe and he is the most wonderful person in the world! He is such a caring father! I love him." And another thinks, "That sneaky bastard Joe. He borrowed a hundred bucks from me eight months ago and still hasn't paid me back. I wonder what sob story he'll have tonight - probably tell me that his kids are sick again." So is Joe just a guy having a tough time, is he the most wonderful person in the world, or is he a shifty SOB? We begin to see that as solid as we believe our Selves to be, we really only exist as interpretations.
We begin to wonder, Who exactly is it who is doing all this interpreting? If I don’t exist without you to experience me, and you don’t exist without me to experience you, then we are not individual beings. We are like organs in the human body – living tissue but not separate lives. The “soul” is not your little bit of consciousness existing within your own body. It is the universal tapestry of all consciousness interwoven and affecting each other. We see no point of origin – no first soul, no controller or creator – and we see no end – no destroyer or enemy. If you try to pull your own little soul out, you see that you can’t. There is no “you” separate from the rest of us. There is simply One.
All very interesting, right? but is it really motivation to meditate? Maybe not if you hope that meditation will make you happy. But I’ve always thought happiness was a stupid goal. It’s not a goal at all. It’s a list of contingencies: “When I have enough friends and enough money and enough education, as long as I keep the right job and the right face and the right religion, then I’ll be happy.” Or even, “When I can be satisfied with what I have, then I will be happy.” It’s all about control, either my ability to control my surroundings or my ability to control myself, and it is very harsh.
The only reasonable goal is significance, because being meaningful in the life of another hinges only on your willingness to see that person’s needs and respond to them. Wisdom and action, discernment and skill, those are the tools and they already exist within you. Once you are ready to acknowledge them and use them, you can begin immediately to help others. And the work is frequently sad, and very lonely, but it is based in your willingness to see things as they are without hiding or flinching or denying. You do it because it is based in your actual experience of the world, because the only other options rely on numbing yourself to some of your experiences in order to fit a dogma. Your practice is built on truth and not deception.
You are very gentle with yourself, even when you are sad and lonely, so the experience of sadness and loneliness is no longer something to be ashamed of. And because you are very gentle with yourself, when you meet another person who is sad or lonely, you can be gentle with them. Your gentleness has allowed you to experience your emotions entirely; you have traveled every inch of those emotions without rejecting or berating yourself, so when you sit with that sad lonely person you don’t feel uncomfortable with their rawness or judgmental of their vulnerability.
Of course we can “make people feel better” without being gentle with ourselves, but that is just purpose-driven manipulation – well-intended manipulation but generated by our need to control their emotions. We want to make them better.
The relief that comes from sitting with a fully present person is so much more profound because you sense that he doesn’t have an agenda or a schedule, his mind is not pacing trying to figure out how to help or heal you. He simply sees you, the bare naked heart of you, and he does not run or recoil. So you begin to relax, you don’t apologize for being, your body and your mind begin to uncurl, you no longer try so desperately to stuff Who You Are into the box of Who You Should Be or hide it behind Who You Wish You Were. You begin to feel that you need not cling so fiercely to your shame, that it is okay to be raw and tender.
How many times have you felt sad or discouraged and someone has tried to cheer you up, but you only end up trying to assure them that you’re okay, it’s not really that bad and they shouldn’t worry? Where does that need to comfort our comforters come from?
It comes from knowing that they have stopped to help you, that they have a goal and, despite their best intentions, they are waiting for you to live up to that goal. Whereas the comfort of a meditative person has no explanation. She is not soothing you with the intention of relieving your suffering. Because she is very open, however, she notices you, and her noticing is so consoling because it is so steady and accepting and without need.
I am not sure if you can get to that point of stillness without meditation but I am pretty sure that the quickest way to the stillpoint is to learn to be still.
So in summation, if the mind is like an unruly puppy chasing after butterflies, we are very tender and loving with the puppy. As we train it, the mind becomes disciplined but at the same time very gentle, like a seeing eye dog. And as our practice deepens, our mind becomes sure and strong and willing. With our new strength and confidence and willingness we are more and more able to aide others and so we become ever more significant in the lives of those we touch.
And that’s why we meditate.
There are some things I might say differently now. But there is a glimpse of where my mind was a few weeks after I started meditating. And your thoughts are still welcome. :-)