I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. I sent him the following email; probably worthwhile to share here as well.
I think that one of the issues with meditation is that proper instructions are not included. Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about. You are correct that meditation, in and of itself, does very little. Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. It’s what one does during meditation that leads to awakening (or doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most traditions (as they are presented in the mainstream), is the method of self-inquiry. (It’s what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation).
Follow me for a second – the idea with meditation is that as you sit, and try not to think, thoughts arise, one silly thing after another. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, and more thoughts arise. What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t), over time, is that you are not your thoughts. When you start to see the separation between you, and the thoughts your mind produces, you can start questioning them. You suddenly realize that you don’t have to believe your thoughts. You also notice that thoughts produce feelings – you start to understand that if you focus your attention on something scary, you actually “feel” scared. The thoughts you think determine the emotional state you live in. This is a profound discovery for most people.
When you dig deeper into the source of the thoughts, then you find that they are perfect emanations of the beliefs you hold about yourself and others (beliefs you are not entirely aware of). This is a deepening level of awareness.
Then you find out that if you bring those (often silly) beliefs into awareness, you can change them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise. As you change your beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. When anxious thoughts (based on some false beliefs) are replaced with neutral or happy thoughts – suddenly you are happier and more peaceful.
When you start to see the framework of thoughts and beliefs that are just under the surface, you start to see that you are actually full of fears and insecurities and a deep sense of unworthiness (most of us in the West).
You see that most of your words, actions, behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask vulnerability. There’s nothing to judge – it’s a perfect system. That’s when your own self-love and compassion emerges. Then you start to notice that other people also are just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a scary world. That’s when compassion for others arises, and you become nice and kind to the people around you. You see their fears, and the underpinnings of all their “bad” behaviors.
It’s a process that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and notice your thoughts to begin the inquiry process. But without this deeper understanding of what to do with the thoughts, it’s pretty pointless.