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 think that one of the problems with mainstream meditation hype is that the benefits are touted in order to sell the idea of it (usually for commercial gain), while the nuanced proper spiritual instructions are not included. It retains its form, but loses its substance, and so it doesn’t really yield what it promises.
Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about.
Carving out a tiny bit of time, in an otherwise hectic day, to sit still and calm the mind is not a bad idea, but that’s not what meditation is for. (Guided meditations can be like a quick vacation for a stressed out mind, but on their own they don’t do much.). Treating meditation as a discipline, trying to somehow master “not thinking,” or sitting still for long periods of time, has no real benefits. It is a forceful attempt at mind and body control, dominating the mental landscape by force of willpower. (That approach is fundamentally philosophically antithetical to authentic transformational spiritual and mystical practice. I’ll explain why in a minute).
Horgan is correct that meditation, as it is widely taught, does very little.
Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. Some people push themselves really hard to meditate, and then take great pride in their meditation practice, even turning it into some kind of competitive endeavor, which then only feeds the ego and moves them in the wrong direction.
It is what one does during meditation that leads to awakening and all of its benefits (or it doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most mainstream meditation instruction is the substantive practice of self-inquiry, which what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation.
The basic idea is that as you sit and try not to think, thoughts begin arising on their own. It’s one silly thing after another. The more you try to focus on not thinking, the more distracting thoughts come up to grab your attention. Laundry, dinner, errands, to-do list items you forgot, etc. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, without hooking into any particular thought stream. This has the effect of training the attention, which is like a muscle. The more you train it to stay put and not follow the thoughts, the better you become at focusing and wielding attention. The attention can then be directed (ie. follow this thought stream, but not that one), which is a useful internal tool.
What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t) is the realization that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go without you creating them. You don’t make them happen. As this realization slowly permeates your understanding, you begin to dis-identify as the thinker of the thoughts. You start to see the separation between you (the watcher), and the thoughts arising from somewhere else. And because you are not the one doing them, you begin to remove them from your sense of identity. You’re not really responsible for them in the way you used to be. You can watch them with a sense of neutrality, without judging them or being ashamed of having them. This creates a ton of internal space between the watcher and the thinker.
This leads to the realization that you don’t have to believe your thoughts, which is the ground floor of self-awareness, and the threshold into the inquiry practice (the real heart of spirituality). It’s also the beginning of a lot of other discovery work about who the “watcher” within you actually is…
The next crucial part is noticing that thoughts produce emotions. You start to understand that if you focus and hook your attention onto a scary thought stream, you actually begin to “feel” scared. And so by training the attention muscle (above), you can unhook yourself from a scary thought stream, and redirect your mind to something that isn’t producing feelings of fear in the body. This is huge!! Where you place your attention determines the emotional state you experience. This is a profound discovery for most people. Learning how to do this is the key to managing all kinds of anxiety and panic issues.
You can see how with proper instruction, at least up to now, meditation practice can lead to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence.
Then begins a deepening level of awareness and practice.
Having explored and familiarized yourself with the mental landscape a bit, dis-identified with the thinker, and trained the muscle of attention, now you can being exploring the source of the thoughts. Where are they coming from? Who is the thinker within? You begin to find that all the thoughts you have are perfect emanations of a vast network of subconscious beliefs you hold, about yourself and about other people. Now we are getting into a process called contemplative inquiry.
What you find out here is that if you bring those subconscious beliefs into conscious awareness, one at a time, you can begin changing them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind! As you change your core beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. That means you can change your internal landscape, and the emotional states you experience on the whole! You can reprogram the thinker, as it were, to change the kinds of thoughts he sends into your mind.
So as it stands now, when fear thoughts arise, your mind automatically hooks into that thought stream, and creates those emotions in your body and you feel fear. In order to calm down, you have to use the muscle of attention to stop, and redirect your mind by force, to something not scary, in order to stop the fear reaction in the body.
That takes effort, and usually by the time you notice that you’re scared, you are already pretty far down the rabbit hole, and are already hooked into that fear thought stream.
But if you begin systematically working with and changing the beliefs that are creating the fear thoughts in the first place… well, then you are experiencing a lot more internal peace and calm. The fear thoughts aren’t even arising, and your system isn’t feeling fear as often. You’re not wasting time or energy putting out internal fires trying to calm down, you are just generally more calm, because the fires aren’t erupting as often.
Further, when you start to see the internal mechanisms, and take account of the countless 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 (this is true for most of us). You begin to see that most of your words, actions, and behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask those perceived vulnerabilities.
That’s when your own self-love and compassion begin to emerge. Then you start to notice that other people are also just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a big 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 their out of control thought streams, and the underpinnings of all their bad behaviors.
The better you understand the workings of your own mind, the more compassionate understanding you have for others.
So by now, you have become more self-aware, more emotionally educated and intelligent, more able to self-regulate, you are experiencing less out of control anxious thought streams, and you are starting to feel self-love and compassion for others… All of this naturally makes you much happier.
It’s a process and a practice that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and begin noticing your thoughts to get all of this going. But without this deep nuanced understanding of what to do within, meditation on its own is pretty pointless.