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People come to meditation for different reasons.
Regardless of one’s original motivation, meditation can provide physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits. Of course, these dimensions of being all interrelate; however, it can be useful to consider what the benefits are of meditation at these three levels.
To learn more about the purpose of meditation, what follows are excerpts on this topic by two of North America’s most experienced meditation teachers, Jack Kornfield and Reggie Ray.
Jack Kornfield is the cofounder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and the author of A Path with Heart. Here he talks about how meditation enables us to face the reality of impermanence and learn to relax with uncertainty.
Here is a story told about the Buddha shortly after he was enlightened. As he was walking down the dusty road, he met a traveler who saw him as a handsome yogi exuding a remarkable energy. The traveler asked him, “You seem very special. What are you? Are you some kind of an angel or deva? You seem unhuman.”
“No,” he said.
“Well, are you some kind of god then?”
“No,” he said.
“Well, are you some kind of wizard or magician?”
“No,” he replied.
“Well, are you a man?”
“Then what are you?”
At this the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
In those three words—“I am awake”—he gave the whole of Buddhist teachings. The word “buddha” means one who is awake. To be a buddha is to be one who has awakened to the nature of life and death and who has awakened and freed one’s compassion in the midst of this world.
The practice of meditation does not ask us to become a Buddhist or a meditator or a spiritual person. It invites us to fulfill the capacity we each have as humans to awaken. The skill of becoming more mindful, and more present, and more compassionate, and more awake is something we may learn sitting on a meditation cushion, but this capacity for awareness helps in computer programming, playing tennis, lovemaking, or walking by the ocean and listening to life around you. In fact, to awaken, to be really present, is the central art in all other arts.
What is that which we can awaken to? We awaken to what Buddhists call the dharma. Dharma is the Sanskrit and Pali word that refers to the universal truths: to the laws of the universe and the teachings that describe it. In this sense, finding the dharma is quite immediate. It is the wisdom that is always present to be discovered.
It is different than waiting for God to come down to us in a cloud of glory, or for a big spiritual enlightenment, or a wonderful, otherworldly experience. The dharma of wisdom, what we can awaken to, is the truth that is right where we are when we let go of fantasies and memories and come into the reality of the present. When we do that and pay careful attention, we start to see the characteristics of the dharma in the very life in which we live.
One of the first characteristics of the dharma that shows itself in meditation is impermanence and uncertainty. “Thus shall you think of this fleeting world,” it says in one Buddhist sutra. “A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, a flash of lightning in a summer cloud, an echo, a rainbow, a phantom, and a dream.” The more quietly you sit, the more closely you observe, the more you realize that everything you see is in a state of change. Ordinarily, everything we experience seems solid, including our personality, the world around us, our emotions, and the thoughts in our mind. It is as if we are watching a movie; we can get so caught up in the story until it seems real, even though it is actually made of light flickering on a screen. And yet if you focus very carefully on what you are seeing, it is possible to see that the film is actually a series of still pictures, one frame after another. One appears, and then there is a slight gap, and then the next one appears.
The same thing is happening in our lives. Because that is so: nothing in our lives lasts or stays the same for very long. You do not have to be a very adept meditator to see that everything is changing all the time. Have you been able to get any mental state of any kind to last very long? Is there anything in your life that stays the same? This brings us to dharma’s second law. If we want things that are always changing to stay the same and to get attached to them, we get disappointed, we suffer. Not because we should suffer; this is not something created to punish us. It is the very way things are, as basic as gravity. If we get attached to something staying the way it is, it does not stop changing. Trying to hold onto “how it was” will only create suffering and disappointment, because life is a river and everything changes. So when we start to see the laws of nature—that things are impermanent, that attachment causes pain—we can also sense that there must be some other way. And there is. It is the way that can be called “the wisdom of insecurity.” This is the ability to flow with the changes, to see everything as a process of change, to relax with uncertainty.
Meditation teaches us how to let go, how to stay centered in the midst of change. Once we see that everything is impermanent and ungraspable and that we create a huge amount of suffering if we are attached to things staying the same, we realize that relaxing and letting go is a wiser way to live. We realize that gain and loss, praise and blame, pain and pleasure are part of the dance of life, given to each of us, born into our human body. Letting go does not mean not caring about things. It means caring for them in a flexible and wise way.
In meditation, we pay attention to our body with care and respect. When we ask, “What is the nature of the body?” we can see that it grows up, it grows old, it gets sick sometimes, and it eventually dies. When we sit to meditate, we can directly feel the state of our body, the tensions we carry, and our level of tiredness or energy. Sometimes being in our body feels good, and sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it is quiet, and sometimes it is restless. In meditation we sense that we do not actually own our bodies but rather we just inhabit them for a short time, and during that time they will change by themselves, regardless of what we want to happen. The same is true for our mind and heart, with its hopes and fears, the grief and joy. As we continue to meditate, we learn to relate more wisely to what Zorba the Greek called “the whole catastrophe.” Instead of fearing painful experiences and running away from them, or grasping after pleasant experiences hoping that somehow by holding onto them they will last, we come to realize our heart has the capacity to be present for it all, to live more fully and freely where we are. When we realize that everything passes away, not only the good things but the painful things as well, we find a composure in their midst.
So we meditate to awaken to the laws of life. We awaken by shifting the emphasis from so many thoughts and ideas to a new awareness of our bodies and our senses. We begin to see how our bodies and minds operate so that we can come into a wiser relationship with them.
The heart of this inner way of practice is mindful listening and careful attention to our environment, to our bodies, to our minds, and to our hearts. This is what is called mindfulness, a caring and respectful attention.
The mindfulness we train in meditation is helpful everywhere. For instance, you can use it when you are eating. You can hear the voice in your belly that says, “I have had enough, I’m comfortable, I’m nice and full.” You can also hear the voice in your tongue when it chimes in, “Gee, but that fruit was so good, let’s have a little more.” You can hear the eyes when they say, “There is some dessert over there that we haven’t tasted yet.” And your mother who says, “At least you should finish everything on your plate.” With mindfulness, you can learn to hear all of these different voices inside you. You can also learn to listen with full awareness to all of your feelings—to be aware of all of the pleasant and neutral and unpleasant aspects of your experience. You can learn that you do not have to fear that which is painful, and you do not have to grasp for that which is pleasant. We have often been conditioned to believe this is the way, but as we meditate, it quickly becomes apparent that grasping for what is pleasant or fearing things that are painful do not lead to peace, and do not lead to happiness. The truth is that things change whether we want them to or not. Becoming attached to things as they are or pushing things away that we do not like does not stop them from changing. It only leads to further suffering.
Instead, in meditation, we discover a natural, open-hearted, and non-judgmental awareness of our bodies and our feelings. We can gradually bring this kind and open awareness to witness all that’s in our minds. We learn to see and trust the law of impermanence. This means that we begin to see the world as it really is. In the midst of it all, we begin to see how we can relate to all of it with compassion, kindness, and wisdom.
Reggie Ray teaches in the practicing lineage of the great siddha Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He is the founder and spiritual director of Dharma Ocean and the author of Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body. Here he talks about how meditation allows us to digest experience and live from your true depths.
It’s an interesting question whether meditation has any place in the modern world. Throughout human history, meditation has been a core ingredient of traditional cultures—whether we’re talking about the shamanic traditions of Australia, South America, North America, or Africa, or the classical religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam. For all of these cultures and all of these people, the practice of meditation has been considered a central element in life and in spirituality, but what about us? What about the modern world? Does meditation really have a place in our lives at this time?
I would actually say that meditation is probably more important for us than for any people in history. Why? The human organism, over the course of its hundreds of thousands and millions of years of evolution, has been programmed for periods of stillness, periods of introspection, periods of aloneness, and silence—and if you don’t have that as part of your life, your body and your mind don’t know what to do. It’s as if you’re trying to run a car without putting oil in the engine.
In some sense, over human history, meditation has been the oil that has allowed the engine of individual humans and human society to run smoothly and effectively. In our culture, periods of silence, periods of reflection, periods of aloneness have been eliminated, and because of that the stress level that everyone experiences is many times higher than has been habitual throughout human history. If we leave the situation unaddressed, each one of us can expect eventual physical and mental breakdown, deterioration, weakening, disease, and so on.
The practice of meditation is something that has always been a part of human societies and human lives, and, particularly in the modern culture, we need to rediscover this ancient practice just so we can fulfill our own biological and evolutionary destiny, just so we can be fully human.
We might ask ourselves more specifically, “Why would any particular person want to meditate?” Meditation has a number of different motivations connected with it. Many people in contemporary life experience their lives as packed with activities, business, family, relationships, errands, acquiring information, and maintaining all of the aspects of their lifestyle. They’re so very busy that there’s no time to process anything. It’s as if we have eaten a meal and then, before we have a chance to digest it, we have to eat another one and then another.
Pretty soon, like the geese that are force fed in order to produce pate, we are force fed so much that we come to regard being bloated, filled, and stuffed as a natural condition. We then forget what it’s like to digest our experience and process what we’ve been through. This is a very common experience in modern life.
A primary purpose of meditation is that it is a way of digesting and processing what we go through day to day. If you can give yourself twenty minutes every day simply to sit and meditate, over a period of time you will find that that those twenty minutes have more impact on your life than any other twenty minutes you could ever possibly spend.
Another reason why people come to meditation in the modern world is that they feel they don’t know who they really are. When you don’t have periods of time with yourself, pretty soon your whole image of yourself is defined by everything around you. You have no choice but to become dependent on your accomplishments, on your relationships, on what people think of you, on your appearance, and so on to define who you are. You are then forced to look to these things to give you either confidence or lack of confidence, and, in that process, somewhere you lose track of who you are.
Meditation is a technique to find out who we are, to discover ourselves, our true selves—to discover what goes on within us and what kind of person we are—to discover our gifts, our weaknesses, our hopes and fears. We may feel that we know these things but we actually don’t. We’re going so fast that we touch them lightly and then we move on. But there’s a whole interior world of experience that is who we are and that we as human beings need to explore.
At this point we are only partially alive and some of us are actually hardly alive at all. We spend most of our lives just holding on and maintaining. Meditation becomes a way to bring new life, new awareness, and new fullness into our sense of ourselves.
A final motivation that brings people to mediation, perhaps strangely enough, is the motivation of compassion. Many people in this world feel a sense of sadness when they see suffering around them; they feel a longing to be helpful to other people in some kind of true and genuine way. But they also feel very limited. Many of us feel that when we try to help other people often we end up either making things worse or simply missing the point. When we are engaged with people in an intimate way, in terms of trying to help them, when we’re close to them and close to their suffering, we often discover that we back up, we shy away, we can’t really be present, we can’t really be helpful, we feel our own limitations. Some people come to meditation practice because they sense that through working on themselves in this way they can be actually much more effective in terms of addressing other people’s needs and other people’s sorrow and pain.
There are many meditative traditions throughout the world. One of the most sophisticated and resourceful is the meditative tradition that was taught by the Buddha 2,500 years ago. According to Buddhism, each one of us, far from being fundamentally flawed or defiled in any way, possesses a heart of goodness. This goodness expresses itself as intelligence, as awareness, in warmth toward the world, in love for other people, and in profound self-confidence. Now you might say, “This is not my experience of myself. I feel shaky, I feel uncertain, I feel I’m quite neurotic, I get into all kinds of trouble, I’m often my own worst enemy, I don’t really necessarily agree that at the core of my person is this fundamental, unconditioned goodness.” According to the Buddha, the reason that we can’t see this goodness or the reason that perhaps we only have glimpses of it is that it’s covered over by a lot of garbage, a lot of neurotic self-serving ego garbage. All people have this problem: our fundamental nature is covered over.
Sometimes we have glimpses of this basic nature—for example, when we fall in love, the kind of openness and engagement we feel. Or when we see something truly beautiful. Perhaps we have never been to a certain place in the world; perhaps we’ve never seen the ocean and we come over a rise of land and suddenly there is the ocean before us: our mind stops, our perceptions are so heightened, and our heart opens. Or perhaps we see someone who is suffering a great deal and in that moment all of our hesitation and all of our self-concern falls away and we feel a tremendous amount of love and compassion and empathy for that person. Our problem then is not that we do not have experiences of this inner nature but that we spend most of our lives in a completely different frame of mind.
The purpose of meditation is to strip away the coverings over this inherent, fundamental sacredness that lies at the root of our being. As long as we are driven by self-centeredness and our actions are self-serving, we are tied up in a little bundle, completely unaware of the tremendous potential that lies within us.
Now, you might say, “Why is this a problem? Why don’t we just live as this little bundle and forget about this other thing?” The reason is that when we are living in such a partial way, we experience tremendous suffering. There is so much pain involved in harming other people, in grabbing things away from others for ourselves, in trying to build ourselves up all the time, in hating people that don’t do what we want. There is so much suffering tied up in that; so much energy is expended. It is not the natural human state, and as long as we live out of that very surface part of ourselves, we are never going to find fulfillment. Strangely enough, only when we begin to live out of the depths of our own person, really loving other people in a kind of whole-hearted way, giving ourselves over to what life is, appreciating things, moment by moment, only then can we ever find any fulfillment.
One of the most important teachings given by the Buddha is the teaching on the truth and reality of suffering in our lives. The fundamental fact of an ego-driven person, which includes all of us, is that we are in pain. Whether we admit it or not and whether we have enough psychic nerve endings that are alive so that we can really feel the discomfort of our lives, that pain goes on and on and on and motivates us in all our actions. Until we deal with the problem of living on the surface, that pain is going to continue.
There is no way that we can fuss around with this surface life of ours—adjust this, adjust that, buy a different kind of toothpaste, get a different kind of car, make more money, have a better job, whatever—and come to any real change. Of course, there is some satisfaction in improving our external situation, but we’re not going to solve the fundamental problem which is not that we don’t have enough or we are not able to control the world enough, but rather that we’re living on the surface.
In response to this dilemma, the Buddha taught the practice of meditation as a way of deepening our experience of our selves and beginning to live out of our own depths. He taught that we can become deeply fulfilled people regardless of our external ups and downs, which we all have. And as a result we learn how to be fully ourselves, to truly love other people and be helpful to them.