Why do we meditate? Well, there are lots of reasons. But two in particular stand out. Calming the mind and seeing things more clearly. These are two of the principal outcomes of meditation, and they can be of benefit to us in a variety of ways. For example, calming the mind helps us to be better at handling difficult emotions, whilst seeing things more clearly helps us to make better decisions.
Talking about meditation in terms of calming the mind and seeing things more clearly provides a convenient way of summarising all the many benefits commonly attributed to meditation, including the relief of stress and anxiety, on the one hand, and the cultivation of insight and awareness on the other.
And they go together of course. It is precisely by calming the mind that we are better able to see things more clearly. And, furthermore, seeing things more clearly enables us to be free of our conditioning.
Or, to put it in the simplest terms possible, meditation is about chilling out and getting over ourselves.
Now this is perhaps a slightly different way of looking at meditation compared with some of the popular narratives often promoted in the media, which tend to emphasise meditation as an aid to personal wellbeing. Being well is important, of course, but in relation to meditation it’s only half the story. An exclusive emphasis on personal wellbeing would place the focus on the self, making it all about ‘me’. By contrast, in many traditional understandings of meditation, the whole point of it is to go beyond the self, to break free of the prison of the ego.
This is why meditation is about chilling out (that’s the wellbeing side of things, if you like), and getting over ourselves.
Think about what we’re doing when we meditate. Meditation is the practice of stepping back, taking our attention away from our thoughts, learning to ignore our distractions, and seeing our attachments for what they are.
And we do this, not in order to be good at meditating, nor to enhance the ego by achieving specific goals, whether in relation to wellbeing or productivity, but in order to become aware of our conditioning and the ways in which it controls our lives. This is what is meant by ‘attachment’, namely, the process of identification with the random and impersonal phenomena of experience as if it is I, me or mine. If we can see this, we might learn to avoid allowing it to take hold in the first place.
Learning how the mind works, that thoughts come and go – and that we are not our thoughts – enables us to live life more skilfully, free of the constructs of self that obscure realisation of the deepest truth of what we are, the ground of being we all share: the fundamental, irreducible, mystery at the very heart of existence itself.
And, what is more, to be free from the conditioning that results from attachment is to be free from the suffering that characterises the human condition.
So this is why meditation matters. Because seeing things clearly and understanding attachment, or growing in awareness and compassion, frees us, ultimately, from the enslaving habit of identifying with the one who suffers – and who causes the suffering of others. Pain is just pain, objectively speaking. But when it is my pain, it is suffering.
Suffering is personal, subjective. It’s about the ‘I’, the one who suffers. If we can take the ‘I’ out of the picture – if we can step back from being the star of the movie, the voice in our head – then we may taste the true freedom of simply being. The pain, or the cause of the pain, might still be there. But it does not only and always necessarily have to be experienced as suffering.
We may or may not be able to change the circumstances of our lives. We may or may not be able to overcome the suffering and damage that we have experienced or caused. The chances are we won’t be able to make our pain go away. But we might be able to change how we see it and how we relate to it. And, most importantly, we might send a chance of changing what happens next: we can change how it affects us by freeing ourselves from the controlling influence of our conditioning.
Meditation is about cultivating awareness, and with it the sense of balance and perspective that comes from learning to take a step back from ourselves in order to see things as they really are, rather than as we think they should or shouldn’t be.
Finally, meditation brings us into a deeper awareness of, or connection with, the deepest reality of what we are, or that which is ultimately real and true.
For some people this may be described and experienced in terms of a religious or spiritual tradition; for others it may not. For those who believe in ‘God’ it is about deepening our connection with God. For those who don’t, it’s about deepening our understanding of the way things are. In both cases it is about balance and perspective, wholeness and healing and, ultimately, truth and freedom.
That’s why we meditate.