Why Do You Meditate?
by Dan Nussbaum
If someone asks me about the purpose of meditation, I usually toss the question back. I’ll ask, Why do you meditate? Or, Why do you want to start?
I’m not being cagey. It’s almost a certainty that the questioner already has ideas about what meditation can do for her; I’m interested in hearing what they are. Still, not unreasonably she’d like me to say something. Isn’t a meditation teacher supposed to extol the promises of practice? She wants support for her goals or she may want me to suggest a couple. Or maybe she’s simply curious.
Since I think it’s important for meditation students to hear themselves say what they believe meditation is about, I listen. This gets at something crucial to the Recollective Awareness approach:
The experience that people have of meditation can’t be isolated from what they’ve picked up about meditation. That doesn’t mean that there’s a pure state of influence-free meditation that we’re supposed to reach. It’s like marriage, which can’t be isolated from a lifetime of hearing about marriage. The notion that says meditation depends on clearing the mind can be as consequential for meditators as the pronouncement “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health” usually is for husbands and wives.
If someone takes up the idea that meditation will lead to a feeling of oneness, then deliberately or not, he will be doing a “oneness practice.” The influence his belief exerts can be hard to pin down. He might not realize what’s been going on until he looks into a persistent feeling of disappointment he has when he sits.
People receive so many messages about meditation’s benefits that the process of Unlearning Meditation that Jason Siff describes can profitably be entered into even by people with little or no history of meditating. Which should go in your “strange but true” folder.
When I see every day that my mindfulness newsfeed has many new stories added, and that those stories trigger proliferating tweets, retweets, blog posts, Facebook comments, TV news stories and radio segments, then the reticence of a Recollective Awareness teacher to contribute more fodder to a meditation student’s imagination probably doesn’t make much difference. The strength of the ongoing mindfulness wave in psychology and medicine means the dominant message about meditation today has to do with its health benefits. The results of a PubMed search impress the reader not just because of the outcomes they categorize – PubMed can seem like contemporary Abhidhamma- but because the amount of studies is numberless. Almost.
Can meditation help insomnia? There’s research. Low back pain? Yes, in a small group of elderly subjects. Depression? What kind you got? Worry? It works. Anxiety? It helps. Fibromyalgia? Maybe a little. General well-being? Certainly. Prison recidivism? There’s evidence. Mood in a cohort of post-surgical cancer patients? Yes. Classroom attention? Yes. Motivation? Yes. Social anxiety? Yes.
Without talking right now about the often unchallenged status of peer review studies in our culture, I’d like to call attention to another way of looking at meditation that gets overwhelmed sometimes by data, tables and charts. It’s an orientation towards looking at what meditators experience in meditation, a phenomenological approach, rather than a prescriptive one. If meditation is mostly seen from the perspective of what it’s supposed to do, an understanding of what it actually is doing in the lives of individual people will be hard to find. There are consequences to the dissemination of thousands of articles each year about how good meditation is for you, and that should also be part of the discussion.
It turns out I am going to give an answer to the meditation student’s question at the beginning of this post about the purpose of meditation. We can stop the war against ourselves. Buddhist practice can show us how that happens. As genuinely wonderful as it is for people to get relief from depression, if meditation becomes regarded as merely Welbutrin without side-effects, then the possibility of a radical reordering of the way we know experience can be lost.