Why Meditate?

~ 10 minute read

Why Meditate?

~ 10 minute read

People meditate for various reasons and with different motivations for what they want from practice. We could loosely put these into three levels, which roughly correspond with how much practice time: 1) mental hygiene, 2) training the mind, or 3) curiosity of what is possible.

Should You Meditate?

First, let’s contemplate how things are going right now. This isn’t meant to be an exercise in self-criticism or beating yourself up. Keep in mind that everyone experiences difficulty and that life certainly isn’t easy. See if you can consider your life, with some degree of objectivity:

How is life going for you? 

How’s your mental health? Are you happy? How do you relate to your experiences? Do you feel good about what you give your attention to? Is your mind operating as well as you’d like? Are you OK with the fact that this life is (relatively) short and will at some point end?

If your answer is less than an emphatic positive response, then let’s go into why you might meditate and what you might expect. If your answer is that you are happy, content, and satisfied with life exactly as it is, then perhaps you don’t need to meditate! But if there is even a hint of an itch to delve deeper, there is probably something here for you.

The main reasons that I see for people to meditate are to 1) improve mental hygiene, 2) train the mind to improve mental skills, and 3) explore a curiosity about what is possible with the mind.

Mental Hygiene

The most common reason that people begin practising meditation is mental health. Many people find themselves dealing with depression and anxiety. Others find that life is just a bit too stressful. They need some way to calm down, relax, settle, and gain better tools for coping with difficult situations. Sometimes this is brought on by hitting a really bad place, but other times we just have a sense that meditating would be a good thing to learn to cope with what is going on in our lives and in our heads.

It’s commonly known, and for good reason, that meditation helps with stress and anxiety. There are numerous scientific studies about this, it is now a common treatment in therapy, and there are mindfulness programs everywhere.

This is a great idea and meditation does help in this regard. You can’t argue against taking a short period of time to do less, relax, and be more aware. It’s a time to decompress, process some feelings and emotions, and to move the mind towards calm and spaciousness. Meditation provides tools for working with thoughts and emotions that can really help in the midst of difficulty. Everyone could do with doing a small amount of meditation regularly.

The goal here is relaxation and relief from difficult experiences. People who start this way are generally practising for relatively short amounts of time, such as 5 to 15 minutes per session, and might be practising a few times a week or just as an antidote or fix when things get stressful. This is where most meditation apps come in. Sometimes these are used consistently, but often it’s a form of pain relief — a useful aid that you reach for when the situation calls for it.

The downside to this approach is that it is a band-aid solution to a problem. You get stressed, so you realise you should probably meditate to relax. But this falls off easily. When you are stressed, you are also often busy, and then the first thing to drop off is practice time, even if it is probably the best thing you could be doing for yourself. It doesn’t address the root cause of the issue and only treats the symptoms, which takes more consistent practice.

Train the Mind to Change the Baseline

The next reason people meditate is because they want to improve the way their mind works. They want to change the patterns of behaviour and mental habits so that they use the mind more skilfully. They want to begin treating the cause of the problem.

While there are many reasons for this, let’s take the example of focus. It’s important to be able to choose what we pay attention to. Where attention goes determines our experience. Today there are just so many things vying for our attention. Smartphone apps and social media platforms are designed to be addictive and we are constantly bombarded by advertising. Our lives are complex in that we are expected to somehow maintain a balance of work, study, family, friends, entertainment, hobbies, learning, activism, holidays, rest time etc. We often find that our attention is caught up in things that we don’t find deeply meaningful. We also find that we are often pulled out of the current moment into the future with planning or fantasising, or into the past with remembering or ruminating. We find that we go for extended periods of time without noticing what is happening in our own experience.

Unfortunately we can’t just suddenly choose to have different attentional skills. Just deciding to be mindful might help for a short time, but it is unlikely to create a long-term shift. To shift your quality of attention requires training the mind. You do this by learning mental skills through practising meditation techniques. The skills develop through repetition. Over time this leads to changes in the mind and to a shift in the baseline of your ability to focus. The same could be applied to other mental skills, such as observation and balance (see Sit Down and Practice).

The goal here is to create transformative change through ongoing practice. This generally requires learning how to practise on your own and practising more per day. From what I’ve seen, changes often take place when people do somewhere around 30 minutes per day, every day (or close to it). This progress also often snowballs in that there are noticeable benefits in daily life that then make you want to practice more, solidifying the practice. Meditation becomes more integrated in your daily routine, then becomes a habit, and eventually requires no effort to sit down and practice. It eventually can become embedded in your life to the point it becomes part of your identity — you are a meditator!

This type of practice requires more commitment and perseverance but tends to pay off tremendously. There is the possibility to improve the way your mind works and therefore improve every area of your life. You gain the ability to get ahead of potential problems by working with the mind and how you navigate difficulty. You do the practice now, for when you need it later. You begin to learn about how your mind operates. The practice becomes a resource and something that rewards ongoing engagement. Practice also benefits those around you as you gain more capacity to be present, to help others, and to engage in what matters to you.

Curiosity and the Search for Truth

The third reason that people meditate is because they have a curiosity about what meditation can bring in terms of shifting perception, understanding reality, and making sense of what their lives and experiences mean. There is a sense of possibility, aspiration, and determination that drives people to explore what their mind is and how they are perceiving reality.

This can come from a number of different angles. Some people have tried meditation and it worked really well to increase awareness and help them in their lives, so they want to see what comes from doing more of it. Other people get into it because they have some familiarity with spiritual traditions, such as the different traditions of Buddhism, and want to see if the freedom, wisdom, and radical openings that these teachings talk about are possible for themselves. Other people who are nerdier or more pragmatic come to it wanting to see if the techniques can change their cognitive processes and update their “operating system”. There’s also people who have some kind of powerful experience — sometimes due to psychedelics, sometimes just out of the blue — that opens their eyes to a different way of seeing, but these experiences fade. Meditation becomes a way to reproduce these experiences and insights consistently. Another reason why people might get into deep practice is the sense that something doesn’t quite add up. Life has a quality of unsatisfactoriness about it, even when things are good, and this disconnect makes people look for a deeper meaning and understanding.

Other people just notice that the universe is so huge and our lives are so small, yet our existence feels so important. What does it mean?

Meditation then becomes a way to learn about the mind and to learn about how you are experiencing reality.

The goal with this approach is to see how deep the rabbit hole goes and what is possible in practice. This is where people start practising more, upwards of 45 minutes per day. They might go on retreats. They are more likely to find a teacher and seek out resources such as books, courses, and communities that help support their practice and guide them to deeper realisations.

At this level there is the possibility of radical shifts in the way life is experienced. There are openings of understanding self and world in new ways. There is the ability to work through conditioning and past trauma. There is the ability to navigate pain and difficulty gracefully. There might be less suffering and more fulfilment. There is the possibility of deep engagement with the world and being more present and loving in relationships. Actions skilfully align with values.

We will all face challenges and difficulties in our lives. Whether you are practising for mental hygiene, training the mind, or out of curiosity for what is possible, meditation becomes a way to choose how we want to show up — with more awareness, focus, and clarity.