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.

Reigniting Meditation Practice

~ 7 minute read

I’ve been hearing a familiar story from friends, students, and peers lately. It goes something like this.

You’ve tried out meditation practice and noticed that it helps! There’s something that’s just good about taking some time out each day to practice. There’s a positive intention there towards training the mind and learning about your experience that has lasting implications throughout the day.

Some of the tangible and important benefits that you might experience while meditating and throughout the day:

  • You feel more relaxed.
  • There is more awareness and mindfulness.
  • You can see situations and events more clearly.
  • There is a bit more spaciousness in your experience.
  • Emotions feel less sticky.
  • More resilience.
  • Better able to focus your attention towards what is important to you.

These are significant and meaningful shifts in experience. This is great for some time, until….

Suddenly the practice falls off.

Sometimes it quickly goes off the rails. Other times you’ll miss a day here and there, until the practice is happening less often, and maybe even completely stopping. Occasionally there will be some conflict with daily life events and commitments that means that practice just doesn’t quite feel like it makes the cut, so you just choose other things instead.

This can feel terrible, but please know that this is completely normal.

Practice will come and go. There will be ups and downs.

Buddhist teachings tell us that nothing is permanent. Things change. Nothing persists in exactly the same way over time. Everything is dependent on causes and conditions, which are constantly changing in a never-ending dynamic tapestry.

Our practice is affected greatly by our life circumstances. Everyone that I know was (and still is) affected in some way by the global covid pandemic. Sickness is clearly something we don’t have complete control over that can drastically affect what we are able to do and what our most pressing responsibilities are. But even our day to day lives change constantly, whether we are suddenly busy and working on an important deadline, travelling, going on holiday, or even really absorbed in a good TV show (!).

Reflecting on Practice

Often we feel conflicted about how our meditation practice fits into all of this. We both really want to meditate and don’t want to (or want/need to do other things). We know that practice is good, but life gets in the way, or it’s hard to find the balance.

We could roughly place people into two camps here.

  1. People who are unable to practice right now, or other things are more meaningful and important to them at this time.
  2. People who would benefit a lot from meditation, but they just need to overcome a few obstacles to get into it.

If you fall into camp 1), then my advice is that you have permission to not meditate. You don’t need me to say it, but maybe it will help. Of course you get to make these decisions for yourself! If the situation is out of your control, or things are going really well, or you are working on something meaningful with a short-term deadline — that’s fine, don’t worry too much about practising. See yourself with kindness and self-compassion. Have meditation as a tool in your toolbox that you can use when you need it. Come back to the practice when the time is right.

If you feel like you might be in camp 2), then it’s time to assess how things are and make a plan for how to get back into it.

For me, I got into meditation after an extended period of depression and anxiety. My realisation was that I needed to regularly do things that helped me with my mental health or else I would slide back down the slope into that dark place. For me that was enough. I knew the suffering that was chasing me and knew that I had to keep going. The key for me was realising that to stay ahead of it, what I had to do was to make practice a part of my everyday routine. The key to making this an easier task was to find inspiration, motivation, and support.

Ways to Reignite Practice

If this sounds like this article could be talking about you, then here are a few suggestions on how to reignite the practice and light that spark to get practice on track again.

  1. Go on retreat.
    Find some time to go on a meditation retreat where you will temporarily pause all your other commitments and obligations. This is especially helpful if you can do this with others, but it can also be helpful to practice online, or even to do a half-day on a weekend. Putting aside everything else for a time gives you an opportunity to connect with the practice and with silence. This helps to put us back in touch with why we practice and what the benefits could be.
  2. Do a course.
    Commit to attending a course where you will be held accountable, given support, and inspired to practice. Courses can give you precise directions on what to do that takes out the questioning and replaces it with support. Courses encourage establishing a practice so that you can make the most of the time and fulfil the commitment. This is especially good if the course helps you to find community, or helps you to see the practice in a different light.
  3. Find community.
    The Buddha taught that the whole of the path is admirable friendships. When you have friends who are also practising and working on cultivating their minds, it is much more likely that you too will develop the practice. The key is to find a community that works for you and matches what you are looking for. There are many online communities filled with kind, considerate people who are keen to connect. There are local sanghas in many towns and cities. Check them out and see what might suit you.
  4. Read a book.
    There are so many great texts on Buddhism and meditation practice. I personally love asking people for recommendations. If you’re looking for an in-depth practice guide there’s The Mind Illuminated. A clear explanation of the practice of mindfulness meditation is found in Mindfulness in Plain English. If you want a guide to Buddhist thought you can check out What the Buddha Taught. For those interested in a deep dive that is both poetic and systematic you can read The Science of Enlightenment. Picking up one of these can really fire up the wholesome desire to practice.

These points could be summarised as: find inspiration, support, and community. These help to overcome obstacles to practice. They help to move past lethargy, worry, and doubt and towards confidence and strength.

Shifting to Skilful Action

What we are trying to do is to shift our view and how we are thinking about the practice. We want to move from self-criticism, internal conflict, or unmet expectations, and instead shift towards a sense of doing what is skilful in that situation. We want to clearly see how things are right now, figure out what a good next step is, and then confidently take that step.

The question here is what is skilful? Thought of this way, falling out of practice is just a macro-version of the on-cushion technique. We get caught up, we wake up to that moment and see it clearly, then we return to our intention. We appreciate any moments of awareness, any moments of knowing. This intention is what helps us move towards what is skilful and leads to happiness and benefit for ourselves and for others.

If you are interested in courses, retreats, or personal instruction, or you have questions about how these can help you, please check out my current offerings and get in touch if I can be of help.