When we think of meditation, we generally think about that “ah ha” moment. After mediation, we’re supposed to have the moment, right? Yes, that moment can happen, but there are many other reasons you may find it helpful to meditate. Robert Wright, author of WHY BUDDHISM IS TRUE, shares 5 reasons for meditating above and beyond enlightenment.
1. Moments of truth. Imagine a refrigerator making that humming noise that refrigerators make. Sounds monotonous, right? Actually, it’s not. When I’m meditating in the morning, if the tabletop refrigerator in my office starts humming, and I’ve cleared my mind enough to actually pay attention to it, I see that the hum consists of at least three different sounds, each of which varies in intensity and texture over time. This is a truth about the world that is ordinarily hidden from me but is revealed through an elementary exercise of mindfulness.
This may seem like a trivial truth. In fact, it is a trivial truth. And I have to admit that, strictly speaking, it’s not just the truth in this experience that helps keep me coming back to the cushion each day. There’s also the pleasantness of the experience. If my mind is clear enough to sense the nuances of the refrigerator’s hum, then it is free enough of everyday concerns to see this little three-instrument symphony, this infinitely rich unfolding of pattern, as beautiful. And to feel it as beautiful—sometimes really intensely beautiful.
But with all due respect for beauty, I don’t want to downplay the truth angle here—the sheer clear perception of a refrigerator’s hum. Because it’s important to realize that, even if complete and utter enlightenment will remain remote for most of us, portions of enlightenment are available. Even if we can’t apprehend the truth about all of reality and sustain that apprehension throughout our lives, we can apprehend the truth about little corners of reality and sustain that apprehension for a little while.
2. Moments of more consequential truth. If I’m feeling anxiety or dread or hatred, and, through meditation, I get to a point where I’m just observing the feeling rather than engaging with it, that is a moment of truth. Observing the feeling, after all, involves noting where in my body it resides and what form it assumes there. And that location and form—somewhat like the three separate sounds constituting the refrigerator’s hum—is an objective fact.
What’s fascinating is how much variation there is in the subjective experience that can accompany the objective fact of this feeling. The more you focus on the objective fact—on the feeling itself and its instantiation in your body—the less unpleasantness you may feel. This is not a trivially easy feat, but it’s doable, and it counts in favor of the Buddha’s claim that dukkha is in some sense optional, and that the way to reduce if not eliminate it is to see reality clearly, to see objective facts for what they are and for no more than what they are.
3. The wisdom of clarity. If, during my morning meditation, I’m tuned in to those three components of my refrigerator’s hum, or for that matter if I’m observing my breath, or some feeling, with great clarity, it means my mind is calm—not just because if my mind weren’t calm, I couldn’t see these things so clearly, but also because getting absorbed in the clarity helps calm my mind. And here is an interesting feature of a calm mind: if some issue in my life bubbles up, I’m likely to conceive of it with uncharacteristic wisdom. Suddenly I see that an email in my outbox, the one with the subtle but discernible edge of annoyance that I made a point to add—since, after all, the email I’m responding to was itself annoying—might as well not include that edge of annoyance. No good will come of it, and some bad may come of it.
4. Moments of moral truth. Part of this revised perspective on sending that email may be a revised view of the person I’m sending it to. Indeed, the key to the whole revision may be that I view that person without the antagonism that, in a less calm state of mind, had accompanied every thought about him. Suddenly I’m willing to entertain the hypothesis that the annoying email I got from him isn’t really proof that he’s a jerk. Maybe there’s some circumstantial reason he added an annoying edge to the email. Maybe I can guess the reason, maybe I can’t, but in any event, who among us hasn’t been in a circumstance that led us to do something annoying? In fact, didn’t I just come very close to sending an annoying email?
5. Timely interventions. If at 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. I’m feeling unsettled or angry or resentful or despondent or anything else that I’d rather not feel, I can sit down on the meditation cushion and observe that feeling and, pretty reliably, make things better. If I wake up at night with anxiety, I can lie there and meditate on the anxiety and, somewhat less reliably, but as often as not, make things better. And sometimes I even perform a feat previously thought (by me, at least) impossible: while sitting at the computer, staring at something I’m writing and feeling a painfully strong urge to do anything other than write, I close my eyes, observe the urge until it weakens, and then get back to writing. The reason I can do all these things—and, for that matter, the reason I even remember that doing them is an option—is that I’m spending some time on the cushion every morning.
Are you new to the practice of mediation? Don’t worry! Our editor has rounded up some tips for beginners.