Every day I stumble across a new article about the benefits of meditation. Meditation will fix your relationships! Meditation will make you more creative! Meditation will make you better at your job! Etc.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with people being excited about meditation. But even as I type that, I guess deep down I disagree with myself. There is an issue with people being excited about meditation. Excitement is disappointment. You can’t have one without the other.
People talk and talk and talk about meditation like it’s a fashion accessory, but I guarantee most of them never get past meditating for more than a few weeks. Those who really get into it can’t talk about it, because there’s nothing to talk about. When we try to meditate under the presumption that it will change us and lead us to some future goal, we become really disappointed.
Even as I write this I cringe at my own attempts. My biggest qualm with making Daily Zen is that this stuff can at best serve as an introduction to Zen ideas. The real insights can’t come from any book, any conversation or any blog post. You do the real work in your own mind and body.
The overemphasis of the benefits of meditation is just symptomatic of a larger problem in the Western world. A few people get so excited about selling us ideas that they ruin the ideas for us. If someone gets too excited about selling sweaters to lots of people, they sacrifice quality for quantity, and end up making shitty sweaters. The same principle applies to ideas.
This isn’t to say that a few gifted individuals aren’t selling meditation in wonderful ways. I love what David Lynch has done to change Transcendental Meditation’s reputation and also enjoy the mindfulness app Headspace quite a bit. But back to my point— we live at a time where ideas and information are more easily accessible than actual practice and experience, and so people often become content with mere ideas, mere thoughts. The irony? Meditation teaches us to disregard mere thoughts.
Instead of taking the obstinate college student route and blaming everything on capitalism, I’m going to try to find some nuances here. The first is that we, human beings, are naturally pretty lazy, especially nowadays. We have most of our needs taken care of. We take survival for granted. We have choices about the food we eat, the shelter we keep, the friends we have, even the clothes we wear. On a basic animal level, we are mostly OK with being primal automatons, going about our days mindlessly, fighting when we want to fight, eating what we want, having lots of babies, and so on.
But here’s the thing: historically, whenever humans have figured out how to survive autonomously, they’ve become existentially lost. When you’re fighting for your life, you don’t have much time to think about life’s futility. When your survival is threatened, you want life. Life becomes the goal. Once we have life and take it for granted, life loses its purpose, since our only real purpose in this world is to simply survive and reproduce. Once we can do those things, we yearn for deeper meaning (faulty brain wiring?). We create art, write drama, create abstract social conflict, fall in love, and write books. We get excited about ideas and thoughts, and then we let them disappoint us simply because we enjoy roller-coasters.
The way I see meditation, and the reason I believe it’s been so consistently adopted as a living technique by specific people throughout history, is as the oddly-secret circuit bender that prevents survival from becoming a banality, and helps shield us from existential crisis by shielding us from our patently narcissistic human thoughts. It’s the way we survive post-survival problems: anxiety, depression, addiction, lust, suicide. We see through the facade, basically, when we meditate, and we become OK with nothingness. That’s literally all that happens. You just sit and let your body and mind come to terms with swimming in the void.
That’s as far as I think anyone should go in a description of meditation. Why? Well, big problems start to develop when you say, “HEY GUYS, I FOUND THIS THING THAT HAS ALL THESE VERY DETAILED AND SPECIFIC BENEFITS THAT YOU CAN’T HELP BUT THINK ABOUT IF I TELL THEM TO YOU— BUT THE WHOLE POINT OF DOING SAID THING IS TO NOT THINK ABOUT THE BENEFITS— COOL?”
My advice? If you want to meditate and really get something out of it, stop reading about it. Stop researching the benefits. Stop thinking. That’s the whole point. The reason humans hate themselves, ruin the Earth and hurt one another is because we think too much. We act too much. We move around too much. We do everything in excess because we’re born without a self-reflexive ability to regulate our thinking and until we make peace with the giant universal hole that exists in all of us, we’ll keep trying to fill it with garbage. Meditation lets us regulate our thinking by teaching us that thinking is bullshit.
So, stop reading this, sit down, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Let your thoughts come and go, but don’t serve them tea. Again, that is all you have to do. Once you stop meditating to get results, you’ll learn to stop doing other things in your life to get results. Life becomes beautiful when we stop caring about results.