In the past few years, through great apps like Calm, Headspace, and Ten Percent Happier, meditation has become popular as a way to reduce stress, sleep better, focus at work, or simply relax. These are some of the same reasons I started meditating twenty years ago. Yet, as I got more into meditation, I found out that meditation wasn’t invented just to improve focus or to relax, but for the seemingly utopian purpose of enhancing our greatest human qualities.
Meditation is training the mind
According to the Buddhist tradition, meditation is training the mind to bring out its best qualities, conditioning the mind to expand beneficial thoughts and emotions and let go of painful, unproductive thoughts and emotions.
In meditation you’re totally honest with yourself, gently, but frankly observing the thoughts that pass through your mind and cultivating techniques to steer your mind toward happiness, meaning, and benefiting others. Without being judgmental or down on yourself, you use every type of thought and emotion that arises in the mind as a tool toward greater happiness and mental stability.
What are beneficial thoughts and emotions? Mental states like compassion, kindness, generosity, patience, and the wisdom that understands the changing, interdependent nature of reality. Humor is also one of these qualities, shared by some of the giggly, slouching lamas I know, including the Dalai Lama himself. A mind filled with these qualities finds joy in everyday life, satisfaction in simply being alive and aware.
In contrast, disturbing thoughts and emotions are those that agitate the mind: anger, jealousy, pride, and compulsive desires; thoughts that won’t let you feel satisfied until you grasp hold of whatever object you crave.
You might try meditating to help you sleep, for example, but sleeplessness itself isn’t the root problem. Beneath your sleeplessness lies one of these disturbing mental states. Buddhism refers to these states as “delusions,” because they aren’t aligned with reality. What may be keeping you up late at night is worrying, your mind fixating on problems and exaggerating fears that grow unmanageable in the darkness; or sleeplessness that comes from obsessing on something—or someone—you dearly want.
Though our underlying fears and needs may be genuine, our agitated state of mind is one that exaggerates both the negative and the positive. We often see this when we get up in the morning with a clearer state of mind, realizing the concrete steps we might take to resolve our problem, or feeling how exaggerated our response to fears and obsessions was the night before.
We can diminish disturbing thoughts and emotions
Through meditation, it’s possible to diminish our disturbing thoughts and emotions and develop the positive ones, gradually building healthy mental habits. But how far can we go in eliminating disturbing emotions and cultivating the positive ones? Buddhism asserts that we can completely eliminate disturbing mental states and have a mind filled only with beneficial thoughts.
Not only that, this view of the mind asserts that the mind’s true nature is itself good, kind, warm, and at peace with itself. Disturbing thoughts are seen as transient, unrelated to the mind’s true nature, which is clear, aware, and open, a nature you begin to sense directly as quiet introspection becomes a daily habit.
Delusions appear frequently, but they are seen as pesky bad habits, not a reflection of our true nature. Through meditation we can gradually diminish the frequency and intensity of disturbing thoughts. And it is said that we can even eliminate them entirely, a state of mind referred to as enlightenment that is similar to the theoretical upper bound of mathematics’ infinity or cosmology’s ever-expanding universe.
Enlightenment can bring to mind a glowing being levitating above the earth in lotus position, like Rey in The Rise of Skywalker floating above the forest, at one with The Force. But the less sci-fi way to look at enlightenment is as this far endpoint of a gradual path toward eliminating disturbing thoughts, letting the natural clarity and warmth of the human mind shine through.
The power of enlightenment’s ideal
You don’t have to believe in complete and total enlightenment to improve your mind. But embracing—or even imagining—this ideal can be helpful, in the same way that those working toward a less violent world strive for the seemingly impossible ideal of world peace.
I was once at a talk by the Dalai Lama and someone asked him, “Why do you say you’re working for world peace? Don’t you know that’s impossible?” The Dalai Lama pondered the question, then answered, “Yes, you are right. It is impossible to fully eliminate violence. However, if you have the ideal of world peace, then you will get as far towards that ideal in your lifetime.”
Just as the ideal of world peace guides an anti-war activist, the ideal of enlightenment—of totally eliminating your delusions and perfecting your good qualities—helps you advance as far in the direction of that goal as you can over the course of your life.
Science is confirming the benefits of mind training
But you don’t have to take the Dalai Lama’s word on this. Science is now backing up the view that the mind can be trained toward greater and greater good through studies of both long-term meditators and those new to the practice. Though research is still in relatively early phases, studies suggest that meditation improves health, happiness, self-control, productivity, and our social connection to others.
Psychology is also confirming the benefits of mind training approaches, with the expansion of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which breaks down overwhelming mental states into clearly identified thought patterns to constructively tackle with repetitive, solutions-oriented mental tools.
And psychologists are moving beyond merely treating mental problems to enhancing patients’ best qualities. Only twenty years ago, a few psychologists noticed that their field had focused wholly on pathologies of the mind, and started a new field called “positive psychology” that addresses how to expand healthy states of mind, to “move beyond surviving to flourishing.”
Some of these positive psychologists have even turned to the meditative traditions to learn techniques that enhance our natural goodness, drawing from lineages that have been practicing mind training for two millennia. There’s a great book by the psychologist Lorne Ladner called The Lost Art of Compassion that skillfully integrates heart-opening meditation techniques into a Western psychological framework.
Meditation isn’t only for when you’re feeling bad
People often come to meditation out of desperation, feeling they’ve lost control of their minds, wanting to diminish fear, anxiety, or compulsive desire. But meditation is also a technique for those who feel okay, yet want to make their lives more meaningful, or even extraordinary.
They come to meditation at a point in life where they’ve achieved their goals. Life is quite fine, even envious by worldly standards, and yet they ask, “Is that all?” They don’t feel satisfied. “Why am I still worrying, competing, craving, getting angry?” “Are fleeting moments of pleasure all I can hope for?” Just as the positive psychologists noticed, there are people who want to move from surviving to flourishing, and they realize their mind is the source of problems and solutions, not outer achievements or possessions.
What are the outer limits of happiness, generosity, patience, and love? Meditation’s greatest practitioners demonstrate that it’s possible to have unbounded wells of kindness, patience, generosity, and insight. We see this in people like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Teresa. And we see it in nurses, social workers, mothers, and other humble people who dedicate their lives to helping others, who seem to have infinite patience, who appear not to even hear when others criticize them, much less react.
My sister-in-law is a person like this, and I’ve been with her when someone was blatantly insulting her. It actually got me pissed off, and I asked her later how she dealt so well with this jerk, and she just said, “Oh I don’t think he was insulting me, do you?”
This optimistic view of mind—which is testable in the lab and on the cushion—is that the very nature of our consciousness is good; that disturbing thoughts and emotions are fleeting; that it’s possible to diminish our painful mental habits and cultivate constructive, positive states of mind, even in the face of pain and suffering.
The state of enlightenment is an upper bound to this path, a state, whether real or imagined, where you have completely eliminated disturbing thoughts and emotions and cultivated the positive; where you see inner and outer realities as they truly are.
Meditation is practical
Maybe this sounds a little far out, and perhaps the references to the Dalai Lama and enlightenment aren’t helping you skeptics, but the whole point of A Skeptic’s Path is to honestly draw from an authentic tradition while noting that meditation doesn’t have to be holy or religious or tied to any belief other than the recognition that the mind can be trained toward greater good.
Moving the mind toward greater good means making it more stable, expanding our heartfelt connection to others, and seeing the interdependent nature of reality.
One of the simplest ways to think about meditation is to consider that you are not your thoughts. There’s no need to clear your mind of thoughts, but simply to stop becoming wholly absorbed and identified with them.
When you look at your thoughts from a distance, a new sense of self begins to arise, one that observes thoughts objectively, like a scientist in a lab. With practice, you can carry this technique into daily life, becoming aware of the anger arising at your boss, then consciously deciding to let it go; noticing your compulsive desire for an attractive body, or a caramel latte, then letting that agitation dissolve into the ease and satisfaction of just being alive.
Meditation is practical, a proven cause of a lasting happiness that we all have the potential to achieve. And as we attain more happiness and stability, we also train to expand our compassion and concern for others, becoming a naturally warmer, more helpful, less reactive presence in their lives.
Meditating isn’t relaxing
From this description of its results, meditation may sound compelling and even exciting, and one of my personal hopes is to make meditation cool enough that people get together on a Friday night for meditation parties. When you’re on a meditation retreat that’s what you do, and it can be a lot more fun than hanging out at a bar, which brings up another point.
It’s worth talking a bit about what meditation isn’t, and one important point is that meditation isn’t always relaxing. There are easier ways to relax than closing your eyes and sitting on a cushion, like going to the beach, listening to music, taking a bath, enjoying a glass of wine, watching Netflix, or even vaping! People do these things to relax, and they’re genuinely relaxing.
But none of these activities intrinsically enhance our better natures, or enduringly diminish our disturbing states of mind. That’s the purpose of meditation. If you’re coming to meditation merely to relax, it may compare unfavorably to warm sand between your toes, binge watching House of Cards, or enjoying a smoke 50 feet from the entrance to your hectic office. Understanding the unique benefits of meditation helps keep you on the cushion even when it’s difficult.
In this sense, meditation is like working out—it’s an exercise of the mind that puts you into a supple, open, warm, and wiser state of being. Like exercise, merely reading about it, or even listening to a podcast about it has limited impact. You can study meditation for a lifetime, and even become a meditation scholar, but without actually meditating, you won’t gain an experiential understanding of your mental states. You won’t train your mind. It’s like someone accepting medicine from a doctor but never taking it.
Meditation is, also, not spacing out. The state of mind you’re in during meditation is alert, concentrated, sharp, and focused. It’s the level of attention you give Netflix while you’re enthralled in its stories: completely engaged.
You already know how to meditate
People often find it difficult to focus on the most common object of meditation, which is the breath. Our mind drifts, thinking of plans, regrets, the pain in our knees, what’s for lunch. But in daily life we’re able to focus—sometimes for hours—on objects besides the breath. When we desperately want something—a girl, a boy, an iPhone, an apartment, or a job—we can stay focused on that fantasy for hours without drifting.
And when we’re upset about something—feeling resentful, indignant, alone, or angry—we can also stay with the feeling for long stretches without distraction. We have the ability to focus single-pointedly so maybe all we need is to change the object of focus.
But meditation isn’t just shifting the object of attention. How you think about the object is also important. When you’re focused on obsessive anger or desire, that’s not meditation, it’s rumination: a state of mind where you’re not seeing the world or your mind clearly, but exaggerating and obsessing, chasing or fleeing from objects—sometimes imagined—that don’t bring you satisfaction or peace. Ruminating, we lose sight of the distance between our awareness and the object of our obsession. We effectively become our obsession, handing it the keys to our mind.
Meditation takes our natural power of attention and controls it. It directs us toward beneficial states of mind and makes us fully self-aware, no longer overpowered by inaccurate, exaggerated craving, misery, or rage.
Meditating for the wrong reasons
It’s also possible to meditate for the wrong reasons. I’ve been meditating for about twenty years, but for long stretches of that time, I have to admit that I sometimes used the stabilizing effects of meditation to take on more activity and more stress, trying to achieve more in the world, and not necessarily for the altruistic benefit of all beings. I was using the calming, stabilizing powers of meditation to heap on more activity and ramp up my pace.
I worry that some high-performing corporate executives and superstars who’ve taken on meditation may suffer from the same problem, using meditation to pile on more worldly stress, to achieve more and pursue more goals of limited value while avoiding the moral reckoning as to whether this daily frenetic activity is truly fulfilling.
The military is even using meditation now, to train the attention of soldiers so they can dispassionately maintain focus instead of panicking about killing another human being. Meditation isn’t necessarily virtuous.
When I consider this way of meditating—becoming more focused and effective in one’s mundane or even harmful actions—I think of my favorite Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back. (I didn’t intend to put two Star Wars references into this post, but stay with me). In Empire, Darth Vader is constantly meditating. He’s meditating more than he’s killing or piloting a spaceship. He has this giant, shiny, evil black egg that opens like a lotus, and there he sits cross-legged in shiny plastic body armor becoming one with The Force, meditating on evil. And he’s definitely got the breath thing going for him.
Don’t be like Darth Vader.
Have a good motivation for your meditation: to diminish disturbing states of mind and cultivate the beneficial ones, to bring joy to others and ease their pain, to see the fleeting nature of life and make the most of it, and to find meaning and happiness in simply being alive and aware in the present moment.
Meditation doesn’t end when you get up off the cushion
Our meditation doesn’t end when we get up from the cushion. The point is to take the peace and insight we cultivate in a quiet place and take it out into the world. Ultimately, this is the most important practice—how we engage with others to form meaningful connections, achieve shared goals, soothe each other’s pain, and share our joys.
The true measure of meditation’s success is that you become happier, more at peace, and more present. These qualities are knowable through your own inner insight and the observations of friends, family, and coworkers. Qualities that our practice on the cushion nurtures, strengthens, and renews.
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If you’ve enjoyed this blog post, you may want to listen our first guided meditation, “Stabilizing the Mind and Watching Thoughts.”
The structure of a meditation session is laid out in our next blog post, and can also be heard on the second half of “Episode 2: What is Meditation?“
The Dharma of Star Wars, Matthew Bortolin