Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Happiness Hypothesis, asks whether if meditation were a pill, would you take it? It’s hard to fault the argument he makes in favour, and there are many more reasons besides those he suggests. So why meditate?
Well, if you want a scientific argument, every year neurological and mental health studies show more and more clearly that a regular meditation practice stimulates all the right locations in the brain and helps the mind and body to deal with anxiety, stress, and depression. Tibetan Buddhist monks have even taken to hanging out in MRI scanners to help scientists find out how meditation gradually rewires your brain for the better – a concept called neuroplasticity.
You want a religious argument? A meditative or contemplative element is one of the constants of religious traditions around the world across millennia – found to be of value in early Christianity, in late-classical Indian religion, within Islam, and throughout the Buddhist traditions. It is the basis for much of the most fruitful inter-faith dialogue happening in the world today, and some of the most compelling religious figures I’ve met – including the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr – have had a meditation practice as an important element in their day.
A critical argument? Students of modern history get tired of hearing tutors go on about how so many of our certainties about the world are socially or culturally ‘constructed’. Even who you think ‘you’ are is for the most part a rather impersonal and heavily determined framework of attitudes – think gender, class, education, favourite TV programmes, and all the rest of it. All of which is interesting to a point, but ultimately a bit tedious if there is no particularly compelling course of action implied by knowing it. Meditation answers this problem by allowing us ever greater insights into this ‘construct self’, as it’s sometimes called: we don’t ever shed it completely, but we begin to ‘act out’ of it less and less, beginning to apprehend the world a little less in terms of these woefully predictable desires, fears, etc. With this in mind, writers like Mark Epstein have explored meditation as a deeply engaged form of the kind of ‘de-construction’ that postmodern types love to talk and write about. (Your average academic, by contrast, is probably a rather undeconstructed deconstructor – if that makes any sense whatsoever).
Finally, how about a personal argument? In my own limited way, I’ve had the opportunity – through Buddhist and Christian retreats, especially – to appreciate what some of the meditation enthusiasts are talking about. [For two contrasting views of retreats, see The Big Silence and a recent episode of Rev]. For all the buzz of the average working day – talking, writing, thinking, watching Wallander – I suspect that at some point I’ll look back on moments during these retreats as being amongst the most precious and consequential of my life.
BUT MEDITATION IS BORING!
Isn’t it strange that something can be so clearly of benefit – from my point of view, at least – and yet be so hard to stick to? Part of the problem is the attainment/’enterchievement’ thing, I suppose: meditation achieves absolutely nothing. A good teacher will tell you that you don’t sit down hoping for anything to happen – and if something does happen while you’re in meditation, you should probably ignore it. Loose talk about satori, ‘enlightenment’, is one of the taboos of many forms of Buddhism – it won’t take you long on any internet forum to see the understandable mix of interest and preciousness where the concept is concerned – and I was encouraged to see Brad Warner advertise a Zen Buddhist retreat a little while ago with the slogan ‘Oh, the boredom‘. Nor does meditation necessarily achieve anything in the mid-term that you yourself might notice – again, decent teachers suggest that you should let all these concerns about the effects of meditation just go.
Which is all very well, but meditation has to compete for space in the day with stuff that does seem consequential, so what are we supposed to do? I’m going to write a post soon with the absurdly grandiose title of ‘History versus Eternity’, and a snippet-thought from that is as follows. When religious traditions discuss points at which history (time) and eternity intersect – whether in great events, connected with figures like Jesus or Buddha or Lord Krishna, or in certain moments of experience for ordinary types like us – it is always stressed that human beings can only approach eternity from the standpoint of time. We are time-bound creatures. Where meditation is concerned, I take this to mean that you’re not supposed to make an argument for meditation by putting it up against things we desire, or things we want to achieve – it ought to be no surprise that meditation would very often lose out in a contest like that, and for good reasons.
Instead, while arguments in favour of meditation might lead us to try it out, at some point the idea of personal benefit has to be allowed to drop away – which, given the self-interested nature of much of our reasoning (whether we notice it or not) means that intellectualising about the subject may well not get us anywhere. Better, perhaps, if I just say to myself: ‘I’m going to utterly squander the next twenty minutes of my life’. Accept that a large part of me doesn’t like it, and would rather spend that time hacking my way through my email inbox (which always grows back, in any case).
Richard Rohr has a good phrase here – worth spending some time with, and perhaps reflecting this idea that since we are time-bound, achievement-bound creatures, meditation is ultimately a kind of gamble, the same way that some people describe faith as being. He says this: ‘Accept that you can’t accept it’.
Thankyou for visiting TBP! If you’re enjoying the site so far, please sign up for email updates on the right-hand side of our main page.