I recently had a brief discussion with a friend about my meditation practice. She commented that she can see the value of meditation for its peacefulness and calming effect, but it doesn't work for her because the is unable to quiet her mind.
I hear similar comments often--nearly every time I tell people that I meditate. It pains me to hear this because it's based on a complete misunderstanding about what meditation is and its intended purpose. First off, there is the false assumption that one should be able to sit down and immediately concentrate and silence the mind, without any practice or experience doing so. When this fails--as it inevitably does--people think that meditation simply won't work for them. This would be like expecting to take paint brush to canvas and create a beautiful, realistic-looking landscape on your first try. Developing skill in meditation takes time and practice, just as developing skill in painting. Second, the myths and misinformation about meditation are unfortunately perpetuated by the many teachers and programs that approach it from a health and self-care perspective; who tout its value as a method for relaxing, reducing stress, and avoiding stress-related illness. While it's true that meditation often has these effects, calming and reducing stress is not the original intent of the practices. I might go so far as to say that it's a misuse of meditation.
When I first began a regular meditation practice, my teachers liked to emphasize that meditation has no purpose whatsoever--we are not doing the practice for any reason or to get any result. This is not really true, but they kept reminding us of this teaching to help us to give up trying to achieve a particular effect. We all come to meditation with some idea of what we want to get out of it--such as a calm mind, inner peace, reduced stress; or something more spiritual, such as liberation or freedom from suffering or Enlightenment. The trouble is that we get stuck on a concept of what we're looking for. The concept may be what it will feel like to have less stress, or how happy we will be when we are always in a state of peace. Even if our intention is an altruistic desire for Enlightenment so we can free others from suffering, we still have a concept of what Enlightenment is--what it looks like, what it feels like, and what an Enlightened person should be like. The result is that we get stuck in our practice--stuck in a mind-state that is a conceptual approximation of what we think we want. Yes, it is that convoluted!
My view is that the true purpose of meditation is to allow us to see through our concepts. This is what awakening (or Enlightenment) means. As I have continued to practice, I have seen just how much I am ruled by concepts--thoughts and feelings and beliefs upon which I act without recognizing the concept. What does this mean in practical terms? Take stress as an example. When you feel stressed, you tend to look at the circumstances that caused the stress, and try to find a way to change the circumstances or otherwise solve the problem that made you stressed. You may even recognize that you are feeling stressed (though all too often, people don't recognize when they are stressed--or upset, or angry, or hurt, or many other things--and therefore fail to recognize how this influences their behavior and decisions). But you probably don't realize how many concepts are behind the stress. First and foremost, there is the concept that the circumstances should be different than they are--people should treat you better, uncomfortable events should not have happened, you should have more time/money/fun/power/control/whatever-it-is-that-you-believe-will-make-you-happy. But where is this written (and who wrote it)? Why do you believe that things should be different than they are? And who is the "I" that feels the stress, thinks the thoughts, and believes the concepts? In a moment of stress--or a moment of joy, sadness, anger, calm, or bliss, for that matter--all of these concepts are at play behind the scenes, usually without our knowledge and understanding.
As an example of how we are ruled by concepts, consider the upcoming presidential election here in the U.S. The campaigns are shaping up to be among the most divisive and hateful ever. I remember how years ago, people complained that candidates never talked about "the issues." What happens today is that campaigns create false dichotomies that are presented as issues, and debate these dichotomies furiously to convince voters that their candidate is on the right side. Just one example: Republicans have been arguing hard for smaller government, saying that reducing the size of the Federal government will save taxpayers money and therefore improve the economy. What people don't seem to realize is that "smaller government" is a concept, and it's not even a very good one. Consider all of the services that the government provides that you want: building and maintaining roads; ensuring that our food and drugs meet safety standards; controlling air traffic so we can fly around the country; providing national parks for recreation. When we are hit by a natural disaster such as drought, a flood, or a hurricane, we expect and demand that the government rescue us. And most Americans want a military that is the largest, most powerful in the world, based on the (misguided) belief that this will ensure our safety and security. Providing these services requires a large organization, with vast numbers of people and an enormous amount of money. What we need is an efficient government that is large enough to provide for our needs and wants. And we must be willing to pay for it. Pounding on the podium while shouting for smaller government may incite people to anger and sway their vote, but it gets us stuck on arguing and then enacting a harmful concept that is based on a fabricated duality.
Meditation is not a passive relaxation technique to breathe out your stress and be transported into bliss. It is an active practice of paying attention in every moment; seeing our thoughts, feelings, and concepts for what they are; and coming to understand the nature of the mind. Does meditation reduce stress? It often does. Does it calm the mind and bring peace? Sometimes it can. Does it improve your health and well-being? Maybe. It can help us to see through political rhetoric as well, but this is not its true purpose either. Its purpose is to allow us to see who we are and how we create suffering and problems by grasping onto thoughts, feelings, and concepts. The goal is nothing less than understanding the nature of reality. The effects that we seek--seeing through fabricated dualities, inner peace and happiness, and the ability to act in ways that make the world a better place--are a product of this understanding.