Two readers–Barb and Anonymous Also–posted yesterday to say that they’re not completely “getting” the merits and methods of meditation. Thanks guys, for your honesty. Valid points. Great questions.
I’ve gathered some links for you that will help. First, here’s Robert Wright’s interview with Vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein in which they discuss what meditation is and isn’t. This is an excellent snippet for anyone to watch, especially the skeptic or the beginner. (The audio was screwy when I listened twice, but please try to put up with it.)
Since Wright is fascinated by religious practice and expression but openly struggling with how he might personally benefit from it, his questions are wonderfully honest. Here he is probing meditation’s benefits with Andrew Newberg, author of ““Why Won’t God Go Away: Brain Science And The Biology Of Belief,” and ““Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth.”
Additionally, you’ll really enjoy this excellent essay on why meditation is important and why so many of us are confused about it, written by Sri Swami Venkatesananda.
When you want to spread the practice of meditation and encourage people to take it up, you persuade them that there is some benefit in it. In order to do that the preachers suggest, ‘Practise meditation. You will be completely free of all tension.’ The moment that aspect enters the field of meditation, the whole practice is ruined. From there on you are not sitting completely relaxed, meditating, but you are tense, looking at the state of relaxation which the preacher suggested was your goal. Trying to reach out to it you become more tense.
The moment you introduce a goal to meditation, it is gone. Happiness in life comes not by manipulating what you want to achieve but by paying attention to something seemingly totally unconnected with it. In order to make the mouth laugh, you tickle the foot. This seems to be of fundamental importance. Concentration of mind is not achieved by concentrating the mind, but by going right round doing something completely different. That is actually what the great masters of yoga suggested when they said to sit down and repeat your mantra.
The problem is that our minds are in a terrible state of disorder, our attention is not steady at all. Physically we are tense, mentally we are distracted. We go to a teacher and he says—”Sit down and repeat a mantra.” While you pay attention to the mantra, which is totally unrelated and unconnected with the problem you are really trying to solve, the problem gets dissolved. You don’t have to solve the problem, the problem can be dissolved. That is much simpler, otherwise when you have a problem and someone tells you to solve it, the solution becomes another problem! The confused brain creating another solution, is in worse confusion. The mind, after all, is one thing, not a supermarket. You are happy sometimes and you are unhappy sometimes. When you are unhappy, what happens to that happy person? And when you are happy, what happens to the unhappy person? Are you one or two? It is not difficult for you to see that you are one thing.
Finally, here’s a marvelous piece by Lama Surya Das called “Meditation is Not Enough.” Please have a look. The “must we meditate?” question he answers here was posed and written by me, four years ago.
I will say this: It helps to have a meditation group and a teacher to support you as you learn to meditate and develop your practice. It can be tough going–and much less enjoyable–on your own.