I’ve been asked by a number of different people why I meditate. When someone asks a question like that, it’s usually backed up by a lot of their perceptions or beliefs about what meditation is. Most people don’t have a lot of exposure to meditation outside of movies or TV shows or spiritual superstars or charlatans. That kind of exposure will obviously color your attitude toward something.
The thing is, I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. I think it’s because I don’t know what kind of answer the person is looking for. Are they expecting me to answer like I’m Yoda or an ancient master from some kung fu movie? Are they asking because they want to know my personal reasons for choosing to spend an hour a day literally doing nothing? Are they considering meditating and looking for information from practitioners? Are they just trying to make conversation? Isn’t it amazing how one simple question can have so much attached to it? Especially if you’re someone like me who has to analyze everything (EVERYTHING) before answering?
- “Not one good answer, could I give, but many to this question yes?” — OK, the Yoda approach doesn’t work.
- “I meditate in order to be reminded of my interconnectedness to the universe.” — The happy sappy spiritualist answer doesn’t work either
- “I sit to be like the still water” — I’m never going to be a kung fu master
- “The clouds drift by the mountain but the mountain sits — observing all, grasping at nothing.” — That sounds cool but I could never pull that off
- “I sit because I sit” — Does that answer even make any sense?
- “Meditation is a path to enlightenment” — That just leads to more questions I’m not prepared to get into
- “I don’t know.” — I could pull that one off easily enough but it would be lying and not a good answer.
So, why do I meditate? I meditate for a few different reasons. I’m going to try not to geek out too much here but I make no guarantees. You have been warned. Let’s try to unpack some of those reasons. Ready…and go!
First, I meditate because it is a medical and scientific fact that it’s good for you. Meditation can be useful to alleviate pain and depression and stress and resetting your brain’s activity patterns to a healthy level. Through the act of meditation, I am essentially hacking my brain. Yes, I said hacking my brain. In order to understand where I’m going with this, you need to answer the following question: Are the brain and the mind separate or the same? The way you answer that will determine how easy it is for you to understand the rest of this post.
If you say they are the same, you’re going to have some trouble following me here. I used to think that they were the same but over the past few years, I have begun to realize they aren’t. Scientific research has also begun to validate this view that they are not one and the same. The brain is an organ, albeit a very complex and amazing organ. The mind is not an organ: it is a sense—much like sight, sound, taste, touch, smell. The brain is a sensory organ for the mind and they do influence one another but they are not the same thing. When you exercise your mind, you actually cause physical changes in the brain. In this way, by practicing meditation, any number of things can be done to the brain to change it one way or another.
As we calm the mind in meditation, we cause a vast neural network to fire off in ways it doesn’t normally do. As we continue to do this with regularity, it becomes easier for the brain to operate in this fashion. We start to reprogram the way the brain works by having our mind change its focus. As we learn to do this, it becomes easier and easier to do. This way, when we want to start changing ourselves, the meditation cushion becomes the first place we go.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of rewiring my own brain to change the way it operates is exciting. This may be because my brain has some great things going for it that I’d love to improve and its got some patterns that really aren’t healthy and need to be changed for the better. Either way, those are some pretty good motivators to want to rewire myself.
That would be my first answer. I meditate because I want to hack my brain. Now that I see that in print, I’m thinking maybe some of those other answers weren’t all that bad. Maybe I should rethink that list.
Additionally, I meditate because it is good for my mental clarity and peace of mind. Through meditation, especially Zen meditation, you are forced to come to grips with your mind in a way that demands careful and thorough understanding of how it works. When you sit on a cushion and you aren’t reciting a mantra, hoping for the well being of all living things, focusing on an image or something in the room or going through a mental set of exercises you have nothing to keep you company but your mind. If you haven’t tried this before, be warned that your mind hates this. One of the functions of the mind is to run on endlessly throwing up thoughts and feelings and reminders and regrets with the same regularity that your lungs move air in and out. Sitting in Zen meditation is to your mind what holding your breath is to your lungs: after about 30 seconds, it gets a little uncomfortable. As your mind reveals itself, you also begin to notice things about it. You see the common themes and patterns that it runs over and over like a hamster in a wheel. With this understanding you begin to gain the ability to ignore it. This is a great way to do things like overcome anxiety, depression, fear, cravings or whatever else your mind may throw at you that is best ignored. The mental clarity I get while on (and off) the cushion is itself enough of a good reason to meditate.
There’s my second answer. I meditate because it allows me to gain mental clarity and peace.
The third reason I meditate will have to wait for part 2 of this post. I’ve already broken the 1,000 word count and I’m not done yet. It’s taken me days to get this far and the need to post something is beginning to outweigh my desire to complete this post. For now, if you meditate, why do you do it? Answer below in the comments. And try to keep the Yoda-speak to a minimum OK?