What could meditation offer?

Question: What do people want from meditation? What could meditation offer?

I think people are already wanting something when they take up meditation, perhaps at first it’s like any other activity – we seek satisfaction from whatever we do. Like anything else, meditation can give some satisfaction, which doesn’t last, and we do it again. There’s something within us which wants more than that – though not seeing that as a possibility we usually limit our expectations. You can see it in people’s hopes for relationships, wanting it to be forever; some people focus on the ‘perfect home’, working towards it from house to house, or designing and building it themselves. Interesting that it is in such central issues that we seek hardest.

Meditation has the potential to show us the workings of this process of seeking ‘satisfaction’, or fulfilment. It is possible to see beyond that and to open towards real fulfilment which is not dependent upon temporary conditions. It could be profoundly depressing to realise that we spend our precious lives hopping from temporary, dependent, partial happiness to the next temporary, dependent, partial happiness. But it’s quite galvanising if we see that instead we could enjoy the peace of getting off that treadmill.

This is how some insights we may discover through meditation can be transformative. If we had been limited by our limited understanding of our situation, now we are liberated by a deeper understanding, a discovery of basic truths which you could say change who we are. More accurately, we discover who we really are, and are no longer living in conflict with reality (which always wins!).

Although we would all want this – we do already want it – if we don’t know that it is possible, and that meditation can lead us there, then the door is closed to us. If all meditation teachers tried to sell it this way, they wouldn’t be believed – and of course the ultimate fruits of meditation are not simple or quick. So we have a situation where the immediate benefits of meditation – and the ‘scientifically proven’ results – are what is offered. Most meditators will stop there, and quite possibly they will teach others what they have gained. This is especially true of the stripped-down version taught as “mindfulness”.

The dedicated few meditators and teachers who see the greater potential are generally linked to a spiritual tradition. Perhaps this is what “spiritual” means: to go beyond the mundane round of finding things which will bring happiness, realising the futility of this approach, and undertaking the journey towards the freedom of deeper, intrinsic ‘happiness’. Not having a cultural conception of this, we don’t have a word that expresses it. The words we’ve come to use don’t speak of the result but of the revelation, so we say Enlightenment, or Awakening, the capitals straining to indicate the non-mundane use of the words.

It seems important to me that what is spiritual about this is not what we think of as religious. It is basically a path of personal discovery, which is most clearly laid out by traditions like Buddhism, Advaita and Sufism (and maybe others). Since it leads into new understandings, it encompasses – or can do – techniques and ideas which to us at present would seem fantastical, many of which are found in God-based religions. As far as I have seen in Buddhism these are always in service of the ultimate aim of Awakening, rather than to satisfy tradition or some all-powerful god. Buddhism at least does not countenance such a being, so some say is not a religion, even though it has monks, shrines, expressions of wishing-intent which may be like prayers, and so on.

Using meditation in this way is not a matter of beliefs, you don’t have to take on some idea as your belief in order to get any result. But somehow there needs to be a connection between the wanting within you and the possibility of a lasting way of answering that wanting. You need to see that this possibility exists, or at least to have a glimmer of recognition that there is something we are not awake to, and that our ignorance of this is keeping us in a cycle of futility. Such a recognition is likely to come from beginning the journey, taking a step to see where it leads, and then finding confidence step by step, trusting the process to reveal more as you go. Confidence like this means never resigning your cricical faculties, it’s like a path of stepping stones across a marsh, you have to try each stone, but then if it is firm, you have confidence in that one and try the next. Blind belief that they were all sound could get you into a sticky situation!

To continue the metaphor, you know that some people say there is solid path to find, there is another side of the marsh to reach, so if you settle for playing on the first stone or two, while it may be fun you may be missing something. Be open to the possibility of a transformation, an Awakening to something you don’t see now, and a better option than perpetually struggling for a form of happiness which depends upon impermanent things. Without the stones of meditation, and a guide, no path.

Go forth and meditate!


[Question from Georgie of Trigger Conversations]

More on: “expressions of wishing-intent which may be like prayers” in the piece called

“Pranidhanas, praying, visualising: what works?”