Why Meditate?

People meditate for a lot of reasons. I’ve heard people explain that they meditate to be a “better person”, or as a kind of low-cost alternative to therapy, or simply to relax. However, there is a big difference between what is often promoted as meditation and real insight meditation. Many versions of meditation that are taught are not much more than mystical versions of self-soothing. However, if you learn to do insight meditation properly you will find that there is a huge difference between what we are told meditation is for and what it is actually like. We find that with true insight meditation we do not necessarily become a better person and it is likely that we will become a lot less relaxed (at least for a time).

With real insight meditation you will find yourself identifying less and less with the very idea of being a “better” person. All those personal goals that might have prompted you to meditate in the first place will start to ring hollow. If you do the technique properly you will indeed relax somewhat at first, and this a great thing. However, this will be a prelude to moving along the progress of insight and right into what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night.”

The Downside of Meditation – What you need to know

The “Dark Night” in Christianity, also known as “the knowledge of suffering” in Buddhism, is a stage in which the meditator experiences “misery”, “fear” and “desire for deliverance.” During this part of the path you are likely to be a pretty unhappy camper, and for those living with you, they’ll likely wonder why on earth you chose to meditate in the first place. As my wife once diplomatically explained, living with a meditator in the midst of the Dark Night “is the opposite of fun.” Not only will you not be a better person or more relaxed, you may seem a lot worse off than before!

So if good meditation leads to misery, makes you cranky and disconnects you from what you once thought were valuable personal goals, why would anyone ever do it?

Enlightenment: The purpose of meditation

Forget what you have been told about meditation making you more relaxed, less irritable, or a better person. Forget about any goal related to “me” in meditation. Because ultimately, the reason to meditate is to outgrow all of that, and completely let go of “me.” The reason to meditate is to become enlightened.

Enlightenment is the completion of the process that is started when one begins to meditate seriously. Enlightenment happens when the process of waking up to the truth of non-self becomes irreversible. It is the shift from being all-consumed by the drama of a “self” to the realization that the self and all its problems and fantasies were never real in the first place. Being a better person? As insight deepens the idea of becoming a better self seems a bit laughable. After all, who becomes better?

Making a Fully Informed Choice

Why would you, a self, want to wake up? What is the benefit of enlightenment? A lot of the sales-pitches of meditation out there make it sound like a great thing for the self: being more relaxed and a better “me”, who wouldn’t want that? But now that you know that the sales-pitch is essentially BS, you have to ask yourself, why meditate? The path is not easy. Like any other serious goal in life – getting a college degree, running a marathon, raising a family – it is a lot of work and not always a lot of fun. The truth is that, to a “self,” there really is no tangible benefit at all. From the perspective of the self it just makes no sense at all to wake up, in the same way that it makes no sense to the dreamer to get out of bed. The dream is awfully interesting, so why wake up?

If you are not interested in waking up – then don’t. If you simply cannot understand why anyone would ever want to see the self as a fiction, do not start meditating. This might seem like radical advice, but it really isn’t. If you have not started down the path of awakening in earnest, and you really aren’t interested in enlightenment, I’d recommend not getting started at all.

The reason that I give this advice is because there is what I would call a “point of no return” on the path, where the meditator has to finish. Unfortunately, this point comes right at the Dark Night, and if you don’t finish the path you remain stuck in the Dark Night. That sucks. You cannot go back to sleep, so to speak, and yet you aren’t fully awake. You know something is wrong, and feel terribly out of sync with reality. If you stop meditating at this point you stop making progress and stay in misery.

The reason to meditate that most experienced meditators give is “to end suffering.” And though it is correct to understand this to mean the suffering of life itself, there is also a deeper meaning: that the reason to meditate is to end the suffering inherent in the path itself. Advanced practitioners want to awaken because they are tired of being on the path, tired of being stuck in the twilight between awake and asleep. If you aren’t prepared to work your way through that twilight, don’t begin the path, and do not take up a meditation practice.

So Why Do It?

Ultimately, the answer to the question “why meditate?” is “I don’t know.” That is meant very literally. The “I” cannot know.

Even though the sense of “I” doesn’t know why, there is still a drive that impels some people to meditate. It is an undercurrent in your life that nags at you that is much deeper than the “I.” You may not fully understand what it is, and you will likely express it in all kinds of ways, but when you hear that there is a way to wake up from the dream of the self, you will be intrigued.

If you are one of these people, you just know it. For you, the reason to practice is because you are driven to do so. You’ve likely tried to be a “better person” and that seems empty. Trying to relax seems like a temporary fix to a problem with no name. The drive that moves you to meditate is the same one that has moved thousands of enlightened folks over centuries: you know something isn’t right but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

This is what is meant by the first noble truth of Buddhism; that life is “suffering.” More accurately, the dream called “me” is dissatisfying. If you feel that in your heart, if you are tired of being in the dream, you don’t need any more reason than that to meditate.

  1. I find that the carrot of “happiness independent of conditions” that both Kenneth Folk and Shinzen Young dangle before my eyes helps to keep me going. 🙂

    But my biggest motivator is seeing small bits of progress in daily life as mentioned in this PDF. I experience that things about myself get uncovered. It’s not always pleasant, but at least now I get to know when it rains and when I have to use my umbrella.

    • It’s those bits of progress that make all the difference, even in the dark night, if you know what is happening and why, it helps to move you along. And ultimately, there is a happiness that makes the DN worth it…

  2. whenever i read something and it gives me goosebumps i pay special attention it because deep inside there is a recognition of its truthiness.

    this post gave me goosebumps. thanks.

    ~C

  3. So is enlightenment “better” “good” “interesting” “boring” “anything?” Why do you think so many other teachers sell it? Why do you teach? Why do they teach? I think “the dream” is interesting, but is there something more interesting on the other side? Is it important to start waking people up? Does it matter? Can we just keep dreaming? I understand that these questions often don’t make any sense to someone who’s awake and no longer living within the constructs of the dream, but can you empathize with the dreamers? To me, it sounds sort of like suicide. It sounds like you’re completely dissociating consciousnesses from ego so you just aren’t connected or attached to your mind or body anymore, and there is just sort of “pure consciousness.” That sounds boring, or at least supremely neutral. Also, it seems like enlightenment does benefit “selfs.” The few people I’ve seen, heard, read who say they are enlightened all seem to generally be happier, nicer, calmer.

    Did any of that make sense?

    • Hi anon,

      There are a lot of questions there so let me try to address what I think is your central one: is enlightenment worth all the bother? My answer would be yes, but I would put some conditions on it. I would love if we could flip a switch and awaken every person, but it just isn’t possible (yet). So instead we have this long process, sometimes really destabilizing and difficult process, that ones goes through to awaken. It just isn’t for everybody. So people need to make an informed choice. That is partly what this site is about.

      Another aspect of your question is really important and is essentially: what is enlightenment like – really? Is it being disconnected? disassociated? happiness? purity? Frankly, it is not easy to pin down with words, and the explanations out there can be really confusing. Sometimes it sounds like being enlightened is like living on another planet. What I can say is this: enlightenment means feeling DONE. All the spiritual seeking, all the questions, all the undercurrent of yearning that is the hallmark of a yogi’s life, just vanishes. Poof! Gone in an instant. The baffling part is that nothing takes its place. All the same stuff of a “self” still pops up, life still goes on, the wheel of hassles and stresses marches along, but a big chunk of stress, the searching itself, drops away. What you’re left with is a deep peace that is there even amidst the stress. It is important for me to emphasize – you don’t lose your sense of self. It is still there and still doing its very important job (keeping your experienced organize and keeping you alive). What is now gone is the visceral sense that the self is anything other than a psychological process. You know, in your bones, that the sense of “me” is just like any other transient process, like a memory or a song stuck in your head. You can even enjoy it. But you don’t believe it anymore. I hope this makes sense.

  4. Hi Ron,

    This page seems like a natural next click after The Refugees of Mindfulness article (which is very good, thank you). It seems people have different types of awakening – Gary Weber talks of thoughts stopping and gives an impression of the ego disappearing. You point to a continued experience of the ego but perceiving it from the “outside” rather than “inside”. One thing that seems to be common is a sense of peace – no more searching as you put it.

    There seem to be a large number of ways to progress, dry insight seems to be a particularly rapid way of reaching a non-dual perspective. I wonder whether this contradicts the gradual training the Buddha proposed.

    The ability to achieve deep concentration would seem to be a powerful technique for dealing with some aspects of the dark night – for example maintaining energy and de-stressing. Having a lot of compassion for oneself would seem to be a foundation that could help in the dark night too.

    I’m wondering if Vipassana for someone new to meditation is a bit like giving an electric nail gun to someone learning how to use a hammer 🙂

    Maybe some intensive training in concentration and brahma vihara before jumping into a vipassana retreat ?

    Cheers,
    Mark

    • I agree with this – the more concentration the better! And Brahma Viharas are very good prep work for vipassana. These will certainly make the process smoother and more gentle. There can never be enough compassion in meditation. And if I could plan out each person’s meditation, then I would always have them start with concentration and metta, and build to vipassana once these are strong.

      But the reality of how people get into meditation these days is very different than how people got into a practice a hundred years ago, when you would visit the temple or a guru, do what they teach you, and get training there one-on-one and in a group over the course of years. More and more people are starting meditation based on watching talks on youtube, reading books, attending a workshop, learning it from their doctor or therapist, or dropping in a few times to a vipassana class at the local community college or yoga studio. The old models of developing morality, concentration, and insight within the guidance of a teacher and community are breaking down. Most people that contact me are well on their way into the path of insight but have never gone on a retreat or received formal guidance from a teacher.

      For that reason, I think it is more critical than ever that people clearly understand what practice they are doing and what it leads to. This is especially true with vipassana. It’s my hope that in a world where developing trust in a teacher or institution over the course of years is less and less common, people are given as much information as possible up front so that they can make an informed choice. This may be like giving a nail gun to some learning to use a hammer, as you suggest, but I don’t see any other option at this point. People come to me with the nail guns already. My job is to help them slow down, respect it, and understand how to use it.

  5. Hi Ron, it makes sense that there are a number of people jumping in the “deep end” given how accessible the techniques are. Those people need support like you are offering.

    One scenario is that of a meditator finding themselves in trouble and seeking help.

    Another scenario is an aspiring meditator (I’ll put myself in this category) finding out about this information before they get into trouble. It is difficult to find good advice on how to approach the path in a wise way.

    There are bits and pieces that appear to fit together, for example I’ve found out about the brahma vihara, some people are claiming that the lower jhanas are attainable by mere mortals relatively rapidly which is motivating for the concentration practise.

    Often these aspects are presented in a partial view e.g. someone offering retreats on attaining the jhanas, someone else offering retreats focused on metta, someone else offering vipassana. For a beginner it is hard to find a process that seems reasonably holistic. Maybe there is a tendency toward specialisation for instructors.

    I agree there is a lot of work to do to help those who are in trouble and raise awareness of those who are not yet in trouble, there also needs to be some advice on how to “avoid” the trouble 🙂 Avoid is probably not the right word – there will inevitable be difficulties but they should ideally remain manageable i.e. not dangerous or debilitating.

    It would be great to have your suggestions for establishing a solid practise. Perhaps books or methods etc that give a more balanced approach.

    Thanks,
    Mark

  6. That is a very good idea Mark. Look for a future post on this very topic. Hopefully I can put something together that help folks put the pieces into a coherent whole.

    • Thanks Ron. I was reading an exchange between Kenneth Folk & Gary Weber. It highlights how difficult it is to communicate about these things. For someone trying to make sense of it all it is extremely confusing – because many claims are directly or indirectly in conflict. It is almost like there needs to be a “meta-spirituality” a sort of guide to finding a guide.

  7. Ron dosnt metta help you be nicer to others ? to be more moral ?
    dosnt vipassana do the same thing ? isnt samatha and vipssana both help improve “mundane” concentration ? dont they help in dealing with procrastination ? vipassana seems to be a great solution to OCD – and it stoped my sleep walking – maybe not sure but maybe it cured my acne (but maybe i just got older) –
    Isnt vipassana helping you to deal with stuff and not run away from them? ect ect ect

    Arent this some benefits of the practice ? it does seem that while it shows there is no you it also contains benefits – maybe even before passing the dark knight ?

    do you belive in rebirth (in the buddhist sense) ?

    • Ron dosnt metta help you be nicer to others ? to be more moral ?
      dosnt vipassana do the same thing ? isnt samatha and vipssana both help improve “mundane” concentration ? dont they help in dealing with procrastination ? vipassana seems to be a great solution to OCD – and it stoped my sleep walking – maybe not sure but maybe it cured my acne (but maybe i just got older) –
      Isnt vipassana helping you to deal with stuff and not run away from them? ect ect ect

      Arent this some benefits of the practice ? it does seem that while it shows there is no you it also contains benefits – maybe even before passing the dark knight ?

      do you belive in rebirth (in the buddhist sense) ?

      (reposting cause i forgot to mark “Notify me of new comments via email” so please respond to this comment)

      • There are a lot of questions here, and I’m not sure I can answer them all in this reply. How about I take the first one? That is usually the most urgent one in a person’s mind. Yes, metta does help you to be nicer to others – and to yourself! It doesn’t just make you act nicer, it makes you feel nicer toward others. Vipassana has a different effect. It’s job is to help you see the three characteristics. It can lead to people being nicer, but it isn’t really the main function of insight. However, because insight frees you from illusion you will feel liberated and happy, and a happy person is generally a nice person. I’d recommend doing both metta and vipassana. You don’t have to do just one. They go great together.

  8. The “Jungian” in my likes this: “…Even though the sense of “I” doesn’t know why, there is still a drive that impels some people to meditate. It is an undercurrent in your life that nags at you that is much deeper than the “I.” You may not fully understand what it is, and you will likely express it in all kinds of ways…”
    So much of our lives are driven by unconscious forces. And here is an unconscious force that drives towards wisdom, a wisdom that crushes the dreams of the conscious sense of “I”.
    Nice article and wonderful website!

  9. What an incredible piece of writing. Thanks Ron! I find I can never quite articulate to those close to me why I meditate. Those last couple paragraphs really express my view.

  1. Pingback: My inability to meditate properly is really stressing me out – The National | Meditation Surprise

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