A common mistake we make with meditation

“Meditation serves the greater end of wisdom… We practice awareness in the service of wisdom.”
~ Joseph Goldstein

Meditation is gaining momentum in many areas of society. It’s being taught in schools, businesses, healthcare, and even the military.

Although the scientific study of meditation is in its infancy (and we are discovering that there have been many poorly designed studies), there are hints that meditation has interesting benefits. For instance, research suggest it sharpens our attention, increases resiliency to stress, increases compassion, and reduces many kinds of personal biases (see here).

And these potential benefits are great.

But pursuing meditation for these kinds of ends misses what is arguably the most meaningful aspect of meditation.

A wasted superpower

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years across many different cultures and religions.

But, when it is taught in North America, it is often stripped of the teachings that would have traditionally accompanied it. This, I suspect, is to make it more palatable to our increasingly non-religious society.

I am not a religious person. But I’ve come to see over the past couple years that rejecting ancient philosophy just because it happens to come bundled within a religion is a bad idea.

Over the course of human history, there have been over 100 billion of us. To think that none of those people had anything interesting to say about how to live a good life is a little conceited.

This is why I think that secularizing meditation, or at least teaching it in a vacuum, might be ignoring its greatest benefit.

Meditation is about training our brains to be mindful. Mindfulness is a trait we can develop to observe the mind.

Mindfulness is the most powerful tool available to us to investigate our conscious experience. It gives us the ability to look at our minds to discover what’s true.

Mindfulness is like a superpower.

Without it our minds run amok. Without it we have no compass and no map. Without it we can’t see what is really happening to us.

Without mindfulness, conscious experience becomes like a tiny boat on a vast, stormy ocean — it’s in for a bumpy ride.

When we practice secularized meditation, we are developing mindfulness but we’re not being shown how to use it.

It’s like inventing a plow and then keeping it in the shed.

It’s like having a computer and then doing all the calculations by hand.

We are wasting this ability — this superpower — because we’re not being taught what to do with it.

So, what do we do with it?

Mindfulness in action

Buddhism offers an interesting perspective on the purpose of mindfulness.

The Buddha is believed to have said, “Whatever has the nature to arise will also pass away.”

Is this obvious to you?

Sure, intellectually we understand our favorite TV shows must end, our dinners must end, the sunsets must end, our lives must end.

But on what level do we understand?

If I were to ask you whether everything changes, you’d say, “Yes, of course everything changes. Duh!”

And then the clouds would roll in and you’d lament the lost sunshine.

There is a gap between what we know intellectually and what we know experientially that only mindfulness can fill.

The way that mindfulness fills this gap is by allowing us to see the changing nature of reality on a moment to moment basis.

With mindfulness, we see the arising and passing of thoughts.

With mindfulness, we see the arising and passing of emotions.

With mindfulness, we see experientially that nothing lasts.

When we understand on the experiential level that everything changes, we gain the wisdom that we cannot stop change, no matter how hard we try.

So, this is the great wisdom that mindfulness teaches us through direct experience: everything changes.

Through this wisdom, we cling less to our desire to be happy and our desire to avoid suffering. We hold on less tightly to reality being exactly the way we want it to be.

We appreciate the sun while it’s shining, at peace with the knowledge that it cannot last.

We allow ourselves to feel anger, at peace with the knowledge that it will pass.

We enjoy our vacation, at peace with the knowledge that we will soon return to the grind.

When we stop clinging to what we have and stop grasping at what we wish we had, we open up the space to appreciate what is happening in the moment. When we let go of our clinging and grasping, we are finally present and able to be at peace there.

Unfortunately, without mindfulness, without knowing experientially that life is in constant flux, we are attached to reality being a particular way. We are attached to the familiar, the happy, the joyful, the pleasurable, and when those things inevitably change, we despair.

Without mindfulness, we wager our happiness on things being exactly how we want them to be. We wager our happiness on reality bending to our will.

Do you make that bet?

The fact is, this is a poor life strategy that most of us use and is the cause of much of our suffering. We use this strategy, not because we don’t understand intellectually that everything changes, but because we don’t see the changes experientially.

This is the wisdom of mindfulness.

Once we are mindful, once we see the truth of reality, we can finally start to undo some of our unwise patterns of thinking.

As the wisest Jedi in the universe once said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

But, if we don’t use the mindfulness we develop through meditation, we miss out on finding this wisdom.

Therefore, when we teach meditation without giving instructions on how to use mindfulness, we run the risk of losing its most profound aspect.

We leave the plow in the shed.