What’s the point of meditation? This.
“Why should I meditate? What’s the point?”
Two people have asked me this question recently after the topic came up and I mentioned that I have mediated (almost) daily for the past five or six years.
Good question. As I wasn’t able to articulate a short, succinct answer and instead went into an unstructured monologue, I’ll try in a written way.
From my experience, mindfulness meditation (which is neither spiritual nor religious) teaches you to learn observing your thoughts and emotions.
It is a common misconception that meditation means to stop thinking for a period of time. Everyone who seriously tries to establish a meditation habit quickly realizes that this is an impossible undertaking: The mind never shuts up. Thoughts just keep coming. You let one thought go, experience at best a few seconds of quietness — and there is another thing crossing your mind. This process repeats itself indefinitely. Maybe those who meditate for many hours in a row or do a multi-day meditation retreat enter states in which thoughts get less frequent. But for the average causual meditator, the never-ending stream of thoughts is the default state.
In a recent podcast interview, the well-known author Robert Wright (I recommend his book “The moral animal”) described the phenomenon the following way: “If you get yourself to a sufficient state of quiet and you observe thoughts, suddenly it doesn’t seem like you are generating them. It seems like they kind of are drifting in from left field. You realize that maybe normally the situation is that thoughts actually enter my consciousness from somewhere in my brain and I automatically take ownership with them and assume that I am the originator of them. But if you really calm your mind you realize that actually thoughts are being injected into the consciousness.”
The moment you get consciously aware of this phenomenon, you have acquired the skill of observing your thoughts.
Some people possess this skill without ever having meditated, and other maybe never learn it despite years of meditation. But chances to acquire and refine the skill increase if you meditate.
So what’s the point of learning this skill?
By learning to observe your thoughts and feelings, you insert a new layer in between your thoughts and your actions. An awareness layer which enables you to watch yourself thinking; to watch your emotions and your impulses before they are being transformed into actions, decisions, interactions.
To be more precise: This layer always has been there. But you were unaware of its existence. Now that you have obtained control over this layer and can clearly see it, it changes your experience of yourself:
Before, you got angry.
Now you can observe yourself getting angry.
Before, you got scared.
Now you can observe yourself getting scared.
Before, you got worried.
Now you can observe yourself getting worried.
Before, you got jealous.
Now you can observe yourself getting jealous.
Before, you defended your point of view.
Now you can observe yourself defending your point of view.
Before, you said something biased.
Now you can observe yourself saying something biased.
Before, you lied.
Now you can observe yourself lying.
Before, you were looking for confirmation for something you claim to be true.
Now you can observe yourself looking for confirmation.
And so on.
In the old state, you were powerless. Stuff was happening and your body and mind just acted on it. You felt like your emotions and impulses were in charge. In the new state you actually get the chance to stop the process from happening, because you are in control of the layer in between. You can question your initial impulses, reactions, emotions, if you conclude that they don’t serve you.
In his award-winning book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman describes two different categories of human decision making and thinking: System 1 (the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach) and System 2 (the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates). In the prehistoric times in which the brain evolved, System 1 was a life-saver. In today’s modern and complex world, it sometimes can be an obstacle and a source of unnecessary suffering.
Once meditation has enabled you to observe your mind’s activity and control the additional layer in between your thoughts/feelings and actions, you gain at least some power over System 1. There is no guarantee that being aware of what’s going on will let you control the outcome. Often, impulses and emotions are pretty strong. But being aware of all this still is the prerequisite. The philosophy of Stoicism can be an additional supporting force.
If you in professional and private life want reason and intelligent thinking to be the driving force behind your actions and decisions, not (negative) emotions and primal impulses, then meditation is one, and maybe the best way to get there.
Sign up for my weekly email loaded with great things to read about the digital world. Sent to more than 500 verified subscribers (October 2017).