Why, exactly, do we meditate? What’s the point? In a personal sense — not an academic one — how might we answer these questions?
Do we even need a point? More importantly, how might clarification of the point and purpose of our meditation practice be helpful?
We don’t meditate to become better at meditation. We meditate for some other purpose and it seems to me that our purpose matters for two major reasons. First, our purpose fuels our motivation. Second, our purpose points to our practice.
Purpose is motivation.
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a powerful why can conquer any unknown how.” In other words, if we have a big enough, strong enough, compelling enough reason for wanting to do something, we’ll do it. We’ll do it even when we think we don’t know how. We’ll do it when we’re wandering in the unknown (and sometimes meditation can feel like wandering in the unknown). The brain is a teleological (reasoning and purpose-based) device, fueled by our reasons for wanting to achieve a particular goal. It makes sense for us to tap into the natural functions of the brain as we embark on a practice of the mind and get clear on why, exactly, it is important to us.
It might seem improper, or even heretical, to suggest that we might have a goal or purpose in mind when practicing meditation, but even meditators in orthodox contemplative traditions actually make a conscious choice to commit to meditation and other practices for certain reasons. Their purpose might be enlightenment. While that might seem lofty to some of us, the reality is that most meditators are seeking greater insight and influence over their minds and behavior (particularly those aspects that don’t contribute to enhancing well-being, and especially those that bring suffering to self or others).
So let’s take a moment to concentrate on and clarify our purpose. Why have we come to a meditation practice? Why is this important to us? Why do we value working toward that goal? What’s our motivation?
Purpose points to practice.
There’s a smorgasbord of meditation practices, just as there’s a smorgasbord of approaches to exercise. In both, the purpose points to the means. If you want to run a half marathon then committing to daily swimming sessions would be nonsensical. Of course there will be some overlap and hours of breast stroke will likely improve your overall cardiovascular fitness. However, it’s going to be a whole lot more effective if you train for the purpose for which you’ve started the exercise practice.
It’s a useful analogy. Neuroscience and meditation researcher Dr. Richard Davidson once told The New York Times, “In Buddhist Tradition, the word ‘meditation’ is equivalent to a word like ‘sports’ in the U.S. It’s a family of activity, not a single thing.” Different meditative practices require different mental skills. The practice we choose should be appropriate to our personal characteristics (which include our unique neurological profile), our current life situation and our personal purpose.
Perhaps we come to meditation with a highly active and distractible mind (who doesn’t) — focused or closed attention techniques (breath or mantra) are going to ground us, assist us and set us up if we wish to venture into other approaches. If we struggle to infuse our daily life with the benefits of meditation, then mindfulness approaches are really going to help us on our way. If we’re struggling with forgiveness and feeling drained or poisoned by an inability to forgive ourselves or someone else then delving into loving kindness and compassion practices is likely to soothe our troubled hearts and minds.
We don’t meditate to become better at meditation. We meditate to become better at life, and that means different things to each of us. So let’s each complete this sentence: “I meditate (or I want to meditate) because …”
Let’s work with the natural functions of the brain to assist in committing to a journey that, like any journey, isn’t always easy and isn’t always clear. Sometimes we lose sight of why we’re even on our journey, and sometimes, when times are tough, we’re tempted to turn around or simply stop altogether. We don’t, and we won’t with our big-picture vision in mind. That’s the reason for getting clear on our personal purpose for meditation.