Meditation and mindfulness are two of the biggest trends around today. But what does their popularity tell us, and what does it mean for you? We are living through a cultural shift in our attitude towards the mind, whilst rediscovering the promise of awakening for each human being.
Meditation continues to soar in popularity.
From the ever-expanding body of scientific research to the numbers of prominent leaders professing to practice meditation, we are living through a contemplative renaissance.
Your Mum might have even got a Zen colouring book for Christmas.
In an age of distraction and shallowness, the simplicity and stillness promised by meditation draw more and more people into its centre of gravity.
Apps like Headspace and Calm have opened up the basics of meditation to millions of newcomers, providing bite-sized guided meditations to help people relax and de-stress. If people stick with it long enough, they find themselves on a deeper journey, and often a completely new way of approaching life.
But meditation has issues—whether it be the misleading images of perfectly-toned women blissfully meditating in full lotus on a beach, or a more general misunderstanding about what meditation means for us, individually and culturally.
Whilst we have plenty of research showing that meditation can lower blood pressure, or improve productivity at work, The Buddha certainly wasn’t giving sermons so that you could impress your doctor with your latest figures.
To say meditation is about relaxation is like saying that sex is about getting to see someone naked. That’s a nice part of it for sure, but there’s a lot more.
Alongside issues of presentation, many people who might otherwise be interested in contemplation still feel that it is something esoteric, something separate or incompatible with the demands of their complicated, messy lives.
I started meditating when I was 22, and quickly became obsessed with the promise of meditation, and specifically the allure of Enlightenment. Nearly a decade on, having experienced many of the fireworks, dips and subtle shifts of authentic contemplative practice, my understanding of the process is very different to when I began.
I couldn't have imagined the kind of views it would open up, and how much my idea of what meditation actually is or does would change.
So why does it matter at all?
Meditation is what you're already doing... badly
Meditation is a more fashionable term for the more fundamental process of contemplation.
Contemplation is your foundation. You are already doing it, whether you know it or not.
Contemplation is simply the act of focusing the mind on a single thing. Each time you make a decision, you contemplate. Each time you decide to focus at all, you are choosing one thing over the other—you are contemplating.
Each time we are confronted with new information, we contemplate. And even when we're not doing much of anything, we are contemplating the narrative of our lives: who we think we are, why she said that to us, and why I deserve more/less.
There's no way out, no escape. What matters is how much of this process is clear to us. Without reflection, it tumbles down the path of least resistance.
But through training attention, contemplation can become a platform from which to grow in every other aspect of your life, from the broad-ranging clarity it cultivates on the cushion, to the awareness it brings to the most mundane particulars of our lives.
Meditation breeds emotional intelligence
For many beginning in meditation, their first “a-ha” moment comes as a short yet unforgettable break from the onslaught of thought. The stunning silence, as a previously un-noticed hurricane of narrative suddenly dies down, is literally an awakening.
While welcome, what often follows is a confrontation with the currents that drove so many of these thoughts: our emotions.
Thoughts may seem to be the loudest parts of our interior life, but our emotions are often the ocean from which these thoughts merely bubble to the top.
It is not just the frequency but the sheer depth of feeling that may come as a surprise, especially to those who have managed to keep a comfortable distance from difficult emotions.
But who wants to feel that much, all the time? The ability to sit with an emotion, to truly feel anger and see how it breaks off into a compulsive thought—"That bitch! She always does this"—is a form of intelligence seldom recognised, but deeply valuable in our day-to-day lives.
An emotion has an ontological purity that is undeniable. Regardless of the reasons behind it, if you’re fucking angry, you are fucking angry. At that point, it's already happening, and we can seek to relate to the energy of anger without judging or shaming ourselves.
To honestly face our emotions is often synonymous with confronting pain. This is generally not something valued in a culture that promotes constant positivity and buoyancy.
But in fact the vast majority of all psychological issues—the issues that wreck lives, stunt potential, and stifle dreams—come from the avoidance of pain; suppressing a feeling of anger that might seem as though it would hurt others; numbing the sadness that may threaten to overwhelm you; distracting from the loneliness that might confirm that, really, no one is interested in you.
Meditation is no panacea, but it offers the opportunity to sit bravely and see clearly. Not a quick fix, but a true engagement with what we care about, and a commitment of responsibility to our own selves.
By rooting awareness in the body and the emotions, we stay at the ground zero of our emotional lives: to how we really are in that moment—whether elated, angry, jealous or just plain bored.
It means we cultivate an inner attunement to the village of voices within us, instead of just facing the pitchforks. It means listening to the whispers of resentment, before a wave of anger crashes into the next person who shows up in front of you.
In short, a better relationship with yourself, and a sincere commitment to being friends with yourself(s).
Meditation is seeing attention shape experience
On the most basic level, meditation is a conscious return to the underlying immediacy and truth of our experience.
It allows us to be awake to our lives, as they unfold moment to moment, rather than having life mediated solely through thought.
To live through thought is not wrong in itself, but it means that we interact primarily with our abstractions of life, rather than rubbing shoulders with the dynamism of life itself.
The problem is that to even appreciate what this might mean requires some basic contemplative insight, the kind that would allow someone to know thoughts as thoughts, and not just as an unquestioned fact. Until that has been seen, thoughts are not just thoughts.
Without that insight, we tend to fall into what we might call the default mode—the avoidance of pain, the pursuit of pleasure, aiming for “more” in all areas, and determining the value of our lives from how much “more” we have achieved.
Meditation offers a different approach that does not negate the value of what we create in the world.
Despite our tendency to associate happiness with money, status and things, it is how we pay attention to the present moment that largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, our lives.
You are not the author of many of your thoughts. Without an awareness of the automaticity of thought, we are largely propelled by the voices and beliefs of others, rather than the light of our own intelligence:
"And this is why training the mind through meditation makes sense—because it’s the most direct way to influence the mechanics of your own experience. To remain unaware of this machinery—in particular, the automaticity of thought—is to simply be propelled by it into one situation after another in which you struggle to find lasting fulfilment amid conditions that can’t provide it."
—Sam Harris, "Taming the Mind"
Meditation reveals the joy in the ordinary
Considering that we spend so much of lives seeking fulfilment and happiness, the fact that we can learn to sit still, both doing and being nothing, in total joy, is a big deal.
It's not something anyone can ever take from you, and its something you can take with you, anywhere you go.
The qualities cultivated through meditation—clarity, concentration, equanimity—allow us to unpack experiences like boredom and frustration, easing them free from the narrow constraints on which they depend to proliferate.
This malleability of experience reveals the wider potential of human experience, not just personally, but in how we communicate and live amongst others.
Meditation is an awakening to selflessness
Awakening is often described through analogy, for good reason.
It may be described as waking up from a dream.
When you wake up from a dream, there is often relief: a realisation that you were not actually confined to those conditions, as you thought.
You woke up and became aware of a much greater context: your waking life outside of the dream. That context was always there—you were just unaware of it, drooling in bed.
Waking up did not depend on you "solving" the dream, or proving that there was some logical contradiction within it. It didn't depend on changing anything in the dream or trying to dismiss it.
You simply woke up, to a larger context in which the dream was totally subsumed, without it being diminished or altered in any way.
What is traditionally known as Spiritual Enlightenment is just such an awakening to a deeper context. It does not necessarily change any part of ourselves, but rather roots our lives in a wider understanding that radically changes our view of life, whilst not explicitly modifying any particular within it.
We might have all kinds of goals in life—finding a beautiful partner, making millions in business, becoming a dangerous yet misunderstood superhero. These kinds of aspirations all take place within the context of our self-image: my personal history, what I will become, and who I should be.
Meditation does not deny or condemn these pursuits. But it does reveal something much more fundamental: the unconditional awareness of being a being, which is beyond the apparent division of hungry subject and fleeting object.
By cultivating an intimacy with this selflessness, we open to something much, much bigger than ourselves, regardless of the course we follow in life, and this opening can nourish us in profound ways.
This selflessness is the essence of all genuine spirituality, and the magnetic north of our deepest longings. It is a not a moral injunction to help others, but rather a direct comprehension of your nature, in this moment.
It is not to deny or escape ourselves, but rather to root the personal self in its radical, transpersonal context. It is to say that what you think you are is just one limited part of what you are and that your deeper identity has universal as well as personal aspects.
Selflessness is also referred to as emptiness in Buddhist teachings. Emptiness is the most radical fact of our existence, and learning to relate to this understanding constitutes a large part of the contemplative or spiritual journey.
It reveals what we all share in, and provides direct insight into compassion and what it means to be and do good, not through a new belief or divine decree, but as a direct clarity of perception.
The key here is to experiment and experience for oneself, as it is very easy to go around in circles forever talking about egos and awakenings. Experiences of selflessness are not limited to special people—they happen regularly today, to people sitting on cushions in retreat, or maybe just chopping vegetables for dinner.
Meditation alludes to the source of religion
Putting aside the modern rebellion against all things religion, it has undoubtedly had an impact on our civilisation like no other.
And at the root of each religion, we find the same patterns:
Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus and St. Paul. What did these four men have in common?
As Aleister Crowley points out, "No point of doctrine, no points of ethics, no theory of 'hereafter' do they share, and yet in the history of their lives we find one identity among many diversities."
Buddha was an ordinary Hindu nobleman, and then he experienced a rapid brain-change, after which he became a great Teacher.
Mohammed was a humble camel-driver, with no sign of exceptional intelligence or ambition, and then he experienced a rapid brain-change, after which he became Teacher, Conqueror, Law-Maker and Prophet.
We hear nothing of Jesus (save a few fables) until the age of 30, when he experiences a rapid brain-change, and puts forth a doctrine that is to overturn the Roman Empire and influence Western Civilization until the present.
St Paul, who took the teaching of Jesus and turned it into a militant movement, suffered an extreme form of brain-change, of which he tells us that he was temporarily struck blind and lifted up into the heavens, where he beheld things "of which it is not lawful to speak"
On all else but the experience of Illumination they disagree...
—Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising. p155-156
Meditation puts the mind back on the table
Our collective interest in meditation represents a more fundamental shift in our cultural attitudes towards the mind.
Since the rise of science as a key arbiter of truth, the mind—and subjective experience itself—have been downplayed, to the point of being discarded as a mere side-effect of physical interactions.
The fact that we've arrived at this situation is not because Western Science is "wrong", or because those wise Eastern folks have known the truth all along.
Science is extremely good at reducing complex phenomena to their constituent causes. However, when this approach meets with something as irreducible as your conscious experience, it breaks down. It means we end up with no way to even ask the appropriate questions in the first place, let alone come to meaningful answers.
Elements of the scientific attitude, mixed up with postmodernity, have turned into a wider cultural phenomenon that has many faces: a disinterest or disbelief in genuine wisdom, a moral relativism where there is no good or bad (just different beliefs to tolerate), and the adoption of a morose nihilism and irony in response to life.
A genuine confrontation with contemplation means reconsidering many basic beliefs of our secular age, primarily that we are merely animals on steroids, stumbling through a meaningless relative world, only glimpsing truth through an exposure to science.
Meditation is just the gateway
One might be forgiven for being fed up with hearing about meditation this and meditation that.
After all, meditation is just a means, not an end.
Meditation is a raft on a slowly cresting wave, which we might recognise as the re-emergence of contemplative wisdom.
It is not an "answer", but it asks the right questions of a paradigm that has collapsed the depth of human experience into genes and memes.
Its value lies not in its name or philosophy, but in what it leads us to through its sincere practice—a key to the deeper vistas of human potential.
It is an introduction, or rather a remembering, of our nature and depth, beyond basic appearance. The inexhaustible depth and mystery of our being, which is available to each of us right now.
Our challenge now is to root meditation in genuine wisdom practice, so that we are not just mindful for the sake of being mindful, but so that we are able to be better people—to achieve excellence—and support others in doing the same.