Updated: Feb 20, 2021
The idea of meditation can be daunting. It’s safe to say that most people do not want additional routines piled on to their already busy schedule. As the world tugs for our attention, we shift our focus from one thing to the next, day after day, without thinking much on the absurdity of it all. One of the more common reasons for not starting a meditative practice is the sheer time allocation required to reach the traditional sense of enlightenment. For many Buddhist ideologies, this state of mind is often regarded as the end goal -- a state in which the person is free from thoughts.
Goal oriented teachings help many in their pursuit for long lasting peace. Without the goal, they never would have started. Many argue, however, that the goal of enlightenment presents a paradox to the ideology. In this article, I will be comparing a form of meditation against the general idea of enlightenment. In doing so, I hope to extract the objective benefits from the practice of meditation to show that subjective differences can be felt the moment one begins to engage in the practice.
When starting a meditative practice, the benefits become apparent: less stress, a clearer mind, and the feeling of being present. Having the trained ability to observe thoughts as they appear and not be overtly controlled by them is a superpower on its own. Why, then, do so many meditative ideologies have the end goal of enlightenment? Therein lies the paradox. If enlightenment is the goal for any practitioner, they are pulling themselves out of the present moment with the thought of future gratification. This, in itself, goes against the very idea of being free from thought and suffering. As we will see, the secular benefits of meditation do not have to be found at the top of the mountain. Rather, the metaphorical act of climbing the mountain (maintaining a practice) is where the beauty of meditation is found. (Yes, the classic trope of enjoying the journey, not the destination.)
The logic of Mindfulness meditation is just that -- attaining a feeling of being present with no strings attached. The teachings that correlate with this type of meditation are often aligned with other traditional practices: relinquishing the ego, deep introspection, abolishing the idea of the self, and recognizing your stream of consciousness for what it is. To realize that the present moment and previous memories is all we have seems trite, but it’s the truth. And with this truth, one begins to find that attention is a limited currency, and its value is priceless.
The science surrounding meditation is growing and improving. For most, the subjective benefits are enough to continue a practice. But, if a little coercion is needed to start, there are plenty of objective benefits to be found. To name just a few: -Reduced stress (Bonus: Stress induced conditions are also put in check)
-Lowered anxiety and depression -Improved self-image, greater emotional health
-Lengthened attention span -Improved sleep -Decreased blood pressure
This matters, a lot. Secular meditation provides the general practitioner the ability to reap benefits from a presence of mind without the need for the ideology in which it began. This is not a knock on eastern philosophy. It has cultivated a skill over the past few thousand years that is raising eyebrows within the scientific community. My goal here is for the reader to recognize that the benefits of meditation are not found at an end goal far off in the future -- which is what often scares people off the practice itself. This is also not to say that anyone can sit down and begin without proper instruction. Just as physical fitness requires training and dedication, mental fitness requires a serious paralleled effort. Some train their whole life… But this is not necessary to begin seeing results.
Beginning a practice can be extremely frustrating. Realizing that one has no control over the wilderness of their mind is enough to make them want to quit. Thoughts and feelings arise in consciousness from the moment we are born to the moment we die, and few stop long enough to realize just how out of control their mind truly is.
Why This Matters:
What does “being present” really mean?
Being present allows you to better engage with friends and loved ones. Being present allows you to work more efficiently. Being present relinquishes you of ruminations.
Being present reduces mental suffering. At the time of this writing, (June 9th, 2020) a deadly pandemic has swept the globe. Unemployment rates are sky high, and international tensions are growing. It’s important that we are present and have clarity when navigating these waters.
I still remember the first time I sat down to meditate. To most outsiders, it would appear that I have an easy environment to exert control over: a one bedroom apartment with a cat. How hard could it be to sit down and focus on my breath for ten minutes?
Within these first ten minutes, I realized just how little control I had over my own mind. How long had I been navigating the world this way? Often, our realities are so distorted by the stories we are formulating in our mind that we are missing the present moment for days on end. At that moment, it hit me. I needed to get this under control. How can I be expected to navigate the world and reduce suffering for others when I have no control over my own mind?
Not all problems can be solved through meditation, but it’s a good place to start.