Meditation serves the greater goal of wisdom. We practice awareness in the service of wisdom.
~ Joseph Goldstein (taken from his podcast Insight Hour)
As meditation reaches god-like status, let’s take a breather and step backwards for a moment.
There are people claiming meditation does everything from making you more creative and a better problem solver to curing depression and anxiety to turning your shit into solid gold. OK, maybe not that last one, but you get my point.
In my short time on this earth, I have seen more health fads come and go than I care to count. I will admit to getting caught up in a few of them and, perhaps worse, looking down on people for getting caught up in others. And what I’ve come to understand is that we all desperately want a magic bullet to life’s problems.
Whatever science eventually tells us about meditation, I doubt science will determine it to be a panacea. That being said, I don’t think science is going to lump meditation into the same group as the snake oils of old, either.
Here’s my disclaimer. I have been practicing meditation on and off for about five years and daily for a year. I have never been to a meditation retreat and I don’t stray too far outside of what some pretty standard mobile apps tell me to do.
My experiential knowledge tells me that meditation has been an essential tool in understanding my inner life. But, when I consider what exactly it has done for me, the answer gets a little fuzzy.
What I do know is that meditation has disentangled me from my thoughts and emotions. Not in the sense that I feel things less, but in the sense that I don’t identify with them as much. It feels like I’ve taken a step away from my thoughts and emotions and gained a better perspective on them. They now control me less.
This has resulted in all kinds of interesting things. For one, it’s opened up the space for me to ask myself whether how I acted a moment ago aligns with how I want to act. In other situations, it’s allowed me to see resistance to new or conflicting ideas, which in turn has helped me to absorb information that I might have otherwise ignored.
But, I’ve also noticed something very important about meditation: it hasn’t magically solved my problems. They’re still there. Lurking. Waiting to jump out at me when I least expect them.
For me, meditation has been essential in identifying problems. It’s like meditation brings me, forcefully and abruptly, to a door and on the other side of that door is the possibility of a better life. Yet, that door is closed until I figure out a way of opening it. And meditation, per se, isn’t going to show me how.
It is my knowledge and, dare I say, wisdom that I use to determine how best to open that door. And how I choose to open that door matters. I could turn the knob or I could kick it down, and each option has consequences for what’s waiting on the other side.
For example, if I notice that I am nervous about a presentation I need to give to my work colleagues, meditation will not provide me with guidance on how to deal with that nervousness. I might practice the presentation until I know I can do it well. I might watch a funny video right before the presentation to cause my mind to be more positive. Or, I might simply try to ignore my nervousness.
In Buddhist traditions, meditation is accompanied by the dharma, which generally refers to the teachings of the Buddha, including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. There are many translations of dharma, but it is commonly translated as right way of living or path of rightness.
I like to think of dharma simply as wisdom or living skillfully.
Although I would agree that we gain a certain kind of wisdom through meditation, this wisdom is mostly about the inner workings of the mind. While this wisdom can be invaluable for attaining a useful perspective on thoughts and emotions, it’s not going to help me figure out the best way to approach the nervousness I feel about my presentation.
You see, my nervousness might be caused by my fear of failure or making mistakes, or by my desire for particular outcomes, like making the audience laugh or impressing my coworkers. These are unskillful ways of opening the door that meditation alone will not correct.
It is dharma — wisdom — that provides essential insight into how to think of oneself as human — how best to open the door.
For instance, the idea of non-attachment has helped me to come to terms with many things, like the outcomes of presentations. Non-attachment, which is often confused with a lack of caring (e.g., detached, unattached), is the mindset of accepting the nature of reality as changing and mostly beyond our control.
Until recently, I had an unskillful attachment to the outcomes of presentations: I wished for my presentations to be without mistakes; I wished for my audience to be engaged or enjoy my presentations; and I wished to impress my audience.
But none of these wishes were ever within my control.
Although this rich and complex topic deserves much more discussion, I bring it up merely because I know that meditation would not have magically granted me the wisdom of non-attachment. It’s true that meditation might have helped me see that I was nervous about my presentation, but it would have been silent on what to do about it.
And I think this is what’s missing from the conversation about meditation — the role that wisdom plays in helping us understand what to do in the face of life’s most difficult problems, which meditation helps to illuminate.
I believe that, in time, meditation will be seen to be at least as crucial to human flourishing as good diet and exercise. But, so too will be the learning of wisdom — how to live skillfully.
Just as none of us need to start the endeavor of science or business or art completely from scratch, neither do we each need to start the endeavor of how to live a good life completely from scratch. We have ample teachings to learn from.
So perhaps don’t settle for just a meditation practice. Perhaps also immerse yourself in ancient and modern philosophies.
Because the next time meditation leads you to a door, you may want an option besides kicking it down.