The Function of Meditation

Written on May 23, 2010. Written by .

A couple years ago I started coming across references to meditation in a variety of sources.  They all suggested that sitting down and trying to focus on one thing for a while would reduce stress, improve health, and make you a happier person.  So I researched meditation a bit more and gave it a try.  However, in those initial attempts I found myself becoming frustrated at how poor my focus was and I ended up feeling worse than when I started  (this is known as paradoxical relaxation).  It was impossible to convince myself to continue with the practice.

Although I stopped meditating, I didn’t give up on my research.  I went to some Buddhist clubs and read a variety of books on Buddhism and meditation.  In the process, I learned that my problem was that I was holding my mind too tightly.  In other words, my efforts at concentration were too intense and it was causing stress.  As Sakyong Mipham teaches, “The basic premise of meditation is ‘not too tight, not too lose.'” – Turning your mind into an ally, page 215.

Once I realized this, I decided to start meditating again, but immediately got stuck on the opposite problem: being too loose.  I was just sitting there, thinking and analyzing.  So naturally I wasn’t getting any benefits.  As Mipham puts it, “If you’re not crisp and fresh in recognizing and releasing thoughts, you’re not really meditating; you’re ingraining sloppiness.  Those thoughts will gain power, and eventually you won’t be meditating at all.  You’ll just be thinking.”– Turning your mind into an ally, page 117. But at least this time it wasn’t as difficult.  I didn’t really mind taking a break to think, so I continued trying every day, hoping that my mind would settle down.  A month went by with no signs of progress in my mental calm, but a certain type of progress did take place.  I became directly aware of the lack of control that I had over my mind.

When I thought about why I couldn’t focus, I realized it was because my willpower to focus was weaker than the urge to process my thoughts.  Most of my thoughts just seemed too important to dismiss.  It felt dangerous to forget about them without at least writing them down.  And often I felt that I should figure out the issues that popped into my head before continuing with meditation.  I also had fantasies pop into my mind.  I knew they weren’t important, but it was still hard to dismiss them because it felt so good to think about them.

I began to see what was happening.  Although I had made the decision that I wanted to meditate for a few minutes, there was an irrational emotional part of my mind that was overriding my commands.  My hypothesis is that this interference stems from attachment to life quality maximization.  This attachment makes everything seem more serious, which in turn makes it hard to quiet your mind.  Reciprocally, if you can succeed in dismissing these thoughts, then you are effectively demonstrating to your mind that the worries aren’t so serious and the fantasies aren’t so necessary.  As Mipham puts it, “Each time we acknowledge a fantasy or thought, we’re softening up our minds by becoming less bound to concepts and emotions.” – Turning the mind into an ally, page 95.

Meditation helps you disentangle attachment from your thought process so that worries seem less worrisome, the urge to plan seems less urgent, and fantasies seem less irresistible.  As Mipham says, “By letting a thought go, …  you’re letting go of the need to be endlessly entertained and consumed.” – Turning the mind into an ally, page 116.  Considering that most attachments are constructed from our thoughts, it makes sense that “letting go” of these thoughts through meditation will gradually deconstruct those attachments.  At the root of all attachment is the attachment to life quality maximization.  As I see it, one of the core benefits of meditation is to help you detach from life quality maximization.  This is something that can’t just be done directly through willpower.  The low level emotional parts of the brain don’t seem to respond well to our rational intentions.  But they do apparently responds to training – you weren’t attached to money when you were born.  Meditation is a form of cognitive training.  The relaxation effect is a nice side benefit, but there are plenty of other ways to get just as much relaxation.

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