This is a complicated question to answer, but I think it’s worth answering for those that care. I worry that it will come across as preachy, but my point is not to convince you to meditate and become a Buddhist; I just want to explain why in the hell I would bother to spend so many hours sitting on my ass doing nothing. Also I enjoy talking about it and don’t get many opportunities to do so, so here’s an explosion of words.
For 2500 years, meditators in the tradition of the Dharma (ie, Buddhism) have reported, when following the instructions of skilled and experienced teachers, having experienced a predictable accumulation of positive traits and irreversible changes in worldview.
What are these changes? Well, that’s a little bit more complicated, and I haven’t experienced all of them myself, so I’ll have to go at least partially on the reports of those who claim to have experienced these changes.
(It’s worth mentioning that at least some of these changes have been measured with brain scanning technology. Permanent physiological changes of some kind have taken place in the minds of some very experienced meditators. That much, at the very least, is as close to a verifiable fact as we can get.)
According to the Dharma, the world as we know it contains three interconnected characteristics:
Let’s break these down.
Everything in our experience is always changing. Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts. You can bear witness to this on the macro-level (see: the birth and eventual death of planets, stars, and the known universe; evolution) and the micro-level (quantum physics, the arising and passing away of every moment of our experience (that one might sound a little confusing if you haven’t done much or any meditation)).
This is essentially a corollary of the first characteristic. Nothing ever satisfies us. Things make us happy for a bit, but eventually we get bored or complacent with them. Some things make us very unhappy in and of themselves. Why is this? Well, we’ll come back to that…
This is the tough one.
Are you your body? Are you your mind? Are they even separable? Are you an accumulation of your experiences? Are you your consciousness? Where is your consciousness? What happens to it when you die? (We’ll ignore popular Buddhist ideas of reincarnation for now; that’s not something I (and many other meditators) subscribe to.) Where is you? Which part of your brain are you? Which mood are you? Is the ‘you’ that you are around your parents the real ‘you’? Or maybe the ‘you’ with your best friend? Or with your significant other? Or when you’re by yourself? How can any of those be more or less ‘you’?Perhaps more simply… maybe there is no solid, separate ‘you.’ Maybe you’re just a bundle of processes of a mind and body accumulating memories and activities and habits and actions, making impressions on other bundles of processes.
Maybe this is a scary thought, but indeed, within the realm of neuroscience, we haven’t discovered any soul or “seat of consciousness” or “true self.” The lack of any concrete, unchanging, separate, or distinctive ‘you’ makes sense from a scientific perspective and groks with the experiences of those who have done a significant amount of meditating. So you’re still a real thing, a living organism with a body, a mind, and consciousness… you’re just not more than that, even though it often feels like it.
Through meditation, those three characteristics of reality can be seen more clearly. But what do we do about all that? The ‘me’ I feel like I am is an illusion, everything is changing, and nothing makes me ultimately happy.Well, 2500 years ago a guy named Siddhartha Gautama saw that and sought some way to deal with it. He did a lot of meditating that made him relaxed and blissful and essentially ‘high’ (funny how history repeats itself; this seems to be the goal of a significant swath of modern McMindfulness), but he saw that it wasn’t really going anywhere. So he tried some different things, and eventually, through experimentation with his own mind and first-person experience, changed himself.
After integrating what he had experienced, what had changed, and how it had happened, he figured out how to conceptualize it and teach it to others. This is the Dharma, or what is often referred to as Buddhism (though the religion of Buddhism, as with all religions, comes with a lot of baggage of its own).
Over 2500 years people have added their own ideas about what Siddhartha (or the Buddha) taught, adapting it to their own cultures. Sometimes the original teachings would be warped and misconstrued, and sometimes folks would figure out ways to realize what he did in different ways. As with everything, it’s a mixed bag, and everyone basically has to figure out for themselves what to take and what to leave (or just accept it all on blind faith if that’s your thing, although the Buddha did encourage people to not take his word for it, but to see for themselves the truth of what he taught).
The Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path
- Dukkha (the Pali word for the aforementioned ultimately-unsatisfying nature of our experience) is to be seen and understood.
- The cause of dukkha is craving/attachment/clinging. It is to be abandoned (easily said, but obviously extremely difficult in practice).
- Our dukkha can be ended (and not just through death or in some imagined “future life” if one believes in reincarnation). This cessation is to be realized. (Note that he didn’t claim physical or emotional pain could be ended. As long as we have a body and mind, those are both inevitable. The suffering that ends is the suffering brought about by desire for things to be different than they are, for things to last.)
- There is a path to that end (yet another list (the Buddha was quite fond of Dungeons & Dragons-y lists)). It is to be cultivated.
- Right view
- Right intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right livelihood
- Right effort
- Right mindfulness
- Right concentration
- You learn about the Dharma.
- You resolve to act in the world more wisely.
- You speak more kindly and wisely.
- Your actions are kinder and wiser.
- The way you make money is as kind and wise as possible.
- You resolve to practice meditation wisely and kindly in order to see the reality of these teachings for yourself (the kindness here is towards yourself).
- You develop sati (translated as mindfulness, but again, not a great translation). You can notice all there is to notice in your experience, in the "outside" world and in your own mind.
- You develop samadhi (translated as concentration (another ‘ehh’ translation)). Your attention is gathered rather than scattered. You learn not to follow every momentary whim of your mind.
You may notice that my explanation of the eightfold path is basically the first time I brought kindness into this. Although it hasn’t been explicitly mentioned before, the quality of metta (usually translated as “lovingkindness”) (along with associated qualities of compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) is a vital ingredient throughout the Buddha’s teachings even though it isn’t very explicit in this more general overview. Indeed, when the Buddha first realized all this (when he “awoke” or, to use another poorly applied Western term, became “enlightened”), he first didn’t think he should even try to share it, thinking it was too subtle and difficult. But it was his compassion for those suffering in the world that led him to decide otherwise.Furthermore, it might be tempting to call this whole ordeal selfish; after all, maybe this will end our own suffering, but what about everyone else’s? But the whole idea isn’t just for one person to suffer less; it’s for that person to see more clearly the causes of suffering and alleviate it for everyone. This may sound like an excuse to become some kind of Buddhist missionary, but that’s definitely not the intention.In all of our interactions with people in the world, we can use what we learn in meditation to be kinder, gentler, more understanding, and to work to create a better world with less suffering for everyone. Telling someone to “go meditate” is not useful if they don’t have a roof over their head, if they’re harassed for their gender or sexuality or race, if their mind is telling them that the best way to feel better is to die but they can’t afford healthcare. These are all very solvable problems through means that are not esoteric or “spiritual.” As we see how interconnected we are, it only makes sense to try to alleviate as much suffering as possible for every living through whatever means we can. And that lovingkindness starts with oneself, with alleviating our own suffering, in showing ourselves compassion, in being celebrating our moments of joy, and approaching life with equanimity. Only then can we adequately do the same for others.
There’s a lot more to this, but I think this hits the best balance of completeness and readability to the best of my knowledge and skill.If you’re skeptical, I understand. It probably sounds nuts. I thought it was all nuts. But as I gradually learned more intellectually and experientially, I’ve started to come around to it all. I don’t blame you if you think I’m deluded or brainwashed. I would encourage you to try to be open-minded; keep the healthy skepticism, but maybe try not to be cynical!
If you’re intrigued, I’d encourage you to see if it checks out with your experience. There’s a lot of scholarship out there, both philosophical and scientific, that goes into these realms, and I’ve found reading about it to be helpful. More importantly, though, I’d encourage you to try meditating. There’s a ton of different ways to start these days; it’s easier than ever. Different methods will appeal to different folks. If you’d like recommendations of books, recordings, apps, etc, please ask.
Most importantly, don’t feel guilty or angry or bitter if you just think it’s stupid, overthinking things, woo-woo baloney, or anything along those lines. I don’t want to proselytize. I’m following what I think is a way to find greater peace and happiness for myself and those around me. If sharing this with you helps you do the same, I’d be delighted, but I really just want folks to have a basic understanding of what the hell kind of benefit I could get by spending so much time sitting on my ass doing nothing. I hope I’ve accomplished that to some degree, and if I’ve only furthered your bafflement, please accept my sincere apology.
Follow your own path towards your own happiness and the happiness of the rest of the world. That’s the most that I would ask.