Why meditate?

By the question "why meditate?" I don't want to refer to the possible benefits of meditation, but rather what one does during meditation in the most abstract sense, the driving purpose for meditation as an activity. I have been in several meditation sessions (in Houston, Silver Spring, Jacksonville, and Freiburg) and have picked up a common thread by Western lay meditators that one meditates in order to "be in the moment." I believe that this is also a typical layperson's opinion, that meditation trains you or allows you to enjoy being in the moment. I never really bought that -- probably because I never really understood what it meant. So I was on the search for a different answer to this question.

I have now come to believe that meditation has a very different purpose, and I came to this idea through mindfulness of breathing practices. In life, you are controlled by your mind, or more specifically, your thoughts. Thoughts can be purely internal or can lead to action. In the practices by B. Alan Wallace I have been doing, he encourages meditators not to be pursued by thoughts, not to get carried away by imaginings, by the content, by the then and there. The lesson is: you may have a thought, for example, that you want to speak to someone about something later, but simply just don't go there. Don't start imagining how you would phrase something, or where would be a good place to meet. Don't get carried away. Meditation trains you to release these thoughts in order to return to the meditative practice, which is usually focusing on a "meditative" object like the breath or mental awareness (not to return to not thinking as a lot of people tend to believe).

The way I see it, much of one's day is getting carried away by thoughts. You have a thought, and now it has control. You can see this with new technologies as well. I've seen college students for whom, as soon as a question about a movie pops into their head, they are off to look up imdb or wikipedia. Or maybe they experience something and they just have to update their facebook status or write an email. Their thoughts have total control and carry them away, sometimes at an alarmingly high rate. In other words, the number of thoughts they reject to entertain is very low. This causes excitement, lack of concentration, lowered productivity, and a constant tension.

In mindfulness of breathing or any meditative practice, however, you do not get carried away by thoughts. You don't pursue them; you let them be. And when you truly don't pursue them, they disappear and you can return to the breath or other object. The main challenge is of course that it is hard to get carried away by your object; there is nothing interesting about the breath so you can only focus on it by settling the mind. So the important part is not getting carried away by involuntary thoughts. They are simply released, which in the practices I am doing is mainly by using the out-breath, and you return to the practice.

In fact, the main obstacle to concentration in general is the steady stream of involuntary thoughts not related to the activity you want to concentrate on. That seems to be a good definition of distraction: having unrelated thoughts, desires, and meanderings, which sometimes even lead to action. You may be sitting at the computer working, then think about something unrelated, and all of the sudden you are getting up out of your chair to do something else! Distraction in action! Distraction embodied!

It is very important to stress that most of our thoughts are in fact involuntary. While sometimes we choose to think about something explicitly, but most of the time thoughts happen to us. In meditation, this becomes so much clearer because you are sitting there, wanting to meditate, and you experience a rush of all kinds of crazy thoughts that take you away to the past events, hypothetical situations, various emotional states and urges, you name it.

But in mindfulness of breathing, you slowly let these thoughts pass without distraction and without grasping onto them, and the mind will eventually settle. At this point you can see why mindfulness of breathing can be used to enhance concentration. This is what I am using it for now in line with the book Attention Revolution by B. Alan Wallace and his guided meditations on iTunes. In line with what I have been saying, it should be no surprise that one of key components to concentration is in fact relaxation. Relaxation practice gives you the state of mind that is prepared not to get carried away at every moment.

But back to the central question: What does meditation do for you? What do people try to accomplish in meditation? What is the goal of meditation? I said that many people think of meditation as, in some form or another, related to "being in the moment." I think this means that either meditation trains you for it, allows you to enjoy it, or just allows you a chance to simply be in the moment during the day. My view is different. I would meditation is unique in life in that it allows you an opportunity not to get carried away by your thoughts. It gives a time during the day where you do not pursue thoughts, where involuntary thoughts do not have their bite, where you for once feel in control, relaxed, still, and peaceful. This is the path to discovering more about the nature of the mind, and therefore not primarily about "being in the moment."

Meditation in regards to concentration is for me also about being more autonomous as a thinking creature. You have the mental state to attend to what you want to. No doubt involuntary thoughts have some benefit (brilliant ideas can suddenly "pop" into your head), but meditation seems to me to only block bad, "unwholesome" thoughts (as Buddhist terminology would have it). I think if a brilliant or truly worthy involuntary thought does pop into your head, you will certainly notice it no matter what meditation practice you have been doing.

So the only advantage that there could be to being "natural" (i.e. untrained in meditation) where lots of involuntary thoughts are always bouncing around in your head is that somehow this way of being increases the chances of having good involuntary thoughts that are worth paying attention to. I doubt this is true. I think meditation calms your mind and only tosses out the bad.

From my personal experience, I can say that these past 7 months -- from the start of 2010 until now in which I have meditated every morning except for a handful -- have been a significant improvement in my daily internal mental experience and thoughts, the even-keel I feel inside, and, most importantly, how I actually behave.

P.S. I have made these types of arguments before, which are of the pattern: People say X, but I really think Y is what is going on. Often I get a frustrating retort, which goes like: I agree with you that Y is what is happening, but that is really just X anyway (or that is just implied by X).

Applied to this post, that means that not being pursued by thoughts is just a byproduct of being in the moment. Sounds plausible enough, but I think it's wrong. You wouldn't put so much weight on "not pursuing thoughts" just because you are trying to "be in the moment." These are just two separate ideas. Aren't your thoughts in the moment anyway? Why not pay attention to them?

One response is that being in the moment means something like listening to the sounds you hear or staring quietly at an object for a long time. But the problem is that these outside qualities give "being in the moment" an external emphasis, while "not pursuing thoughts" has an internal emphasis. And meditation is all about internal experience, so emphasis should be laid on that. So I would suggest that "not pursuing thoughts" is a much better goal to make clear to beginning meditators rather than the clich├ęd and misleading "being in the moment." What do you think?