Why practice meditation?

When I talk about meditation, I mean both the formal on-the-cushion practice and also the on-the-go meditation that one can engage in while being fully engrossed in work or play.

The question I want to ask in this post is: “Why practice?” I mean, really, why bother at all? What exactly are we going to get?

One might ask the same about exercise. Why exercise? What exactly are we going to get out of it?

Let me address the second part of the question: “What will we get out of practicing meditation?”

The whole idea behind meditation is to develop three abilities: concentration, clarity, and equanimity. As we develop that, we will be able to notice the true nature of reality and eventually get liberated. By true nature, I mean being able to take note of the three characteristics of all phenomena, which are: impermanence, dukha (suffering or dissatisfaction), and no-self.

DevelopabilitiesConcentration, Clarity & Equanimity
Observetrue natureImpermanence, Dukha, No-Self

Let me quickly explain the three abilities.

  1. Concentration is the ability to retain the majority of one’s attention on an object of one’s choice.
    • The object could be breath, body sensations, mental content, flame, patterns behind one’s eyelids when closed, and so on. Anyone who has engaged in concentration practice knows that it’s crazy difficult to get our attention to stay put on an object.
    • As difficult as it is at first, one will also notice that with practice, one gets better and better at it.
    • Eventually, one will have what is called access concentration, which will leave them with the ability to observe things about their object that they would not have been able to notice otherwise.
    • This kind of observation naturally leads to insights, specifically into the true nature of things.
    • Knowing the true nature of things conceptually has a very limited impact on one’s being. It’s only when one can see it for themselves that the true impact of it ensues. So, developing concentration is a must!
  2. Clarity is the ability to see things apart.
    • Whenever we look at an object, initially the entire object occurs as a unified whole and can overwhelm us. But if we keep looking, sometimes intuitively and sometimes with the help of a guru, we will be able to pull apart individual components in that object.
    • When we look at our thoughts, for example, initially they appear solid. With practice, we can pull apart individual components like mental image, mental sound, and body sensations that make up the experience of thought.
    • Again, the theoretical knowing of it has far less impact than the experiential knowing of it that comes along with being able to see it with clarity.
  3. Equanimity is the ability to watch something clearly without freaking out.
    • A lot of things spook us at first, but once we get to hang around them for a while, they lose that grip over us.
    • You can imagine a newbie batsman in cricket getting freaked out while facing a fast bowler. However, with practice, they will be able to face the ball calmly and hit it to the boundary. Even the great Sachin Tendulkar freaked out when he had to face Shane Warne. With practice, however, he was able to own Shane Warne’s legendary spin.
    • One has to develop equanimity to confront a lot of uncomfortable truths about life.

The idea behind asking people to practice sitting on the couch and observing breathing is to have them develop

  • concentration to observe something as mundane as breath,
  • clearly pull apart all the individual sensations that make up the breath, and
  • stay equanimous to the experience of boredom, excitement, body pain, or anything else that shows up when one sits down to meditate

With practice, your mind will latch on to these abilities and, start revealing a whole lot of truths about your sensate reality. These truths are the three characteristics of reality, which for humans is sensate reality.

  1. All phenomena are impermanent.
    • Physical sensations are surely impermanent. There is no sensation, be it touch, sound, vision, smell, or taste, that lasts forever. All sensations arise, stick around for a very little while, and disappear completely. One can observe that even those sensations that seem to last longer than a moment always change their form and/or intensity while they last.
    • Mental sensations are also impermanent; additionally, they are also hazy. Mental images and voices that make thoughts occur like the blips of a heartbeat monitor. They just blink in and out of existence.
    • Without a base level of concentration, clarity, and equanimity, one will not be able to even glimpse this. As one improves in those abilities, the resolution with which one can experientially notice impermanence increases exponentially.
  2. Flavors of dukkha (loosely translated as misery, dissatisfaction, or suffering) are always present in every sensation.
    • Without making a soap opera out of it, one can just look at this as a truth statement. That’s like saying that while exercising, you will experience pain. Or, while eating ice cream, you will experience cold.
    • Clarity and equanimity are especially useful for observing dukkha. Typically, one is unable to even observe it because of a lack of clarity. When one develops clarity, they may freak out because, well, it’s an uncomfortable truth.
    • At the physical level, dukkha is an inescapable part of having been born as a human organism. Birth, aging, disease, loss, and death are all inescapable realities of human life. Physical contact with other objects naturally (causally) gives rise to pain and pleasure, both of which lead to dukkha sooner or later.
    • At an existential level, dukkha ensues as a function of our programmed ways of pulling (craving), pushing (aversion), and ignoring (ignorance) sensations.
    • That isn’t to say that we practice becoming numb to sensations. No; far from it. What’s far more lively is engaging with sensations, with the awareness and equanimity that all sensations have a flavour of dukkha when followed through. The idea is to not go in blind but with total awareness.
  3. No-self (rather, no separate and permanent self) is holding all the threads and calling all the shots.
    • An uncomfortable truth that one gets to notice by direct experience is that it’s impossible to control what sensations show up, how long they last, and what aftertaste they leave behind.
    • In other words, there is nobody in control!
    • When a dog barks, the ears pick it up, and the mind makes up an approximate (or hazy) mental image of a dog barking, perhaps with a mental voice adding commentary about which specific dog in your neighborhood is barking and what the reason might be. Each of these sensations (physical sound, mental image, and mental voice) arises and passes away all on its own, and you can do squat about it.
    • You are not in control of the show.
    • Not only are you not in control of the show, the specific stuff that’s happening in the show will not reveal anything about who you are, because — wait for it —-
    • There is NO SELF!
    • You are not a person stuck with a barking dog simply because a sequence of sensations (physical sound, mental image, and mental voice) showed up and disappeared in quick succession. They are all causal and happen on their own, even if you are totally absent.
    • All of those theories you have about who you are as a self, are simply an approximate explanation for why sensations show up in a specific sequence. You are not an angry person because, around you, a bunch of sensations show up that construct the appearance of anger. With enough concentration, clarity, and equanimity, you will notice that the habit of getting angry is causally sequencing those specific sensations that construct the appearance of anger. If you simply watch those sensations arise, pass away, and do nothing, eventually they organise themselves in a different way, or they may not. In either case, you are neither an angry-self nor a calm-self, because neither of these selfs exist!

With practice, you will develop more concentration, clarity, and equanimity. As a result, you will be able to observe with far higher resolution the three characteristics: impermanence, dukkha, and no-self. As you do more of this, your system (which is the whole body and mind together) will awaken to the whole reality of life, exactly as it is, and be able to glide through without getting overly excited or depressed about specific sequences of sensations that occur. That’s liberating, isn’t it?

As with any practice, there is an initial escape velocity to achieve by exerting sheer force of willpower and determination.

You would have noticed this in any practice.

  • When you started driving, initially the accelerator, clutch, break, gear system, steering wheel, rear view mirror, and all of it were overwhelming. With time, however, the body seems to drive all on its own, leaving you with ample CPU time to do other things like talk to your co-passenger, listen to a podcast, and sometimes (unfortunately) text a friend while driving.
  • When you started working out at the gym, it took a while before the habit of going to the gym three to five days a week became a matter of fact. However, once you cross that escape velocity, you will have noticed that the body pulls you to the gym and gets its dose of workout.

While you are practicing to drive or go to the gym, you will commit a lot of embarrassing mistakes. You may skip a traffic signal, jump over a speed bump, hit the accelerator instead of breaking, and crash your car. At the gym, you may lift less weight, or more weight, perform an exercise with improper form, walk funny, or get hurt. People may ridicule you for going to the gym. They may say that you are looking weaker than before, that you will soon become a cripple, that even after going to the gym for a whole year, you have not become Hritik Roshan, and so on.

In much the same way, there is an initial escape velocity to achieve in meditation by exerting sheer force of willpower and determination. During this time, you will get worse before you get better. And even after you get better, you will get worse. People may ridicule your practice. They may make sarcastic remarks about you becoming a Buddha, and so on.

However, with time, you will notice fundamental shifts and that you are getting better. Eventually, the practice of meditation ends up meditating all on its own.

Isn’t that interesting?

Start meditating today and somehow reach that escape velocity, while simultaneously developing a thick skin for all the commentary that your environment may throw at you.

Eventually, you will get there. And then, you won’t even have to meditate anymore; it occurs all by itself. You see, there is no-self that meditates. It is this whole transient system of body and mind that does it by itself, awakens, and therefore gets liberated.

“You” don’t awaken. It happens all on its own!

Happy mediating!