The Purpose of Meditation Practice
Many people come to meditation practice with different goals, and the purpose of meditation may differ from individual to individual. From learning to cope with anxiety to cultivating the ability to be present, there are many reasons people begin meditating. There are a few things to consider about mindfulness meditation and its roots in Buddhism to understand what the true purpose is of practice.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice in which an individual dedicates time and effort to train the mind in some way. In the context of mindfulness and Buddhism, meditation is a practice in which we cultivate qualities of the mind. It is traditionally done sitting, although the Buddha actually suggested meditating while standing, walking, and lying down in his discourse on mindfulness.
There are many traditions which utilize meditation as a practice. Religions, spiritual traditions, and wellness models which contain forms of meditation include:
- Kabbalah (Judaism)
- Ignatian Spirituality (Christianity)
- Sufism (Islam)
- New age traditions
Our understanding is largely of the Buddhist tradition. Even within Buddhism, there are many different traditions. Buddhism is commonly split into three schools: Theravāda and Mahāyāna, and sometimes Vajrayāna. Theravāda is common in Southern Asian countries like Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, while Mahāyāna is most common in China, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet, and Korea.
Although we have spent some time sitting at zen monasteries (Mahāyāna), our understanding is based largely in the Insight Meditation tradition and Thai Forest Tradition (both Theravāda). We mention this to recognize that our experience with meditation is limited, and we cannot speak to the various other traditions within Buddhism and outside Buddhism.
Purpose of Meditation in Buddhism
In Buddhism, meditation serves as one of the ways in which we cultivate factors on the Noble Eightfold Path. Meditation is used as a tool and a practice to cultivate a state of liberation. At its core, meditation is a way to see clearly and end suffering.
The Noble Eightfold Path has three factors that fall under the umbrella of samadhi, which is a Pali word meaning “single-pointedness of mind.” It’s often translated as concentration, but may more appropriately be understood as a collection of the mind. To develop samadhi, we practice meditation.
Wise mindfulness is one of the factors on the path under samadhi, and is an important quality to cultivate. Contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is not just about being present. Rather, it’s a state in which we use wisdom as a frame of reference for our present-time experience, recognizing the three marks of existence and cultivating other factors of the path.
The second is wise concentration which is actually wise samadhi. This is traditionally the development of the four jhanas, or states of meditative absorption. This is done through practice, working with the five hindrances, and practicing wise ethics in order to keep the mind pure.
Finally, there is wise effort. Wise effort is practicing in a way which is balanced. We don’t strain too hard and we aren’t lazy. Wise effort may also be understood as the wise cultivation of wholesome qualities and the abandonment of unwholesome ones.
There are also meditation practices for cultivating qualities of heart, known as the brahma viharas. These are four qualities which are cultivated through meditation practice. Originally taught by the Buddha, these practices help us to cultivate a kind and free heart toward ourselves and others.
The True Goal
In Buddhist tradition, the goal of practice is to reach enlightenment or awakening. The end of the cycle of death and rebirth comes from awakening to the true nature of experience and ending dukkha, or suffering. There are a lot of Buddhist teachings, but the core teachings of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Foundations of Mindfulness, and the Four Noble Truths are a path toward ending suffering. We take steps toward relieving suffering through meditation practice, and as we begin to see things more clearly and respond with more compassion, we can see the suffering begin to lessen.
The Purpose in the West
As with many things, our understanding of meditation is not exactly the same as it was in India 2,600 years ago in the Buddha’s time. As meditation is a relatively new practice in the West, we are still seeking to understand meditation as a collective culture and as individuals.
In Buddhist traditions in the United States, the emphasis has largely shifted away from the focus on Saṃsāra, the cycle of death and rebirth. Part of this may be due to our different cultural understanding of birth and death in this part of the world, and part of this may be due to the lack of interest in the afterlife among meditators. This is especially common among people who were not raised in traditional Buddhist households.
For many people in American Buddhist circles, the purpose of meditation is to relieve some stress or suffering. This may be to help with anxiety, to work with family stress, or to address a mental health issue. Although people work to alleviate some suffering, the goal is often not to achieve full relief from suffering.
Many people meditate to help themselves be more present for life. This may be to alleviate some suffering, or may be to simply show up for their lives. We have moments where we notice life flying by, we react in ways which cause harm, and we go on autopilot. Mindfulness practice can help us cultivate the ability to be present with experience in daily life.
In many of our meditation classes in Petaluma, people share that they are there in order to learn to relax. Whether they’re experiencing insomnia, high blood pressure, or anxiety, meditation can offer a set of tools to help us relax and be at ease.
There are many benefits of meditation practice. In my own life, I have found that meditation has been an incredible tool for cultivating compassion, dealing with anger, relieving anxiety, appreciating the joy in my life, and not reacting so strongly to uncomfortable situations. Meditation has been the foundation of my life for many years, and my days have much less suffering today because of it.
Energy and Focus
In a 2008 study, it was found that mindfulness meditation helped increase energy and focus in study participants. Meditation can help us concentrate, be more centered, and focus on what needs to be done in a more sustainable way.
Multiple studies over the past few decades have found that meditation practice can help lower blood pressure. High blood pressure can cause a variety of dangerous symptoms and diseases, and lowering our blood pressure is a wonderful side effect of meditation practice.
Along with lowering blood pressure, meditation has been found to reduce anxiety. A meta-analysis found that anxiety was effective across the board in treating symptoms of anxiety, including high blood pressure. This gives credence to the idea that we can come to mindfulness practice to help with anxiety.
A 2011 study at the Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina found that people experienced 40% less pain after meditating. Perhaps even more importantly, they found the pain 57% less unpleasant than those in the control group. This suggests meditation may lessen pain, and perhaps help us change our relationship to pain.
Multiple studies have found that mindfulness-based interventions can be effective at treating depression. These mindfulness-based therapeutic methods are sometimes more effective during the period of the study than “normal” therapeutic interventions, as found in this study from last year.
Another well-researched benefit of meditation is that it may help improve sleep. This includes falling asleep, staying asleep, and awaking with a rested feeling. People use sleep meditations to help themselves fall asleep at night, and there is quite a bit of research to support this.
What Buddhist Meditation is Not About
There are many misconceptions about meditation out there, but here are a few that are relevant to Buddhist meditation.
Meditation is not necessarily about silencing the mind. We have had many people over the years share with us that they can’t meditate because they can’t quiet the mind. Although quieting the mind is a part of practice, it’s absolutely not necessary to begin. The quieting of the mind is also not what many people imagine it is.
Rather than stopping all thoughts, we learn to allow the thoughts to arise and pass. In mindfulness practice, our goal isn’t to stop the mind from thinking at all. Rather, we practice observing the experience of thinking without clinging or aversion. If you have an active mind, don’t let this stop you from meditating!
We see articles on the Internet and in magazines about using mindfulness as a way of cultivating craving. Whether it’s an article about how mindfulness can help your sex life or improve your job performance, it’s important to understand that Buddhist meditation practice is not about encouraging craving. Yes, it may help us in areas of our lives like work, relationships, or general performance. But craving is one of the three poisons, or main causes of our suffering.
We got sober in twelve-step, and many people say, “Prayer is speaking to God. Meditation is listening to God.” Although this may be true in other traditions and for other people, the Buddha’s dharma is not about listening to a celestial or otherworldly being. There are traditions in which people ask for support from devas, or gods, but the purpose is still to cultivate the mind and incline it toward seeing clearly.
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