Meditation for its own sakeOct 21, 2023
When I began exploring meditation, I was a nineteen-year-old college student troubled by social anxiety. This was in the late 1990’s, but I was drawn to literature from the 1960’s to learn more. As are many newcomers, I was drawn to meditation in search of enlightenment, nirvana, and some sort of transcendental experience; and this is what the ’60s literature speaks to. Even though I was suffering at the time with anxiety, I don’t think I ever considered that meditation could help me with this tangible, day to day struggle.
I read authors like Ram Dass and Aldous Huxley and took courses in Buddhist meditation at the University I attended. Everything I read showed me what I was looking for, but not really what I needed.
What did help me was beginning a daily practice of meditation. I certainly didn’t experience nirvana or some ecstatic state, but I witnessed how meditation benefits me in subtle, more practical ways.
My individual journey with meditation is probably common to a lot of people. I also believe it’s similar to how the West, collectively, experiences its exploration of meditation. It’s interesting to see how the introduction and evolution of meditation in the West mirrors the journey we take as individuals.
Past and Present
In the 60’s, the focus of the West was on the “transcendental” experience. The popular meditation icons of the day were mostly perceived as gurus and we glorified enlightenment, mystical and spiritual experiences. I don’t think you would have found much in the popular literature (at least not close to what you find today), about how meditation helps with stress relief, high blood pressure, sleeping issues, memory loss, and other more objective issues.
Skip ahead to the present day and we find the gurus are still out there, but you need to search for them a little more diligently – they’re not as popular. Nowadays the meditation proponents are more diverse and less specialized: it could be a business leader, an actor, a teacher, a talk-show host, or a football coach. These new meditation advocates show you how you can use breathing, visualization, or relaxation to improve your focus at work, your performance on the field, or the quality of your relationships.
This is a sign that meditation has evolved at the collective level. The principles and practices of meditation are more broadly dispersed, and you don’t need to find a guru to learn basic practices. Instead, you may find a technique or two from your neighbor, work associate, or even from your children! Meditation is being applied not only in temples and dojos, but in workplaces, schools and in the military.
This is the same way that your meditation practice evolves on the individual level. You likely come to meditation to achieve one end or another, only to find that through regular practice, meditation fosters improvements in all areas of your life.
So why was the approach to meditation so different in the 1960’s than it is today? My first thought was that economics had something to do with it. Things were pretty good in the 60’s. More families had only one adult working to pay the bills, college education was cheaper, and one could say the path to a good job and home ownership was a little clearer than it is now. Maybe meditation was more focused on the spiritual and less on the practical because practicalities were generally taken care of?
Lately, the economy hasn’t been so hot. How many families do you see with only one parent working? And even with two parents working, it’s still not easy to buy a home or pay your child’s college tuition.
Maybe that’s one reason why we see meditation being sold these days to reduce stress, boost your energy, work more efficiently, not have a heart attack, and earn more money. Even some of the more spiritual benefits of meditation, like “getting into the flow,” are seen as a means of achieving greater productivity or material success.
Meditation as a Journey
On a closer look, I believe the main difference between how meditation was promoted in the 60’s and how it is promoted today is simply a reflection of the journey the West has embarked on in its practice and application of meditation. In the 60’s the West was just beginning its journey, and now it has a fair amount of meditation experience.
When you gain experience in mediation, whether individually or collectively, the goals of your practice become less and less important, and the practice itself becomes primary. Whether it’s psychic abilities you seek through meditation or a better score in your golf game, it’s important to understand that meditation is a journey with no end – even when you achieve your goals.
Will you stop practicing meditation when you reach enlightenment, or when you achieve your best golf score? Probably not, because by that time you’re likely to have fallen in love with your meditation practice and enjoy it for its own sake!
The Take Away
Wherever you find yourself in your own journey with meditation, I hope what you take away from this post is the importance of falling in love with your meditation practice. The more you enjoy your practice the less you’ll be attached to achieving certain outcomes, and the more easily you’ll be able to commit to your practice for the long haul. Give your practice time to evolve and you’ll experience benefits you never expected to gain in the first place!
Enjoy the Journey!