Don't Meditate Merely Because of Its Health Benefits
5 reasons to meditate that go far beyond being "good for you."
Posted Dec 04, 2019
It's well-documented in 30+ years of research that mindfulness meditation can benefit virtually every area of your life. Yes, that's right—every area: your stress level, your relationships, your sleep quality, the pleasure in your sexual encounters, your interactions with strangers, the taste of food, the quality of your shower, how you handle misfortune, and more.
However, I don't believe that these benefits should be the main reason you'd be wise to meditate. Forget about them; here are 5 more important reasons:
1. Let's be honest: You spend all of your life in your mind. I'm thus sure you'd be interested in making it a good place to be. Meditation—intentionally learning to observe your mind nonjudgmentally—is the only direct way you can learn about how your mind works—both how it helps and guides you and how it hinders you and creates unnecessary suffering. If you understand the merits of research and empiricism, why not apply it to your mind? Why not learn to observe it more carefully and clearly?
Meditation can be considered a highly effective way of developing a telescope to your own mind so you can see it with more clarity, strengthening how you direct inner and outer attention. In this sense, the quality of the mind is the quality of life, and thus the quality of your relationships. What's more important than your relationships?
Let me give you an example. For parents, a regular meditation practice may make you more aware of your child's bid for attention in the precise moment that you may otherwise have been engrossed in the trance of social media. This can enable you to feel the urge to check your phone and thus make a choice as to whether to consciously yield to it or not, widening the gap between stimulus and response.
Then, you can answer for yourself: What ultimately merits your attention at that moment, your phone or your child? This may have been the only time your child sought you out all day, and this is just a brief snippet or your life (many similar examples would apply). This allows you to miss less moments of possible connection with loved ones. These are the type of previously invisible doors a mindfulness practice can open for you in your life.
2. In mindfulness practice, you directly sharpen your capacity to pay attention. Concentration is inherently pleasurable; any activity, whether it's traveling, watching a movie, sex, eating, hiking or something else, is only pleasurable to the extent that you're able to pay attention and be present for it. That said, concentration is also temporary by nature; it's only a matter of time until your mind digresses. This is the nature of your mind.
As you meditate, you literally strengthen your mind's capacity to attend to what you want to and for how long you want to—what brings you joy, peace, or well-being—instead of it being tugged around helplessly, often toward the same dead-ends. As psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach reminds us, the majority of the 80,000 thoughts we have per day are repeats! These incessant and unpleasant distractions can be useful at times, but are often a silent and powerful form of tyranny itself. Don't miss another sunset because your mind was somewhere else.
3. In meditation, you learn to cultivate a wiser relationship with pleasure and pain. You learn to watch your mind cling to pleasure and avoid pain. Ironically, this common mental and emotional tendency can lead to less pleasure and more pain, contradicting its purpose.
Mindfulness leads to more wisdom on how you access and respond to your emotions. For example, when you watch anger rise from the inside out (its impetus can be anything), you'll see it’s virtually impossible to stay angry without manufacturing your fury with thinking. Negative feelings themselves have short half-lives; they need our manufactured thoughts to keep them alive.
Let me clarify that this doesn't mean forgiving who you're angry at or forgetting why you're angry, but letting go of holding the anger and the associated tension and space it takes up in the body and mind.
4. Because we often suffer unnecessarily, the cost of not learning to meditate is high. We suffer more in imagination than in reality. Seriously. Thinking about unpleasant tasks we have coming up or unfortunate events that already happened is often worse than just dealing with them in the present!
5. In the grand scheme of your life, learning to tune in to your mind and observe it—the main muscle you build during mindfulness practice—can quickly become a superpower. It's the crucial difference between noticing that you’re thinking instead of being blindly lost in thought. What would change if you noticed thoughts of failure and inadequacy arising after a break-up or poor job interview as patterns of energy in your mind, instead of believing them as truth with a capital T?
The fact that meditation directly changes the physical structure of your brain—enabling you to have more control, instead of automatically reacting and being held captive by where the mind is pulled—is merely a byproduct. As Sam Harris reminds us, "don't meditate just because it's good for you." Even dedicating one to five minutes of your day, just a few times a week, to attending to how your mind is working can make a significant difference in the quality of your life.
Schools traditionally haven't taught meditation, but many are starting to. It’s inherently a social project because we’re learning how to best use our mind to be our best selves for others personally and professionally. What could be better than this for the increasingly aching world we all share together?
*This post was inspired by a lesson on Sam Harris' Waking Up App.
Copyright Jason Linder, LMFT. This post is not meant to substitute for psychotherapy with a competent provider.