Sep 03, 2013
Why meditation isn’t the main thing in my life
Given that I’m a meditation teacher and the author of a good number of books and audiobooks on meditation, you might think that meditation should be the central thing in my life. But — and this is something I only just realized — it’s not.
I’ve carried around, not very consciously, the idea that meditation should be the most important, the most central, thing in my life. And I suspect that this mostly unconscious idea has led to inner conflict and resistance. Certainly, when I realized just the other day that meditation wasn’t and shouldn’t be the central thing in my life, I felt unburdened. I felt lighter, freer, and clearer. The notion that meditation should be the central thing in my life was something that had been weighing me down.
It’s not that I don’t take meditation seriously. I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am. To use a common, but useful, analogy, brushing my teeth isn’t the most important part of my life, but I make sure I do it at least twice each day.
What is the most important thing in my life? What brings me the most happiness and gives me the sense that my life is being spent in a meaningful way is seeing people grow and become happier. Having a hand in that process is deeply fulfilling. So basically helping people is the central thing in my life.
But even that’s a bit of a simplification. I have a drive to become awakened, or enlightened. Or at least I have a drive to seek a meaningful way of living that maximizes my sense of happiness and peace and that minimizes the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience. That’s my quest. And it just so happens that the Buddhist goal of spiritual awakening and the Buddhist path to awakening match up with my own goal. That’s not surprising, since the whole Buddhist path is about ending suffering and finding peace.
I sometimes talk about my quest (and always think about it) as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha. Now that might sound a little selfish, or self-centered, but there’s another factor. It turns out that if I want to maximize my happiness, minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience, experience more peace, and feel that I’m living life meaningfully, then I need to help others.
I can’t exactly explain why. You can call it “interconnectedness” if you want. You can talk about it in terms of non-duality. But fundamentally, helping others to move toward awakening (whether or not they’re aware that’s where they’re headed) seems to be inseparable from my own movement toward enlightenment. This is what the Mahāyāna called mahākaruṇā, or great compassion, in which we aim to guide all beings to the happiness of awakening. I believe this is what the earlier Buddhist tradition also called upekkhā, the fourth brahmavihāra. Everyone else is going to tell you that upekkhā is “equanimity,” but the root of the word upekkhā suggests that it originally meant “to watch over closely” and its place as the pinnacle of the brahmavihāras convinces me that upekkhā and mahākaruṇā are the same thing.
There’s another way you can express all this, which is to say that the Buddha (enlightenment, awakening, living an awakened life) is at the center of my life. And if I think of my life as a maṇḍala — a symbolic arrangement of values — then the Buddha is at the center of my maṇḍala.
Ideally, I’d like everything else in my life to relate to and be supportive of the center. That’s far from being the case: I have anger and craving and any number of bad habits that represent movements away from the center. But that’s what practice is about. It helps us to “want one thing.”
Meditation is just a support — albeit a crucial one — to the goal of getting myself and all beings to awakening: my “one thing.” It can never be, never has been, and never should be the most important thing in my life, even though it’s a crucial practice.