Martin LeFevre: Why Meditate?
Living in a cultural desert, as we all do in the West, and as every one increasingly does in this meaningless, consumeristic global society, meditation is the art of digging one’s own inner well daily. It’s become a matter of survival.
There is no purpose for meditation, not stress reduction at one end of the spectrum, or illumination on the other. Meditation provides these and many other benefits, but they aren’t the reason one makes the space for it.
The late Zen teacher Alan Watts spoke of meditation this way: "We could say that meditation doesn't have a reason or doesn't have a purpose. In this respect it's unlike almost all other things we do except perhaps making music and dancing.” In other words, meditation has intrinsic value, and one meditates for its own sake.
Then what propels, indeed compels one to take time out from one’s busy life, full of so many demands and interests, the pressures of work and pleasures of play, to sit still and passively observe?
For me meditation has a very physical analogy. Having torn ligaments in both ankles playing sports when I was young, a few years ago I began having trouble with them. Not only were my ankles causing some arthritic pain, but I kept spraining them slightly, sometimes just walking. The weakness and pain not only limited physical enjoyments like hiking and track, but I began to feel like an old man while still in middle age.
I found a good physical therapist who not only provided an easy set of daily exercises, but gave me an education as well. It turns out that my youthful injuries had damaged nerve cells called proprioceptors, which are the kind of cells that allow you to tell where your arm is when you close your eyes. The proprioceptor cells in the ankles perform the crucial function in bipeds (we humans are the only ones left in the primate line) of maintaining a delicate balance on two legs.
In short, my feet weren’t being placed properly when I walked or ran because the proprioceptor cells in my ankles had been impaired. One of the exercises (good for any middle-aged and older person by the way) is to stand on one leg, with your eyes closed, for twenty seconds. Try it; it isn’t easy at any age. (As we age, we gradually lose our sense of balance, and most of us have known an otherwise healthy older person who has taken a bad fall and gone downhill quickly afterward.)
If I skip my standing exercise for a couple of days, I can actually notice a decline in my general sense of balance. Meditation works the same way. After one experiences the deep inward balance through methodless meditation, one senses, proprioceptively, when one is out of balance. It is the urge to maintain a deep balance between mind, heart, and body that prompts one to sit quietly for half an hour each day.
Living in the Mediterranean climate of California, where the worst that winter brings is a string of rainy and chilly days, nature has always been central to my meditative ‘practice.’ (I hesitate to use the word practice because there is no discipline in the usual sense of the word, no allotted time and place.)
Two things put me at variance with teachers of meditation. First, I don’t feel meditation can be taught at all; and second, methods, techniques, and practices are antithetical to meditation to my mind.
The conventional view is summarized in this blurb advertising one of the innumerable “monthly mindfulness meditation retreats” in North America now: “Many different methods are employed to help focus attention and concentrate the mind, including visualizations, the use of mantras, Zen koans, or paying attention to the breath.”
However, intentional visualizations prevent direct perception of what is (the essence of the meditative state); mantras make the mind dull; koans are tricks of thought by thought; and watching the breath often breeds exclusive rather than inclusive awareness.
Meditation means spontaneously going beyond thought. Since they are rooted in thought, methods and techniques prevent the phenomenon of meditation. But if meditation is a spontaneous event, what initiates it?
The brain has the capacity for both concentration and attention. Concentration is what we generally know; it is a single-pointed, intentionally focused action arising from the will. Attention, on the other hand, is an all-encompassing, unintentional focusing of the mind, ensuing from an inclusive and passive awareness.
Attention is unknowingly gathered despite, not because of, effort. When sufficient attention gathers through inclusive, undirected watchfulness, it suddenly, and always unexpectedly, becomes the predominant action of the brain.
Attention is action without effort and without a center. Unwilled attention is therefore the essence of letting go of ego and self-centered activity.
After sitting and settling down, one watches (saying ‘I watch’ sustains division) every thought and feeling, every sensation and desire, as they arise. One observes thoughts and emotions in the same way one observes nature--without trying to do anything about them, even label them. This action allows meditation to ignite.
Meditation is a solitary action, not a group activity. It cannot be taught, only discovered, for it is essentially the art of learning through unlearning. And that’s no koan.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: email@example.com. The author welcomes