Talking to People About Meditation

In describing Vipassana meditation to a number of people this weekend I was met with a common theme.  Most of them said they thought meditation would be boring, and that’s why they weren’t interested in doing it. But when asked about what they thought the benefits would be, they said things like “bliss”, “relaxation”, and “supreme enlightenment!”. While that may be true of some practices, the Vipassana approach taught by S.N. Goenka delivers not just relaxation or bliss, but something much more powerful: simple “happiness” through developing one’s ability to concentrate the mind. 

Sometimes the response to this is “But I’m already happy.” (ergo, I don’t need to learn to meditate). There are of course varying degrees of happiness. Most people have something gnawing at them, even in the most serene environments. That subtle feeling of discontentment that something could be just slightly better, and so they move to change things so it can be, and then again and again until the objective is no longer to be at peace with the place and moment, but to make things better. This discontentment, it is often said by scholars in Buddhism, is what the Buddha really meant when he refers to ‘suffering’. Sure suffering could be the result of a larger physical or emotional problem, but it can also be the result of your tea being not quite hot enough, if the mind allows you that kind of focus. Maintaining charge of one’s mind to not allow unhappiness to enter into the sphere of their mental environment results in pure happiness, by definition. Easier said than done, so that is why we practice meditation.

One person asked me if meditation was like going on a hike where you’d think about things as they came to you and observe the world outside with awareness, as well as the pain growing in your feet and different parts of your body as time passes. After some consideration I answered no, that I didn’t think meditation was like going on a hike because the objectives were different.  People can go on hikes for many different reasons and, like meditation, there are physical and psychological benefits to both.  However meditation in the style I practice has the main objective of mental purification, not being aware of your environment, although that skill may improve through the practice of meditation too. By combing through the physical sensations (pleasant and unpleasant) and learning to accept them in a safe environment of focus, we eventually grow to also accept things pleasant and unpleasant outside the confines our bodies with acceptance. This is how the practice works. It was clear that the person asking the question was not happy that their analogy of hiking and meditation was not embraced.  She really wanted to be told that she was okay without meditation in her life because she liked and benefited from hiking, I suppose.

Likewise some who practice meditation of a different style sometimes grow defensive when I point out the differences between our approaches and the core objectives of Vipassana: To come to terms with one’s personal reality as a path to real happiness. There are no external devices of conscious imaginary visualization to provide temporary emotional happiness in Vipassana. In Vipassana, these things actually work against the objective of observing and accepting reality. It is hard work, but most people want their results to be pleasant and immediate while meditating instead of training to fortify the mind against unhappiness, like one might train the body through yoga or lifting weights against physical inflexibility and weakness.

It’s a tentative balance when talking with others about the practice. No one wants to think their current lifestyle and pursuits are inadequate. The acid test is, can you maintain the balance of your mind and level of happiness during good times and bad with this practice? The truth is paradoxical and is therefore somewhat had to convey in conversation to those who don’t already get it: Only by accepting the pains and inadequacies in our lives and embracing them are we free to be truly happy.

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