Sustainable Pace

July 19th, 2019

What do I gain from meditation?

During my weekend at a Zen monastery, there were two Q&A sessions with the Zen master, where more or less the same questions kept popping up. This blog post is about "What do I gain from meditation?", the question "What do I do during meditation?" has its own blog post.

What do I gain from meditation?

It's not a wellness thing

Counterintuitively, Zen meditation is not supposed to relax you or make you feel better (although it might). It's about being present and experiencing what is happening here, right now. See what is actually there, and not just an interpretation or a filtered version of it. So there is nothing to "gain" per se, and even if you manage to be present in the moment, nothing miraculous is going to happen.

It's only natural to seek wellness and avoid pain. But in the comfort of western civilization there is the tendency to maximize pleasantness and eradicate unpleasantness. There seems to be a quick fix for everything. However, some things in life are unavoidably unpleasant - think of illnesses, chronic pain, or the death of people close to you.

Sometimes only going through a rough phase enables growth or change. Unpleasantness often comes from judging a situation, rather than experiencing it. So rather that suppressing unpleasantness by focusing excessively on feeling good, embrace unpleasantness as just another aspect of life. Instead of maximising pleasure, don't swim against the current, seek an effortless life in all its varieties. Allow unpleasantness to pass instead of opposing it.

During the Zen meditation weekend we recited a poem that said all suffering comes from distinguishing good from bad. The distinction between good and bad triggers expectations and ultimately disappointments. But during meditation, when you are present, in the now, by definition expectations cannot exist, as they are a projection of the past into the future. There is no concept of past or future during meditation.

The german word for disappointment ("Enttäuschung") is quite interesting in this regard. It is connoted quite negatively, but it literally means "un-deception", a deception that is uncovered. I am no longer deceiving myself! This has a surprisingly positive spin. So the problem is not the disappointment, but the expectation.

Identification with the Ego

Another interesting question is, who is the "I" that is supposed to gain something? Apparently the brain is able to produce thoughts so frequently, that the illusion of permanence arises. This "I", the ego, is nothing more but a story the brains invents, a story so powerful that, in the terms of memetics, it is too powerful to die. But even without thinking, a huge part of the body functions quite well, just think about the breath or digestion. We tend to overestimate the importance of thinking.

The Zen master often compared clinging to the concept of the self to a board game, like Monopoly. In a game you can win or lose, but outside of the game it has no effect whatsoever. When the game is over, all the miniature hotels and dollar bills go back into a box. So why get angry when you are losing, or become boastful when you are winning? It is not you that is moving around on the board, it's just a silly plastic cone!

Try to relate this to the concept of the Ego. No matter how much wealth or status you accumulate, it can all be gone in a minute. Try not to identify with it, keep it at an arm's length. However, this does not mean that everything in life is indifferent. But in the end, the only thing we can do is to play the game to the best of our abilities. You are not your thoughts, you are not your ideas, you are not your Ego. It is an illusion.

Borders become blurry

The same we said about distinguishing good from bad can be said about distinguishing between the "I" and everything else. What is it that separates us from the rest? Isn't this distinction also the source of a lot of problems?

Meditation really helps me to feel part of it all. Rather than focusing on what the "I" can get out of something, think about what you can contribute. This mindset makes it obsolete to "be right" or "having to convince people" - rather collaborate and use your abilities to help compassionately. You might feel a little more peace of mind, but the "I" doesn't gain anything, in fact, the "I" disappears. Now think of all your relationships with people - everyone around you will benefit, which is in sum what matters.

Just now there is the 50 year anniversary of the first Moon Landing, and I'm deeply moved by that. It shows that if people collectively commit their minds and hearts to a hard problem, it can be solved within a few years. All these people who contributed to the Moon Landing can be seen as an organism in itself. No one could have done it alone - but altogether, they could.