Why do I meditate? It’s a good question. I recently came back from another 10 day silent Vipassana mediation retreat. Curious friends keep asking questions. How was it? How do you manage to sit still for 10 hours a day? And more importantly, what do you gain from it? It’s certainly not easy to find the right words for such deep experiences. And no amount of theory will replace the insights gained through practice. But it merits an answer.
Every Experience Is Unique
Let me start with a word of caution. Few meditation traditions encourage practitioners to share the details of their experiences. The reason behind this is simple. It creates expectations. And expectations have a nasty habit of becoming hindrances.
Signing up for a course hoping to pass through the same trance-like states described by a friend is probably going to end in disappointment. Similarly, praying for a quick fix for all your troubles is totally unrealistic.
It is worth repeating. Every experience is unique. And every person is unique. Meditation is, like most things in life, best approached with an open and curious mind. Take this account for what it is, a short personal take on why I go on longer retreats, and more generally, why I meditate. Not why you should meditate.
A Sharper Mind
While meditating I spend most of my time trying hard not to engage the endless train of thoughts that cross my mind. But sometimes it just happens. Or shortly after meditating, while resting or eating. Long forgotten memories, questions that bother me resurface. Or I just get an avalanche of good ideas.
It’s been a consistent hallmark of every retreat I sat so far, the mind becomes very clear. While it’s not the goal of meditation, it is certainly a remarkable side-effect. I’ve been able to find unexpected answers, and to make calm, rational decisions on important aspect of my life. And sometimes to make peace with troubled relationships, and ultimately myself.
Maybe that is simply down to the fact that I have very little time to dedicate to such questions in daily life. But in any case those moments of inspiration and reason are very precious to me, even if that is not meditation, at least not in the Eastern traditions.
The Illusion of Ego
I’ve sat for countless hours observing mind and body, often in sharp discomfort or even pain. Over time, I’ve started to see a peculiar part of myself more clearly, my ego. My body suffers, my leg is numb, my knee hurts. And then, for only a few brief moments, something strange happened. The pain was still there, but it was just pain. It didn’t bother me. My mind ceased to identify itself with the sensation.
Those experiences gave me a deeper insight into the true nature of my ego. If you look long and close enough, all you find is an illusion. This is idea is also gaining traction in the field of neurosciences. Fear not, my ego is far from erased. But having experienced the illusion of self, it becomes much harder to take its manifestations seriously. The spell is broken.
A direct effect of this has been as noticeable increase in my compassion. As the ego slowly crumbles, selfless love can be better understood. This is a game changer for someone like me who used to be extremely self-centered. That smile wants to be shared.
We spend most of our life running after perceived pleasures and trying hard to avoid life’s miseries. And we fail, systematically. Even when we have it all, health, beauty, money, we keep searching for more.
When I quit my job 5 years ago, I was convinced that doing what I loved most, traveling and climbing, would fill my life with joy. But I remained unsatisfied. Something was always missing. When I started to practice meditation more seriously however, things gradually changed.
Learning to detach myself more from both pleasant and unpleasant experiences gave me an invaluable tool that works on the subconscious mind. I am no Buddha. I still crave, get angry, frustrated, aggressive, impatient. But less often then before, and for shorter periods. Situations that would have pushed me over the edge a few years ago now make me grin. For perhaps the first time in my life I experience short moments of real inner peace. Ultimate freedom. That’s why I meditate.
As someone with a scientific background I still struggle to explain much of what I have lived so far. More and more studies are slowly supporting the benefits of meditation. But for me it seems to work, and frankly that’s good enough. The path to real happiness is an end in itself.