by Ari Levari
This last decade has heralded an explosion of interest in meditation, particularly among health-oriented, progressive, educated circles. This is truly heartening and beautiful to behold. Meditation, no matter how it’s practiced, is bound to improve one’s life. However, as meditation shifts from an esoteric practice to a mainstream pursuit, it’s important to analyze its role in our society and the ways in which we use this mind-expanding practice.
As people have become increasingly interested in topics of human well-being, a new crew of self-help gurus have taken center stage. Tim Ferris, Tony Robbins, Dave Asprey and Wim Hof, among many others, have lead the charge towards human optimization, and an embracing of one’s full potential. They’re top performers, ultra-athletes, biohackers. Taking the computer scientist’s mentality, they look to hack the body, hack the mind, and optimize every aspect of the human experience. They’ve studied the science and know that techniques like meditation can vastly increase one’s focus, decreases one’s stress, and lead to numerous biological benefits. Therefore, they are all sincere proponents of meditation. Makes sense, right? The way they frame meditation makes it seem like it’s the perfect companion for our modern, hectic lives. For those of us barely keeping our head above the water, it seems like we may have found our answer! Or maybe not…
Interfacing the Ancient with the Modern
Let’s begin with this: incorporating the wisdom of ancient techniques into modern life is both an imperative and a challenge. Humanity has a wealth of latent knowledge and wisdom, passed throughout the eras, from master to initiate, preserving alternate answers to the question: what does it mean to be human? However, the integration of these distinct cultural paradigms presents unique challenges. When tailoring an ancient tradition to fit modern needs, one should consider some basic questions. What is the ultimate goal of a given practice? What are the contexts in which it was developed? In what contexts should it be used and for what purpose?
Unfortunately, many ancient practices are prone to adulteration and degradation; forced to serve the will of our modern world, with no regard to their original intent.
Why Are We Meditating?
Seeing meditation rooms spring up all over Silicon Valley and other tech hubs seems like a hopeful sign. Yet, upon closer examination, it becomes evident that the practice has been diluted.
Much of modern meditation simply serves to make you better at what you’re doing. What’s wrong with that? Well, nothing. That is, if the work you’re doing feels truly fulfilling or serves some need in the world. In that case, by all means, meditate and utilize its myriad benefits!
However, if when you wake each morning, you have to force yourself out of bed, to a job you don’t like — continuously justifying to yourself and others why it warrants your time — then you might want to do some reflecting. Sure, meditation will make you more productive. But is productivity in a questionable direction really a worthy pursuit?
I’m uncertain about the utility of a technique that allows us to better cope with the unhappiness stemming from a deeply disconnected, divided world, largely devoid of meaning and purpose. We use meditation as a tool to deal with the stress, pain, and anxiety of modernity. Don’t get me wrong, these are things worth dealing with! However, far too often, modern mindfulness only serves as a bandage, attempting to obfuscate the deep pain that exists within our society. If meditation becomes equated with a pharmaceutical opiate, it will lose some of its potency; it will be running orthogonal to its intended purpose.
Furthermore, this co-opting of meditation serves to further our individuation, our focus on self. Using meditation as a productivity enhancer or stress reducer, so that you can out-compete your peers, appear more relaxed and chill, and wear the mantle of a spiritual seeker, is the ego’s work, and its ugly work.
Before beginning a meditation practice, ask yourself, why are you meditating? Is it just to help you cope? Or give you a competitive edge? Or is to fundamentally change how you perceive the world and your role in it?
Why Should We Be Meditating?
What’s the actual purpose of meditation? There are many different answers to this question, but there is a relatively consistent theme. Through meditation, one begins to realize that the self, as you currently conceive of it, doesn’t exist. That what you thought of as “you” or “I” is just a string of thoughts, mental electricity, collective culture, sputtering through your waxy neurons, all arising in some imperturbable field of consciousness. Meditation brings you face to face with the ephemeral nature of the world, of your thoughts, of your being, and begins to break down the ego, the self-serving subconscious, and other less enviable aspects of self.
It’s no secret that our world is suffering. In its ideal instantiation, meditation can act as a tool capable of so profoundly altering individual consciousness, that we collectively begin to shift. Yet, to help this process along, I suggest that we begin to change the narrative surrounding modern meditation. Sure, it’s worth touting the numerous physical and mental benefits meditation produces, but emphasize that these are side-effects, not the sole purpose. The focus should be on taming your monkey mind so that you can lead a life with more conscious will, more presence, less emphasis on egoic needs, a deeper connection to your body, the natural world, and the collective needs of our world.
Also, it is worth saying, that despite some of the questionable rhetoric and beliefs surrounding meditation, there remains a silver lining. Practices like meditation have a will of their own. The simple act of observing the mind has ripple effects throughout your entire being. By simply sitting and observing your mind, slowly, surely, your view of who and what you are will begin to change. Others will seem more similar, relatable and connected. You will feel less distant, less disconnected, and more loving. The constant yammering in your mind, telling you to buy this and that, or act in accordance to this social norm or that cultural expectation, will begin to fade.
If you’re interested in meditation, I would without reservation, recommend beginning a practice. Just try and keep some awareness about why you’re meditating, and how it fits into the narrative of the western world.
We are connected in so many beautiful ways. The gossamer strands of the many human cultures weave together to form a tapestry of breathtaking majesty. Gleaming, translucent strings connect all of us. Meditation allows you to begin to see these connections — the unity present in all of existence — and like a celestial harpist, become a part of the melody of creation.