Is it Self-Centered to Meditate?
There’s a cliché out there that mindfulness is self-centered. Which is strange because all contemplative traditions say that one’s ethical conduct, both in our personal relationships and in working to improve the lives of others, is an essential part of the path.
At the same time, there is some truth to the cliché. When I started meditating over thirty five years ago, I was consumed with hopes and worries. I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I was doing with my time, judging myself for not being good enough, and worrying that I wouldn’t amount to anything. All thoughts wrapped up in myself.
Gradually, however, I found that meditation develops the very opposite of self-centeredness. How? Here are four examples.
1. Get out of your head
First, the practice of mindfulness shifts us from ruminative default-mode thinking to clear present-moment attention. Over the years, as I cultivated awareness through meditation, I shone a light on my obsessive thinking patterns and began to create some space inside, becoming less wrapped up in my thoughts and mental preoccupations. I learned to unhook from the inner critic and the background narrative that is frequently playing in our heads. Today, the inner critic makes fewer inroads, and the swirl of self-centered thoughts that used to consume so much of my attention are greatly reduced.
2. Get into life itself
Second, mindfulness brings us into our physical senses which are doorways into the vitally alive sensory world all around us, which interrupts the habit of self-absorbtion. We can know this from our experience outside of meditation. For example, when we notice a hummingbird flying outside our window, it snaps us out of our daydreams or planning mind, and whips us into the present. Similarly, when we walk by a coffee shop and smell freshly roasted coffee, awareness of our senses draw us out of our head’s swirling thoughts. The same process happens when we focus on our breath, drawing us ever more into the present. The internal, self-obsessed noise quiets down, and more presence is possible.
3. The art of deep listening
Third, mindfulness helps cultivate the quality of deep listening, and we can bring that attuned skill to listen genuinely to others. It can help restore the lost art of conversation. That’s especially today when so much communication now happens digitally, which is fraught with misunderstanding. In addition, most conversations are self-referential, seeking help for our problems and support for our perspective. Through practice, we can develop and offer this gift of attentive presence to others. By training our attention, we learn to hone that capacity, get out of our own heads, and become more attuned to people. Instead of immediately relating what others say back to ourselves and what it means for us, we practice asking with genuine curiosity about someone else’s life, without judgment, correction, or self-concern.
4. To be happy, be kind
Fourth, mindfulness reveals how painful it can be when we are so caught up in our own drama and focus narrowly on ourselves. This is the basis for so much neurosis and anxiety in our consumer-oriented, materialist, and some may say narcissistic culture today. Recent research supports this. We experience greater happiness when our life is less wrapped up in ourselves and instead is oriented to helping others, to being generous and kind.
Though Darwin is renowned for popularizing the term “survival of the fittest,” he also wrote about how the success of species was also due to their ability to cooperate. In fact, some say his research is better summarized by the phrase “survival of the kindest.” Our well-being is interdependent with that of others. Of course, we must take care of ourselves, but if we try to do this at the expense of others, we can actually thwart our own well-being. Conversely, helping others benefits us in the long run, even though that may not be our initial intention. Just think about the most altruistic and generous people you know. They are often also the happiest.
As I reflect on my own thirty-five-year journey in meditation practice, I see that this training has increased my ability to look beyond my own self-interest, to get out of my own way and genuinely take in the reality of others. I find this particularly true in my teaching work when I listen to the challenging plights of students. Such attunement to others inspires the desire to help.
Perhaps most importantly, I see how much quieter my mind has become. Often people ask me what I am thinking when I am quiet, doing nothing in particular, perhaps looking out the window or sitting in the garden. They assume I must be thinking about something. But I am just watching the world go by with a fair amount of inner peace. This allows me to get out of my own way and be much more aware of what is going on around me, with others, and with the world.
Mark Coleman is a senior meditation teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, a trainer for Search Inside Yourself, and the founder of Awake in the Wild, which integrates meditation and wilderness retreats. He holds a MA in Clinical Psychology and is the author of three books including From Suffering to Peace: The True Promise of Mindfulness.