No matter how long you’ve been meditating, or even if you’ve never meditated at all, it’s inevitable that you’ll ask, especially at a difficult moment: what’s the point? Why meditate?
I’m actually going to answer that question. In fact, I’m going to answer it three times.
The first reason is deceptively simple: relaxation. Perhaps meditation’s most famous claim is that it has the ability to help us relax. Then again, so can a bubble bath. So why meditation?
Relaxation isn’t a luxury. In the world we live in, it’s a necessity. The everyday tension and stress that accompanies life in the 21st century can be debilitating to our mental and physical health. We need something deeper than an occasional treat. We need something that will get to the root of the problem.
I first began meditating as a college student because I suffered from unrelenting anxiety that did not subside even when I went to sleep. Regular meditation helped retrain my brain and body to handle anxious thoughts when they arrived. It didn’t stop the anxious thoughts, but it helped short-circuit the trigger that connected the thoughts to the physical panic symptoms, such as shortness of breath, sweating, and fainting.
So, yes relaxation, but not ordinary relaxation. Meditation helps us ground ourselves more of the time in the here and the now, rather than in the “what-if.” Panic lives in the “what-if.” What if this stalled subway is a terrorist attack? What if I never find love? What if I fail my classes, can’t get a job, disgrace my family, and have to live on the street? The more we train our minds to stay present, the more we become able to meet these “what-ifs” with the distance of a witness, rather than as a victim.
The second reason to meditate is wisdom.
The thinking mind is wonderful, but it has serious limitations. If you’ve ever been up late at night, tossing and turning with the difficulties of the day, lost in circular thoughts or obsessed with a difficult decision, you have witnessed the limited capacity of the mind to solve our deepest problems. Often the thinking mind tries to pick apart, understand, and bring logic to painful or complicated feelings, without a great deal of success.
In contrast, when the mind becomes quiet, a miraculous thing begins to happen. In my case, I start to notice the patterns of my thoughts without getting too attached to them. I start to hear with remarkable clarity the many voices in my head—voices of parents, of society, of the stories I have invented. Space becomes available for insights and truths to speak from unconscious realms within. This is wisdom.
In my mid-twenties, I went on a meditation retreat in the middle of a very tumultuous time in my working life. When I sat down in meditation on the first few days of the retreat, I could feel the magnetic attraction of my work problems consuming my thoughts and not letting me go.
Finally, on one of the last days of the retreat, after a week of repeatedly getting caught up in thoughts, suddenly my thinking mind surrendered. Out of nowhere, I heard an internal voice. It was a different voice than the endless, confused machinations of the mind I had been struggling with. It said quietly, with clarity: You have to go. As soon as those words had the chance to break through, I burst into tears. That was it. With four words, what I knew to be true, but didn’t want to face, came to the surface. I needed to leave the work situation I was in. The decision was made and all that was left was the grieving.
Nearly all the major insights I have had in my life have come from that place deep inside. Perhaps you have noticed this in your life—times when your mind stopped fixating on a problem and an answer came to you from a different place. This is the nature of our mind’s inner wisdom, and meditation is the fertile ground that enables it to emerge.
The third reason to meditate is compassion.
Compassion is the heart-opening feeling that occurs when we witness the ways we are interconnected with every being and thing in the world. Recent research has shown that meditation increases compassionate and altruistic behavior, but personally, I find that the more I meditate, the more I feel motivated to fight for justice and, perhaps more mundanely, to treat the people in my life with everyday kindness and care. Meditation cracks my heart wide open and softens me towards others. It is not something I logically think through. It feels more like a chemical response—a rush of love—that bypasses my defenses and tenderizes me for a period of time.
Meditation opens the heart, builds compassion, and has the potential to inspire loving action which fosters positive change.
Ultimately, relaxation, wisdom, and compassion all flow from the process of becoming more awake in our lives. When we are focused on what is happening in real time, even for a few seconds at a time, we are not caught in the tangle of thoughts that constantly swing between the future and the past. We become intimate with the experience of life and are able to live it more deeply. That is the point.
Yael Shy is the author of What Now? Meditation for Your 20’s and Beyond (Parallax, 2017) and the Senior Director of NYU’s Office of Global Spiritual Life and MindfulNYU.