4.2 Is Meditation a Waste of Time?

by peter © (last updated jan. 2017)
“Petty scholastics will never understand the great Dao! They go on their tiny bit of limited knowledge and experience, and deny the great Dao that is beyond knowledge.”
~ Zhuangzi, 350 BCE
Many folks say that meditation is a means of quieting the mind, of quieting thoughts.
But is this quieting of thoughts permanent?
Is it even a good thing?
The content of most thoughts for most people is simple: avoidance of pain or the pursuit of pleasure - opposite poles bouncing on a fulcrum of desire. So certainly, sometimes it is nice to have a rest. To have a few moments when thoughts quiet down and we stop oscillating between the pleasure-pain opposites. Meditation is useful for this, to calm thoughts. Done with conviction and attention, it can ease the burden of this polarisation ... for a little while.
But therein lies a very real problem. The calm only works for a little while. In fact, the only really quiet mind is a dead one. Ha ha - even the great saints resting in samhadi for days at a time, eventually snap out of it to wonder if it’s time for a bathroom break. Permanent, lasting, continuous quiescence of thought is ... problematic. So meditators meditate longer and longer. At set times every week, then everyday, then in all of their spare time ... for years. The idea is that more, better quality, deeper meditation will eventually lead to a quiet mind and from there, maybe if the meditator is very lucky, to awakening and something called "enlightenment" (whatever they believe that to be).
So we have the example of Zen monks meditating every chance they get, formally in the zendo or informally at home. For years. Ten years, twenty years, fifty years... a lifetime. If you have ever been to Japan or even to a western Zen centre and talked to these folks after they have had a little too much sake (a Japanese alcoholic drink), they start to get weepy. They say something like "All my life I have wanted a quiet mind, a peaceful mind, an alert mind. I have wanted enlightenment. I have meditated every day for many, many years. And nothing! I am no closer than when I started. What to do, what to do?" Pretty sad, don’t you think?
Or we have the example of blissed-out Ashram dwellers chanting and meditating for many years, telling anyone who will listen how calm they are, how at peace they are during meditation. But when your foot stamps down on their big toe (how dare you!!) the calmness and peace mysteriously vanish. That is to say, what they purport to have attained is not permanent, despite all that meditation, chanting, being kind to others, and thinking good thoughts.
Oh sure, their lives may be less frantic after all that meditating. But so what? Finding the right spouse, painting a picture, listening to gentle music regularly ... all of that will produce a less frantic life and calmer thoughts as well. Probably longer lasting too.
If meditation does not result in permanent always-present-peace and ease of being, regardless of circumstance, then perhaps it may be just another psychological tool like listening to relaxing music, having coffee with friends, or having a nice stroll in the country. Perfectly fine for feeling a little better, but really nothing to do with permanently quieting thoughts, and even less to do with awakening or enlightenment. A useful balm perhaps, but one which inevitably ends up being washed off when it rains.
At the heart of all real spiritual teaching from Sufism (Rumi, Ibn el’Arabi, Rab’ia), non-dualism (Ramana Maharshi, Nisagardatta), Cha’an (Hsin Hsin Ming, Rinzai Gigen), Christianity (Brother Lawrence, Meister Ekhart), and so many other traditions is a simple admonition. Namely:
  1. Be diligent,
  2. Use your intelligence,
  3. Pay attention.
  4. Find your own way.
Quieting the mind is never mentioned. Meditation is never mentioned. Just these four simple things.
It seems to me (just my opinion of course) that quieting thoughts, meditating to attain nirvana, is pretty much a waste of time. Thoughts are thoughts - some fun, some not. The assumption that they are your thoughts however, is perhaps closer to the real root of the difficulty.
And perhaps with diligence, intelligence, and attention to this - that thoughts are not your thoughts - the tree may be cut not at the branch as meditation does, but rather at the root.
"Freedom to do what one likes is really bondage, while being free to do what one must, what is right, is real freedom." - Nisagardatta Maharaj
Real meditation is about real freedom. It is about just being. At ease, living an ordinary life, and watching with interest as that which appears rises and falls of its own accord.