LIAM CHAI

Why I Meditate

In recent years, ‘mindfulness’ has become a buzzword. With the increasing amount of science behind it, mindfulness is being taken more and more seriously by the mainstream. From the Mindful Nation report in parliament, to the NHS recommending 8-week courses for depression, to large corporations like Google and Deutsche Bank using it for their employees – mindfulness is now mainstream.

With the backing of science, more people are willing to try it and it’s providing benefit for thousands of people. But in this post, I want to share my own reasons for practicing meditation (hint: it’s not to reduce stress).

Why I Meditate

Here’s the basic gist – I meditate to awaken. To see reality as it is. To know the truth. I meditate to cut suffering at the root so it no longer arises. To enlighten for the benefit of all beings… Or at least these are my ideal aspirations. My motivation when I actually sit isn’t always so grand (as much as I’d like it to be). It just isn’t true yet, but I’m working on it.

Meditation first started off as a bit of fun. I had read about it before, and one day I googled, “How to meditate”. A WikiHow article came up and I read the instructions. I sat cross-legged, put a timer on for five minutes and tried to follow my breath. The practice seemed straight forward but I soon realised how difficult it actually was. My mind was (still is) mad.

I would continue experimenting with meditation, although I never did it justice. I dabbled, and never got anywhere with it. It wasn’t until my first 10-day silent retreat that my practice started to click.

The retreat also gave me a thorough introduction to Buddhism. Prior to this, I was quite anti-religious, as most of my friends were growing up. When I came back from the retreat, I did more reading on Buddhism and other contemplative traditions. I wanted to make sense of what I had experienced during the ten days, and at that point, science was no longer giving me good enough answers.

As I read more of Buddhism, in particular things like the stages to shamatha or the nine jhanas I was impressed by the detail of it all. This shifted something inside me. I thought that perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss the whole thing because I labelled it a ‘religion’. I started to see that Buddhism isn’t similar to some of the Abrahamic faith-based religions. It’s more a system of practices designed to liberate, based on the first person experience of Gautama (and subsequently other enlightened teachers).

Also Gautama’s phrase, “Ehipassiko“, which literally translates as, “Come and see for yourself” struck me as a very non-dogmatic approach to things. The idea was not to simply accept everything that Gautama the Buddha said, but rather to test it and experience it for yourself first before coming to any conclusion.

Buddhism, Enlightenment and the Modern Mindfulness Movement

As I mentioned above, the modern mindfulness movement is now mainstream. And it is delivering a lot of good to the world. However the aim of modern mindfulness is quite different from Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has been instrumental in the movement, was a medical doctor in a hospital in Massachusetts. He had patients suffering from chronic pain where morphine was no longer effective – a higher dose would have made them addicts. With a background in Zen Buddhism, he thought some of the practices could alleviate the chronic pain his patients were experiencing. So he brought the practices to the hospital, but he couldn’t use the word Buddhism, so he called it the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic. The main aim here was to relieve the suffering of his patients.

Now compare that to the aim of Buddhism. The whole system of practice is to eradicate suffering at it’s root, so that it no longer even arises. It’s not just about relief from suffering, it’s about completely eradicating it. Call that nirvana, liberation, enlightenment – whatever, but that’s the goal. And it’s not a small one.

A straightforward definition of enlightenment is the end of suffering. No more suffering, at all. One sees through the illusion of how we think we exist, and sees things in their true nature – dispelling the notion of a separate ‘I’ that suffers, dispelling any notion of permanence. All mental afflictions are eradicated at the root and no longer even arises. The change becomes irreversible, once you know something, you cannot ‘unknow’ it.

That’s all a hypothesis of course. Not a ‘god-given’ truth or something to go around preaching because it’s written in some text.

The above sounds great, if it was true and was possible. But there’s an even bigger picture in Buddhism. The end of suffering includes the end of countless rebirth. To be born again, and again, and again, is suffering. And what Gautama taught was a path that would lead to liberation from the cycles of countless rebirth. In the Buddhist worldview, there is no beginning (and therefore no end). Sentient beings are re-born again and again and again, unless they become enlightened.

That’s Buddhism proper. Now this is a very, very big topic, and involves a belief in rebirth. My view on rebirth is undecided, which is why I am working on a post titled, What Happens After Death, which I will link to when it’s done. For now I’m resting in the space of not blindly disbelieving in rebirth, but also not blindly believing in it either.

Motivation, Motivation, Motivation

I cannot tell you with conviction that the reason I meditate is because I want to liberate myself from countless rebirth. But if enlightenment is genuinely my goal, I must dive into the topic of rebirth. It strikes me that motivation is very, very important. And if my motivation is to have temporary relief from suffering and cultivate well being, as in modern mindfulness, then 10 minutes of meditation per day is good enough. On the other hand, if my motivation is actual liberation from the cycle of rebirth, it changes everything.

To paraphrase Alan Wallace: in real estate, it’s all about, “Location, location, location.” In dharma, it’s all about, “Motivation, motivation, motivation.”

So motivation is what I am working quite seriously on. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a text titled, ‘Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Dharma,‘ which are:

  1. Thinking about appreciating the precious human life
  2. Thinking about death and impermanence, that the opportunities that we have now with this precious existence are not going to last
  3. Thinking about the laws of karma and cause and effect, in other words how our behavior affects what we experience
  4. Thinking about the disadvantages of samsara, of uncontrollably recurring rebirth.

The fourth one stumps me. And it’s what I am working on in my post on what happens after death. These four thoughts are also considered preliminaries to practice. So they are foundational in a sense, and therefore very important. And if I don’t fully understand all four thoughts, then my meditation practice doesn’t have a steady foundation – especially if enlightenment is my goal.

If I want to explore Buddhism, I want to give it the credit it deserves by exploring the whole of it. I don’t want to cherry pick what suits my current worldview and then dismiss the rest as primitive. Modern science might have made leaps of progress in the past 400 years, but relative to the big picture, we really don’t know a lot. The dialogues between contemplatives and scientists have been extremely interesting and I look forward to that continuing conversation, and perhaps play a part in it in the future too.



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