Meditating is all the rage these days, and for good reason I think. It seems to be a good prescription for a lot of what ails our poor beleaguered modern minds. We are far too stimulated, and we are becoming unable to focus on anything for very long.
Because of this, meditation is prescribed to reduce stress, to control overeating, for assistance with addiction, to help with depression, and many other reasons. These are all good and fair reasons, but they are not the reason I personally meditate.
We are suffering a crisis of conscience in the West and have been for some time. The past few decades have seen simultaneous rising standards of living and incidences of mental illness. But those are completely incompatible. How can everyone’s living standards be going up when everyone is depressed and crazy?
The problem is that “living standard” is defined incorrectly. It takes into account health and longevity, which is a relatively good indicator. (Although the two are often looked at separately. People are living longer, but at the end they often become very sick, miserable, and immobile for many years, which doesn’t seem to be a good way to live, but let’s leave that for now.)
The rest of one’s standard of living seems to be tied entirely to how much one is able to consume. Are you able to buy a new TV every time you want one? Does everyone have a car, and if so, is it new enough? Everyone has clean water and plumbing, and pretty much everyone has enough food, so now that our needs are met, do we have enough disposable income to keep this economy of ours chugging along?
Which gets to the root of the problem: we have become consumers. Not citizens, not human beings, not artists or warriors, but consumers. And that is no way to live, because consumption, by its very nature, is an unending process that can never bring lasting happiness.
The first of the Buddhist noble truths is that life is, by its very nature, dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as suffering, but it’s better described as unsatisfactory. You will age, you will get sick, you will have unmet desires; it is in the very nature of existence that this be so. The rest of the noble truths provide a good way to deal with this fact. The modern world does too, but it is the worst possible remedy: consume more. If you are unhappy, you should probably go buy something.
And of course we all believe it – it is an entirely unfair fight. There are very smart people who wear very expensive suits who studied the human psyche at elite universities for many years and are now paid a lot of money to develop advertisements that specifically prey on your weaknesses and insecurities to create desires in you so that you will give your money away for no real reason. In school we are not taught this, in the adult world no one notices it. But we are surrounded by what can be fairly described as brainwashing.
I meditate because I fully believe this is the wrong way to live. I believe that through finding inner peace and developing loving kindness for the world, we can live a better life, both for the individual and those around us. But this requires seeing the world as it is, not as it is sold to us.