Why Should I Meditate ? (part 1)

By Matthieu Ricard on May 16, 2017


Take an honest look at yourself. Where are you in your life? What have your priorities been up till now and what do you intend to do with the time you have left? We are a mixture of light and shadow, of good qualities and defects. Are we really the best we can be? Must we remain as we are now? If not, what can we do to improve ourselves? These are questions worth asking, particularly if we have come to the conclusion that change is both desirable and possible.

In our modern world, we are consumed from morning till night with endless activity. We do not have much time or energy left over to consider the basic causes of our happiness or suffering. We imagine, more or less consciously, that if we undertake more activities we will have more intense experiences and therefore our sense of dissatisfaction will fade away. But the truth is that many of us continue to feel let down and frustrated by our contemporary lifestyle.

The aim of meditation is to transform the mind. It does not have to be associated with any particular religion. Every one of us has a mind and every one of us can work on it.

Is change possible?

The real question is not whether change is desirable; it is whether it is possible to change. Some people might think they can’t change because their afflictive emotions are so intimately associated with their minds that it is impossible to get rid of them without destroying a part of themselves.

It is true that in general a person’s character doesn’t change very much over the course of their life. If we could study the same group of people every few years, we would rarely find that the angry people had become patient, that the disturbed people had found inner peace, or that the pretentious people had learned humility. But as rare as such changes might be, some people do change, which shows that change is possible. The point is that our negative character traits tend to persist if we do nothing at all to change the status quo. No change occurs if we just let our habitual tendencies and automatic patterns of thought perpetuate and even reinforce themselves, thought after thought, day after day, year after year. But those tendencies and patterns can be challenged.

Aggression, greed, jealousy, and the other mental poisons are unquestionably part of us, but are they an intrinsic, inalienable part? Not necessarily. For example, a glass of water might contain cyanide that could kill us on the spot. But the same water could instead be mixed with healing medicine. In either case, H2O, the chemical formula of the water itself, remains unchanged; in itself, it was never either poisonous or medicinal. The different states of the water are temporary and dependent on changing circumstances. In a similar way, our emotions, moods, and bad character traits are just temporary and circumstantial elements of our nature.

A fundamental aspect of consciousness

This temporary and circumstantial quality becomes clear to us when we realize that the primary quality of consciousness is simply knowing. Like the water in the above example, knowing or awareness is neither good nor bad in itself. If we look behind the turbulent stream of transient thoughts and emotions that pass through our minds day and night, this fundamental aspect of consciousness is always there. Awareness makes it possible for us to perceive phenomena of every kind. Buddhism describes this basic cognitive quality of the mind as luminous because it illuminates both the external world through perceptions and the inner world of sensation, emotion, reasoning, memory, hope, and fear.

Although this cognitive faculty underlies every mental event, it is not itself affected by any of these events. A ray of light may shine on a face disfigured by hatred or on a smiling face; it may shine on a jewel or on a garbage heap; but the light itself is neither mean nor loving, neither dirty nor clean. Understanding that the essential nature of consciousness is neutral shows us that it is possible to change our mental universe. We can transform the content of our thoughts and experiences. The neutral and luminous background of our consciousness provides us with the space we need to observe mental events rather than being at their mercy. We then also have the space we need to create the conditions necessary to transform these mental events.

Wishing is not enough

We have no choice about what we already are, but we can wish to change ourselves. Such an aspiration gives the mind a sense of direction. But just wishing is not enough. We have to find a way of putting that wish into action.

We don’t find anything strange about spending years learning to walk, read and write, or acquire professional skills. We spend hours doing physical exercises to get our bodies into shape. Sometimes we expend tremendous physical energy pedaling a stationary bike. To sustain such tasks requires a minimum of interest or enthusiasm. This interest comes from believing that these efforts are going to benefit us in the long run.

Working with the mind follows the same logic. How could it be subject to change without the least effort, just from wishing alone? That makes no more sense than expecting to learn to play a Mozart sonata by just occasionally doodling around on the piano.

We expend a lot of effort to improve the external conditions of our lives, but in the end it is always the mind that creates our experience of the world and translates this experience into either well-being or suffering.

If we transform our way of perceiving things, we transform the quality of our lives. It is this kind of transformation that is brought about by the form of mind training known as meditation.

(To be continued)