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January 10, 2009

The Purpose of Meditation

The Dalai Lama

The very purpose of meditation is to discipline the mind and reduce afflictive emotions.

 -- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama


Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

Note the difference between "affective" and afflictive. It's not only good for your vocabulary, it also highlights that the purpose of meditation is not to reduce emotions generally -- it is only to reduce negative and painful, or afflictive emotions. In the science fiction series "Star Trek," the Vulcan species is at once respected and disliked by Humans because of Vulcans' relative lack of emotions. We should suspect the pursuit of meditation, prayer, or any spirituality which reduces all emotion or in other ways makes us less human. In Star Trek, Vulcans use daily meditation and other cultural and personal mechanisms to control all emotions. They want logic to prevail over their natural, especially selfish and violent tendencies.

People do naturally have selfish and violent tendencies, and we also naturally have altruistic and peaceful tendencies. All are rooted partly in emotion, so for that reason and just for our general enjoyment of life, we only want to reduce negative emotions. The Dalai Lama's message is practical. Do not seek spirituality in a grand goal to make yourself less human, seek to improve your daily life and your whole life will benefit.

There are definitions of meditation which would describe some people's entire lives as meditative, just as there are some definitions of prayer which would define an entire life as prayerful. Like prayer, meditation could include public, interactive experiences such as singing, working together, or doing something unselfish. This perspective on meditation can be useful, but is essentially beyond the scope of the definition of meditation in this article. The meditation considered in this article is more personal, inward looking, and generally private.

In the greater definition of meditation as any mindful action or thought, the Dalai Lama's message is also, ultimately practical. Meditation is working intentionally to reform our biological minds, which operate on reaction before prejudice and prejudice before consciousness. Practice makes closer to perfect, so any time we mindfully practice compassion, doing so becomes more normal.

We have all experienced the symptoms of minds operating much of the time on expectations. In yesterday's article on Freedom and Creativity, we considered a quote from Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden:

When I leave my office and get into my car, I find that, unless I make a specific effort of will, I will drive myself home. When I leave home and get into my car, unless I make a similar conscious effort, there is a part of my brain that arranges events so that I end up at my office. If I change my home or my office, after a short period of learning, the new locales supplant the old ones, and whatever brain mechanism controls such behavior has readily adapted to the new coordinates.

We quickly recognize and greet people we normally see because we expect to see them; being surprised to see someone we did not expect can be a jarring experience. Any surprise reduces our ability to understand and interact, and so we fear the unknown, and so we avoid the unknown. As with any activity, practicing compassion in public meditation and preparing yourself for it in private meditation will make compassion a matter of course for you. If you focus not on being less human, but on knowing your human self better, self discipline, and reduction of negative emotion, your practice will bring you closer to perfect without alienating you from a fulfilling life.

Those who make profound, mindful choices in their lives often describe an awakening of a new self. If you have generally been more selfish than not, then you will experience the thrill of your emotional momentum when you reach a tipping point in your practice of compassion. When you become generally more compassionate than not, it will feel like your more disciplined mind, your greater purpose in life, and even your identity, are all new. To have greater personal control through greater intent -- over your everyday thoughts, actions, and feelings -- is a great joy. It will brighten your days and give your whole life greater purpose.