This post was originally published as an opinion piece in our College’s student newspaper, The Bachelor.
Why should you meditate? You may know that meditating regularly can help us manage stress, be more productive, and support our health. There is good evidence for each of these benefits, but are these good reasons to meditate?
Personally, I do meditate regularly, but not because I want to avoid stress or be more productive. My own meditation practice started back in the late 1990s, when I was a high school student. A friend loaned me a copy of the book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, which included a number of stories about Zen teachers and students which fascinated me. Like the story of Ryokan, a penniless monk who gave a would-be thief the clothes off his own back as a gift. Or the story of Hakuin, accused of fathering a child, whose only reply was “Is that so?” but who took the infant into his care.
As a self-conscious teen, uncertain of my role in the world and the purpose of my life, I was drawn to these stories. And to the idea that meditation practice could give a person greater stability in life. So, I came to meditation because I wanted to live a different way, and to be a better person.
And looking back, the reason that these Zen stories caught my attention had something to do with the time and place of my childhood, growing up with the original Star Wars movies, and science fiction books such as Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. If I were in high school today, it might be a very different story that would have prepared me to be inspired by Zen. Perhaps one like Demon Slayer (and here I am thinking of the anime version – I have not read the original manga). If you are not familiar with it, Demon Slayer is a beautiful (though often bloody and violent) story.
And if you are familiar with Demon Slayer, consider the hero, young Tanjiro. A boy with a kind and pure soul who loses almost all of his family in a violent attack by a demon. To save his younger sister, Tanjiro commits himself to joining the “demon slayers,” a group that trains in an esoteric style of (magical) sword fighting to kill demons and protect the public. And through it all, Tanjiro dedicates his life to cultivating strength without sacrificing his humanity.
As a Zen practitioner, Tanjiro and his journey resonates deeply with me. The demon slayers develop powerful sword fighting skills through training that is rooted in a set of breathing techniques and physical conditioning. They train and struggle intensely, but often progress comes as they become more aware and attuned to their senses and bodies, letting them see their experience in new and unexpected ways.
This reminds me precisely of meditation practice in Zen and mindfulness. The specific techniques vary across meditation traditions, but focus on bringing greater awareness to the full range of our experience. We just sit with our minds, but it can be a challenging experience. It is often said that meditation practice is simple, but not easy, and that has been true for me. Meditation can often be challenging, uncomfortable, and frustrating if we struggle with uncomfortable sensations, feelings, and thoughts.
But even so, if we continue to sit with our own minds, carefully and intentionally bringing awareness to our experience without judgment, we may feel our experience shifting. Over time, we may see our experience in new ways, giving us a better understanding of our lives. With some patience, we might be able to find more space in our lives, to live in a different and more settled way.
So why should you meditate? Perhaps you find the potential for self-transformation to be inspiring. Or perhaps not. Maybe managing stress or being more productive is a stronger draw for you. That is fine: any of these would be wonderful reasons to start your meditation practice. But if you stick with meditation, don’t be surprised to find your motivation changing as your practice deepens. I never did manage to turn myself into a different person, but I am more comfortable living as myself.
If you do decide to take the first step, I’d recommend reading about meditation and joining a meditation group. It is very helpful to sit with others, and it is easier than ever to connect with groups through Zoom. And, we have a campus meditation group meets each week, usually over the lunch hour on Mondays. You can find us on Engage, or just email me to join our mailing list. For those new to meditation, one book that I would recommend is Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English. And, while my own background is mainly in Zen Buddhism and mindfulness, you can find excellent meditation guides in many spiritual traditions.