Meditating on a zazen bench

One of the tricks of meditation is being comfortable, but not too comfortable. Meditation requires balancing many contradictions. (Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash)

I was challenged a couple of months ago to write about meditation, and about why I meditate. I happily accepted the challenge, but I didn’t realize at the time what a difficult topic it would be to write about. For one thing, it’s more deeply personal than anything else I’ve written about publicly. For another, it’s the sort of thing that just feels self-evident (for lack of a better word). It’s a bit like asking, “Why do you sleep?” or “Why do you breathe?” After meditating pretty seriously for the past few years, I now think of meditation as just part of life, like sleeping or breathing.

I realize that’s not much of an answer, so I’ll attempt to dig a bit deeper here. One way to answer this question is to begin with the related question, why did I begin meditating? From there, I can try to explain why I continued, and then circle back to answering the real question—why I still do it, or, why I do it at all.

My first real experience with meditation came as part of a workshop during business school. A meditation instructor walked several dozens students through some fairly standard visualization exercises. I experienced something quite profound during the workshop. I closed my eyes, listened to the instructor’s words, visualized myself sinking into a deep, dark, comfortable space—and then, suddenly, I felt as though time had stopped. I experienced very vivid memories of my childhood, and of my grandmother, whom I had lost several years before. When I came back to the present, I felt like the meditation had only lasted for a few minutes, and I was shocked to learn that in fact a full hour had passed. It was as close to a religious experience as I had ever come, and it felt like a signal that I should continue. I felt like there were a lot more deeply-buried memories and emotions that I should get in touch with, and meditation seemed like a good way to explore them. While I’ve since had several other profound experiences meditating, I’ve never had an experience quite like that one again.

I intended to continue meditation, but over the following years life, and a startup, intervened. When I finally did begin meditating again, it was through the Headspace app, relatively new at the time. Whereas the meditation workshop had lasted several hours, Headspace promised that I actually only needed ten or fifteen minutes a day. That appealed to me because it sounded realistic and achievable. I began to use the app, and managed to do a brief meditation every day for about two years, which felt like an enormous accomplishment. At this stage the short meditations felt calming and helpful, but not life-changing.

The next big step came with my first silent meditation retreat. I spent ten days at a Vipassana center last year, and this experience was truly life-changing. Where my meditation up to that point had been like dipping my toes into a small swimming pool, Vipassana felt like being thrown headfirst into a huge ocean. I could write many pages about the things I experienced during those ten days—indeed, I have, although I haven’t published any of them yet—but suffice it to say that it was the most profound and valuable experience of my life, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Since then I’ve continued to meditate for about an hour each day, usually first thing in the morning. I’ve continued because it brings me great joy and peace, and it helps me focus. It’s a powerful antidote for the stress, anxiety, and uncertainty of everyday life. What felt like a chore in the beginning developed into a habit, and now it’s something I genuinely look forward to and miss profoundly when it gets postponed. (That seems to be the nature of habit formation: do something long enough and you will grow to love it.)

Circling back to the original question, then: Why meditate in the first place? The best answer I can give is in the form of a metaphor (and I’m beginning to understand why meditation instructors have used metaphors since time immemorial!).

I sometimes feel as if I’m living my life on a spaceship. The ship is vast, almost unfathomably so, and I can explore and wander in any direction endlessly. The possibilities feel almost limitless: as if the ship contains an entire world within its boundaries. But the ship does have limits. If I wander far enough in any one direction, I eventually reach an outer wall. I was never previously aware of the boundaries, or indeed, of the existence of the ship in the first place—probably because I never had the patience, focus, or fortitude to wander far enough in one direction!

I’ve spent my entire life on the ship, and it’s literally all I know. I was born there, and I will most likely die there. I have no idea from whence it came, nor where it’s bound. Many of my fellow passengers have theories: about the ship, about its origin, about its possible destination, about the mission of the trip. Many more are unaware of the existence of the ship in the first place, or simply choose not to care, preferring instead to just get on with their lives.

The act of meditation, for me, is like peering out of the ship’s windows at the vast expanse of empty space beyond. It’s the act of contemplating the hardest questions. Where are we coming from, where are we going, and why? Who built this ship? To what end? It’s the act of setting aside the noise of everyone else’s theories and observing, experiencing, and contemplating the nature of existence and reality for myself. I don’t do it in expectation of finding answers. That’s not the point. Meditation is not geared towards some particular end—and, by extension, that which is geared towards a specific end is not meditation. It’s like the act of gazing up at the stars or out at the endless ocean: it’s something one cannot help but do, out of curiosity and the feeling of being a tiny speck in a universe that’s vast beyond belief. At the same time, perhaps ironically, it’s an act that makes one feel a deep sense of connection with all other existence and all other lives.

In short, meditation has become an important and central part of my life. In some ways it’s the foundation rock upon which my entire life is built—so you could call it a form of faith. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever learned or experienced. It’s difficult to describe it in more specific terms.

I really cannot imagine life without it. Indeed, I didn’t feel alive in the first place until I began meditating. It shocks me to think how much of my life I missed, passing before my own eyes—and, indeed, how much I still miss, despite my best efforts to always be present! Meditation brings me more joy, more continually, than anything else I’ve ever experienced. And I’m constantly looking for ways to make meditation, mindfulness, and intentionality a bigger part of my life, such as by studying Buddhism more deeply and by becoming more active with the sangha. Hopefully, writing will also be part of this, but first I have to find the words.

If you meditate, does any of this resonate for you? Are you interested in meditation, or have you considered trying it? Let me know by leaving a comment!