I’ve been meditating for 3 years almost daily and had the opportunity to attend a very challenging 10 day Vipassana retreat in India. I meditated for 10 hours a day from 5 am every morning. I had breakfast and lunch, no dinner, as per Buddhist tradition. Talking, reading and writing were not allowed. Eye contact was forbidden.
While it was difficult, it was an incredible experience. I found myself falling into bouts of extreme happiness, actually, and not the least bit bored even though I was just sitting for hours on end.
After the retreat I found this experience paradoxical and hard to reconcile. On one hand, it was clear that we could be very happy with nothing, so why not retreat into the mountains like monks and get away from all of the bullshit of daily ‘modern life?’
On the other hand, even though that approach could bring happiness (monks seem really happy), it seemed like a form of escapism. I couldn’t understand why these monks — with the alleged wisdom gained over years of silence — didn’t just integrate back to society and help make the world a better place. Some have, like the founder of Headspace, and authors like Jack Kornfield… but most don’t.
In his book Out of Your Mind Alan Watts brings up this very same dilemma and is irreverent and critical in his analysis.
Almost all spiritual disciplines—meditations, prayers, and so on—are ways of persisting in folly. They’re methods of resolutely and consistently doing what you’re already doing.
He explains this further with the concept of the “finger pointing at the moon,” but, problematically, many people mistake the finger for the moon.
This concept really hit it home for me.
Religion, philosophy, or whatever principle you choose to adhere to is essentially a path to greater character, happiness and ultimately a better life. It’s the finger pointing you in the right direction.
But it’s easy to get distracted. We can meditate for meditation’s sake, or pray for praying sake, but those activities are not the be all end all. They’re simply a means to an end (many people will disagree with me on this).
We can fall into a form of routine and complacency doing these activities. We’ll likely see our lives improve from sitting still, but only to a certain point. You can go really deep into yourself — but then what? This is where many people get stuck.
There will be a time when action is important, and necessary.
When we reach a certain point of understanding or insight — whatever that might mean for you — we then have to do something with it. That’s the point. Action. We have to do something with the tools and methods we’re using.
We can still meditate every day or practice gratitude or pray or whatever, without necessarily having some big end goals, but those practices by themselves are not enough.
What’s the point if we’re not using them in our daily lives? We should use them to become better at what we are already doing. To be better learners, better at work, better entrepreneurs, better thinkers, better parents, better friends, better lovers.
Even something completely devoid of so-called dogma can fall into this finger-moon mix up. Take reading non-fiction books, for example. Many people read to broaden their knowledge and ultimately want to apply this to their lives to increase their health and wealth. Reading, though, is a great form of procrastination. You could read all day and do nothing, and get nowhere (trust me, I know). You have to take action, apply what you learned.
My point: Meditation is wonderful, but anyone can meditate. It’s not that hard. But it’s what you do with it that counts. It’s how you apply it to the rest of your life that is going to create meaningful change in the world.