The three reasons people meditate are: to attain enlightenment; to gain power or control; or, for relaxation or health benefits.
The best reason I can think of to meditate is to seek salvation. Is that a good reason? I don’t think so. Below I explain why.
This post presents three common reasons used for practicing meditation. Each reason for practicing has serious flaws. I argue that there are many easier, simpler, and healthier alternatives than using meditation for relaxation. We begin by exploring why many people practice meditation to attain salvation or to gain super powers. Then discuss relaxation and health reasons for practicing meditation.
The three reasons people meditate are:
The ancient and medieval Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains invented magical alchemies, such as the practices of yoga meditation, for the purpose of transmutation and bodily immortality. For our post here, we’ll define enlightenment broadly to include transcendent insight, wisdom, or spiritual consciousness beyond body and mind.
For the Hindu sages who wrote the Upanishads (the earliest known texts to reference yoga) salvation was reached when the body was yoked to a chariot that sped into the sun. Read my post Yogic Bodily Possession and The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions In Medieval India.
For modern yoga meditation practitioners the motivation is similar, that is, to attain spiritual liberation, to liberate soul from limitations of the body, from thinking, or from evil or worldly thoughts and desires.
- Meditation is supposed to free practitioners from karmic past errors, wrongs, guilts, and sins committed in this or past lives–along with following the instructions of an infallible guru or spiritual teacher claimed to be free from karma or sin.
- Meditation frees the soul. It washes or cleanses the body of light from impurities of worldly existence.
- Another goal of meditators is attainment of nirvana or nirvikalpa samadhi, the supposed exalted state of cosmic consciousness achieved by legendary Buddhas, Siddhas, or gurus. Essentially, the practitioner seeks through meditation practice to render himself godlike, a second Shiva, a Buddha, or a Yogananda.
“All souls are equal. The only difference between you and me is that I made the effort. I showed God that I love Him, and He came to me.” ― Parmahansa Yogananda
2 Power or Control
Meditation is often practiced to attain control over one’s body, mind, and ultimately for control over physical universe.
- Though most meditators will not admit, they often seek supernatural powers. The foremost power sought is mentioned as one of the eight Hindu Siddhis: Prākāmya, realizing whatever one desires.
- Western Buddhists tend to talk down these powers, though clearly nirvana and other power states are part of buddhist and meditative doctrine. In Buddhist Tantra these super powers include clairvoyance, materialization, having access to memories from past lives.
- To become Christlike is to be able to have power over Self, to have healing powers, to control nature and the physical universe. To perform miracles, read minds, walk on water, raise the dead and all manner of fantastical and unsubstantiated claims that defy the laws of the natural world.
“The servant Nature rebels and grows unruly when the master of creation sleeps. The more spiritually awakened he becomes, the more easily shall he control Nature.” — Paramahansa Yogananda
3 Relaxation or Health
Relaxation as defined here is the quieting, rejuvenating, and resting the body and mind from constant movement and agitation. Obviously, appropriate relaxation is vital for overall health.
- There are countless, often simpler and easier, ways to attain relaxation and health besides meditation, including: sleeping, napping, getting a massage, bathing, listening to music, playing a musical instrument, walking in nature, and countless hobbies and games such as fishing, flying kites, playing chess, golfing, cycling and so on.
- Popular culture and the media often portray meditation as a silver bullet that is the supposed antidote to a modern stressful lifestyle, the cure-all for nervousness and depression.
While meditation practice may have benefits there are many situations where it is common to have adverse side-effects such as anguish, despair, hallucinations, psychoses, and even suicidal tendencies and death. See my index of posts Adverse (Side) Effects.
- My personal anecdote is that many times in a five to fifty minute meditation session I would be agitated psychologically. Meditation may create anxiety. It is common to realize how restless the monkey mind actually is during meditation and how impossibly far one has to go to please and to reach the idyllic state of yogic perfection as touted by an infallible guru.
To Meditate or Not to Meditate?
By all means if meditation helps, meditate. Though there are many other more natural and easier ways to relax such as sleeping, fishing, and walking in nature to name only three out of thousands.
The solution, I believe, is education. The important questions arise not from the experiences of yoga meditation but from the belief systems by which practitioners explain their experiences.
The long-time meditators that I know who have been practicing for years apparently continue out of strong desire (or fear) of attaining salvation or of gaining super powers over body, mind, and the material universe.
The popular assumption that meditation is an effective method of relaxation or that it provides measurable health benefits is debatable. Behind the health claims is often a theology, morality and beliefs in salvation and super powers.
Most studies about meditation are flawed and unconvincing. The objective evidence suggests that meditation is not any better than drugs or other methods. See my post Meditation Not Better than Drugs or Exercise, Study Finds.
Rather than meditate to seek salvation or powers in another dimension or a future life, I recommend spending less time in meditation and more on education. To learn the wonders of how our minds can be tricked into believing strange, improbable things and finding reliable ways to make ourselves and the world a better place to live.
Question for readers: Are there other reasons to meditate that don’t fall under one of the three broad categories: attainment of enlightenment, power or control, and relaxation or health?
1 p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
2 p 53 The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 1996
3 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Hinduism: Eight Primary Siddhis, Wikipedia
4 Siddhi (powers): Usage in Vajrayana Buddhism, Wikipedia