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How meditation complements self-discovery

By: Dr Claus Springborg, September 2022, Copenhagen

Inquiry and meditation are complementary spiritual practices. Inquiry the practice of self-discovery through rigorous examination of our moment-to-moment experience. This examination is facilitated by carefully crafted questions and thought experiments. The practice of inquiry gives us deep insight into the nature of ourselves and reality.

The advantage of developing insight into the nature of reality is that the better we understand how reality works, the better we get at predicting the results of our actions. In contrast, if we do not understand how reality works, our actions will often seem to backfire. This has been expressed in many religious and philosophical traditions. In Buddhism, it is claimed that suffering comes from the attitudes of clinging or hostility and that these two ways of relating to reality both come from ignorance, i.e. a lack of understanding the nature of that reality. Similarly, the Greek philosopher Socrates claimed that evil deeds always spring from ignorance and that if we develop insight by examining reality, evil will dissolve. 

One of the challenges in inquiry is that our minds are very active and constantly generate “noise” that confuses us. We divide our experience into separate objects – and fail to see how they are intimately connected. We bundle different parts of our experience – and fail to see how independent of each other they really are. We make general rules from experiences that are very context specific. We identify with transient aspects of our experience – and overlook that which is stable. We take unimportant things to be very important – and disregard the important as unimportant. We misinterpret other people’s intentions – and our own. And so on. With all of this going on, it can be difficult to get any insight into the fundamental nature of reality. 

Soothing meditation is the practice of turning your attention away from the turbulence of your thoughts and emotions by focusing it on a meditative object, such as your breath, your belly, a mantra, a yantra, a candle flame, your hands and feet, or a pleasant inner state like compassion, gratitude, grounding, joy, etc.

When you do this, your otherwise overactive mind will slowly settle. This is like the dust settling or the fog clearing, and suddenly, you can see everything much clearer. When your mind gets calmer and clearer, inquiry becomes much easier because there is less confusion to obscure your view of reality. 

Meditation is also beneficial in its own right. Researchers have found that it increases your general sense of happiness, helps you deal better with stress, increases a range of cognitive functions, lowers blood pressure, helps you connect with and understand other people, and so on.

Thus, meditation is a great practice. However, there are many common misconceptions about meditation which, if you believe them, can impede your practice.

Two misconceptions about meditation
One common misconception is that to meditate, you should get rid of your thoughts. If you believe this, your meditation becomes a struggle against your thoughts, and failure to get rid of thoughts can lead to a sense of the meditation being a failure and ultimately to giving up meditation altogether. 

However, meditation is not about getting rid of thoughts. You cannot get rid of thoughts. You can, however, be less interested in your thoughts. You can regard them as background noise that you don’t have to pay attention to. You don’t have to pay attention to your thoughts as something interesting you have to follow or as something bad you have to get rid of. As one meditation teacher once said: “There is no need to try to get rid of thought, as there is really no possibility of making it stay”.

Another common misconception is that meditation is supposed to always be pleasant. If you believe this, you may feel that when meditation isn’t pleasant, it means that you are failing, and you may try hard to get rid of the unpleasant feeling and get back to a pleasant one. This will once again turn your meditation into a form of struggle.

However, meditation is about leaving your thoughts and emotions alone. When you do this, you will relax. And when you relax, thoughts and emotions that you otherwise have repressed might come up. And some of these can be quite disturbing. When this happens, it is generally a good sign. Rather than seeing the disturbing thoughts and emotions as something that ruins your meditation practice (and therefore should be gotten rid of), you can see them as thoughts and emotions you have been storing in your body that are now finally leaving you. When you regard disturbing thoughts and emotions in this way, you don’t need to struggle against them. There is nothing you need to do. You can just keep focusing on your meditative object and let the disturbing thoughts and emotions arise and fade without your interference. 

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