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Guest Post: What Does Meditation Do?

And now we have our first guest post in ages. This one is by Dr. Douglas Gentile, who writes the American Buddhist blog at usbuddhist.blogspot.com.  He has been training in multiple Buddhist traditions since about 1989.  In his professional life he is an award-winning researcher, author, and university professor.

What Does Meditation Do?

By Douglas Gentile

Western stereotypes about meditation are interesting.  People often initially come to meditation because they believe it will bring them bliss, or bring sudden enlightenment, or at least be a relaxing break from the stresses of the day. Yet, instead, it often feels really bad, and people then believe they’re doing it wrong or that it doesn’t work.  But what does meditation actually do?

There are many answers to this, at many different levels of analysis, but at least in the beginning stages for most new meditators, it allows us to see how the mind works.  It is constantly jumping — emotions follow thoughts which follow emotions which follow thoughts and on and on ad nauseum.  Sometimes this is called “monkey mind,” although I personally think that’s somewhat unfair to monkeys.  By recognizing how easy it is to get trapped into this pattern of chasing every thought and feeling to the next, and how difficult it is to slow that pattern, it teaches us that we don’t need to put quite so much faith in our thoughts and feelings.  They will all change, even if we try to hold on to them.

This can allow us to not react when under their influence.  We can refrain from automatically reacting.  We can pause briefly and add some space, and perhaps even relax to see what will happen naturally.  This can allow for a much gentler approach both to oneself and to others.

As an example, my girlfriend once told me that she didn’t trust me entirely.  She wasn’t being unkind or attacking me – it was simply true.  My immediate reaction was to feel hurt and I immediately thought of all sorts of angry things I could say in response or to make a pronouncement about how we couldn’t be together then.  But it was bedtime, so instead I lay in bed and let my thoughts and feelings flow as they would until I finally slept (not particularly well).  The next day I was able to express my disappointment with her lack of complete trust, but I could also see how my behaviors had caused it.  She was right not to entirely trust me – I had told her not to in several small ways.  My disappointment was, in fact, equal to hers.  She was disappointed that she wasn’t able to trust me completely and to always be feeling as though she might lose this relationship soon.

By recognizing that my immediate thoughts and feelings were not “truth,” and indeed were limiting my view as long as I focused on them, I was able to not be trapped into believing I had to act on them at the minute I was thinking/feeling them.  Adding a pause allowed for a better view on the situation, and ultimately meant that we didn’t even argue at all – instead, we had a good conversation and a better understanding of each other because of it.

If we consider the stereotypes about the outcomes of meditation, this example doesn’t fit any of them.  At no point in this experience did it feel blissful, enlightened, or relaxing to me.  But meditation had allowed me to see the nature of mind, so that the thoughts and feelings didn’t feel so solid or overwhelming that I had to do something at the minute I was caught in them.  If I had, it would invariably have been less than skillful and would likely have made the situation worse rather than using the opportunity to make our relationship better.

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