Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Selfless Love - Selections

Beyond the Boundaries of Self and Other

Why Meditate?

From time to time my grandchildren ask me, “Grandma, why do you meditate?” Often this question comes when I ask my husband to watch them for twenty-five minutes while I do my evening meditation. They want to know why it’s so important that I take time to do it every day, especially when there are other fun things to be doing with them. I try to explain in a way a child can understand. Usually I say, “Meditation is a kind of prayer.” They are satisfied with this answer and seem to appreciate the sacred nature of this time set aside.

This answer works for them, and for me it is the most honest answer. Ever since I first started meditating about forty years ago, I have viewed meditation as a way to be more present and open to God. My reason for meditating has always been spiritual, and meditation has been a labor of love.

These days many people begin meditation for other reasons, such as improving their physical or mental health and well-being. In many medical centers around the world meditation is being used for stress management, and there is a large body of research supporting its effectiveness. We now have a greater understanding of the integral relationship between body and mind. The power of the mind to affect the body is being applied to treat conditions like high blood pressure and chronic pain.

As neuroscientists study the effects of meditation on brain structure and function they are expanding our scientific knowledge regarding neuroplasticity. In a recent article in the AARP magazine, older adults are encouraged to include meditation, along with healthy eating and exercise, in their daily routines to prevent dementia.

Many people are learning to meditate in their psychotherapist’s office. Meditation is being incorporated into new models of psychotherapy such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). DBT integrates cognitive-behavioral strategies with mindfulness skills, derived from Zen meditation, to help clients participate in life with awareness and behave more effectively. Mindfulness is a way for clients to be more present in the moment, rather than overburdened by the past or consumed by worries about the future. MBCT was developed to prevent relapses of depression; it combines cognitive therapy and mindfulness meditation to help clients gain a wider perspective on their thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, thereby improving their mood. In the ACT model, the therapist facilitates the client’s movement toward a more flexible view of the self as ongoing awareness and as context. In this model, “self ” is not a thing; it is immaterial, spiritual, interconnected, and compassionate toward self and others. Research supports the effectiveness of these new models of psychotherapy in treating depression and anxiety.

Therapists also benefit from meditation. Like patients, they too can learn the art of being fully present; “presence” is the healing power of what they do and is a great asset for all caregivers. Meditation is also a way for therapists and caregivers to care for themselves as a foundation for caring for others. As a nurse, meditation helps me connect with patients on a deep human level and stay fully present, calm, and sensitive while accompanying patients through birth, life-threatening illness, recovery, and death.

When I began Zen meditation, I was attracted by the natural beauty, simplicity, and peacefulness of Zen gardens and meditation halls. The exquisite, uncluttered environments called me into a place of calm and serenity. The calm of meditation is a welcome antidote to the hectic pace of modern life. It is a chance to take a break from multitasking and pay attention to one thing at a time—sitting, breathing, walking, eating, or sleeping. It is a time just to be a human being alive on this earth. Meditation is like a pressure valve that releases the tension of driving in heavy traffic and constantly learning new computer programs. In the alert, balanced posture of meditation, muscles soften and new life is breathed into you. Powerful reasons for me to meditate are to decompress, simplify, unclutter, and experience again that I am not a machine; I am a human being. Meditation is an expression of my humanity and my unity with the earth and all its creatures.

On a mental level, meditation is a time to clean house. There is a reality television show called Hoarding: Buried Alive that depicts the lives of people who are on the brink of eviction or health crisis because they have filled their homes with things, sometimes up to the ceiling, with only a small path to get through each room. It shows the hoarders experiencing extreme anxiety and panic attacks when asked to part with any of their things. They resist letting go of anything, even at the risk of losing home, health, and family. Watching the show you think to yourself, “How could anyone live like that? I could never live like that.” However, in meditation sometimes you find that you have filled your mind with so many thoughts, opinions, plans, stories, and images that there is no space left. You may have a hard time letting go of all this mental clutter. You may even notice feelings of anxiety as you try to let go of some of your cherished ideas about yourself, others, and life itself. Meditation is a way to stop the habit of mental hoarding and regain some spaciousness and mental clarity. It is like cleaning house and letting in a breath of fresh air.

Meditation is enlivening. It is like hitting the refresh button on the computer. You get up from meditation feeling new, vital, fresh, and sensitive. In meditation you open to a natural sense of peace, love, and joy. You are filled with gratitude and glad to be alive. This is important in a world where depression is all too prevalent and suicide all too common. When you take a break from incessant doing, and make time just to be, there is time and space for innocence, wonder, and awe.

We find this in the Christian tradition in the story of Martha and Mary. Mary sits fully present near Jesus—full of wonder and awe. Martha complains that Mary is just sitting there and not helping her as she works to prepare the meal and take care of the guests. Jesus responds that Mary has made the better choice. He is not saying that Mary is right and Martha is wrong; it is really not a matter of right and wrong. We are all both Martha and Mary. Too often our tendency is to be busy doing all that needs to be done in life. As a result of all this busyness, we, like Martha, may find ourselves tired, complaining, and distancing ourselves from others. We need to take time to sit down, be fully present, and experience the wonder, joy, and love that is offered.

In Eastern traditions the highest intention for meditating is to gain insight, wisdom, or enlightenment. However, this is often accompanied by a warning that wisdom alone is not enough; it must be embodied in compassionate action. Meditation is for liberation of the human spirit, your own and others’. In the final picture of the famous Zen oxherding pictures, which depict ten stages of spiritual development, we see the spiritual person returning to the marketplace, in ragged clothes, to mingle among the people and lend a helping hand.


Grandma, why do you meditate?
Meditation is a kind of prayer.
It helps me experience that God is near,
that God is right here.
God’s breath is my breath.

When I am very silent and still
I hear every little sound—
a cricket, a birdsong,
the refrigerator turning on and off,
rain on the roof and running down the gutter pipes
into the earth,
a car swishing by on the wet road.

I see clearly too—
light growing brighter as night turns to day,
patterns in the grain of the hardwood floor,
the color of dawn.

During meditation I see
how often my mind is full of thoughts,
my body full of feelings,
rushing through life on a giant roller coaster
up and down, up and down,
holding on for dear life.

Meditation is a chance to get off the roller coaster,
slow down for a while,
feel calm and peaceful—
as my breath glides
in and out, in and out—
just breathing,
paying attention to life here and now.

I feel my heartbeat,
the heartbeat of the whole world,
not separate from grass, trees,
mountains, and sky.

I hear the laughing and crying of the whole world
like one body
with all people who breath and eat and grow.
I know I am not alone.