More and more people are getting into meditation and for wonderful reasons. The physical and mental benefits of meditation are incredible and it has helped people improve their lives. But have you ever wondered what the actual goal of meditation is? Why did the ancient sages develop the methods of meditation? In this article, we’ll discuss everything about the true purpose of meditation.
The purpose of meditation is to realize our true nature or attain a state of cosmic consciousness or oneness. Buddhism describes it as nirvana, a state of nothingness where all our desires and attachments are extinguished. In Hinduism, it is described as the realization of the ultimate reality, Brahman.
But what exactly is Brahman or nirvana? How do the Hindu and Buddhist scriptures define this highest aim? Read on to discover more about the goal of meditation and how it works to attain it.
What is meditation?
Before we discuss the goal of meditation, let’s understand what this technique is. Many of us think meditation means stopping our thoughts or not thinking, which is far from truth. Meditation doesn’t teach us to overpower the constant stream of thoughts or control it. If you want to read more about handling your thoughts during meditation, read this: What Should You Think About When Meditating?
Meditation is also not about residing in a permanent bubble of bliss for the rest of your life. These false notions of this ancient practice only distract us from focusing on what’s crucial.
Meditation is an exercise for the mind that trains attention and awareness. It helps us, not to turn off our thoughts and feelings, but to observe and understand them without judgment. Meditation is learning to see things as they are and observing the patterns and habits of the mind.
The most common form of meditation is where we focus our attention on a single object. Usually, this object is our breath, but it can also be a repeated sound or an image. This is commonly known as focused-attention or mindfulness meditation. You can learn how to practice breath meditation here: Mindfulness Meditation: Everything You Need to Know
Another thing people often confuse is the difference between mindfulness and concentration. In short, they’re two distinct qualities of the mind, and both work together to form the pillars of meditation. You can find a detailed description of the difference between them here.
Meditation is not an aspirin
The benefits of meditation are immense. From reduced stress to improved sleep, meditation enhances a person’s overall well-being. We see that meditation is extolled for these benefits alone, which are only by-products of this practice. Improving your focus and becoming smarter will make you a better person, but it’s not the goal of meditation.
The purpose of meditation is not merely to care for our bodies. It’s not just another method to help you get through the day. Using meditation as yet another external means to benefit the body is wasting a valuable technique on a futile attempt to gain temporary relief from our sufferings.
Meditation would then be like an aspirin used to get rid of headaches. The pain may go away, but that doesn’t mean we’re cured. Before long, the pain will return unless we treat the root cause of our suffering and not just the symptoms. Since temporary alleviation of pain is available through many other means, there’s no need to use meditation for such purposes. Meditation is a means to transform our lives and make it more meaningful and fulfilling.
Again, the physical and mental benefits of meditation are fantastic and should be enjoyed, but these aren’t the goal of meditation; they’re only by-products of steady practice.
Now, we’ll discuss the actual purpose of meditation. We will not only talk about the goal but also get an idea of how meditation works to reach that aim.
At first, meditation is like standing on the side of a busy street. The mind keeps chattering, and you think about other things 99% of the time. You may meditate for several weeks, still, the quality of your sessions may stay the same.
If you keep meditating, however, you’ll become more mindful of your thoughts. You’ll notice that just as a wave of thought arises in the ocean of mind, you have a choice: to pursue it or not to pursue it. There’s a gap between stimulus and response – between thought and action.
The realization of this space is a game-changer. You can now let go of your thoughts without acting on them. Soon, you’ll notice this space in your emotions too. This brief space is where you have the choice to respond intelligently to any situation.
As your mindfulness grows, you also distance yourself from your thoughts. Each of us has thousands of thoughts per day. Most of the time, we’re thinking of things without being aware of what we’re thinking of, or that we’re even thinking at all. When we meditate, we become sensitive to these thoughts.
Almost all of us identify ourselves with what goes on in our heads. But that’s not a wise thing to do. We have many conflicting thoughts throughout the day and identifying with any two inconsistent thoughts will put us in contradiction with ourselves several times a day.
Mindfulness helps you realize that you are not your thoughts. It allows you to see thoughts for what they are – fleeting things devoid of any essence. They are just clouds floating in the vast sky of consciousness. Are clouds an important part of the sky’s identity? Or is a feather on a pond a part of the pond’s identity? No. The sky and the pond exist without clouds or feathers. Similarly, random passing thoughts aren’t a part of ours.
Getting in touch with our real nature
Once we separate our thoughts from our concept of ourselves, we move forward toward realizing our true nature. If you’re not your thoughts or your body, who are you then? Meditation is an effort toward the realization of the true Self.
Here, the capitalized ‘Self’ doesn’t mean the regular everyday ‘self’ as we know it. This Self has been described by various terms, such as Brahman, Atman, God, Higher Self, Supreme Consciousness, and Allah.
So, the purpose of meditation, in simple terms, is to realize that we’re not the ego. It’s to experience the state of cosmic oneness or consciousness. This might sound like an unattainable aim, but the ancient Hindu scriptures are very clear in proclaiming this Self-realization to be the goal of spirituality.
The most revered scriptures of Hinduism, the Upanishads, describe Brahman as beyond the mind, imagination, senses, and intelligence. It lies behind the whole of our perceived universe. These texts even proclaim that Brahman is beyond both existence and non-existence. It transcends and includes time, space, and causation.
Bhagavad Gita, one of the central texts in Hindu philosophy, explains that Brahman “is the constitutional position of ultimate happiness, and is immortal, imperishable and eternal.” (Chapter 14, Verse 27)
Now, following the scriptures, we won’t be able to realize this truth if the mind is cluttered with all kinds of thoughts. Only a quiet and empty mind can realize the eternal Self. So, sometimes people say that the purpose of meditation is to empty the mind, and it’s technically correct.
However, this doesn’t mean you should try to stop your thoughts. The goal of meditation may be a state free of mental disturbance, but the way to get here is not by trying to force the mind to think of nothing. If you want to know what to do with your thoughts during meditation, read this: What Should You Think About When Meditating?
The cessation of suffering
Another way to look at Self-realization or enlightenment is from a Buddhist perspective. 2500 years ago, the Buddha declared four noble truths of life:
- The truth of suffering (Dukkha)
- The truth of the origin of suffering (Samudāya)
- The truth of the cessation of suffering (Nirodha)
- The truth of the path to the cessation of suffering (Magga)
Here, cessation of suffering or nirvana is the aim of all efforts of a Buddhist disciple. The Buddha developed a set of principles, called the Noble Eightfold Path, that lead to nirvana. One of these eight principles is “right” or “correct” mindfulness that’s developed through meditation. So, the goal of spirituality or meditation is to attain enlightenment or nirvana.
The word nirvana means extinguishing. Attaining nirvana or enlightenment means extinguishing all forms of desires within us. It’s a state of mind filled with profound spiritual joy, with no negative emotions or fears. An enlightened being is freed from the cycle of rebirth and attains permanent peace.
The Buddha discouraged his disciples from asking too many questions about nirvana. He wanted people to focus on the task at hand, which is to free themselves from the cycle of suffering.
So it is that the purpose of meditation is enlightenment or nirvana. This isn’t to say that meditating just to live a more mindful and peaceful life is bad. It’s better to meditate for 10 minutes a day than to not do it at all.
As we’ve said, the physical and mental benefits of meditation are only the by-products of it. If you’re content with these benefits, that’s okay. But as far as the goal of meditation is concerned, it is to rise above the mind and ego, realizing our true nature, and thus, ending suffering once and for all.
Also, remember that this Self-realization or enlightenment or nirvana is the goal of all spiritual efforts. Meditation is just one tool in spirituality to attain the ultimate aim. It has to be coupled with virtues like detachment, compassion, discrimination, and non-violence to progress spiritually.