Meditation, and here we are talking about sati (mindfulness), is a practise not a belief system. However there are ideas about meditation that are belief systems. Let’s look at a few of them here…
Meditation connects us to God. This is a common belief about meditation and is something found in many traditions ranging from advaita vedanta, sufism, quakerism and western new age. Although there are variations within these traditions; some are dualistic and other monistic, the basic idea is that by stilling or focusing the mind you connect with a some sort of greater entity. This can be described as the divine self, the god within or the inner light. There are many experiences in meditation that can correspond to a feeling that we have achieved unity with God. The question that needs to be asked is – why have different cultures come up with different interpretations of these mental states? Are they bringing their cultural biases to their explanations? Is the belief getting in the way of the experience..?
Meditation makes us better people. A lot of meditation courses are sold on this principle – from TM to a good number of mindfulness courses out there. It’s a positive belief that can encourage people to take up the practise and to a certain extent it can be true. However it’s generally not meditation that makes us better people but the values we bring to what we achieve through our practise. For example, mindfulness has been taught to army snipers as a way of bringing focus to their efficiency as killing machines. In this case, mediation is used to make one human a threat to another – hardly the definition of a better person.
Meditation makes us more relaxed. In buddhist meditation this is called samadhi or calmness and can certainly come from a dedicated practise. However, to believe that meditation will make us more relaxed is more than likely going to stand in the way of any relaxation happening. Sitting still for even 10 minutes can be both a mental and physical challenge that far from relaxing us can often cause the opposite to happen. This process, that often starts with discomfort or resistance, is important as we gradually learn to let go of our expectations and true calmness can arise. If relaxation is your main motivation, there are easier and more pleasant ways of relaxing than meditating.
Meditation is about blanking the mind. This illustrates a mis-conception about meditation that leads a lot of people to give it up after a few weeks of struggle. Turning off the natural chatter that goes on in the mind with a few counts of the breath is going to be a challenge even for the most advanced Roshi or Ajahn. What is more damaging to a beginner is the idea that this is the motivation for meditating, and can lead to a lot of frustration. The most remarkable discovery in meditative practise is to realise that you can let go of grasping onto thoughts. The method is to let them happen; then just ‘be’ with them. Gradually there is less energy expended in trying to do something with the mind and the mind will calm naturally.
Meditation without beliefs, in the form of silent sitting practise, brings us face to face with things as they are now. We don’t need to believe anything to experience this; this is life, unadorned and free of expectation.