To the average passerby, meditation probably looks boring.
The subject sits like a stone gargoyle: legs crossed, eyes closed, motionless. There may not even be an iPhone within reach.
But this notion of what’s interesting is only half-complete. It’s based on an assumption that interest must come from the outside. We can focus on science, history, or big-wave surfing—but our own direct experience? That sounds selfish.
“Most of us our interested in the little corner in which we live, not only outwardly but inwardly,” said the Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. “We are interested in it, but we never decently, honestly, admit that to ourselves.”
This denial of self-interest is ubiquitous. That’s because the self-interested person is synonymous with the narcissist, the egomaniac, the uncaring human. No one wants to be thought of in this way.
Yet it’s obvious, after some thought, that we’re all inherently self-absorbed. After all, aren’t we always at the center of everything we experience? For however many years we live, we have just one perspective on this life: our own.
Let me clarify what I mean by self-interest, because the term may conjure a nasty image—someone cutting in line, for instance. But that’s not self-interested, it’s just inconsiderate. And in the long run, being inconsiderate won’t get you very far in life.
Instead, being self-interested means putting your health—both physical and mental—before everything else. Only after you care for yourself can you care for others.
“If you ruin yourself,” writes Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, “you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one.”
Managing physical health involves, among other things: optimal diet, sleep, and exercise. These are, of course, important for mental health too. At this point, you’re probably wondering why I even bothered to split them up.
Point taken. Physical and mental health are intertwined, no matter how you slice it, but I separated them for a reason. The thing is, true health means more than just taking care of our bodies. We also need to care for our minds.
And to care for our minds, there’s no better exercise than meditation. In meditation, we embrace our own corner of the cosmos with intense interest. Interest is, in fact, the fuel that makes it all work. Trying to meditate on thoughts, emotions, and sensations without interest is like trying to grill without propane.
“When my mind is suffering in whatever way,” says beloved meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, “I get really interested in what’s going on. […] That interest provokes the attention. […] The mind becomes this puzzle that we’re trying to understand.”
The mind becomes a puzzle. And it’s a puzzle we begin to solve the instant we look at the pieces. An example might help.
Around 3 p.m. the other day, I found myself in a mental rut. I leaned against the kitchen counter and sank into a trance for a few moments. But soon my slump piqued my interest: Why was I feeling down? What was causing it? How could I snap out of it?
Now I was an active problem solver, not a passive slouch. I remembered the Honduran coffee from earlier—the caffeine was wearing off. Then I realized I’d been inside all day banging on a keyboard and now I craved nature.
And so I closed my laptop, laced up my Merrells, and made for the trail. Problem solved.
The ability to detect and troubleshoot our mental states is perhaps the coolest skill fostered by meditation. Instead of feeling down, we become interested in why we’re feeling down; and when we’re interested, it’s hard to feel down for long.
Meditation is, by definition, a self-interested activity. It requires an unwavering interest in the very things that define us: our minds.
And since our minds are all we have, don’t they deserve the attention?
Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2014. Print.
Krishnamurti, J. The Awakening of Intelligence. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Print.
Author: Brian Stanton
Image: Mikail Duran/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman