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Is Meditation Self-Centered?

Adapted from The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works by Shinzen Young

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Photo Credit: Olci/Thinkstock

People sometimes criticize meditation as being self-centered. Let’s consider that issue.

Imagery is very powerful, and the archetypal image of meditation is of someone sitting on the floor in a funny posture with eyes closed, burning incense, and chanting “om.” So it’s easy to understand why people might view meditation as a kind of self-centered, narcissistic activity. Formal practice in stillness looks like a withdrawal from life and other people.

My personal image of meditation is quite different. When I think of meditation, I think of someone in a gym having a good, sweaty workout. If you do a physical workout with regularity, you elevate the base level of body strength. If you do meditation with regularity, you elevate the base level of your focus strength.

When I hear people say that meditation is self-centered and selfish, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. If you think about it, virtually every moment of just about everybody’s life is self-centered. In general, people’s experience of life involves a sequence of moments of identification with self. Meditation equips us with the skills needed to break that identification. So the long-term effect of meditation is the opposite of what the archetypal image seems to convey. People who are successful with meditation experience an elastic identity. They are able to better take care of themselves but can also extend their identity out to include a oneness with others. That ability naturally evolves into a desire to serve others.

This concept leads us to another way to think about meditation. Meditation is something that a person does for themselves, but it’s also something a person does to make the world a better place and to be of service to others. This fundamental polarity is reflected in the vocabulary of traditions from around the world. In Hinduism, one speaks of sadhana (work done on yourself for yourself), which is coupled with seva (service to others). In Theravada Buddhism there’s vipassana (observation) coupled with metta (lovingkindness). In Mahayana Buddhism, prajna (wisdom) is coupled with karuna (compassion), and in Vajrayana Buddhism, one speaks of prajna (wisdom) and upaya (outreach). An example from Christianity would be the motto of the Dominican order: “Meditate and give to others the fruits of your meditation.”

Adapted from The Science of Enlightenment: How Meditation Works by Shinzen Young. Copyright ©2016 by Shinzen Young. To be published in September 2016 by Sounds True.  Shinzen Young leads meditation retreats throughout North America and has helped establish many mindfulness centers and programs. He consults on meditation-related research at Harvard Medical School, Carnegie Mellon University, and other institutions. He lives in Vermont. For more, visit shinzen.org.


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