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The Three Aims of Meditation
People come to meditation with different aims in mind, but I would narrow them down to three principal ones. These three aims are: (1) calming your mind, (2) having more insight into your mind, and (3) awakening, or enlightenment. Each aim requires a particular virtue or habit of character in order to achieve the aim (if “achieve” can be the right word for awakening).
Calming your mind is the easiest aim to achieve; it is almost automatic when you practice some form of meditation. Picture your mind, with its restless thoughts and imaginings, as a ship with strong winds blowing into its sails. When you bring your attention continually back to the focal point of you meditation, whether it be your breath or a mantra or something else, you are taking the wind out of the mind’s sails. Instead of actively pursuing a thought and putting more energy and attention into it, you are withdrawing that energy and attention. It is not that you force your mind to become calm by some kind of effort; simply in taking some of the energy out of pursuing thoughts you are taking the wind out of the sails and the ship is going to slow down. You mind begins to feel calmer and more focused.
The virtue that you have to have to practice in order to move into and sustain that calmness is consistency. Consistency just means to do it regularly, to find a time and place to practice meditation on a regular basis. It helps to find a time of day when you usually have a quiet moment, perhaps the first thing in the morning or just before going to bed at night, and a special place, such as a corner of your room where no one will interrupt you.
The second aim of meditation is insight—coming to know your mind better. As you watch your thoughts and catch yourself being carried away by various chains of thoughts and fantasies, you become more familiar with patterns in your ways of thinking. Whatever is on your mind during the rest of the day is what is going to crop up in your meditation, and as certain thoughts recur in your meditation you will become more aware of them when they come up in the rest of your day. You will start to see these patterns or habits more clearly as you step back and watch your mind in action.
The virtue that is necessary to gain insight is curiosity; you have to want to know how your mind works. If you are afraid of what is there or trying to hide things from yourself, you will block insight. It is not as automatic as the calming; there has to be a desire for insight. But if you have that desire to understand yourself, meditation is an excellent practice for coming to see how your mind works.
The third aim of meditation is the most difficult to explain. It is to be awake, to be aware of who you are and what life is about. To be “awake” is a metaphor, obviously. You are awake when you are not caught up in your mind’s thoughts and fantasies, and instead have a direct apprehension of reality unmediated by such mind phenomena. People often have very extravagant ideas of what enlightenment is, but awakening is not a single dramatic experience. It is breaking through the veil of your thoughts and imaginings and seeing reality clearly and directly.
The virtue to help you come to awakening is commitment, which means making awakening the central aspiration of your life. That doe not mean you have to spend all your time in meditation, or give up family, career, and other aspects of life. It means that all these other areas of life take their place in orbit around this certain aim of finding awakening, or God, or Truth, however you want to put it. You have to want it with a commitment that never gives up, no matter how far away it seems.
If you practice with consistency, curiosity, and commitment, you will attain calmness and insight, and discover what it means to be awake.
© 2010 Alan F. Zundel