We have already made note of the fact that methods of “meditation” vary according to the aim, goal or purpose of a person’s training. Moreover, the various practices can be more or less suitable depending on the character or personality type of the individual being trained. Within a single contemplative tradition there may be several fundamentally different approaches and dozens of variations. In Buddhism, for example, lengthy books have been devoted to outlining the scope of contemplative activity and sketching the many kinds of exercises performed by monks and householders within a single school.
A given person’s meditation practice can be religious or secular, a temporary expedient or a lifetime commitment. We are not forced to choose between one kind of practice and another, one set of motives and another. But it is crucial to be clear about what we are doing and why we are doing it. At one end of the motivational continuum, the bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be, is propelled along the path by the aspiration to fully awaken for the sake of all sentient beings. That resolve is called bodhicitta, the wholehearted commitment to the task of waking up. In mythic terms the project is described as taking an astronomical number of lifetimes to complete. It is not for everyone.
Another sort of person will forego nirvana in favor of samsara with the maximum upgrade. The stressed-out middle manager, for instance, may take up the practice of mindfulness as way of better coping with increased responsibilities and a deflating salary. There is nothing wrong with the decision to settle for less than perfect Buddhahood, provided you are honest about it. The difficulty with striving for the ultimate goal is, of course, that until the trainee realizes for herself knowledge of a very rare kind, she has only the most general and abstract idea of what lies at the end of the path. Not everybody knows what Enlightenment is, wants it, or even believes in the possibility of it. It may seem prudent to reserve judgment in the matter. While the jury is out, there is a lot you can do with meditation to make the problems of everyday life less painful, your behavior less driven, and your moment-to-moment experience more interesting. The panoply of methods is large. There is at least one kind of contemplative exercise for everyone.
Each of the world’s cultural traditions embraces and combines in various ways three distinct approaches to spiritual practice that correspond to three basic attitudes to the problem of life. These three approaches are (1) striving for control of nature through technology, art, and/or magic, (2) striving for self-control, and (3) not striving at all. Each of these three tendencies has its exemplars in religion. The ritualistic aspects of Daoism, Veda, and tantra fall into the first category. Early Buddhism belongs to the second, along with disciplines such as Loyola’s Exercises and most of the varieties of yoga. Latter-day Pure Land teachings go into the third category, together with bhakti-yoga, Islam, contemplative Daoism and Dogen’s “zazen.” A healthy spirituality blends two or more of these tendencies, and we could probably identify types of “spiritual” persons based on the degree to which one or another is dominant.
Of the many factors that motivate people to take up meditation, the most common are probably curiosity; desire to experience altered states of consciousness; the acquisition of power over nature and/or other people; and the desire for inner peace. Among additional reasons to meditate are what might be thought of as subsidiary goals and benefits, of which the following are the most salient:
- increased control of psycho-physiological processes, such as respiration, heartbeat and blood pressure, leading to
- bodily and mental refreshment through rest, relaxation and reduced stress;
- improved performance of everyday tasks due to greater mental stability and acuity; and
- better relations with people.
There are many good reasons to take up meditation and few bad ones. Even at entry level the practice of mindful attention and clear comprehension can help us to avoid toxic states of mind—greed, aversion and delusion in the multitude of forms that give rise to human suffering. To the extent that the practice of meditation leads to wholesome states of mind, then any reason to meditate is a good one.