Is Meditation Selfish?

(cc) Alan Turkus
(cc) Alan Turkus

I have been writing about meditation, spirituality, and inner resources for about 15 years now, mostly on the Internet. On a few occasions, people have expressed to me that they think there is something self indulgent about meditation and contemplative spirituality. These people apparently feel that meditators should be doing something to make the world better, rather than just sitting “doing nothing.”

Also, on a couple occasions, people have expressed that they feel there is something a bit narcissistic about meditation and inwardness. These people seem to be under the impression that meditators became infatuated with their inner world. Since many Spiritual Naturalists engage in some form of meditation or contemplation, I suspect that some here have encountered people with ideas like this. Here is my response to them.

One often hears that it is our responsibility to change the world, to make it better. On the surface this is certainly a praiseworthy goal. To those who take this goal seriously, someone sitting in meditation appears to be doing nothing to make the world better.  So from this point of view it makes sense to think of meditation as a somewhat self indulgent.

I suspect it is the case that everything we humans do is a bit self indulgent. Consider our motivation when we try to make the world better. We start out with some idea of what is good and what bad, and from this idea we shape our idea of “a better world.” Yet, in my experience, for every person espousing a particular vision of what they think is good, there is another person espousing a contrary position. For every person advocating for a better environment, there will be another advocating for a stronger economy. For every person struggling to promote a greater common good, there will be another fighting against anything that impinges on individual rights or freedom.

Is one side right and the other wrong? By what criteria are we to judge? Or is it the case that the good is relative and so each person or group is striving for the power to transform the world to best conform to their situation and their values and vision?  If so, isn’t such striving somewhat selfish?

I don’t raise this question to suggest that people should not work for their causes, only to show that the criticism of selfishness can cut many ways. And whether or not one group really is in the right and another in the wrong, the unfortunate consequence of activism is an overall increase in conflict, anger and animosity among humans. We live in a very divided and angry world.

In meditation, I am not changing the world either for better or worse. But I am bringing peace to one little part of it. If every person in the world similarly brought peace to their little part of it, the whole world would be at peace. Further, in this peace I find a contentment that requires no consumption of nonrenewable resources — and it helps me maintain a relatively low level of consumption (at least by American standards). Again, if everyone could find such contentment, we would reduce consumption and put less strain on the environment. I may not be accomplishing anything in particular when I meditate, but I am fairly confident that at the least I am not making things any worse.

That meditators should be thought narcissistic is a bit amusing. Those that assert this seems to be under the assumption that the “self” is inside of us and when we go inward we are going deeper into this self and becoming obsessed with it. In fact what meditation reveals to many is that as we go inward rather than finding more self, we discover the insubstantiality of the self.

In meditation, I often simply observe my mind at work. I observe how thoughts, images, feelings and urges arise, bubble up through consciousness, and eventually dissipate. If asked, I might call these “my” thoughts, “my” feelings, etc.,  but “I” do not bring them into existence or even necessarily want them. They come from something rightly termed the unconscious. Yet such thoughts, images, emotions and motivations shape my behavior, they shape “me.” So where do they, and me, come from?

As humans, our fundamental motivations are not unlike those of other animals. These are things like our need for nourishment, procreation through sexuality, and power and status within the “herd.” Ultimately, these motivations have a genetic base. We might say “they come from my genes,” but there is no “I” that orders up its genes; the genes order us up — they structure the body and form the base of our behavior.  Further, every gene in the composition of a genetic inheritance has existed in multiple other beings. Some of them are literally older than the hills. How ridiculous to call them “mine”!

Genes, of course, do not determine the whole story of human behavior. For us, there is  another layer, which is culture. Different cultures have norms, rituals and taboos regarding such things as eating, sexual behavior, and the proper channels to acquire and manifest status and power. Our basic motivations are determined by biology, but these motivations take different forms depending on our cultural heritage; thus two people with identical genes brought up in different cultures will have different ideas about acceptable behavior. I did not choose which culture I was born into, but much of how I think and behave is due to my being born in it.

Together our biological nature and these cultural forms are the “otherness” that largely determines how we act and that propel the narrative of our life. Here I have expressed the idea of otherness in modern naturalistic terms. In meditation I can observe directly how “my self” arises from this otherness. In the writings of the ancient meditation traditions, particularly Buddhism and yoga, this idea of otherness is put in different terms, but the underlying idea is the same.

Meditation, far from making us obsessed with our “self” leads in the opposite direction — to the recognition of our commonality in a “source” far greater than the individual. I call this common source Nature, but others call it Tao, God, Brahma or many other such terms (which they clothe in a fabric of myth, symbol and ritual woven during the long history of their culture).

As suggested earlier, to be human is, at least to some degree, to be selfish. If this is the case, it is probably wise to be cautious in judging any specific behavior as selfish. There may be other reasons why a person might reject meditation, but thinking it to be a selfish or narcissistic activity should not be one of them.


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