On Meditation and The Meaning of Existence

I have been reading about this new trend in an old practice called Mindfulness. It seems to be based on Buddhist meditation practices which help calm one’s mind and focus on the present. I think there’s value to Mindfulness and meditation practices because our culture overloads us with information and stimulation of the senses. To sit and contemplate one’s existence is a positive thing. I have been reading about this new trend in an old practice called Mindfulness. It seems to be based on Buddhist meditation practices which help calm one’s mind and focus on the present. I think there’s value to Mindfulness and meditation practices because our culture overloads us with information and stimulation of the senses. To sit and contemplate one’s existence is a positive thing.

But, while I think meditation has many benefits, I have a problem with some of the promises of “Mindfulness.” There seems to be a strain of thinking that suggests Mindfulness will help you give meaning to your life. I also notice that some definitions of Mindfulness use the term “present moment.” This is an odd idea because it’s impossible to focus on the present moment. As soon as you reach out to grasp it, it becomes the past moment. This is the slipperiness of time – it can’t be stopped or slowed down.

These two ideas seem to me to be a reaction to the fear of the passage of time. I don’t think the purpose of meditation is to extend the present moment or to give meaning to it. Let me explain.

mind·ful·ness /ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs/
noun
1.  the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
  “their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”
2.  a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

We live in the present, but we are always making a bargain with the future. For example, consider a daily task list. Daily lists are about planning the immediate future. The lists are made so that I will do what I need to do that day plus what I want to do. I will do the laundry in the morning so that I will have time in the evening to read. I will make a grocery list today, so that when I go to the store tomorrow, I won’t waste time and money when I get there. In this way we have expectations about the day. But, at any time, an unexpected event, such as a car accident or an unexpected visitor, can upset the day’s plans and the daily list is forgotten.

And it’s not only daily plans we entrust to the future. We have a vision of our future life in 5 or 10 or 50 years. These form our hopes and dreams of where we will be in the future. Will we have a family life or an adventurous life or a successful career? And this creates anxiety in our present life because we know from experience in making plans from day to day and from witnessing other people’s lives that there is no guarantee our lives will turn out as we expect the future is veiled to our mind.

So, what to do? We need to look at the accumulative effect of time. Returning to the example of the daily list, we understand that if we have been diligent about daily work in the past that missing a day or two is not going to make a dramatic difference. We can make up the lost tasks on other days. If the interruption is more serious, such as an accident, then we know our daily routine is going to change in more drastic ways.

The same thing applies for longer stretches of time. If, for example, you decide to have a career then you must train for it. You may have to delay one job for another. You may have to go to school. In short, you sacrifice the present for the future.

If you try to hold onto the present, you will always fear the unknowable future.  Our future is made up of unforeseeable events, but it is also made up of the plans and sacrifices we make in each present moment.

When I was about the same age as my third child is now (30 years old), my husband and I changed our minds about having more children. We had originally decided that the two children born to us were enough. But, we moved to Texas from New York and I had quit working to be home with the children. We realized we had time to have more children and as we had no other family in Texas, we thought it might be good to reconsider having more children.

I remember being pregnant with my third child, a daughter, while watching the two older children playing. I remember thinking that they were doing so many things on their own and babies take up nearly every free moment of your life. Why was I starting from zero with another child? I put it out of my mind as the choice had already been made. And it turned out to be a happy choice. There would be three more children to come after her.

There is an experience in old age that is called “feeling the weight of one’s years”. When I was middle aged, I thought back to my 20s. Two decades had gone by – but it while that is a lot of years, it did not seem so long in the past. I also could see a future ahead of me. The children were young and I could see that my life was not finished. I could only understand “the weight of years” in theory. I had many more years ahead of me. It wasn’t until I reached my 60s, and my youngest child had left home that I finally felt the weight of years. At that time, I felt more that I lived a full life. Not everyone gets the joy of experiencing old age, so I feel doubly blessed in that. Perhaps, if I am lucky enough to live another 20 or 30 years, I will have an even greater appreciation.

If someone had told me when I was 20 that I would end up in Texas (I’m from New York) with six children and no career when I was 60, I would have said that was crazy talk. Now, at 62, as I hold my third grandchild, my third child’s first baby, I can see that the sacrifices I made over the years were a blessing in ways I could never imagine in my youth.

So, we can’t see the fullness of our lives until many years – innumerable present moments – are behind us. It is only then that we can truly understand the entirety of the moments that make up our lives.

My point is this: Meditation does not help you give meaning to the present. You already have meaning. Your existence has meaning. The understanding of the meaning of your existence grows over time. In other words, meditation can help you appreciate meaning in your life, but it does not create it.

So, do not be afraid to let go of the present, but fully embrace your life so that you can walk boldly into your future.

Until next time. 😊