Why Should We Meditate?

Cooler InfinityOne of my top FAQs (that’s Frequently Asked Questions, grandpa!) is “Why should we meditate?” It’s a good, honest question. And lots of meditation teachers have good answers. A lot of times they’ll quote scientific surveys involving brain scans of meditating monks and things like that. Sometimes they’ll drag out that big doorstop of a book Zen and the Brain and show you some graphs in there. But I’ve never read that book. It’s too smart for me. Nor can I understand most of those graphs and charts — even though I’ve had my brain scanned at least three different times as part of those kinds of studies.

I meditate because I can feel for myself the huge difference it makes in my life. I wouldn’t waste an hour or more every day on some activity that wasn’t worthwhile. And I certainly wouldn’t have kept it up for close to thirty years if it didn’t seem to be doing anything for me!

And yet it’s very hard to quantify exactly why I do it. All I really know is that I feel lousy when I skip my morning zazen. It’s had tremendous impact on my life, too, I’m sure. But I can’t hop over to the Mirror Universe in which I never learned to sit zazen and watch Evil Brad putting his ex-girlfriends in the agony booth or whatever I would have done if I’d signed up for something other than a class in Zen meditation back in college. So I don’t honestly know what’s different. Though I feel very strongly that many aspects of my life have been vastly improved.

I’ve also come to feel that meditation is necessary. Like I say in the video above, it seems to me that lots of folks these days think of mediation as an interesting activity they might like to try one of these days. They think it’s optional. But I have come to believe that it isn’t optional at all. It’s as necessary as good diet and regular exercise.

When people ask how to get a regular practice going I often compare doing zazen to brushing your teeth. When you’re a kid your parents force you to brush your teeth. You kick and scream but they make you do it anyway. Somewhere around junior high school age, like 11-13 years old, you suddenly notice members of the opposite sex or you start to notice members of your own sex in a different way. Then it dawns on you that brushing your teeth makes sense. Maybe later, after a few harrowing trips to the dentist, you discover other reasons it’s a good idea. After a while it becomes a routine. You forget why you do it. But you do it every day.

I think that in the future — maybe 50 years from now, maybe 200 if we’re pretty slow — people will look back on our culture where very few people meditated the way we look back on cultures where very few people brushed their teeth. They’ll wonder how we could have neglected something that is so obviously necessary for a decent life. They’ll marvel at the fact that the knowledge was there, that the teachers were available, that the activity itself was so simple and obviously good for you, and yet so few people took the initiative to do it. They’ll wonder what life must have been like with all those non-meditators running around psychologically stinking up the place.

Interestingly enough, it was the Buddhists who introduced the habit of tooth brushing to Asia. In the Middle Ages in China brushing one’s teeth was thought of as something monks did as part of their weird rituals. Eventually people outside the monasteries noticed how beneficial it was and started doing it themselves and the habit spread.

Maybe people will eventually start to notice the good that meditation does too.

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46 Responses

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  1. sri_barence
    sri_barence May 30, 2013 at 2:04 pm |

    I love the suit!

  2. drocloc
    drocloc May 30, 2013 at 2:36 pm |

    It’s not a question of zazen; it’s the answer.

  3. JonW
    JonW May 30, 2013 at 3:00 pm |

    The teeth-brushing analogy is spot on, Brad. Great post.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 30, 2013 at 3:14 pm |


    I keep asking about whether your new book will be out in Kindle and I haven’t seen any response. If there’s a better format for asking you this question, share it and I’ll comply. 🙂

    Also, might want to let your computer guy know that this site’s certificate has expired.

    Take care.

  5. senorchupacabra
    senorchupacabra May 30, 2013 at 3:30 pm |

    I don’t know. I feel it’s more like asking why we do anything at all. “Why do we play basketball?” “Why do we watch the news?” “Why do we read books about sparkling vampires?” “Why do we drink beer and discuss politics?” “Why do we create things like cars and airplanes?” etc.

    Because we’re human and that’s what human beings do. Some people get something out of reading books about sparkling vampires and some don’t. That’s sort of what’s wonderful about life.

    A lot of folks are going to disagree with me, but I think just about anything can be a form of meditation. I don’t think “zazen” is necessary in the same way Brad does, but I do think it is necessary to have some sort of practice or activity that is, for lack of a better term, “meditative” for people.

  6. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer May 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm |


    Brad is not a regular reader of his comments section. Your best shot at getting his attention is to email him.

    There is a “contact” section at the top of this page.

    I am glad that you pointed out that his certificate has expired. It explains why my computer is treating this site like a Russian Mafia homepage.


  7. My_name_is_Daniel
    My_name_is_Daniel May 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm |

    I agree, Brad.

    And it’s interesting when someone asks you something along the lines of, “So, what benefits have you reaped?” or “What was it like at Tassajara?” It’s often difficult to express the benefits with precision/ accuracy and what is often said is about as normal and bland as one can imagine.

    It’s a total ‘had to have been there’ thing. Inside joke-ish, almost.

    Regardless, ineffable as it often is, it’s totally priceless. The appreciation of just being alive is priceless.

    1. minkfoot
      minkfoot May 31, 2013 at 4:58 am |

      Whenever I took time off work to do retreats, people would invariably say stuff like, “Have fun!” or “Enjoy yourself!”

      I mean, why else would you do something?

  8. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 30, 2013 at 6:15 pm |

    “I think that in the future – maybe 50 years from now, maybe 200 if we’re pretty slow – people will look back on our culture where very few people meditated…”

    Hmnn, considering that one of the first figures shown in art to be meditating is Shiva prior to 1700 BCE (pre-Vedic) & ain’t no way he invented it, I’d say it is unlikely that in 50 to 200 years this “new” thing called meditation is gonna catch on w/the pop culture just cause its sorta (not really) like brushing our teeth.

    May be more likely that some kind of computer app/implant will allow you to have a virtual reality “meditation” session while fingering your gear or having a poop (or for the ambidextrous, both simultaneously?).

    Why should we meditate? Why SHOULD we DO anything??

    Be a “do nothing” Buddha.

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 30, 2013 at 9:12 pm |

    I think the video is great, right combination of uniform, challenging assertion, and warm fuzzy bathwater sharing. Go Brad.

    I am becoming more convinced that Denkoroku is a pirated work of Yuanwu, with a few paragraphs related to Japan thrown in by a lessor talent. I used to feel intimidated by the secret code words and phrases, the imprecations and castigations, but now I know that the author is just talking to himself trying to make sense without hanging on to anything. Sort of stream of consciousness psycho-babble that starts to feel right by the close.

    That’s the great trick for me, to gradually leave what I understand and return with something new while letting go of making sense altogether.

    MJGibbs, didn’t know that about Osho (close of last comments section).

    My thought is that meditation has to be taught to the beginner as a practice of falling asleep sitting up without falling over. I wouldn’t advise sitting at the edge of a well, as Ajahn Chah did (sp?). Of course, the practice has been loosely extended by many generations of Americans to be a kind of drunkenness where you are totally shit-faced but you don’t fall down, but we civilized types just sit in a little box with our knees tied together (not!- ). Ok I try not to fall backwards in the sitting before I go to bed, that should count!

  10. John H
    John H May 30, 2013 at 9:17 pm |

    Brad, I think your tooth brushing analogy is quite accurate. I agree that a formal sitting practice is essential. Although meditation has been around for a long time, I do believe we are seeing it start to really catch on here in the west. Give it 50 years or so and it will be the norm. I think mental health will improve a lot as a result.

    Really good post!

  11. Yozilla
    Yozilla May 31, 2013 at 2:22 am |

    But why should we meditate with others?

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence May 31, 2013 at 3:49 am |

      It is like a hand reaching for a pillow in the night.

      1. minkfoot
        minkfoot May 31, 2013 at 4:53 am |

        Excuse me . . . What are you doing with my pillow?

  12. AnneMH
    AnneMH May 31, 2013 at 5:23 am |

    Dude anyone who can say things that make that much sense that I kinda forget that they are wearing a bunny suit with a space helmet is dang good. I was going to show this to my boss who got locked out of her house for an hour and came close to meditating (I seem to talk about it a lot)

    1. sri_barence
      sri_barence May 31, 2013 at 8:35 am |

      I’m a big fan of the bunny suit. I think people don’t do that kind of thing enough these days. Bernie Glassman says he carries a clown nose around, so that when he gets to serious he can put it on as a reminder. I just walk around with a goofy smile on my face; I’m not ready for the bunny suit or clown nose…

  13. Harlan
    Harlan May 31, 2013 at 5:53 am |
  14. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote May 31, 2013 at 7:52 am |

    BUSH LIED, PEOPLE RIDE – Our own Jon Ward went on the former president’s annual charity bike ride and had a chance to speak with freedom’s greatest fanboy: “‘Did we reach Zen out there?’ I asked him after the ride, referencing a conversation he had years ago with an Associated Press reporter who rode with him. Since taking up mountain biking in 2004, Bush has embraced riding hard as a way to leave his cares behind, if only for an hour or two. ‘I’m beyond that'” he replied, a little groggily. ‘What does it mean when you’re seeing triple?’ He answered the question himself: ‘Ultra Zen.'”

    The pretzel-pose, who needs that, we’re Americans Ga’ dam it! But seriously, if it were a matter of holding still most Americans could do that, albeit for short intervals; the weird part is you don’t get to hold still, you don’t get to move around, you don’t get to do anything. This zazen is hard to explain, don’t you feel?

  15. zacharythax
    zacharythax May 31, 2013 at 9:49 am |

    I know this sounds weird, but Howard Stern has gotten more people to start meditation than probably anyone. This is part 1 of the show segment
    Now, TM, which I reverse engineered from the book THE RELAXATION RESPONSE and the January 1985 issue of OMNI magazine paved the way for zazen for me. Once I did TM for a couple years and then read HARDCORE ZEN, it made perfect sense that TM was like going into a pool with water wings ™ on.

  16. Harlan
    Harlan May 31, 2013 at 10:17 am |

    Funny that Stern makes the tooth brushing analogy too.

  17. Harlan
    Harlan May 31, 2013 at 10:20 am |

    Robin says, People find it strange that someone like Howard practices TM.
    Robin responds, “Think what he’d be like without it.”

  18. Fred
    Fred May 31, 2013 at 3:16 pm |

    Senor Chupacabra said:

    “A lot of folks are going to disagree with me, but I think just about anything can be a form of meditation”

    “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
    Dogen Zenji (1200 – 1253)

    Emptiness is everywhere and anywhere.

  19. Anonymous
    Anonymous May 31, 2013 at 3:23 pm |

    I had to log in to agree that Howard Stern is indeed probably the person who has gotten the most people to at least try some form of meditation in the country. People who listen to him regularly know he’s an effective communicator who puts forth a good case for his brand of meditation, particularly regarding how it impacted his mother’s life and how it helps him.


  20. Mumbles
    Mumbles May 31, 2013 at 5:24 pm |

    Meditate on this:
    One of the most engrossing books I’ve ever read was SALVATION ON SAND MOUNTAIN By Dennis Covington.

    (From the Google books intro:) Scottsboro, Alabama, in the fall of 1991. A snake-handling preacher by the name of Glendel Buford Summerford has just tried to murder his wife, Darlene, by snakebite. At gunpoint, he forces her to stick her arm in a box of rattlesnakes. She is bitten twice and nearly dies. The trial, which becomes a sensation throughout southern Appalachia, echoes familiar themes from a troubled secular world – marital infidelity, spouse abuse, and alcoholism – but it also raises questions about faith, forgiveness, redemption, and, of course, snakes. Glenn Summerford is convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison. When Dennis Covington covered the trial of Glenn Summerford for The New York Times, a world far beyond the trial opened up to him. Salvation on Sand Mountain begins with a crime and a trial and then becomes an extraordinary exploration of a place, a people, and an author’s descent into himself. The place is southern Appalachia – a country deep and unsettled, where the past and its culture collide with the economic and social realities of the present, leaving a residue of rootlessness, anxiety, and lawlessness. All-night video stores and tanning salons stand next to collapsed chicken farms and fundamentalist churches. The people are poor southern whites. Peculiar and insular, they are hill people of Scotch-Irish descent: religious mystics who cast out demons, speak in tongues, drink strychnine, run blowtorches up their arms, and drape themselves with rattlesnakes. There is Charles McGlocklin, the End-Time Evangelist; Cecil Esslinder, the red headed guitar player with the perpetual grin; Aunt Daisy, the prophetess; Brother Carl Porter; Elvis Presley Saylor;Gracie McAllister; Dewey Chafin; and the legendary Punkin Brown, all of whose faith illuminates these pages. And then there is Dennis Covington, himself Scotch-Irish, whose own family came down off of Sand Mountain two generations ago to work in the steel mills of Birmingham. His involvement is a case study in the dangers of following such a spiritual path first as observer, then as participant…

    &Then there’s this guy….

  21. mtto
    mtto May 31, 2013 at 6:17 pm |

    Dogen Sangha Los Angeles is going to attempt to stream Brad’s talk tomorrow at 11:15 AM, PST. http://www.spreecast.com/events/june-1-2013-talk-by-brad-warner

  22. Fred
    Fred May 31, 2013 at 6:20 pm |

    “This is as bad as it gets with regards to a mamba bite, but because of my strong mamba immunity it affects me very little.”

  23. Harlan
    Harlan May 31, 2013 at 8:09 pm |

    Ugh.. I hate snakes!

  24. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 1, 2013 at 8:02 am |

    “Sorcerers believe that the predators have given us our systems of belief, our ideas of good and evil, our social mores. They are the ones who set up our hopes and expectations and dreams of success or failure. They have given us covetousness, greed, and cowardice. It is the predators who make us complacent, routinary, and egomaniacal.” – Don Juan, Yaqui Indian shaman


    1. Harlan
      Harlan June 1, 2013 at 6:14 pm |

      Mumbles.. You are quoting Carlos Castaneda and referencing secretofmatrix.blogspot.com/

      There is something happening here but I don’t know what it is..

  25. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 1, 2013 at 9:12 am |

    “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”

    “Is it the chimes ringing or the wind ringing?”- “It is neither the wind nor the chimes–it is just my mind ringing.” #19 in the Denkoroku

    Action that arises naturally out of the sense of location informed by the sense of proprioception and the sense of gravity (along with the other senses); letting go into the movement of breath, into the stretch of ligaments and the action created by the stretch of ligaments in the movement of breath; dropping mind and body, is just here, here, here.

  26. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 1, 2013 at 9:13 am |

    a hereweir, OMg

  27. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 1, 2013 at 10:21 am |

    Location! Location!! Location!!!

    Mark, are you a realtor in “real” life by any chance?

  28. Harlan
    Harlan June 1, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
  29. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 1, 2013 at 8:00 pm |

    One bite from a Mohave rattlesnake would brainwash anybody, Harlan. It’s big business, just like this Zen stuff. But the corporations are doomed:


  30. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 1, 2013 at 9:41 pm |

    I am a lonesome realtor
    Without family or friends
    Where another man’s life might begin
    That’s exactly where mine ends
    I have tried my hand at bribery
    Blackmail and deceit
    And I’ve served time for ev’rything
    ‘Cept begging on the street.

  31. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 1, 2013 at 10:03 pm |

    oh, man- that’s what I did wrong, I forgot to try bribery, blackmail and deceit!- no wonder I can sell anybody on being where they are doing nothing breathing in and out.


  32. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 1, 2013 at 10:04 pm |

    can’t sell anybody… can’t speak… crap.

  33. Mumbles
    Mumbles June 2, 2013 at 8:12 am |

    Hey Mark! Nice poem/song (you should put it to music, really).

    What’s going on…? do you hear the wind, see the tumbleweeds? Beware of those varmints underfoot Harlan.

    This here’s some recently deserted real estate.

    Have you renewed your license, I mean certificate, Mark, I mean Brad? Confusing, I know, its that snake bite dream I had last night…(mumbles)…

  34. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote June 2, 2013 at 9:11 am |

    Kind ladies and kind gentlemen
    Soon I will be gone
    But let me just warn you all
    Before I do pass on:
    Stay free from petty jealousies
    Live by no man’s code
    And hold your judgement for yourself
    Lest you wind up on his road.
    (final verse, “Lonesome Hobo” by Robert Zimmerman cum Dylan)

    Not Dylan, but nice cover:


  35. thomas
    thomas June 2, 2013 at 9:34 am |

    I agree. Obviously, the state of meditation can occur in any circumstance but the practice of sitting in a half lotus posture and minding the breath is very conducive to entering the state. All deep contentment/happiness arises from the meditative state, whether people are conscious of that fact or not.

  36. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz June 5, 2013 at 9:02 am |

    Mankind will be extinct in 50-200 years because of people like you, Brad.

    You keep throwing around words like “necessary” and “ultimate means” without realizing how dogmatic that is. It truly is aggravating, and it is pretty much tantamount to imposing your structures, in the form of beliefs, onto the world. One aspect of Zen practice is to cease imposing our structures onto this world and attaching to them. Moreover, the state of Soto Zen in the West in much like Christianity: people are more concerned with “absolutes” and the “real”, and they parrot phrases like “you do Zazen to actualize awakening daily” or “you do not do Zazen and remain deluded”. There is no more creativity and instead a dull rigidity is imposed by these people onto themselves and others. I have been going to a Soto Zen monastery for 2 years, and I will tell everyone it was utter bullshit and not a true representation of the Dharma. We have to wake up and understand how Zen is being commercialized, bastardized, and destroyed by Japanophiles who are more concerned with cultural adherence and rigidity. Why don’t you guys just stay home, read the Blue Cliff Record, study some poetry, pick up a hobby like gardening, and stop imposing your human drama onto others?

    Seriously, Brad, fuck you. You just want to make money from publishing these books. You are the very image of what you hate (i.e., Genpo Roshi). I bet you feel this deep down, and you are only concerned with making a living and not truly “spreading” and “teaching” “Zen”.

  37. drocloc
    drocloc June 5, 2013 at 1:44 pm |

    Feel better?

Comments are closed.