One 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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