Is Meditation Selfish?

One of the criticisms made about meditation is to assert that the practice is essentially selfish. It is a retreat, we are told, from a healthy, constructive and compassionate participation in the life of the world. If everyone meditated and was obsessed with their own mental health, how would society advance? As one UK newspaper columnist expressed it, preoccupied with their inner state, ‘nobody would ever have fought a just war, tended the sick, campaigned against injustice, founded a charity, invented a technology or worn themselves out over a scientific bench.’

But actually meditation is not meant to replace any worthwhile outer activity, any more than physical exercise is a substitute for a vigorous and active physical life during our day. We do physical exercise precisely to increase our capacity to cope during the day. And on the interior plane of the mind, we turn to practices like meditation precisely to give us the inner strength, calmness and balanced response we need in order to meet the demands and surprises of our day.

Besides, many of the greatest men and women of action depended, and depend, on deep meditative withdrawal in order to gain inspiration and fresh energy for their outer activities. Scientists like Newton, Faraday, Clerk Maxwell and Einstein were men of inner repose. Gandhi’s life was one long campaign against injustice; meditation and inner communion were crucial to his ability to go on. It was the same with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose daily hours of inner quiet were a prelude to a day of indefatigable work of public service.

True meditation fosters the sense, not of our isolation from everyone else, but of our underlying unity with all. Our active life, far from being impaired by our deeper interests, is relieved of selfish motivation and the tension and distraction it gives rise to.

The ultimate significance of our inner communion is indicated by Marjorie Waterhouse in Training the Mind through Yoga:

The lives of the spiritual men and women of the past and present show that their power and significance spring from an interior co-operation with a Power which they have drawn forth in themselves, and not from circumstances, mental brilliance and physical well-being. Harmony is the result of the discovery and uncovering of this Power, which is present, though unrevealed, in everyone. It enables those who know it to excel in spiritual wisdom and action at one and the same time.

It is true that meditation draws our attention to a realm of experience which transcends the world and is independent of it. But the quest to ‘discover and uncover’ that higher Power within our own being, is carried out while living an active life in the world. Thus meditation, far from being an escape from the life of challenge and effort, brings us face to face with the greatest challenge of all. This is the effort we have to make in order to uncover what is best in us—that perfection and infinity. And this also means eliminating or dissolving everything that gets in the way of this uncovering.

The human heart is not just thirsting for labour that will keep it suitably engaged and may do some good in the world. It is also prompted by a longing for ultimate fulfilment. But where can that be found? Even those of profound learning and experience are humbled by the awareness that what they know is infinitesimal compared with what they do not know. Yet those people who have realised the goal of meditation, are not the victims of this sense of incompleteness. For the inner life they uncover is one of such perfection and fulfilment that it satisfies all the deeper urges of the personality, including the fundamental desire to know. And such knowledge confers unique satisfaction whatever our mode of life.

This article is from the Spring 2019 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.