Should Buddhist Meditation Make You Happy?

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In Early December, right before I headed off for a one-week silent meditation retreat, I encouraged readers to leave comments or questions about meditation that I could respond to upon returning. A commenter named Jon Johanning obliged: "If you're talking about Buddhist meditation, I'm sorry to say that you're missing the whole point," he wrote. He was referring to my having noted that on a previous meditation retreat I felt lousy after the first few days but great later on. He continued, "Whether you feel 'good' or 'bad' or 'bored' or 'fuzzy' or 'ecstatic' or anything else in particular has nothing to do with the whole point of the thing."

Well, I wouldn't say that how you feel has nothing to do with "the whole point of the thing." According to the Buddha himself, the whole point of the thing is to find the causes of human suffering and eliminate them--and, though I have no first-hand experience with the complete elimination of suffering, I'm guessing it would feel pretty good. What's more, these Buddhist meditation retreats typically do make you feel good, which is a big reason that people keep coming back.

Still, Johanning is in a sense right. During the meditation retreats I've been on--four of them over the past 10 years--the teachers typically say you shouldn't be "seeking" a pleasurable state, or anything else. Rather, you should just observe things. Observe your breath, your sensations, your emotions, sounds, whatever. And, as you observe these things, you're not supposed to make value judgments. So, for example, though anxiety normally feels bad, if you encounter a wave of it while meditating, you're supposed to examine it with as much detachment as possible, doing your best to see it as neither good nor bad but just as a fact.

This is the irony: Buddhist meditation teachers counsel a kind of detachment that should in theory leave you neither happy nor sad. But by the end of one of these retreats, almost invariably, you're happy. And you're happy in particular ways: more appreciative of beauty, feeling more distance from ordinary anxieties, feeling more kinship with other humans and with other forms of life. You're also easier to be around--less defensive, less emotionally reactive, etc. My family always likes the post-retreat Bob, and is sorry to see him fade away as time wears on (though I find that the benign effects can be sustained in modest measure if I keep doing, say, 30 minutes of daily meditating).

In that post I wrote in early December, I said that the strikingly pleasant feelings I've had on retreats, "though warm and fuzzy, are the product of a sharp, even cold, clarity." But I didn't elaborate, and I promised to try to put a finer point on that observation when I got back from the retreat. The finer point, I guess, is more or less what I just said: a key step on this path to warm fuzziness is indeed a kind of austere detachment--a cool appraisal of your own emotions that involves dropping your instinctive labeling of them as "good" or "bad," and allows you to see them, in a sense, more clearly, and that leads them to slowly loosen their grip on you.

On this most recent retreat, I was outside doing some walking meditation around twilight, and I looked up at the horizon and saw the pink-purple legacy of a just-descended sun, set off by some barren winter trees in the foreground. I got this melancholy feeling that a winter twilight can give me. But then I examined the melancholy and suddenly it just seemed like physical waves moving slowly through my body--nothing more, nothing less, not good, not bad; its emotional content disappeared.

What happened next was interesting. With this twilight vista now uncolored by melancholy, I could focus on its sheer visual beauty. The scene had morphed magically from a source of sadness into a pleasure to behold.

Which brings us back to the irony I alluded to above: Why do certain good feelings--in this case the pleasurable appreciation of beauty--endure, indeed deepen, even as affect more generally subsides? You would think that since detachment in theory neutralizes positive and negative feelings equally, it would leave you affectively neutral, like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, who, so far as I recall, didn't spend much time reveling in life's aesthetic delights. But, as a practical matter, that's just not the way it works. Cool detachment leads to something that feels kind of warm.

And that emphatically includes warmth toward other people. I remember a day or two after my first meditation retreat, riding in a little monorail car that takes you to Newark airport from the nearby train station, striking up a friendly conversation with strangers. Believe me when I tell you I wasn't previously known for that kind of behavior. Fortunately for strangers everywhere, this phase passed.

I'm not sure how to explain this irony of detachment-induced warmth. Maybe, though in theory you're distancing yourself equally from positive and negative emotions as you meditate, you're actually cheating, and doing selective distancing. Or maybe a feeling of affinity--with our environment, with other creatures--is a kind of default state, and we revert to it when more transient and superficial feelings, both negative and positive, are stripped away. But that doesn't make immediate sense to me in terms of evolutionary psychology, my basic paradigm for viewing the mind, and I'm not sure it even accords with mainstream Buddhist doctrine.

Anyway, one thing I feel pretty sure of: If more people did silent meditation retreats--at least, retreats of the kind I'm familiar with--there would be more happiness, and more peace of mind. And I don't think the people who felt this (and who, as a consequence, made people around them feel better) would be missing the point.

[Note: There are lots of different kinds of silent meditation retreats. Mine were in the Vipassana tradition and were at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The teachers of this particular retreat were Narayan Liebenson Grady of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Society and Rodney Smith of the Seattle Insight Meditation Society.]

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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