What is the Goal of Meditation?
A Spiritual Perspective on Meditation
What Meditation is Not
The goal of meditation is not to produce a sense of a calm or eliminate your anxiety.
The goal of meditation is not to fix or correct or “purify” your inner life or perfect your mental health.
The goal of meditation is not to transport yourself to some other realm or place outside of experience (where you are no longer subject to the vicissitudes and demands of inner and outer life).
And the goal of meditation is not any kind of “self-mastery”. (In fact, the pursuit of something like “self-mastery” often reinforces the very problem that meditation is intended to subvert.)
What Meditation Is: The Purpose or Goal of Meditation
The goal of meditation is to become directly aware of how your attention is habitually and automatically pre-occupied with inner/outer life, and to notice what this pre-occupation means in terms of understanding who/what you are. Most basically, the goal of meditation is the experience of freedom from these habitual ways of being absorbed by inner/outer life.
Freedom from these habitual ways of being absorbed by inner/outer life does not entail no longer be subject to inner/outer life; your awareness is irrevocably determined by the structural elements of human life—elements that do not conform to your will, such as the capacities/vulnerabilities of embodiment, social, historical, cultural, linguistic factors, etc.—and include the very conditions that have motivated you to want to improve your life (and also the very conditions that have allowed you to read and comprehend this article).
You did not determine these conditions; these conditions preceded “you”. These conditions are not subject to your will, but rather have given you your will. And because you could never become free of these basic structural elements of experience, “freedom” is not no longer being determined by these elements. Rather, you realize your freedom in becoming aware of the way(s) in which your awareness is always already determined. Or, stated differently, freedom is self-awareness.
We typically think of “self-awareness” in the context of attempting to learn our own personal, idiosyncratic ways of reproducing destructive habits. We typically seek “self-awareness” when we’re attempting to address some difficulty in our life, to reveal our personal unconscious habits that prevent us from attaining what we desire. Indeed, becoming aware of how your attention is habitually and automatically pre-occupied with the world will reveal your addictive ways of interpreting your experience that are producing and re-producing your existing habits of engagement with your inner/outer life (e.g., with things, people, thoughts/feelings, yourself, etc.). But the purpose of meditation is something different. The purpose of meditation is not to identify any specific (destructive) pre-occupation, but is rather to notice the very impulse that characterizes pre-occupation itself: the impulse to self-transcend (or, desire).
Specifically, in meditation we are able to see how our everyday interpretation of the world is a kind of desire-based interpretation, one that is defining reality (i.e., things, people, places, situations, etc.) in terms of our own needs—a fact that is obvious when we consider that we’re only ever really paying attention to what’s relevant to/for ourselves. This basic desire is another non-optional element of our experience, but becomes a “problem”—i.e., the source of suffering/grief—when it is aimed at the pursuit of some incarnation of personal immortality/wholeness. What does this mean?
The background sense of dis-ease/dissatisfaction that characterizes our everyday sense of self strikes us as a kind of personal inadequacy (as in, “there’s something missing in me” or “I’m not good enough”). In order to remedy this personal inadequacy—so we can finally feel “at peace”, never impelled to strive for anything again—we attempt to “fill up” or “clean up” our sense of self with whatever we think will grant us permanent security/peace. This is often more status/power/money/fame—whatever we think will command/demand others’ recognition—or something like perfect mental health or inner “purity” (as in, I am disgusted with myself and want to get rid of all the “bad” in me) or even spiritual enlightenment. Acutely aware of this core vulnerability, we protect the very sense of self—our “identity” or “ego”—that we are attempting to transcend, always running: running away from our own inner discomfort, running towards whatever we think will solidify our ego in the world and add weight to my independent existence, all so that I will matter more, so that I will be secured in and by the world—so that I will be more “real”.
Who decides if my existence carries more weight? Other people. But I want to add more weight to my individual existence so that I don’t have to care about others’ opinions. And yet I need others’ [positive] opinions in order to acquire more weight. So, in order to not care about others’ opinions, I need to care about others’ opinions. (And around and around it goes.) And if the weight of my personal existence depends on the assent of other people, I am never “in control” of the weight of my existence. (And we hate not being in control, if only because this lack of control “reminds” me that I don’t matter or that I am not enough.)
You realize your freedom in becoming aware of the way(s) in which your awareness is always already determined. Or, stated differently, freedom is self-awareness.
Reasons to Meditate Beyond “Anxiety Relief”:
The “Spiritual” Benefits of Meditation
In becoming aware of the conditions of your individual existence, you begin to realize your freedom. You begin to see that “you” are (and always were and always will be) embedded in structures of dependence that precede and exceed you (among which are such non-optional conditions as embodiment and various social, historical, cultural, linguistic factors). And you also begin to see that the conditions that are determining your experience are quite personal, and include not just your norms and values, presuppositions and biases, but also your various compulsions/anxieties, rumination, and impulses/motivations. These are not optional features of your experience that may or may not have, but are rather are constituive of your very being in the world: your thinking, feeling, behaving, and even your perceiving. Your personal suffering is exacerbated by your habitual forms of being in the world.
Our personal suffering is characterized by, roughly, the discomfort of feeling as though we are not at home/peace with ourselves or our life situation, not “on top of” our circumstances; that is, we never feel fully complete, never in control of—or adequate to—ourselves and our circumstances. This personal suffering is just the result of the (inherited and developed) habitual ways of being (thinking, feeling, perceiving, behaving) that we’ve developed and inherited in order to deal with our sense of inadequacy, often to avoid (and attempt to eliminate once and for all) the anxiety/lack/fear (and other attendant difficult emotions/thoughts), by attempting to make our ‘independent’ sense of self “whole” or “complete”, reconciled in/with its world in a final way—which we think will occur as we accumulate more attention/recognition (via, usually, fame or money or status/status or enlightenment, etc.), or by something like “purifying” ourselves of our guilt/defilement. Meditation discloses to us the ways in which we are habitually and automatically compelled/impelled to engage in/with the world (including ourselves).
Anxiety Relief & Other “Worldly” Benefits of Meditation
Most basically, meditation requires sitting with the more challenging aspects of your inner life (or “mind”)—your anxieties, painful emotions, difficult thoughts, etc.—without trying to fix/correct/transcend them. Sitting with your inner life rather than habitually and unthinkingly reacting to it means that your anxieties/discomfort will determine less of your life.
To avoid our inner discomfort, we often avoid the things, people, and situations that produce this discomfort, thus narrowing our lives as we isolate ourselves in order to protect ourselves (from, it turns out, ourselves). And freedom is unavailable to those who remain imprisoned by themselves.
Learning to sit with our anxieties ensures that we won’t “waste” our life running from them. Learning to sit with our anxieties cultivates equanimity and openness—that is, more flexible ways of being in the world that aren’t inhibited and prohibited by habitually rigid (self-involved) ways of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting.
Here are a few benefits of meditation (and are reasons that people often meditate). Notice that these and other desired benefits are the result of being able to sit with uncomfortable dimensions of our inner life:
Self-acceptance (and self-compassion and self-love, etc.) is not something that you “do”, but is rather a result of being able to sit with your anxieties rather than run from them. This is also the basis for clarity and something like self-confidence.
Fearlessness is a result of no longer running from your difficult thoughts and emotions.
Resilience is a result of cultivating the capacity of to sit with our stress/anxiety.
Selflessness is a result of no longer being subject to the motivations to self-protect/elevate/perfect. This cannot be accomplished in focusing on—or trying to fix—the self.
Personal “growth” requires that we open ourselves up in ways that we don’t control. This is a result of freeing ourselves from limitations imposed by our habitual self’s desire for security/recognition.
Creativity is a result of a less ossified sense of self and of fewer rigid habits of being (perceiving, acting, thinking, feeling, behaving). This ossification is tied to our need for self-protection/elevation/perfection (like a wave in the ocean, trying to become its own entity).
Compassion requires becoming less hypersensitive to—and therefore less automatically and habitually cognizant of—(what we perceive to be) our own imperfections, because this means that we become less hypersensitive to—and therefore less automatically and habitually cognizant of—(what we perceive to be) these same shortcomings in others.
Healthy relationships and deeper connection require no longer being determined by the destructive aspects of your instinctive self. They also require benefit from being less needy of others’ recognition (and the pursuit of those things—fame/money/status, etc.—that we think will command/demand their attention). Instead, we allow others to give us their free recognition (but don’t notice if/when we don’t receive it because it is no longer overdetermining what we have/do/become).
Ultimately, the capacity to sit with ourselves allows us to be more comfortable with our freedom: the uncertainty of being undefined.
Most basically, meditation requires sitting with the more challenging aspects of your inner life (or “mind”)—your anxieties, painful emotions, difficult thoughts, etc.—without trying to fix/correct/transcend them.
What is the Goal of Meditation?
The Purpose/Goal of Meditation, Re-Visited
The benefits of meditation remain hidden to us if we enter with the intent to fix/perfect ourselves or our inner/outer life. (And this is the context within which meditation is often pursued.) This should be a core component of all meditation training.
Meditation—or any yoga practice, for that matter—pursued in order to remedy some aspect of one’s “self”—to secure/purify one’s identity against the sense of inner lack—will only reinforce the problem of suffering that we were attempting to understand/deconstruct or subvert. Trying to destroy some aspect of our inner life keeps us entrenched in the dichotomy of avoiding x and pursuing y: the more I want to purify myself, the more hypersensitive I am to shame—I shame easily, I shame myself, I shame others, etc.—and I become more and more pre-occupied with shame, with my “self” and what it lacks, and I become more and more avoidant of the things/people/situations that make me “feel” my lack. In other words, the desire to find some kind of permanent security/peace/purity actually reinforces the basic sense of incompleteness that I was trying to eliminate.
And so the specific way you practice meditation is far less relevant than being vigilant about the impulse to fix/eliminate/transcend. Ultimately, any meditation practice must remain vigilant about this very impulse—to fix/eliminate or to be something/somewhere else, to transcend—without, of course, trying to get rid of it. Meditation is ultimately about bearing witness to the ways our awareness is seemingly compelled (or impelled or motivated or absorbed) beyond itself—i.e., bearing witness to the (self-moving) self-transcending character of being. In other words, meditation is ultimately about bearing witness to the very impulse to self-transcend. Among other things, this also means noticing the very impulse to become a something, a wholly self-determining self, and this of course includes the impulse to acquire even the “positive” benefits of meditation listed above. In yoga, this is the foundation of self-awareness. (In yoga, self-awareness is self-transcendence.)
What is yoga? Yoga is not the strategic and permanent destruction of the suffering of our inadequacies; yoga just is what remains once we’ve abandoned the quest to “fill up” ourselves with the world, an abandonment that occurs as a result of bearing direct witness to the incarnations of the impulse to self-transcend. This begins and ends with no longer fleeing yourself.
Meditation is ultimately about bearing witness to the ways our awareness is seemingly compelled (or impelled or motivated or absorbed) beyond itself—i.e., bearing witness to the (self-moving) self-transcending character of being. In other words, meditation is ultimately about bearing witness to the very impulse to self-transcend. In yoga, this is the foundation of self-awareness. (In yoga, self-awareness is self-transcendence.)
Frequently Asked Questions about Meditation (and Yoga Meditation)
Is the Goal of Meditation to Clear Your Mind?
Clearing the mind is a consequence of how you pay attention. A sense of relative stillness of the mind is a result, most commonly of something like focused attention (mantra, mindfulness, breath control, etc.). This relatively stiller mind allows one to adopt a different stance towards our experience, allowing us to notice the ways in which our awareness is habitually pre-occupied (without getting taken in/up by this pre-occupation). This stance is often described as (and feels like) “detachment”, which just is a description of a different sense that you have of some particular thing (that is, noticing that “you” are not reducible to “it”). But, strictly speaking, meditation is not the practice of actively “clearing” one’s mind (and is also not just the practice of passively doing so).
Is the Goal of Meditation to Control Your Senses?
In traditional yoga texts, it was somewhat common to conceive of attention as something like the consequence of our sense organs ‘reaching out’ into the world to grasp things (sights, sounds, etc.). This conception would characterize yoga/meditation as being a quest to (and/or result of) control one’s senses (the effect of which is something like not being taken in/up by the habitual self-movement of attending). This practice of controlling or withdrawing one’s senses, however, isn’t a matter of actively stopping all attention, but is rather the practice/result of focusing one’s attention (using any number of methods or meditation practices, including mindfulness meditation). The momentum of focusing one’s attention allows us to notice our habitual ways of reaching out or being absorbed in/with the world, (including—especially—the very impulse to ‘reach out’ or self-transcend).
Is the Goal of Meditation “Detachment”? What is Detachment in Meditation?
To say that one is “detached” from something is just a description of a new sense that one has of said thing. Our awareness is so absorbed in (or consumed by) certain things that we don’t even notice the extent to which these things are determining our awareness. Some of these things are not optional, such as embodiment. To detach from something in our inner life entails noticing that it exists (which entails noticing what it’s doing) and noticing that “you”—as awareness/consciousness—are not reducible to “it”. Becoming “detached” just is becoming aware of what is determining your awareness, especially the impulse to self-transcend (also called ‘desire’). This begins by simply sitting with ourselves, noticing (or “detaching” from) our habitual ways of running from our inner discomfort. This has the effect of something like loosening the grip that our habitual self has on the world/self/others.
The result of detachment (sometimes also called “letting go” or “surrendering”) is not that you end up in some other place outside of (or prior to) experience, but is, rather, the production of a different relationship with what is. This actually feels something like being more connected with life—and with others and with oneself—as we become “detached” from our habitual ways of seeing/organizing the world according to our self-interest. In other words, our experience is less infected with the kind of “self-consciousness” that re-produces suffering, the kind of self-consciousness that wants to keep us at a distance from our conditions/dependence.
What Do Different Types of Meditation Do?
Ultimately, the cultivation of one’s spirituality is the cultivation of one’s sense of wholeness, and this involves, among other things, the recognition that “you”—that is, your individual existence—are not self-contained, do not self-exist, and, instead, “belong”, so to speak, to something that exceeds and precedes you. Some traditions name this something, others don’t (the latter which tend to discourage any kind of striving). Either way, one’s wholeness is not personal but is the consequence of the recognition that one participates in a/the wholeness that precedes/exceeds it. In some traditions, the core practice involves something like “merging/uniting” with that to which you belong (which is not an altogether inaccurate description of realizing one’s freedom via bearing witness to how your awareness is always already determined). This is also sometimes called “non-dual” experience. Some forms of traditional meditation are based on the cultivation of specific traits (such as focus, compassion, etc.), but these individual practices are part of larger contexts that teach some version of what we’ve described herein.
What is yoga? Yoga is not the strategic and permanent destruction of the suffering of our inadequacies; yoga just is what remains once we’ve abandoned the quest to “fill up” ourselves with the world, an abandonment that occurs as a result of bearing direct witness to the incarnations of the impulse to self-transcend.
This begins and ends with no longer fleeing yourself.
Mindfulness & Yoga Meditation for Beginners:
Things to Remember
This article on the objective of meditation is part of our general guide on spiritual yoga that focuses on spiritual yoga practice.
For those looking to further explore the theme of “inner lack”, we recommend the work of, David R. Loy. We recommend his concise and accessible book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (2008, Wisdom Publications).
For those looking to further explore the themes of freedom, determinacy, and an ethics of openness, see Canadian philosopher John Russon’s 2017 article, ‘Freedom and Passivity: Attention, Work, and Language’, His lectures on YouTube are excellent introductions/companions to many of the great (and dense) works of philosophy, with a focus on existentialism, phenomenology, Greek philosophy, and German Idealism.