Why do we meditate? If you asked 100 people, you might get 100 answers for this question. When you think about those answers, they boil down to two simple ideas. We meditate to cultivate tranquility and happiness in daily life, which are essential to our health.
We all face challenges in daily life, big or small. Do we need to engage with these challenges? If so, how do we do it?
Our choices affect our emotions and well-being, for better or for worse. They can lead to growth and emotional maturity, or they can lead to recurrent stress, anxiety, anger, and loss of sleep. Ultimately, these choices can affect our health. So how do we make them wisely?
The Serenity Prayer offers one answer to this question:
God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
But what do we mean by things that can and can't be changed and how can we know the difference?
One of the greatest contributions of ancient Chinese philosophers like Laozi (Lao Tsu), Kongzi (Confucius), Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), and Mengzi (Mencius) is that they went to the heart of things, distilling essential principles and realities for successful living. By observing nature, human beings, and change and evolution in the world, they specified simple, abiding truths.
Chinese philosophers call these abiding truths Chang (常). The term refers to and encompasses both A: the laws of nature and how these laws affect human life; and B, the nature of things, including human nature.
Like the serenity prayer, Chinese philosophy counsels to accept abiding truths, to change what you can, and not to try to change what you cannot change. Doing the latter creates pain and invites danger and even disaster.
For example, Laozi stated this truth: "The wise person does not enter the fight; for the same reason, the whole world cannot contend with him." Creating unnecessary conflict costs us valuable energy and can harm health.
Early one recent morning, I witnessed a loud and angry argument on my block between a police officer and a woman he had given a parking ticket. The officer said that because woman’s car was parked in front of the fire hydrant he had to give her a ticket. It was his job. The woman said that she was late for work but could not find a place to park when she needed to drop off her baby to a babysitter before heading to her office. The two argued vehemently, but neither changed the other’s mind. Both left angry.
No one won. In fact both lost. Each missed an opportunity to exercise wisdom and avoid entering the fight. This would have prevented emotional turmoil and saved precious energy. The officer could have understood this working class lady’s anxiety and frustration when she saw a costly ticket on her car. And for her part, she could have admitted to herself that she in fact had parked illegally, and that she would need to come early next time to find a parking space. She could even have joked about making a charitable donation to the city.
If either of them had understood Laozi’s wisdom, the argument would not have happened.
Learning to avoid unnecessary fights is just one example of this type of wisdom. Recognizing when circumstances or when others can't be changed allows us to chose a more effective course of action while preserving our own integrity.
But Chinese philosophy also describes how we can effect change in both our lives and in others. For example we can work to align our actions with our basic, innate human kindness, and extend this to others. Further, we can identify our unique talents and work to fully develop them; and we can use those talents to help others. Such action leads to happiness.
In order to help people live peaceful and harmonious lives, Chinese philosophers described such abiding truths. They are the realities we contemplate in our approach to meditation. Attending to and comprehending them results in wisdom. Wisdom in turn leads to tranquility, happiness and success.
The most efficient way to attain this wisdom is to contemplate these truths deeply. The best way to do that is in silence. Silence gives us opportunity to devote maximum attention to understanding our relationship to things as they are. A Chinese proverb states, “Silence yields great revelation.” This process of understanding in silence is what I call meditation.
As we sit in silence, we can begin to understand and align ourselves with the abiding realities of both the human and natural world. We can work to recognize the truths that apply to our situation and understand what can and can't be changed. All this allows us to avoid wasting energy on things that can't be changed, and this leads to more peace, acceptance, and contentment. It also makes us more effective in dealing with challenges. Because this approach to meditation directly works to resolve our challenges, we call it functional meditation.
Functional meditation is different from some other forms of meditation, which encourage the cultivation of forgiveness and kindness or compassion, without addressing the underlying reasons for doing so or the underlying causes of stress. These practices might generate temporary relief from emotional distress, and they can produce feelings of peace and tranquility. But unless we address the roots of our pain and stress, we may experience the same pain again when similar situations arise.
The functional meditation I describe here gradually leads to lasting tranquility and happiness. This is a state of being that cannot be created artificially. Otherwise, the peace and contentment will not last.