“I just feel like there are so many problems out there in the world, me sitting in silence doesn’t really do anything for them.” Juan is a close friend and meditation student. His question rattled me. He continued, “It just feels too self-indulgent.”
Many new meditators have the experience of questioning not just the utility of meditation but also the morality of it. But, is he right? Is meditation indulgent? Absolutely.
Meditation is complete indulgence in the experience of the present moment. We often think of indulgent behavior as being morally wrong, which it can be when it comes at the expense of a deeper connectedness.
We are sometimes taught to put the needs of others before the needs of ourselves — even to our own detriment. Roshi Joan Halifax brilliantly refers to this as “pathological compassion.” Health care workers are often described as having “compassion fatigue,” a form of burnout that is widely discussed in more than 200 published papers. Interestingly, studies of compassion fatigue in health care workers show that it is associated with worse outcomes for their patients. Simply put, ignoring our own well-being in the face of stress can actually result in harm to others.
These findings are not just relevant to health care workers. Stress levels are extremely high throughout our country, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Higher levels of stress have consistently demonstrated higher levels of chronic health problems, psychological illness, and violence.
As a means of dealing with stress, there are acceptable and unacceptable outlets. Escapism — through alcohol, overeating, watching television, overworking, and legal or illegal medicating — is seen as an acceptable, and paradoxically non-indulgent, outlet. Many patients appear for counseling after these methods have failed, or worse, done harm. Escapism does not address the root causes of stress; it gives temporary reprieve — a quick stir of a boiling pot — at the expense of deeper connectedness with self and others. And often, the very methods that we use to escape stress may cause further harm down the line.
Rather, acknowledging and being present with our stress through meditative practice is the best way of reducing it. By fully acknowledging our pain, we learn to be more authentic with ourselves and with others. Sitting quietly every day and focusing on the breath and the experience of oneself alone can be, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “a radical act of love.”
Meditation is spiritual housekeeping. To meditate is to sweep the rooms of the stress of daily life. Would it be seen as overly self-indulgent to vacuum the living room before the arrival of a guest? The intimate silence afforded by meditation allows us to communicate with fewer interruptions from the mental static of stress.
What about the vast problems of the world, as Juan had asked? How does meditation help global starvation? Meditation doesn’t purport to solve all the problems of the world, it simply focuses on developing a place of inner calm. But if 7 billion people found a place of inner calm, the world would know a greater peace.
Is meditation self-indulgent? Maybe selfless-indulgence might be a more accurate description.