Birthplace of the Buddha at Lumbini, Nepal.
People often draw a distinction between the long-term goal of meditation, Enlightenment, and the short-term improvements they would like to see in their daily lives. I would like to discuss why I see the two goals as being the same and why insight meditation may be the answer to both.
Earlier this year, we were treated to a talk on the benefits of insight meditation practice by our teacher, Venerable Ajahn Tong Sirimangalo, near Khao Yai National Park in central Thailand. At the outset of his talk, Venerable Ajahn Tong quoted the Buddha’s famous words from the The Great Discourse on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness where the Buddha said: “This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow & lamentation, for the disappearance of pain & distress, for the attainment of the right method, & for the realization of Unbinding — in other words, the four foundations of mindfulness.”
Looking at those benefits as enunciated by the Buddha, they are short and long-term benefits. They are cumulative benefits that are not usually realized perfectly in an instant but can also be seen as absolutes in the sense that there is a point of finality that can be attained.
To illustrate this point, I will discuss these benefits in relation to professional life. This is an area of life that can be a source of great pain, distress and regret but which can also be tremendously rewarding so it may serve as a useful example. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to achieve professional success. One way is to work towards your current goals. Another way is to persuade yourself to redefine those goals more appropriately. If you take the second approach you might be finished already. If you take the first, you might need more time. Either way, individual reflection can be an integral and effective method for achieving success.
Let’s take the first example where you are working towards some goals you have already set for yourself. If the pool of people who can achieve the goals you’ve set is limited, your challenge is one of competition. To succeed therefore, you need to be skilful. It stands to reason that the surest way to reach your goals is to first determine what advantages you have over your competition and then to focus on those strengths. Devoting resources to areas where you have a comparative advantage is a skilful business practice.
The limiting factor, however, might be that you don’t know where your strengths lie compared to the competition. Notice something interesting here. We are now talking in introspective terms: your strengths. You can’t determine your strengths by doing research like going to the library, doing searches on the internet or asking other people for advice because those activities are looking outwards. To determine your strengths you need to reflect on your past experiences. You need to examine what behaviours led to long-term happiness and, probably more importantly, what behaviours taught you painful lessons. So reflection is a precondition for skilful action that leads to success.
But there might be a simpler way to meet your goals and that is to redefine them according to what you really want out of life. How many people make it to the end of life and realize that they used all their resources to pursue goals that they later found to be empty? Have you ever asked yourself whether the goals you’ve set for yourself are really what you want out life? It could be that they are not and if that is the case, you need to know sooner rather than later. Why? Because if you’re not working towards what you really want then you’re wasting time; you’re being unskilful. Therefore, setting meaningful goals is a skilful business practice and individual reflection is an integral part of that process.
The process of introspection is about determining what is already there not creating something new. By definition, your comparative advantage and your true goals exist already. Let’s call them collectively, ‘clarity’. Clarity does not need to be formulated or created. It just needs to be seen. According to meditation theory, if you cannot see clearly, it is because your vision is obscured by habits to act in ways that do not lead to the success you really want. Another way of saying this is to say that your unskilful behaviour is outweighing your skilful behaviour. The Buddha described it as follows: “there are these three roots of what is unskilful. Which three? Greed as a root of what is unskilful, anger as a root of what is unskilful, delusion as a root of what is unskilful. These are the three roots of what is unskilful.”
If Enlightenment is the complete disappearance of the defilements of the mind, greed, anger and delusion, the long-term goal of Enlightenment and the short-term benefits of insight meditation are synonymous. In other words, if you want to achieve your true business goals, meditation might help you to reduce the defilements so that you can discover the “right method” for success that is truly rewarding. If you want to be enlightened, the Buddha suggested that insight meditation is the correct path. That is why I believe that anyone who seeks true happiness both in the short and the long-term should consider integrating a reflective practice into their life.