Get up early and sit in an uncomfortable position in the dark for a long time and do nothing? You're kidding, right?
It's hard to explain why anybody would want to meditate. For a long time I didn't want to myself, and then for an equally long time I did but couldn't gather up the requisite willpower to make a regular thing of it. But now there's been a corner turned and the quiet spaces in the day are my favourite bits of it. Partly, it's a cognitive thing. My life has been dominated by an insatiable quest to understand and lately there's been a sort of nagging inner certainty that the path to understanding somehow lies through this period of enforced inner silence. There's also Ian Gawler, who seems to think that meditation is as important, more important even, than any other lifestyle change you might want to make if you are intent on pursuing healing, and I have been quite predisposed to listen to him of late. And then there's lots of frazzled people out there for whom a little bit of completely stress free time in the day seems like a pretty good sort of idea and I can see their point. But wait.... there's more.
Think of the last time you drove somewhere. No doubt you made the journey with very little thought, if any, about the actual process of driving. We drive, and simultaneously converse, or talk on our cell phones, or listen to lectures on the CD player, or take careful note of the real estate for sale along the road and all the while our brain is performing all the complex operations associated with driving completely automatically and unconsciously. Now think about how much you knew when you were new born and what you know now. You have learned countless things, and perform them so unconsciously that some tasks - walking, controlling your bowels, talking, standing upright for example - you have forgotten that they are learned and that there was a time when you didn't know how to do them. You run through your day performing thousands of different operations unconsciously. Which is wonderful, but it does mean that the way you learned to do something sticks fast, and is not accessible to change. Try changing the accent with which you speak, for example, let alone the language.
These automatic patterns are not just to do with physical activities. They also dominate the way we think, the emotions we feel, the way we relate to other people, and the very way we perceive the world. Our whole sense of self is a collection of these automatic patterns: patterns so automatic and so unconscious we don't even know that most of them are there. Most of our physical, emotional, intellectual, and cognitive lives are lived unconsciously, on autopilot. Despite our illusion to the contrary, we are not in control of much of it at all. Anthony De Mello says,
Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep.They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children their sleep, they die in their sleep, without ever waking up.
Meditation is about waking up. It is about escaping from the clutches of the automatic patterns: patterns of our bodies, of our minds and of our spirits. It is about being aware: of the world around us that is normally seen through the lens of our habitual patterns and being aware of ourselves, including the bits our patterns have long since numbed out and kept well away from our conscious minds.The patterns are very resilient and hard to escape. They are shy of awareness and like to scurry for cover at the first opportunity.The sense of self that is made up of the sum of all those patterns is also very resistant to being sidelined and protests about it. This is why this little thing: simply doing nothing, is such a tricky thing to acheive. But when you do manage it, there is the momentary inner reward of knowing that you are awake (momentary because immediately the old patterns kick in: Hey! I've done it! and you're thinking again and immediately back where you started from.)
Meditation has its physical rewards. Fairly robust testing shows that ,performed regularly, it lowers stress levels, increases immune functioning and has a positive effect on pretty much any bodily system you care to name. I find that after meditating I am more focused and efficient, my relationships seem to run more smoothly and I have a much improved inner sense of equilibrium. But in a way these are secondary. It is the short but increasing periods of the day when the old patterns are shelved that is the real reason I do this. It is the realisation that the sense of deepened reality that comes with the shelving is starting to very very slowly leach out into the rest of my life.
So that's why. And once that question fades from people's faces, there's another one waiting, especially if they are Christian: is meditation a form a prayer and should Christians be doing it? The short answer is well...maybe and yes. The long answer will take a bit of time and I'll get onto it in the next day or so.