Meditation as a meaning maker

Sep 21 2019

I’m afraid I must take issue with my friend Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Columbia University (whom I had the pleasure of talking with on last year).  

On his Scientific American blog, Scott recently posted an interesting piece about what kinds of things give people’s lives meaning. 

It turns out people say they derive meaning from (among other things) extreme emotional experiences—not just positive ones, but negative ones as well. Which makes sense, when you think about it. The death of a close relative is an intensely negative emotional experience, one you wish you’d been able to avoid—but you certainly wouldn’t call it meaningless.

Scott goes on to write:

These findings also have implications for the mindfulness craze, and provide a much-needed counterpoint to the current trend of viewing calm and tranquil experiences as most conducive to a life well lived. To be sure, mindfulness, meditation, and cultivating inner calm can be beneficial for reducing anxiety, improving depression, and helping us cope with pain. However, the intensity of peak experiences may be more likely to define who we are. 

Two points:

1. In my experience, some subjective experiences are much more intense when you’re mindful. I’m thinking particularly of aesthetic experiences—like sensing the beauty around you so powerfully that you feel true awe and wonder. 

2. Mindfulness can render some negative experiences, if not more intense, then more vivid and perhaps more meaningful. I’m thinking particularly of feelings of sadness and loss. Even if your goal is to “get over” those feelings, getting over them mindfully involves inspecting them more closely, immersing yourself in them more deeply, than is normal. (What’s normal is to let feelings shape your behavior and thought without really paying much attention to them.)

I once interviewed Shinzen Young, an eclectic meditation teacher with decades of contemplative experience, and he said:

There's no way that we can live this life without experiencing physical discomfort and without experiencing situations that cause us to have emotional discomfort. It's part of life, and there's no way to avoid it, and in fact, we shouldn't avoid it. It's part of the richness of being a human being. However, physical discomfort and emotional discomfort is distinct from suffering. Suffering is pain as a problem. And it turns out that when meditation works, it gives you a skill set that allows you to experience physical and emotional discomfort with a greater poignancy but less problem.

I asked him whether, by “greater poignancy,” he meant that “you actually perceive it more acutely in a sense, but it causes you less trouble?” He said, “Exactly what I mean.”

It’s notable that Scott, sustaining his suggestion that mindfulness is a meaning dampener, also refers to poignancy: 

At the end of our lives, will we look back and remember most poignantly all of the calm and tranquil meditation sessions we had, or will we remember the moments that plumbed the depths of our emotional life, that made us feel most alive?

I think Shinzen Young would join me in saying that this is a false dichotomy—that if you want to plumb the depths of your emotional life, meditation can be an asset. 

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