Meditation is a Selfish Activity

One of the criticisms I hear people make about meditation is that it is a very selfish activity. I never know quite what they mean by this – selfish compared to what? Are they trying to imply that sitting around watching soaps on TV or listening to music is somehow less selfish? I would imagine that most of the things that people do could be considered selfish, so why single out meditation? It could even be argued that those individuals who do a lot of charitable work are motivated by selfish urges – even if this is only because helping others makes them feel good.

I suppose what people really mean is that it meditation encourages self-absorption. This naval gazing probably does look that way to outsiders, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. The whole point of most forms of meditation is to escape the tyranny of the self. I practice Vipassana meditation and the ultimate goal is to develop insight into how illusionary this sense of self actually is. It therefore seems illogical to call such a practice selfish.

When I point out these truths to people their argument usually goes in a slightly different direction. They then say that meditators should get up off their backsides and do something constructive with their time. It is just too self-indulgent to be sitting there doing nothing for an hour or two a day. Of course for people like me meditation is about doing something constructive – what could be more useful than taming the mind? It is certainly going to be a lot better for me than spending that time watching TV – isn’t it?

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13 thoughts on “Meditation is a Selfish Activity

  1. I have not written and said in videos and audios that meditation is a selfish activity – but I’ve said that the search for enlightenment, is. Meditation, as innocuous as it may seem, can rip apart the world you once knew – if you happen to hook into the right formula, or are just “ripe” for it.

    Casual meditation that doesn’t lead to full blown jhanas and a loss of who you are – I couldn’t call selfish. However, once the process moves forward, it is devastating to the person you once were – and the people that once knew you. The meditator, in this case, changes profoundly and totally. There is little left of the person that once was. To the person himself, it’s neither here nor there really, bliss is a miraculous and mindnumbing drug. But to those that once knew him, liked and love him, depended on him to continue being as he once was – it’s tragic.

    I wouldn’t encourage anyone with a spouse or children to meditate. Your responsibilities are to your family… meditation can change that – erase it. It’s that powerful.

    Cheers, Vern

    1. Hi Vern, I appreciate what you are saying, but I’m not sure if I can agree with you. I know that people can develop dissociative symptoms, but I believe this to be quite rare. I think that having a family can actually benefit the meditator because it helps to keep them grounded. It is those who have no real responsibilities who have the luxury of being blissed out on jhana so much that they lose touch with reality. I’ve meditated intensively in the past; I once went 72 hours of constant meditation at a retreat. I experienced some wonderful things but none of it was harmful.

      I’ve meditated since my early teens and I believe that I’ve only ever benefited from the practice. It was a key element of my escape from alcohol addiction. When I stop the practice I suffer mentally, and so does everyone around me. My thinking becomes less clear and I become more prone to negatively.

      I’m convinced that meditation practice has improved my relationships with other people. I’m less selfish then I used to be, but of course I’m still nowhere near perfect. I do believe that meditation is taking me in the right direction.

  2. Paul, I have a thought about this, or at least why Western people might think it is selfish to meditate. I’m guessing it’s because to others, it “appears” to be a passive activity. The West has an orientation toward “doing.” This is one reason that watching a lot of TV is frowned upon. But comparing the two activities, to an outsider, even watching TV would appear more “active” than meditating. I don’t know what the mindset of the people in Thailand is. Perhaps they have a “doing” orientation, as well?

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Lynne, I think it would be fair to say that Thai people do have a different mindset about meditation. Most will have grown up with the practice so it is not such a big deal. The more superstitious Thais might worry if somebody is meditating intensively because that person could be trying to develop siddhis (magical powers); more likely they would just bug that individual for lottery numbers. I remember when working in school in rural Thailand the teachers would ‘punish’ students by sending them to meditate.

  3. Hi Paul. This is not directly on point to your post topic, but I just wanted to say how intrigued I have become with meditation lately. In the past year or so, I’ve been pointed in the direction of meditation by several friends, and countless blog posts and articles online, including yours. As I have a very stressful job – that has ramped up especially this past month – I definitely need to engage in stress relieving, relaxing activities when the time allows (particularly as a recovering drinker myself).

    About a week ago, I finally made a conscious effort to jump in after watching the Jon Kabot Zinn meditation seminar video he did at Google. Wow, what a positive experience! I’ve been trying it every day since I started, and its really felt good for me.

    I’m eager to see where this takes me.

    1. Well Tan, I’m sure it will be an amazing adventure for you if you stick with it. Meditation has noticeably changed my life. It is not always an easy practice, but even the bad sessions can produce good results. The main thing I’ve found is that to get the most benefit I need to practice regularly. Kabat-Zinn is a great teacher because he removes all the religious aspects of meditation to make it more accessible to everyone.

  4. Selfish, eh? That’s a new one. So is writing, according to some. But I see mediation like a fast for the mind. Necessary to give your thoughts focus or let the oil drain, so to speak. I guess taking care of yourself can be seen as selfish…okay.

  5. There is an American Indian, Chief Little Summer, who teaches that for those who are no longer undecided, but have made a commitment between 2 opposite options, and chosen service-to others, it is still wise to conserve 30-40% of one’s energy. When one comes out of meditation, one can be fully charged, having transcended the relative and dissolved stress, and thus unhindered, able to offer that other 60-70% of energy not in service-to-self, but to-others. And from an Advaita Vedanta point of view, one’s consciousness can expand from ego-mind-personality to a (the universal Self, or same-sameness in all creatures. Thus even in meditation, all can be served, for the Law is One.

    1. Thanks Jerry, I am increasing coming to believe that all is just one. In the past I did find that helping others was a good way to escape the ego; in some ways it worked the same as meditation.

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