The idea of meditating without the goal of self-improvement may seem pretty counterintuitive to meditation’s purpose, but a new book is declaring otherwise.
In his recently published book Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, psychiatrist Mark Epstein gives a new perspective on meditation’s purpose — even if his notions get a little harsh and paradoxical along the way. “This act of ‘developing’ the mind to disconnect from the self,” he writes, runs counter to our modern obsession with turning every action toward productive use. I could meditate for hours every day, but if I did it with the intention of accomplishing some form of self-improvement, I’d have already failed.”
This all sounds well and good — it does make sense that meditating with strict goals seems to be opposite of the purpose of emptying your mind for a length of time. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that mindful meditation can help ease the psychological stresses that cause depression and anxiety. Mindful meditation is guided by the objective of being unconditionally present in a certain moment, without the goal of changing ourselves. This seems to be what Epstein is saying, though parts of his philosophy get a bit radical.
In the book, Epstein remembers inviting one of his Buddhist teachers (he’s a practicing Buddhist) over to his house after a good friend of Epstein’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The teacher doesn’t tolerate her sadness, instructing her to detach from it by saying “Don’t make such a big deal of it.” This sounds, as The Cut mentions, a bit psychopathic, and more than a little unrealistic. But the core of his argument makes a bit of sense, in spite of its paradoxical nature. We generally meditate for some form of self-improvement, and to deny that seems sort of silly. But that being said, he may have a point. Instead of micromanaging your meditation practice like you would a work project or a trip you’re planning, let it guide you because sometimes it’s nice to loosen the reins every once in a while.