Does meditation have a goal? Sure, we can attach goals to meditation, just as we can attach goals to any pursuit. If we’re playing tennis, maybe we want to stay in shape. If we’re knitting, maybe we want to make a sweater. If we’re meditating, maybe we’re looking for calm, insight, or even enlightenment. When we invest time in any focused activity — tennis, knitting, skiing, gambling, meditating — we probably want something from it. And surely, we have ideas about how to get that result, and what should happen while we’re going about it. In tennis, we should return the ball to the opposing side of the court; in knitting, we should repeat a chosen stitch pattern; in meditating, we should sit upright and concentrate on breathing, but we shouldn’t check our phones or eat chips, and we shouldn’t cling to our thoughts. In each endeavor, there’s an outcome we seek, and a process we use to get there.

But meditation feels different, doesn’t it? When we compare meditation with other activities in life, meditation is an oddball. Other activities have goals, and meditation can too, but there’s a tension around meditation’s goals, an awkwardness that arises when we expect too much from this practice. If we conceive of meditation as a purpose-driven endeavor that’s meant to deliver a result — just like going the gym, or going to a therapist, or even going to a house of worship to pray — something might feel “off,” like we’re misconstruing what meditation is actually about. Yes, we can attach goals to meditation, but the question arises, should we?

Let’s imagine we were doing “amazingly well” at meditation and achieving all the goals we had attached to it. Let’s imagine we had scored the meditation jackpot, so to speak, or emerged victorious in the meditation olympics. Let’s imagine that meditation had delivered everything we were seeking from it. What would that feel like?

For our purpose here, let’s define meditation as any practice where we approach our thoughts with detachment, not following them, but allowing them to freely pass; meanwhile, we tune into a bodily sensation like breathing, returning our attention to it whenever we get distracted. (Of course there are many styles and traditions of meditation which differ, but we’ll confine our discussion to what’s just been described.) When this practice is “successful,” the pace of our thoughts slows down. Our minds become less noisy. The ideas, memories, questions, speculations, and fears that once exerted such a strong pull on our attention now begin to seem less compelling, and gradually they fade into the background. Eventually, we may reach a state where we are awake and aware but hardly thinking at all.

If we take this progression of decreasing mental noise to its logical extreme, we would arrive at a state of conscious awareness that’s entirely free from thought. To be clear, meditation does not prescribe the complete absence of thought or even name this as an explicit goal, but if we were to take meditation as “far” as possible and identify its ultimate destination, perhaps this would be it: a state of conscious awareness without any thought whatsoever. The whole world and all our troubles would be out of mind, and we’d be left only with the calm experience of breathing in and breathing out from one moment to the next — unaffected by what we had been doing before we sat down and what we planned to do after getting up.

This state of “thoughtlessness” might sound like a mysterious, unattainable thing but anyone can experience it for a few seconds without special practice. Simply take a few deep breaths and notice how it feels. While your attention is focused on the sensation of an inhale or an exhale, you might experience a brief moment where you’re not thinking about anything at all. There might be a little gap or opening in your mental landscape. If that happened, that’s “it” — you were in a state of thoughtlessness for a second or two. The question is not whether we can experience thoughtlessness — we all can — the question is how reliably we can elicit this state, how long we can remain there, and how committed we are in our life to keep returning there.

The implications of thoughtlessness are profound. Consider all the things we wouldn’t be doing if we remained in a state of thoughtlessness for any length of time:

  • We wouldn’t be feeling very proud of our “achievement.” We wouldn’t be overjoyed that we finally got to where we wanted to go. That’s because pride is a constellation of thoughts, involving our ideas about who we are and where our efforts began, our understanding of the goal we pursued, our memory of how we tried to pursue it, and our judgment that we had succeeded. But all of this mental activity is precisely the kind of thing we would have freed ourselves from if we had achieved thoughtlessness. The whole constellation of thoughts involved in having “a sense of accomplishment” is incompatible with having a truly empty mind.

  • We wouldn’t be bored. We wouldn’t be waiting to finish meditating and switch to something more exciting or active. That’s because boredom is a constellation of thoughts. Boredom arises from thinking about what we’re currently doing and identifying reasons why it doesn’t satisfy us; also, from thinking about what we’d rather be doing and then feeling frustrated that we’re not doing it. Boredom involves wishing time would pass more quickly, which involves having ideas about time and having a concept of how we would like time to behave. But if we were truly thoughtless, the experience of boredom would have no way to develop.

  • We wouldn’t be worried about losing our focus and falling out of the meditative state we had achieved, because worries are thoughts. Worries hinge on a mental image of some undesirable scenario, which we wouldn’t be speculating about if we were truly thoughtless.

  • We wouldn’t be aware of how long we had been in this state of thoughtlessness, because the sense of passing time comes from thought, from having a memory of the past and an image of the present and drawing a comparison between them.

All this is to say that the experience of meditative thoughtlessness would imply the experience of goallessness and timelessness as well. Now the question is, can we get to this state of thoughtlessness, goallessness, and timelessness by setting a goal to get there, and hoping to achieve it in some specific amount of time? Does the goal help us or set us back? Does wanting to get there make it more or less likely that we’ll get there, or even that we’ll get close?

To start our journey, of course, we need desire. There must be some yearning that sets us in motion. But at some point along the way, we’ll have to abandon our goal — we’ll have to stop wanting so badly to reach a destination, we’ll have to stop measuring our progress towards it — because our desire, our expectations, our assessments of progress are all thoughts that get in the way of the thoughtless state we’re trying to achieve. To the extent that we pursue the goal of thoughtlessness, holding it in mind, committing ourselves to achieving it, we are only setting ourselves backward, creating the very kind of mental noise that we would like to silence. If we’re wondering, “How am I doing at meditation? Is this going well? Am I doing it right? Am I progressing in my practice? How can I get better? Is this actually helping me? Am I wasting time? Is there really a point to this? Does my goal even make sense anymore?” then we’re increasing our mental activity, not reducing it as success would require.

But if we’ll have to abandon our goal at some point, when should we do that? At what point along our journey into meditative practice over months and years should we relinquish the thought of what we’re trying to achieve and how we are supposed to be getting there? Should we wait till the last minute, right before we reach our so-called “samadhi”? Or should we abandon the goal early, carrying about our daily practice without expecting anything particular from it? Once we become sufficiently convinced that meditation is worth keeping in our life, should we stop setting objectives for it? Should we treat it as a special kind of pursuit, an end in itself, an exception to the idea that all of our endeavors must have a goal or purpose that justifies the time we invest?

This might seem like a fine point, because a state of pure, extended thoughtlessness is only a logical extreme, only an ideal, not a practical reality for many of us who meditate. Meditation can be gentle and moderate; it needn’t be about extremes. It can be a way we slow our minds gradually, without ever bringing our thoughts to a full stop. We can benefit from meditation even if it only offers calm in small degrees, lowering the volume of our noisy mind somewhat, creating a few moments of welcome but partial quiet. Within this reality of meditative practice, there’s enough room to have a goal, and maybe to reflect on that goal from time to time, as long as our thought of the goal is not loud and screeching. Yes, there might be a philosophical contradiction in “setting a goal to be goalless,” but does this contradiction have any practical significance? Yes, there might be a contradiction in “thinking about achieving thoughtlessness” and a similar contradiction in “wishing to experience timelessness before too long,” but do these contradictions dissolve in the messiness of reality?

The position of this essay is that these contradictions are worth taking seriously, even if our practice is moderate and messy, even if we aren’t regularly lingering in a state of pure thoughtlessness, even if we’re only getting started, or only dabbling, or only trying things out. The position of this essay is that we should ease up on our goals for meditation early, not late. That’s because at any “level” of practice, goals make meditation harder, not easier. The desire to be “good” at meditation, the desire to advance in it, the concern for doing it “right,” the eagerness to get a specific result — all of these things create mental chatter. All of these things cause distraction. All of these things increase our frustration when the practice isn’t “going well” and when we’re not getting the benefits we want. On the other hand, if we sit down and connect with our breathing while not expecting anything from the experience, not looking to justify our use of the time by convincing ourselves we attained a specific benefit, not wondering how well or poorly we’re doing at the practice, and not trying to get anywhere other than where we are, then we’re already meditating. We’re doing it.

The same dispassionate attitude that we take to our thoughts while we’re meditating can help us too when we’re away from the mat, going about our day, and reflecting on our practice. One day, we might feel we’re not getting the calm, the relaxation, the heightened awareness that we want to get from meditation. We might feel that our goals aren’t being fulfilled, maybe even that we’re wasting time. Though these thoughts might arise outside of a meditation session, we can approach them as if they had arisen inside: we can observe them dispassionately and let them fade away. And in so doing, we would have strengthened our practice, because we would have surrendered the expectations that jam it up. The surrender of expectations concerning our practice can even be seen as part of the practice itself. Meditation can give us the experience of having a pursuit in our life, a time-consuming one to boot, that is not goal-directed or results-oriented like the others, and we can practice being alright with that.

As we give up our expectations around meditation — not viewing it as something we can succeed at or fail at or even get better or worse at — we can come to embrace it as a constant that’ll be woven into the fabric of our life for as long as we want. It’ll always be there. It’ll feel different from day to day, but it’ll always be the same in its essence. What is that essence?

We’ve spoken about thoughtlessness, goallessness, and timelessness as the logical extremes where meditative practice leads. One concept that encompasses these three is emptiness. We can think of meditation as a process of moving towards emptiness, connecting with emptiness, catching glimpses of emptiness. Why would we pursue emptiness? We might pursue emptiness because it’s calming, refreshing, and anchoring, and we might pursue emptiness because it is “space” that can later be filled with the unexpected. When we cultivate emptiness, we give our minds the opportunity to surprise us with new ideas and insights that might later form in the void we created and held open for a while.

The anchoring quality of emptiness comes from the way it’s always the same. There’s nothing inside emptiness to distinguish one emptiness from another emptiness. When we create emptiness in the mind, we’re always returning to the same place, the same experience.

If emptiness always feels the same, of course mediation, the process of moving toward emptiness, will still feel different from day to day. Some days it will be hard; other days easy. Some days it will feel rewarding; other days we’ll wonder if it was a waste of time. This experience of meditation will change, and yield different insights, depending on what’s in our mind when we sit down: do we have happy thoughts to surrender today, or sad ones? Are we full of questions or are we frustrated that nothing interests us today? How busy is our mind this morning, this afternoon, or this evening? All the details of our departure point will affect the character of our journey from there towards emptiness, but we will always be moving toward the same destination, emptiness.

We can draw an analogy to decluttering a physical room. We might take a chamber in a medieval castle, an office in an urban high-rise, or the space in a bamboo hut. There will be different things in each room and the process of unloading each room would feel different. But after we’ve carried out all the stuff that was inside, each room will be empty, and that emptiness will be instantly recognizable as the same “thing” in each case. A person entering any of these rooms would make the same remark: “It’s empty in here.” There’s a common, universal aspect to the experience of emptiness that doesn’t depend on where the emptiness occurs or when it occurs. Upon leaving each room, a person might respond to the emptiness in different ways — it could have been “so lonely and barren” or it could have been “so peaceful and calming.” But those are reactions to the emptiness; they are not the emptiness itself.

So often in life, we find ourselves looking forward to some better situation, when we’re going to finally feel good, once something happens: I’ll feel so relieved when I’m past my surgery. I’ll feel so much better when my exam is over. I’ll feel so much more relaxed when I’ve met my deadline at work. When I’ve saved enough to retire and I don’t have to work anymore. When I’ve mastered a certain piece of music and can play it effortlessly. When I’ve learned a certain language and am fluent. When I’ve gotten back in shape. When I’ve found love. When I’ve found a home. When I’ve graduated.

We’re on a constant Ferris wheel of hoping things are going to be better “when.” So it’s natural to apply this same thinking to meditation: “I’ll feel so much better when I’ve become an expert at meditation and I’m practicing it for two hours every day.” Or “I’ll feel so much better after I’ve gone to that ten-day silent retreat.” But if we’re thinking this way about meditation, we’re missing the point: meditation is a way of getting off the Ferris wheel. It’s not meant to be a Ferris wheel of its own. And this becomes clear when we think of meditation as an approach to emptiness. Emptiness doesn’t get better and it doesn’t get worse.

We needn’t “look forward” to one day when the experience of emptiness is going to be so much better than it is now. There’s nothing we can do today to make the experience of emptiness better tomorrow. There’s nothing we can obtain in life, no accomplishment, no milestone we can cross to improve tomorrow’s emptiness. And no matter how difficult things might get in life, our problems still can’t make tomorrow’s emptiness worse, or stop us from connecting with that emptiness altogether.

This is not to say we can’t improve our technique for cultivating emptiness, that we can’t learn to elicit emptiness more fully, and that we can’t strengthen our commitment to the practice. But even if we’re only able to catch glimpses of emptiness, we can still know what it’s like from those glimpses themselves. We needn’t feel there’s something about emptiness we’re missing out on. We needn’t feel that we need “more” of it. We needn’t be too concerned with how much of it we’re able to see or how long we’re able to keep seeing it on any particular occasion. It’s fundamentally the same thing: emptiness. Always there, always identical. All we can do is resolve to keep connecting to that same emptiness throughout our lives.

An analogy to water is informative too. Surely, the experience of drinking water can be different from one time to the next. Water can be served at different temperatures, it can have different profiles of trace minerals that subtly affect the taste and mouthfeel, it can be served in a different vessels, it can be served in different quantities, in different environments, while we’re in different states of thirst, and while we’re in different frames of mind overall. But while these factors can make one water-drinking experience different from another, we’d probably perceive them all as more similar than different, right? Do we know what a glass of water is like? Yes. Are we pretty comfortable and secure in that knowledge? Yes.

Have we already experienced the best possible glass of water or are we still waiting for it, dreaming about it, hoping for it? No doubt, there are connoisseurs who would have an elaborate answer to this question, but most people would say they hadn’t considered it — they know what water is like and they’re not waiting for it to get any better or be any different from how it already is.

Meditation can be like that too. Part of the practice of meditation can be about accepting the experience of it, however that experience unfolds on any particular day, and not waiting for it to get better or deliver bigger results, not imagining some state of calm or bliss across the horizon. While some people might meditate in pursuit of nirvana, we can also make meditation about relinquishing the pursuit of all distant nirvanas and accepting the “nirvana of the moment” instead.

When we sit down to meditate, we might have Fear of Missing Out. There are other things we could be doing besides meditating, and perhaps there are better experiences we could be having with meditation itself, if only we had some secret skill or some special training or simply a better constitution. But the practice of meditating, the practice of observing our thoughts dispassionately, is great way of dissolving FOMO, including the FOMO we might feel regarding a better meditation experience itself.

The desire for a “better” meditative experience can be replaced with the thought that we have already arrived. We don’t need something more from meditation. We don’t need to be jealous about anyone else’s experience of meditation. We don’t need to be better at meditation. We don’t need to attain something that it hasn’t already given us. We don’t need to get to the next level. What we’re doing right now, this is IT. It’s these kinds of thoughts — thoughts of acceptance, rather than grasping for advancement and progress — that bring us deeper into the meditative experience.

But this isn’t to say we should pretend we’re happier with our meditative experience than we actually are. This isn’t to say we should try to convince ourselves that it’s going perfectly well. This isn’t to say we should try to argue that it’s really worthwhile if we’re not sure. Pretending, convincing, defending, arguing — these are all mental noise. If we’re feeling dissatisfied with our meditative experience, that’s because of a comparison. We’re comparing what we have with what we want. We’re comparing how we actually feel with how we’d like to feel. These comparisons are nothing but thoughts, and meditation beckons us to view these comparisons dispassionately as we would any other thought. When we gain distance from these comparisons and learn to relinquish them, then we begin to feel content with our experience as it is. The contentment comes not from justification, defense, argument, but from the surrender of comparison.

If we take ten minutes in the morning to close our eyes and breathe, calming our thoughts a little bit, creating a bit of mental space, and catching a glimpse of emptiness, that’s it, we’ve arrived. We’ve connected with the same emptiness that was there yesterday and the same emptiness that will be there tomorrow. And that emptiness has given us everything it can possibly give in this particular moment. There’s nothing we’re missing out on.

If we’re going to set goals, we should set them around application. What lessons have we learned from experiencing emptiness via meditation, and how would we apply those lessons in rest of life, when we’re not meditating? ■

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