Enlightened Self-Interest: Using Meditation to Solve Problems and Boost Mental Health
To the average passerby, meditation probably looks boring. The subject sits like a stone gargoyle: legs crossed, eyes closed, motionless. There may not even be an iPhone within reach.
But the average notion of what’s interesting is only half-complete. It’s based on a flawed assumption that interests must come from the external world. We can focus on science, history, or big-wave surfing - but our very own, direct experience? That sounds selfish.
“Most of us our interested in the little corner in which we live, not only outwardly but inwardly,” said the Indian adept Krishnamurti. “We are interested in it, but we never decently, honestly, admit that to ourselves.”
This denial of self-interest is ubiquitous. In our culture, the phrase “looking out for number one” conjures the image of a narcissist gazing into a mirror while a litter of kittens slowly starve on his porch. No one wants to be thought of in this way.
Yet it’s obvious, after some thought, that we’re all selfish. In a sense, aren’t we always at the center of everything? If we don’t embrace this fact, we are lying to ourselves.
Let me clarify: self-interest doesn’t mean butting ahead of a Swedish octogenarian in line for groceries. In the long run, this type of behavior will come back to bite you. And you will, no question, be labeled an insufferable dickhead. (Or the female equivalent.) It’s important for your happiness, and therefore selfish, to not act like a jerk.
Being selfish means putting your health before everything else. We don’t teach this in school. “If you ruin yourself,” writes Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, “you won’t be able to work on any other priorities. So taking care of your own health is job one.” You won’t help anyone - including yourself - if you neglect it.
I like to divide health into two components: physical and mental. Managing physical health involves, among other things: optimal diet, sleep and exercise. These are, of course, prerequisites for mental health too. At this point, you’re probably wondering why I even bothered to split them up.
Point taken. Physical and mental health are intertwined, no matter how you slice it. But I separated them for a reason. The thing is, true healthiness means more than just taking care of our bodies. I don’t want meditation – the prototypical brain exercise - to get tossed into the stew and lose its unique flavor.
Meditation, in one form or another, is a selfish practice to enhance your mental health. You embrace your own little corner of the cosmos with intense interest. In fact, if you don’t take an interest in your emotions, thoughts, feelings, breath, etc – it’s like trying to grill without propane. Interest is mindfulness fuel.
“When my mind is suffering in whatever way,” begins beloved meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, “I get really interested in what’s going on. […] And that interest provokes the attention. […] The mind becomes this puzzle that we’re trying to understand.”
The mind becomes a puzzle. And it’s a puzzle we begin to solve the instant we look at the pieces. An example will help.
Around 3 PM the other day, I found myself in a mental rut. I leaned against the kitchen counter and sank into a trance for a few moments. But soon my slump piqued my interest: Why was I feeling down? What caused it? How can I get rid of it?
Now I was an active problem solver, not a passive slouch. I remembered the Bolivian coffee from earlier. (The caffeine was wearing off.) Then I realized I’d been inside all day banging on a keyboard. (I craved the outdoors.) I laced up my Merrells and headed for the trail.
Soon I was sauntering gleefully through the frozen woods, baffling one or two shivering hikers that shuffled by. With a little help from the forest, a selfish interest in my mind was the perfect tool to remedy my blues.
This skill – trained through meditation - is often enough to change the flavor of consciousness from sour to sweet. We become aware of our mental state, get interested, and feel a surge of positive energy. Given the clear link between intuitive intelligence and mental health, it’s odd how little we talk about it or teach it in school. Perhaps the taboo against self-interest is to blame.
Meditation is, by definition, a selfish activity. It requires an unwavering interest in the very things that define us: our minds. And since our minds are all we really have, I think they deserve the attention.
Adams, Scott. How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. New York: Portfolio / Penguin, 2014. Print.
Krishnamurti, J. The Awakening of Intelligence. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Print.