IS MEDITATION, LIKE ART, QUITE USELESS ?
In his preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray', Oscar Wilde made the striking statement, 'All art is quite useless'. He meant this as the finest praise of the value and significance of art in all its creative manifestations. Art lifts us out of a world of practicality and utility. It enables us to see that often the value of something is not to be equated with its usefulness.
Let's explore Wilde's statement further and then think about how it relates to the practice of meditation.
A vacuum cleaner is useful if it does the task for which it was manufactured. So too a washing machine, a screwdriver, a watch, a phone. We live in a world in which we can value something for its usefulness, its capacity to get something done, to get us somewhere, to save us time, to supply information. We ask, 'How can this help me in getting on with my life?', 'What use will this be to me?' These are important and necessary considerations.
But life is a great deal more than this. In fact our depth of being, sense of lasting purpose, beauty and value cannot be weighed or calibrated on some scale of usefulness. If life is to be more than mundane and mechanical something beyond usefulness needs to be felt, recognised and treasured. Is true friendship based on how useful someone may be to us? What of love? Do we decide to fall in love because it's going to be useful? Do we value qualities like honesty and loyalty only when they are helpful to our progress, and to be discarded as valueless when they become inconvenient?
We understand what Oscar Wilde was getting at. Some things, precious things, have a value in and of themselves, an inherent value that enriches our lives, awakens a sense of beauty, quenches a thirst of the spirit. This, suggested Wilde, is the value of art. The pictures we hang on our walls or visit in galleries have no 'use'. They are not like vacuum cleaners! We value them because they have no practical utility. They have an impact and purpose that is of a different nature and quality. The same goes for plays, novels, poetry, music, sculpture, dance, cinema and all creative art. Similarly, we don't keep ornaments, wear jewellery or tattoo our bodies for the purpose of practical usage. We don't design flower beds or take up the violin because such things will get the car washed or the laundry done. Listening to a symphony doesn't get the groceries in.
What has this got to do with meditation? Meditation is not art, yet we can see how Wilde's statement has direct relevance to the practice.
As I write, I have in front of me a recent issue of a deservedly esteemed meditation publication. Going through the pages I read that meditation can fight inflammation, heal the body, help with depression, aid better sleep, improve memory and decision making, reframe loneliness and boredom in a more positive way, increase courage and resilience, combat racism and global warming, and make ourselves and the world safer, kinder and happier. I notice a full page advertisement which states that I can 'empower myself with serene blissful energy..... in 20 minutes'. All I have to do is sign up for something and the 'secret' will be revealed. Who wouldn't want to be empowered with serene blissful energy, especially as it's only going to take 20 minutes out of a busy schedule?
This is an impressive list of claims which could be and is often extended. I begin to feel uneasy. I begin to feel that 'the meditator doth protest too much'!
Of course, the benefits of meditation are well documented and experienced by many. It is right to rejoice in the practice, share it and encourage it. But there is a risk in 'marketing' it as a means to an end, a fix for each and every problem, a savvy accessory to an enlightened lifestyle as long as you can find a slot for it along with the gym, the yoga class, the nutrition course and the health spa retreat. Just get your yoga mat and your meditation cushion, light a few eco friendly candles and all problems are solved! Yes, I could use a little meditation!
This sets up many to fail, or to feel disappointed when the skies don't open in some grand epiphany melting away all of life's difficulties and showering them with serene bliss! Meditation is not esoteric empowerment. It's more like making tea whilst thinking only about making tea! That's not as easy as it sounds and it's a very good place to start!
Meditation must be practiced not as a means to an end, not as another rung on the CV ladder! It is the practice itself that we embrace without expectation, agenda, desire, craving or aversion. We don't meditate to get anywhere or to get anything done. Meditation is not about fixing things, not about shopping for something we need. It can sometimes be exceedingly difficult and boring and that's fine. Rather than useful, it is about letting go of the 'user', letting go of what we think of as 'me' or 'mine' wrapped up in all those hopes, fears, anxieties, predictions, and assumed needs. It is about being comfortable with uncertainty and emptiness and impermanence. It is about settling down with things we'd rather be without. This takes time, practice and patience. Formal meditation won't suit everyone and a satisfying, purposeful life is possible without it. None of this sounds like a good sell! Nevertheless it is the true way of things. It is where we must begin.
All the undoubted benefits of meditation are a by-product of continued practice, an epiphenomenal awakening and awareness in which many things begin to look different and become different. The process, the practice, is all there is; our only task is to let it be, unhindered. When we oversell meditation we devalue it. We relegate its greatest transformative strength and its gentle beauty. The risk is that many will give it a try, feel underwhelmed or unsuited, and abandon the seed before the flower has time to grow and before the beautiful petals unfold. Who looks at a flower in bloom and says 'What use is this flower to me?'