When meditation became popular in the West in the 1960s, it was initially promoted as a “drugless high.” But before long, meditation became associated with relaxation. Books and popular magazines reported on studies showing that meditation can reduce stress and help one find a calm center amid the clamor of modern life.
Not all of these publications specifically discussed Buddhist meditation. But it wasn’t much of a leap for Western popular culture to connect Buddhist meditation with serenity, and enlightenment was imagined to be an escape into blissful tranquility—the ultimate stress relief.
It’s true that tranquility, or serenity, is one of the seven factors of enlightenment—the seven qualities that the Buddha said were needed for awakening—but the other factors include energy, concentration, and investigation. Buddhist practices were never primarily about relieving stress but about developing wisdom and compassion; in particular, to help us change how we perceive ourselves and reality.
Rather than offering a temporary escape from problems, Buddhist meditation is mind training; and part of that training involves seeing where stress is coming from and learning to let it go, and directing the mind to more skillful thoughts, which are very different from escaping stress. Training the mind to be clear and focused helps us develop insight into ourselves and our lives and the reality around us. This is why the Buddha taught his disciples to meditate.
In recent years, mindfulness meditation in particular has been promoted as a way to reduce stress and become more focused and productive. The health benefits of mindfulness have been well documented. However, some Buddhist teachers have expressed concern that mindfulness training techniques completely removed from the Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion may reinforce our selfish impulses rather than dispel them. The larger point is that meditation for relaxation and meditation to realize enlightenment are different things.
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