Sometimes sitting meditation seems useless when so much is going on around us. Is there another way to look at it?

It’s true that sometimes meditation can seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing. Isn’t it more important to work for peace and justice, to strive to alleviate suffering, to actively address injustice and oppression, and to try to make the world a better place for everyone? My own mother used to write me while I was in India and Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s, asking me what good could come—for me or anyone else—from spending so much time in contemplation. Not a bad question, actually. I wrote and told her that I thought it far better for me personally—and probably for the world around me, too—if I were to become peace rather than merely to fight for peace, which seemed to me a contradiction in terms after the turbulent, activist 1960s. Life doesn’t just go by while I sit, it continues within me and around me; meditation helps enrich both my inner and outer life.

Mahatma Gandhi said that mute prayer was his greatest weapon and that we must ourselves embody the changes we want to see in the world. To me, that means we can work from the inside out to make a better world. I call this spiritual activism. Seva, Sanskrit for “service,” is a tried-and-true way to progress spiritually. In Buddhism we have the Bodhisattva Vow, which commits us to working for universal liberation, in this life and through all possible worlds and lifetimes. It is said that through unselfish service and love you’ll meet God, a higher power, ultimate truth and reality—not in person, but through action. The efficacy of our actions will be determined by the quality of the contemplation that precedes them.

onthecushionContemplative practice is a nonviolent truth-method to confront our inner demons and enemies, far beyond the oppressive tyranny of judgment, conflict, and reactivity. Why do I consider it so crucial to balance the outer aspects of nonviolence and compassion with the inner support of contemplative practice? Because in the end, all politics are local, and we cannot love life and humanity if we do not love each other, one on one. For example, if we as Buddhists wish for peace in the world, we ought to be able to learn to live peacefully and harmoniously among ourselves: thinking globally but acting locally, beginning with ourselves and each other. And before that, we must get radically local and make peace with ourselves.

There is a lot more to the contemplative practices of prayer, chanting, meditation, self-inquiry, and yoga than mere navel-gazing. In meditation we may seem to be sitting by ourselves, but we do not sit just for ourselves. By focusing our attention on the breath, the body, thoughts, feelings, and sensations, or any other facet of our experience in meditation, we become more mindful—not mindless—through the transformative power of moment-to-moment alertness and presence of mind. Instead of absentmindedly stumbling through life like sleepwalkers, we can use contemplative practice to achieve extraordinary insight into ourselves and the world in which we live; to inhabit and appreciate more fully the here and now; to free our minds and open our hearts, and to relax into our natural state. The cultivation of mindfulness helps us wake up to things as they are rather than as we would like them to be. And as we wake up to truth, to reality, we become a force for universal awakening, working with what actually is, not delusive fictions.

Transforming ourselves transforms the world. We can observe this verity by studying the lives and careers of some of history’s most inspiring saints, sages, and leaders. It was not by accident that Buddha awoke sitting beneath the Bodhi tree and changed Asia and all of history; he spent six long years in contemplative discipline and yogic austerity to realize spiritual enlightenment. Jesus went into the desert for similar reasons, and changed the world; Gandhi undertook many trainings before he could serve as the powerful catalyst that moved India to independence.

How can we love and accept others if we don’t love and accept ourselves? Gandhi said to his followers: “Nobility of soul consists in realizing that you are yourself India. In your emancipation is the emancipation of India.” The Buddha said: “When I became enlightened, the entire world was enlightened.” More locally, Allen Ginsberg ended one poem with the line, “I sit just to sit; I sit for world revolution.”