This reflection originally appeared in the newsletter on February 6th, 2023.
Note: as usual, feel free to read the whole reflection or just skim through the bolded parts.
For many people, especially those who don’t meditate, it can seem like meditation is a self-serving act. They might look at someone meditating — sitting still by themselves with their eyes closed — and think, “what a waste of time, doing nothing productive, just making themselves feel better, but not helping out at all.”
In contrast, many meditation traditions suggest that we begin a period of meditation by dedicating the meditation to others. We do this by taking a moment to reflect on our heartfelt intention, and saying something like, “may the fruits of this practice be of benefit to all beings everywhere.”
Of course, the idea is that this sentiment goes way beyond just saying a few words in the quiet of our brains. The following reflection explores that process a little more fully.
The Part About The Butterfly Effect
The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is as selfless a person as you can find, offers a salient quote on how exactly our meditation practice spills into real life:
“Although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way… Peace must first be developed within an individual. And I believe that love, compassion, and altruism are the fundamental basis for peace. Once these qualities are developed within an individual, he or she is then able to create an atmosphere of peace and harmony. This atmosphere can be expanded and extended from the individual to his family, from the family to the community and eventually to the whole world.”
When we meditate in a holistic way, we aren’t pounding our minds into submission; instead, we’re learning to relate to ourselves with patience, love, and adaptability. We learn to touch our suffering, meet it with compassion & wisdom, and transform it. In short, we develop peace within ourselves.
And, as the Dalia Lama shared, the more we do this in ourselves, it begins to ripple outwards.
For example, if a bank teller relates to you with great patience, looks you in the eyes warmly, and has the clarity & focus to attend to your questions appropriately, that has an impact on you. Likewise, if they relate to you with irritability and curt answers, that too rubs off on you.
In either case, you carry the impact of that interaction into your next one, which, in turn, will impact the next person’s life.
Now, imagine that bank teller has two young children at home. If they spent their work day with people yelling at them or being mean to them, that is probably going to impact the amount of care and attentiveness they give their children, which will impact their children’s self-esteem, relational skills, and how those kids treat the other kids in school.
Then you insert in a school teacher with a room full of wound-up children; while that could impact them greatly, leading to burn-out and frustration, if they are a long-term meditator, perhaps they have learned to go beyond anxiety, can stay totally present with dysregulated children, and can lovingly guide them forward. Nine months of that sort of influence could change a child’s life.
In other words, when we meditate and develop calm, love, and focus within ourselves, we “rub those off” on everyone we interact with. In this way, simply through the practice of meditation alone, we are contributing to a brighter world.
Meditation Is Not A Multivitamin
However, while all of the above is absolutely true, it’s also only half the equation. In this spirit, Thich Nhat Hanh, who himself was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, offers the following reflection:
“The meditation on love is not just sitting still and visualizing that our love will spread out into space like waves of sound or light. Sound and light have the ability to penetrate everywhere, and love and compassion can do the same. But if our love is only a kind of imagination, then it is not likely to have any real effect. It is in the midst of our daily life and in our actual contact with others that we can know whether our mind of love is really present and how stable it is. If love is real, it will be evident in our daily life, in the way we relate with people and the world.”
In other words, the second half of the equation is making a real effort to bring love and harmony into our lives; not just taking a completely passive, let-it-ripple-out approach.
To put it another way, meditation is not like taking a multivitamin, where you just pop one capsule every 24 hours and forget about it until the next time. Instead, love and peace must become a way of life; something that we embody all day long. This is one reason Buddhism teaches an Eightfold Path that includes ethics and intentions (among others), as opposed to a Onefold path of just meditation.
Taking Action: Spontaneous & Pre-planned
In considering what we can actually do for those 24 hours to make love evident in our daily life, two initial ways are spontaneous loving acts and pre-planned loving acts.
For starters, one thing that happens with a diligent meditation practice is that we start to become less self-absorbed with our inner dialogue & emotional energy. This by itself frees up quite a lot of inner space. In turn, as we are a social species at heart, that heightened inner space quite often leads to impulses to do kind things.
And yet, you still have to act on those impulses.
In turn, one assignment I give in my Being Love course is that for one week, every time you have an impulse to do something kind, you simply do it, no negotiating. This might include offering a compliment to your partner, picking up a piece of trash on the road, donating to a charity, texting gratitude to a friend, listening to someone having a hard time, or voluntarily doing a chore someone else usually does.
Conversely, you could brainstorm on the question, “how can I help others?” I’d recommend journaling this on paper, actually writing a list of 10 or 20 ideas. Just write whatever comes to mind, no matter how grandiose or trivial it seems. Once you have a list, pick one or two that you want to really try out in a “pre-planned” way.
The more you meditate, the less distractible & better at follow-through you become, making it much more likely you’ll actually do either of the above (instead of having them just be “good ideas”).
Likewise, regardless of whether it was spontaneously following an impulse or pre-planned, every time you actually do a kind thing, you strengthen that habit in your mind, making it more likely for those impulses/intentions to arise in the future.
In other words, while meditation contributes to the chain reaction of doing kind things, you still actually have to get off your cushion and just do it.
Taking Action: Using The Gifts Of Chance
Each of us has a unique set of skills, circumstances, and conditions. The person who inherited a billion dollars and the busy single mother working as a bank teller have very different opportunities for making a brighter future.
However, as the infamous quote goes, “no one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” It’s easy to hear that quote and write it off as a cliched idea you’d see on an inspirational poster in a high school classroom; however, really sitting with that quote, we find profound wisdom.
The busy single mother can absolutely do something. They can raise their kids with integrity. They can treat people at the bank with respect. They can live honestly and ethically. They can do spontaneous and pre-planned kind acts of all sizes. I will go to the grave saying that this absolutely matters & counts 100%.
Obviously, the billionaires, the CEOs, and the politicians can do something too. It’s probably accurate to say that the “butterfly effect” of their actions has an even bigger impact; and yet, at the core, their responsibility is the same as every other human being: to do something.
A way I’ve come to reconcile this is that everyone’s responsibility is to make use of their gifts of chance.
There’s a humility in this way of thinking — we find ourselves in circumstances not because of how wonderful or terrible we are, but through a mind-boggling amount of prior “butterfly effects” and genetic lotteries, most of which are completely out of our control. In turn, wherever we find ourselves, whatever skills we’ve been graced with, with whatever means or resources we have to our name, we use that to benefit others.
This might include how we spend our free time, what we do for work, how we use our money, or more simply, how we treat people. The specific avenue isn’t too important. It’s up to every individual to go inwards and see what part they can play.
Again, meditation helps us actually do this — it lessens how intoxicated we are by trivial comforts and pleasures, and how entranced we can be by our anxieties and pride. It helps us free up inner space, and offers us the clarity and focus to genuinely use our gifts of chance.
Letting Go Of Judging (And What To Do Instead)
When thinking of the gifts of chance, it’s easy to point fingers at the billionaires, the middle managers, the “other” parents, and basically everyone else. However, when we judge others for what they aren’t doing right, we are just creating stress in ourselves, and not actually helping anything.
The meditative path is one of radical self-responsibility. We don’t waste our mind-space on judging others. Instead, we use that space to look more closely at how we’re using our gifts of chance.
As the Dalai Lama said in that initial quote, “although attempting to bring about world peace through the internal transformation of individuals is difficult, it is the only way.”
Speaking of that Dalai Lama quote, it’s also essential to stop judging ourselves. People in this culture are way too quick to think, “I’m not doing enough” and then berate themselves. This is usually a good moment to loop back to how making a brighter world requires us to start within — particularly, by being more loving and gentle with ourselves, less judgemental, and more patient. We also learn how to motivate ourselves with love instead of criticism.
Sure, as we go deeper into our spiritual practice (or we win the lottery!), our capacity to help will likely grow, but just as you can’t force a tomato plant to grow faster, you also can’t force this process.
And even if your capacity grew to a Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh level, you still literally can’t do everything. Meditation teaches us how to do our part and let go from there. In this way, we go to sleep each night with a clear conscience and pleasant dreams.
Meditation is far from a selfish activity. As I’ve described above, there is a clear path on how it helps us be of more benefit to the world around us.
Perhaps the next time you meditate, start with a moment of touching into your heart’s deepest intentions, and then offer a dedication, such as, “may the fruits of this practice be of benefit to all beings everywhere.”
As this aspiration is rooted more and more deeply in your heart, the world slowly becomes a brighter place.