Is Meditation Still Possible?

To answer the title’s question: of course meditation is still possible, even desirable, but perhaps not in the way people often think of meditation. I was introduced to meditation through Buddhism in the 1960s, when the Beatles sang, “Meditation gives you peace of mind.” That’s what we thought then, that meditation could do that. And the youth of that era had a lot of anxieties to content with—the Vietnam War being just one of them. We were also anxious about nuclear war; I remember marching down Fifth Avenue in New York with a million people in the Nuclear Freeze march of 1983. Thich Nhat Hanh—one of the era’s great meditation teachers—marched at the head of the crowd, walking very slowly, in essence injecting a sense of meditation into the event.
Maybe every era has its anxieties—that’s part of the human condition. But today’s anxieties seem more existential. Will the warming planet become so warm that human life is not even possible? That’s a new thought, a new anxiety, one that humanity has never had to contend with before. The prospect of nuclear war is back too, along with what seems to be a disintegration of civil society and intractable polarization that is spreading world-wide. It’s true—we live in a really serious world now. What can meditation do to address these sorts of issues?
What the Beatles sang about “peace of mind” may need to be updated. Perhaps we now need to say, “Meditation gives you focus and clarity, the ability to see clearly and dispassionately what is actually going on.” And that kind of clarity may not be all that peaceful. I’ve been a lifelong meditator. I find that these days when I focus on what is actually going on, I don’t experience peace of mind as much as a sense of engagement, of wanting to do something to help our situation. In Buddhism this helping spirit is personified as the Bodhisattva, a person or being that is willing to enter difficult situations with a generous spirit. The term literally means “enlightment-being” or “clarity-person.” Meditation in the spirit of the Bodhisattva emphasizes clarity more than calm. There is so much noise, distraction, and fog in contemporary life that we need some quiet time, away from all the cacophony, to be quiet and focus on what is real. The Bodhisattvas’ meditation is not so much for themselves, but for other people.
In that sense meditation is not only possible, it is necessary. My first Buddhist teacher, Shunryu Suzuki, was a temple priest in Japan when World War II broke out. I don’t know in detail how he dealt with that—he hardly ever spoke to us about it—but I’m sure all his energy was devoted to helping his congregation, his community, and the young men who went off to war and continually came back home in coffins. That was his dedication, to help others, to offer comfort to those he was responsible for. One comment he made to us, when asked about the war, was, “My whole country went crazy.” There are times and places in history—think of the Black Death of 13th century Europe, or the famines that periodically swept ancient China—when everything goes crazy. Panic sets in, nothing makes sense, fear abounds. What do you do? What does anyone do?
You can’t do anything effective, really, unless you have clarity, and meditation is one method that provides that clarity. As for peace of mind, these days there are so many substances that can temporarily provide that—from alcohol, marijuana and Xanax to much stronger drugs like heroin and fentanyl—that drugs are what people look to. We have an epidemic in this country of substance abuse, and the government and the whole society is trying desperately to get a handle on it and find ways to lessen it. But as long as the world has “gone crazy” people will turn to whatever remedy can offer them some semblance of relief, even if only for a few hours.
What we really need is more people of clarity—people whose heads are not turned by the blandishments of propaganda and false hope, but who can see the path clearly before them. Meditation may not be the only path to clarity. But clarity, however attained, is not just desirable, but necessary, if we are to survive this time of craziness and come out the other end still alive, still human.