Far from being a self-centered preoccupation, meditation actually encourages spiritual activism.
Q. Sometimes Buddhist meditation seems like self-indulgent navel gazing. Isn’t it more important to work for peace and justice; to try and make the world a better place for everyone?
My own mother used to write to me while I was in India and Nepal in the 1970s and ’80s, asking me what good could come–for me or anyone else–from spending so much time in contemplation. I would tell her that it is far better for me to become peace than to fight for peace.
Mahatma Gandhi said we must embody the changes we want to see. That means we have to work from the inside out to achieve a better world. It’s what I like to call spiritual activism. This spiritually centered social activism stems from the recognition that everyone–everyone!–wants and needs roughly what I want and need, and is simply pursuing it by other means and methods.
Kafka wrote: “You don’t need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, simply wait. Don’t even wait. Be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
But it is extremely important to balance our life energy in terms of inner development and outer service. Sometimes we are more involved in an active outer life, including working to alleviate suffering, right injustice and contribute to a better world. Other times we find ourselves more involved with inner work, personal growth and spirituality. Blaise Pascal said: “Most of man’s troubles come from his inability to sit and be quiet for 20 minutes.”
These two polarities of good work, external and internal, are not contradictory or mutually exclusive but interrelated and complementary. Inner personal growth and development can greatly help us in our work and relations in the world. Likewise, being actively involved with others can have synergistic benefits for our inner being.
T.S. Eliot, as accomplished an artist as he was, said that if he hadn’t had to work in a bank for a living, he would not have had the necessary human interactions to write his poems and plays.
Of course there is a lot more to the contemplative practices of prayer, chanting, meditation, and yoga than mere navel-gazing. In meditation, we may seem to be sitting by ourselves, but we do not sit just for ourselves. Focusing attention on the breath, the body and its feelings and sensations, or any other facet of our experience helps us become more mindful–rather than mindless–and helps us cultivate alertness and presence of mind.
Rather than absentmindedly stumbling through life like sleepwalkers, contemplative practice enables us to realize extraordinary insights about ourselves and the world by helping us wake up to things as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. As we wake up to reality, we become a force for universal awakening. That is why, Allen Ginsberg ended one poem: “I sit just to sit; I sit for world revolution.”