View of ocean and threatening clouds

Crisis of Faith: Does Meditation Really Work?

I was having a crisis of faith. Not the usual kind, in which you lose faith in something you once believed in. No. My crisis was about starting to feel a little faith as the benefits of meditation became clear.

I am not, by nature, a believer. I’m suspicious, rebellious, wary of promises. I became an atheist at the age of eight, though I didn’t learn the term until a decade later. Becoming a non-believer wasn’t traumatic. It wasn’t losing something so much as recognizing that I’d never really had it.

When it comes to meditation, I read about it for years before actually trying it. Sitting still was never a strength, and still isn’t, even after years of practice. This was obvious during first days of the six-week retreat, when my pent-up energy felt like a reactor about to blow. On the cushion, I had moments of deep concentration, but they were short, unstable, and often followed by what I described to Annie, one of the teachers, as MTV on speed. “Take long walks,” she prescribed.

View of smooth beach and cloudless skySo I did. And the weather cooperated, staying dry and warm. The days still had length to them and some days I’d walk ten miles before sunset. The wild energy gradually subsided. I joined other retreatants who were following the eight precepts, which included not eating after lunch. As someone who’s usually hungry, I thought this would be a challenge. Surprisingly, it wasn’t.

“I’m just not hungry,” I told Annie about a month into the retreat. “And it’s not just that. The sexual fantasies I usually resort to when a sitting gets unbearable, those are gone too.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about my loss of appetites. There was a sense of relief, of not needing to figure out how to satisfy or ignore my desires, but there was also a sense of something missing, like a purse I usually carried and was suddenly without. The absence was a presence.

“You see,” said Annie, “the practice delivers.”

Her words made me bristle. I’ve never thought of meditation as a quid pro quo—that hours on the cushion would be rewarded with hours of bliss and equanimity. Well, I may have hoped that to begin with, but it didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t true. At least not for me. I’d been meditating for years and it was still a struggle. Though I noticed slight shifts in my reactions, I was doubtful that meditation had any effect on the way I was in the world.

So you may be wondering why I meditate. I’ve wondered that myself. I can generate a list of credible explanations: Buddhist philosophy resonates with me; what I lack in belief I make up in stubbornness; studies have shown healthy changes directly attributable to meditation; people I admire meditate. But the truth is I just don’t know.

View of beach at dusk and people walkingIt was Annie’s word “deliver” that bothered me. I became increasingly bothered after talking with Bhante, another teacher. I was explaining how during a difficult hour-long sit, I’d done metta—a practice of wishing happiness to others—to every single person in the hall. When I got to people who had previously annoyed me—the guy who always stumbled in late wearing pajama bottoms, the greedy Canadian lady—I discovered I now loved them.

“You, see,” said Bhante, “your metta is working.” I started to protest but our time was up. I went on another long walk.

I usually meditate 30 minutes a day, so in a year, I sit for about 180 hours. On the retreat, the routine was the same every day: alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation that added up to 10.5 hours a day. I’d be there for 40 full days, for a total of 420 hours of meditation.

In medicine, the dose-response curve illustrates the relationship between the dose of a drug and the size of the patient’s response to it. Usually as the dose increases, so does the response. I was packing over two year’s worth of meditation into six intensive weeks, which could explain why the results suddenly seemed convincing, even to me.

In one of his many lists, the Buddha counted off five spiritual faculties needed to attain enlightenment: faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. I was never a serious candidate for enlightenment, so I never gave the list much thought. The few times I did, I skipped over faith as if it were a complicated question I’d come back to later on. Or wanting to do well on the test, I supposed that my intuition about the Buddha being on to something was, more or less, equivalent to faith.

If faith was a yes-or-no question, could I now check the yes box? No. I would never have unquestioning belief in benefits of meditation or anything else. But I had done exactly what the Buddha suggested in the Kalama Sutta all these centuries ago: I’d put the teachings to the test and found out for myself that they work. Eventually. Even for a slow learner like me.

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