This question came up recently and I did not give a great answer. The following post aims to provide an answer that hopefully clarifies rather than confuses.
First, let’s set some context. I have explored a number of different meditation approaches and philosophies, with my current focus predominantly on a technique used in the Sōtō lineage of Zen Buddhism. This post will talk mainly about that technique, which is called Shikantaza.
The reason this question is hard is that in truth I do not know the answer. I fell into becoming interested in this stuff some time ago and that interest has not dwindled much since.
Today, lots of traditional Eastern philosophy has started to creep into the Western world. For example, this has manifested the popularization of techniques such as mindfulness. The way these ideas are typically sold to a Western audience is to suggest possible benefits such as “do this and you will be calmer” or “do that and you will have fewer negative thoughts”.
If you go into a meditation practice with the intention to achieve these kinds of goals, then you are enacting a form of spiritual materialism. This means using the spiritual path to achieve material gains. You may even succeed! It is true that people will likely see these kinds of material benefits.
In comparison, the typical intention behind a practice such as Shikantaza is to see clearly what is already there, rather than trying to create something different.
So, what is Shikantaza? Quite simply, it is the practice of “just sitting”. Hold the body still and watch what continues to move. What this results in for most people initially is a flurry of thoughts they did not even know they had. The idea is to just observe. Don’t chase. Don’t reject. Don’t ignore. Mmm doughnuts…
Right, but why would you want to do that? This is the funny bit, you probably do not want to do that at all! All the typical markers that the ego uses to measure “progress” are missing. You could get bored. Your joints might hurt. You will lose time that could have been spent elsewhere. Your friends might say you will turn into a vegetable!
The will to do this goes beyond the ego mind, from a more fundamental urge to see what this is, to see what you are and how things function.
Upon investigation, the realisation that typically follows is along the lines of “this is all there is”. This could be spontaneous or it could take decades or it may never happen at all. Or you might say “screw this, I’m gonna go watch TV!”.
Pinning down a description of what I am trying to point to here is super hard. Many have tried over the years and in my experience, it does not help much. Any words I use might make sense to me and mean nothing to you. If you are interested, I would encourage you to find out for yourself. Don’t accept, reject or ignore anything I am talking about. Consider it, and see how it fits into how things work for you.
So, why meditate? I suppose it depends on what you are looking for. In my case, curiosity is the main driver.
It is clear to me that there are pieces missing in the way we are typically educated. In our society, from a young age, we are taught the philosophy of reductionist materialism, which is typically accepted without question. I am exploring those questions now.
PS: I’m always happy to speak more about this kind of stuff. Send any questions you have my way!